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“Be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. Now, water can flow or creep or drip or crash. Be water, my friend.” Bruce Lee, the Chinese-American pop culture icon who combined martial arts, film-acting and philosophy, repeated variations of this metaphor in several interviews in the 1970s, and it has since become a widespread internet meme. He expanded on it in his collected writings, posthumously published in 2001, describing an occasion when sailing alone at sea he got mad at himself and punched the water: “I struck it with all of my might yet it was not wounded! Then I tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.” This story echoes a passage that Lee must have known, from the Tao Te Ching: “Nothing is weaker than water, but when it attacks something hard or resistant, then nothing withstands it and nothing will alter its way.”


A consideration of the various meanings––both in reality and as metaphor––of liquidity, and of the kinds of vessel that might contain liquid, or indeed float on its surface, is what connects the diverse contributions to this issue of Soanyway, beginning once again with two exhibition features. Whether through object-making, installation, film, music, poetry, performance, image-making, translation or textual experimentation, they all explore ideas of fluidity, containment, spillage or immersion.

Derek Horton - John Newling: Dear Nature
Ikon Dear Nature installation view 2020

On 4 March 2020, John Newling’s exhibition Dear Nature opened at Ikon, Birmingham. Ikon’s introduction to the exhibition describes Newling, born in Birmingham in 1952, as “a pioneer of public art with a social purpose”, and the comprehensive body of recent work in this major exhibition reflects that commitment in the context of his explorations of our relationship with the natural world in a practice that tests the boundaries of art, horticulture and ecology. At the opening we enthusiastically discussed interviewing John in his studio for this issue of Soanyway. Little did we imagine that only two weeks later human interaction with nature, in the form of a viral pandemic, would force Ikon to close its doors to visitors. The text that follows is an edited transcript of an email correspondence between John Newling and Derek Horton which has had to act as a substitute for the planned studio interview.


        I first encountered your work in the late-1980s when it was less directly concerned with nature and ecology than it is now. Arguably it was then more concerned with ‘human nature’, especially in your performance works and the projects that involved direct interactions with the public, and also work that responded to architecture and other sites of human intervention with the material world. Can you say something about what prompted the shift in your practice to a more direct and personal interaction with nature and an engagement with horticulture? 


In 1985 I spent a year working in America on the first Fulbright fellowship in visual arts. My proposal meant I would not be attached to a university and would try to develop new strategies for making art. To this end I made works in hotel rooms, swimming pools, fish tanks, burnt out cars, market stalls, and many other places where the place and the work, albeit momentarily, wobbled the conventions associated with place. I made a tent out of Californian brown paper shopping bags. I pitched the tent on people’s front gardens, with the householders’ permission, and engaged them in conversations about art and consumption. This close observation of place – social, political and physical – slowly led me to question our understanding of where ‘here’ is. ‘Here’ in this case was the earth we live on. Back in Nottingham I continued to make works for particular places. Some were sited so that work and place made a contextual conversation that formed a third context between the place and the work. In many ways these works were performative acts that continue to the present day. 

I did several exhibitions with Edward Totah in London and Jollenbeck in Cologne, both art dealers with whom I had good relations and respect. These shows were financially hopeless but critically successful. Increasingly though, the gallery was not enough for me; I needed to explore more my interest in a place for art that involved social, political and environmental thoughts. I got to work with the curator Robert Hopper, and in the late 1980s with Declan McGonagle (who was something of a mentor for me and a curator of great vision) on an installation for the Orchard gallery in Derry. Later Declan asked if I would make something for the opening exhibition of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in Dublin. I called the proposed work Growing Support

I planned to grow an exact sized floor plan of the museum in an adjacent field. I would plant out the field in Jersey kale, also known as the walking stick cabbage.  To research this I needed to grow some of these plants and when the seeds arrived in 1989-90 they were like specks of dust; I really was not convinced they could become walking sticks!  I planted them and was truly amazed when they germinated! Sadly there was a problem with the ownership of the nearby field and so, in the show in 1991, I exhibited the project just as a proposal, called Inheritance and Transformation. At the opening the Irish Taoiseach made a speech about contemporary art including such terms as ‘site-specific’ and ‘socially engaged’, and made a passionate plea for the importance of art and artists. I couldn’t help thinking an English prime minister would never use these terms – for sure Declan had written the speech, but it was said by the leader of a country. 

It’s hard to explain how much I enjoyed my relationship with the kale as it grew. It was a marker of an enduring interest and wonder at human co-relationship with the natural environment. As a student back in 1972 I had spent almost a whole year digging holes on a canal path between Burslem and Stoke and exploring soils as both a material of social history and an agent for horticultural growth, which began a lifelong fascination with soils, but I think the kale opened some thoughts for me that are still playing through. It felt like the act of growing something connected me to all other things. 

John Newling in his studio.jpg
Ikon Dear Nature installation view 2020

        Do you regard your garden as an extension of your studio? Or maybe even your indoor studio as an extension of your garden? As a space for thinking and working, how do you see the inter-relationship of your studio, your garden, and the wider world?


I work in the garden and four rooms of the cellar, which opens out directly to the garden, as well as in a small room upstairs where I tend to write and another room where I work on various processes and make smaller works. I enjoy walking between these spaces almost as a participant observer in my own practice. The garden for a couple decades or more has been a place that has been a kind of thought and production space for me. 

Recently greater attention has been paid to the complex dynamics of ecological systems and how, in practice, we can think in terms of urban, social, political and even cultural ecologies. My practice is situated on this shared ground of possibility, where the artificial distinction between nature and culture will no longer make sense, seeing nature as both affect and effect, tied into the multiple ecologies of humanity. I do believe that we can re-evaluate nature’s transformative potential in the complex workings of everyday life. A social ecology, in a state of co-creation with the natural environment, could provide the practical ground to question how to properly constitute the well-being of contemporary life.

In the garden, I am aware that nature is independent of human purpose and existence. In some ways this is amplified by thinking that, ‘if all humanity died, the garden would keep growing’. But it would be different if my purposeful changes had not been brought in to effect in a co-relationship.


        Our culture and its political and economic structures are largely founded on human aspirations to conquer, control or dominate nature. How do you see your much gentler practice, working in collaboration with nature as you describe it, functioning within that wider culture and economy? 


In any ecology the resources that are being sought are fundamental to the competition for them. Such resources are a glue that binds many environmental connections. Whether nutrients in the soil or cash in a bank account, the attribution of value in the resource is paramount to the sustainability of the ecology.  It is fairly easy to see how nutrients in the soil will be valued by plant ecologies but it becomes harder to understand where the resource value is placed in a human ecology. I am interested in what we value as a species, and how those values form (or otherwise) a link to the greater ecology of living species on the planet. I see such values as a material that moulds and directs how we are and, to a certain extent, what we wish to be. In this way I believe my garden with all its affects and effects allows a vital connection to the wider world – the geology of the garden is full of traces of my works; it is a strange kind of Anthropocene.

        It is probably very significant that we are having this conversation at a time when unstoppable forces of nature, in the form of a viral disease, have had a more rapid and drastic impact on our social, political and economic structures than most of us imagined possible.


“So much”, to quote Keats, “is nurtured by foppery and barbarism”. I think, or hope at least, that all that has and is happening will be an opportunity to give us a new set of values to our lives. The status quo really is no longer sustainable or desirable. I want a society that values aspiration in new ways – perhaps valuing the aspiration to understand better what being human is rather than the to earn vast amounts of money. I can but hope, but I know this needs a revolution in education – the borders of social, economic lockdowns need to be opened and questioned. I have done a few projects where I have tried to get a glimpse of what we want and I’ve been surprised at the commonality of our aspirations which, contrary to expectations, don’t involve acquiring great wealth but actually a favouring of green spaces, clean environments, care and respect.  But that said, whilst our political and economic mores may be forced to change, I fear vested interests will keep kicking back and what seems very logical and necessary – equity and new forms of capital melded to our need to become part of rather than plunderers of the earth – will struggle to come into being. Recent events are signals to us all; we should listen. 


A Library of Ecological Conversations (Leaves and Me), 2017-2019,
(Mixed media, 36 framed works)

Dear Nature letter

Dear Nature letter, 2018

        The theme of the issue of Soanyway in which this conversation will appear is around ideas of ‘liquidity’ and the ‘vessel’. We had in mind the literal meanings of these terms but obviously also their richness as abstract ideas. ‘Liquidity’ is widely used in economics and finance of course, and another context is Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of  'liquid modernity', in which change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty. The state of liquidity is fundamentally I think related to space and time. Things that are solid have fixed spatial dimensions that resist the flow of time, whereas liquids cannot easily hold their shape and so are formed fluidly, constantly shifting over time – so that nothing is fixed in a state of ‘being’ but ‘becoming’ is constant. I’m thinking about this in relation to art, to sculpture particularly, and specifically in relation to your practice as an artist.

In 2004 I made a work titled Stamping Uncertainty for the Chapter House at Canterbury Cathedral. It explored the notion of uncertainty. The work grew from considering what it means to write a question within a text that becomes a hymn. Taking the Ancient and Modern Hymn Book, I edited from it the questions embedded in the hymns finding a total of one hundred and forty-seven. I transferred all these onto rubber stamps, a symbol of supposed certainty. This dichotomy was a palpable concept that questioned the nature of the relationship between institutions (stamps of certainty) and faith (uncertainty that necessitates trust). The work consisted of nineteen rows of eight lecterns covering the whole floor area of the Chapter House. The lecterns faced the far wall of the Chapter House in the manner of the congregation. The stamps on the lecterns were in the order they arise in the hymn book, so moving through the installation was to travel through the sequence of intense poetic uncertainty. In its final iteration, the questions of doubt were performed as a choral work, Singing Uncertainty, in 2010. I think I see uncertainty as partially an antidote to institutional certainty and partially as a freeing agent to my practice; both are intimately entwined.


Many of my works don’t have an ending in mind when they begin. Most often the work starts with a process – converting text to soil, growing a specific type of plant, setting up situations where new knowledge may emerge. As these works evolve they slowly begin to reveal the possibilities of a direction without necessarily closing down others. Uncertainty is a fundamental agent in the shared ground of this co-relationship. The works shift between material and conceptual state over a period of time.  

        To work in collaboration with nature must involve both recognition of its constantly recurring patterns but also its mutation and change, I presume? There are predictable certainties, in the cycle of the seasons for example, but also profoundly unpredictable changes – the formation and spread of viruses being the obvious one that is massively impacting us right now. I’m intrigued by the idea that in different definitions, a ‘vessel’ can be both something that contains liquid and something that floats on a liquid surface. If we think of nature as something liquid, constantly moving and in a state of change, I wonder if it is stretching the metaphor too far to think of ourselves – our human bodies – as vessels? In which case, to follow the logic of the dual meaning, we might be determined both by the natural elements we are made up of, and borne along by the natural forces we live amongst and are surrounded by.


Uncertainty plays an active role as a shared ground in the evolution of my works, keeping the work fluid, alive with possibilities. Liquidity here is a state that allows me to closely observe what is happening in the co-relationship between myself and the work. Liquidity buys me time to observe, facilitating openness to the work. It is non-institutional. This is not a linear process but a complex mixture of temporal events experienced within and without the evolution of the work. Without it I would miss material and conceptual facets that happen and the work would not be properly formed. If uncertainty is a kind of creative liquidity, then the works could be seen as vessels; each vessel holding in it many of the thoughts and processes that my shared ground has helped me see. Sometimes these vessels are literally that; they are containers. (Recent examples are the soils bowls I have been making, made of soils I have dug from many places. They were installed with my project Birches and Berries as part of Plant Culture at the Leicester University’s Attenborough Gallery in 2016. This long and intense work sought to grow berries of all sorts between silver birch trees in a large hydroponic tent. The berries grew in this forest and the bowls were used to harvest the fruits which were eaten by visitors to the gallery’s café.)


Thinking of my works metaphorically as vessels, as containers, in some ways they are temporal in nature as a kind of remembered future. They contain thoughts and production over time and form a border, an end point offering each work a kind of autonomy within its connectedness to all other of my works. When a new border is cut and dug in the garden it not only alters the architecture of the garden landscape but also segregates plants and separates itself from other places. The border is often assigned a particular function within the garden. In this manner the border moves further away from de-contextualised natural laws towards a contextualised view of assigning value through the specific subject of the border. It may be that the completed work is a transition from natural processes to an ecology of value that is contextualised; culture of sorts.

From Dear Nature, Birches and Berries and Stamping Uncertainty

John Newling, Dear Nature (2018) (5) .jp

Dear Nature, 2018

Images courtesy of Ikon and John Newling.

Gertrude Gibbons - Mattia Pajè: Un giorno tutto questo sarà tuo

Un giorno tutto questo sarà tuo (One day all this will be yours), curated by Saverio Verini, followed a residency of Mattia Pajè in Fondazione smART, Rome, a foundation and space committed to working with young and emerging artists. 28 November 2019 – 20 March 2020 (extended).

In vague outlines and indeterminate forms, there is a sense of opportunity, an activation of the imagination to fill the gaps and complete a story. In 1757 Edmund Burke declared, “In unfinished sketches of drawing, I have often seen something which pleased me beyond the best finishing” because the “imagination is entertained with the promise of something more” [1]. Mattia Pajè’s roughly-formed figures standing in the largest room of Fondazione SmART appear unfinished, as though presented in the early stages of their development. Their features are minimal, with simple marks on the face, two eyes and a mouth; just enough to trigger recognition and call it a face. It indicates there is no need to perfect the features, because by these vague outlines the spectator’s imagination can fill the clay mould, detail the face and feel it has reached completion. Their unfinished state and the use of clay suggests beginnings: clay is repeatedly considered a source of life in creation stories. Prometheus moulded men from clay, mixing mud with the water of new streams: “So the earth, that had been, a moment ago, uncarved and imageless, changed and assumed the unknown shapes of human beings” [2]. This evocation of origins is emphasised by the sketchily-formed genitalia which identify the figures as a male and a female. Here is an Adam and Eve, arms out in a gesture of welcome. They are a starting place, awaiting sculptural development, and offering possibility of life. 


Ciao, 2019, Sansepolcro red clay, iron, 108 x 172 x 50 cm

Cracks interrupt the smooth motions of making caught as lines and indents in the clay, revealing the bodies’ hollow interior and iron framework. With their air of fragility, there is an awareness that, though these forms seem to have just been born, on the verge of further development and fulfilment, their deterioration is inevitable. It seems their crumbling end is displayed in their naked beginning. Mouths open, they wait to speak. The title Ciao suggests the ability for these hollow vessels to speak, but leaves it ambiguous as to whether they are opening or ending interaction, or both simultaneously in the single open syllable. Or perhaps the empty mouths wait for each visitor to initiate their voice with a breath of greeting. Likewise the vacant eyes of the male figure are filled with the directed gaze of the spectator, as he ‘looks’ across at the door. Above this door is a luminous sign, Priscilla, a reproduction of a funerary bas-relief seen by Pajè during a visit to the Catacombs of Priscilla, close to smART. This is a form of ending that was never finished: supposed to capture something of the deceased, this face is only an outline. Displayed here “suspended in an indeterminate state” [3], it appears to question the purpose of ‘filling’ the face with any fixed details; since, should the bank mask be filled, it would only identify the face of a disappeared, decayed body.  


A sense of beginnings, interruptions and the unfinished is highlighted in the work which titles the exhibition Un giorno tutto questo sarà tuo (One day all this will be yours). This vast image of a newborn baby asleep is disturbingly interrupted by three black circles.  Like the cracks and imminent deterioration of Ciao, the vessel of the future here appears vulnerable, its wholeness broken. Perhaps, however, like the spaces within a sketch, like the blank face in Priscilla, and the simple cartoon features of Ciao, the contrast of the black holes on the peaceful face draws attention to these interruptions as possibilities, as gaps waiting to be filled; since the “tutto” of the unspecified future “giorno” is yet to arrive, so the whole of the image waits to be seen complete. The floor, a vibrant purple print of a leopard’s snarling face, creates an unreal and semi-hallucinogenic atmosphere. It claims the space in its entirety, and is another image that cannot be seen whole. Like molten lava, the swirling of the leopard’s whiskers emphasise the movement through the space mapped like an apartment, and this serves to remind the spectator that they are a temporary guest there. Connecting each room, this printed floor might imply the spectator’s footsteps weave a reading, a narrative and flow into and between the works’ outlines. 


Un giorno tutto questo sarà tuo, 2019,
print on Textile Frontlit 180 gr and enamel on linem, 300 x 200 cm

Chi va piano va sano e va lontano (detail), 2019

Hearing the quiet movements of the tortoises in Chi va piano va sano e va lontano (Slow and steady wins the race), there is a temptation to return and check that the clay figures are not also making rustling movements, and their stillness seems more eerie. The tortoises each hold a letter on their back, letters that might only create a single whole word ‘obiettivo’ (‘aim’). Inevitably, the constant slow movements of these creatures make it almost impossible that this word should ever be formed. This is another work here which cannot be seen or read fixed and whole; the visitor must unite the parts, fill the gaps, with the stream of their imagination as they pass through the space. 


Installation view, to the right is Priscilla, 2019, LED light box, 120 x 30 cm


[1] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757. Available at

[2] Ovid, Metamorphoses I:78-88, translated by A.S. Kline, 2000. Available at

[3] Saverio Verini curatorial text, translated by Tris Bruce, in exhibition catalogue, Fondazione smART, 2019, p. 37. 

Photo credit: Francesco Basileo, courtesy smART Fondazione - polo per l'arte and Mattia Pajè. 

Josiane Keller - Teapots
Josiane Keller - black tea pot.jpg

Black Teapot

Josiane Keller - twig tea pot.jpg

Twig Teapot

Josiane Keller - twig tea pot with lic

Twig Teapot with Lichen

Josiane Keller - drift wood tea pot.j

Driftwood Teapot

Anna McQuillin - Decanter of Endless Water

Decanter of Endless Water uses analogue and digital technologies to transform words and their intended meaning, taking inspiration from Marcel Broodthaers’ La Pluie (projet pour un texte) (1969). Text sourced from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons trading cards was typewritten and distorted by exposure to water at varying durations in accordance with the card’s description: a corresponds to a Stream (1 minute submerged in water), b to a Fountain (5 minutes), and c to a Geyser (10 minutes) which rendered the type completely illegible. A mobile app for Optical Character Recognition was then used to provide a final formatted text from each scanned document. The app’s inconsistencies are revealed in its inability to read the distorted, dissolved texts.

Click play in bottom right corner to start the slideshow

Steve Argüelles, Pierre Bastien and Benoit Delbecq - 4hands1breath

In 4hands1breath, Pierre Bastien (prepared pocket trumpet), Steve Argüelles and Benoit Delbecq (prepared piano) create an atmosphere evoking a murky film noir scene. The watery trumpet is not soloing, but combines harmonically with the percussive piano, ebbing and flowing in a stream of collective improvisation.

Fabian Peake - worn away

worn away where heels scratch he can’t walk
heart changes colour for each rill I dared not touch
as faces talk and smile tornado turn him loose
each ocean he knows STYGIAN the trumpet is full
a great-aunt’s carpet moans each night
of worth is a given CHASSIS and can upon a golden lake
unappreciated sounds then am I the moon
to fix the shadow PROCLIVITY what I think? of thought its heat
now the shadowed mug spends another
be as objective as the original experience
dawn subtly WATER twisted by the drinker’s hand
the unappreciated ideas knowledge before I
he draws it more than once the it is the water
that NIPPERS water between brain and switched off
he knows the shaved star is a pillar a landmark he
flat hilly orogenical am I obliged to know
agrees with his head but his heart required
to be involved? necessity BLANCMANGE requires us to decide
opinion demands that we stand on a square
am I concerned about frozen paper? the
no gibbous a CHARABANC slice off the top I switch off the moon
is hungry there is a landscape CONVIVIAL
but he walks past his head bowed
moon never changes UTENSILS no full no new
the glass man filled with granulated sugar
is frozen sweat true? he pulls the man out of his head
you can’t have a comb CAMPANILE that big

The images (pen, ink and watercolour on paper, A4) employ mirror handwriting with words taken from the poem, using a similar unsystematic and disjointed approach. An exploration of form after content, the shaping or channelling of words and thought, the page here becomes a basin for snatched moments and ideas.

Fabian Peake
Fabian Peake
Fabian Peake
Brass Art
Brass Art - Transfixed man

This film (2017) is part of a constellation of works taking their cue from John Dee’s notebooks and illustrations of alchemical apparatus. Brass Art (Chara Lewis, Kristin Mojsiewicz and Anneke Pettican) worked with scientific glass blowers to re-create a series of vessels to use as lenses to film and contain video works.

E B Liu
Eko Binyao Liu - A Water Metaphor






Where should we start in discovering the truth of Tao, the way of life


Maybe we could return to the year 100 AD and visit the Ancestral Celestial Master Zhang Ling in one of those mountainous peaks surrounded by rows of floating clouds. Maybe we could travel even further back and stop Lao-Tzu as he rode alone by water-buffalo into the desert beyond the Great Wall, beyond the boundary of civilisation. Or maybe, we could have a close look at the water in this crystal-clear glass. Reveal the secret, ready when you are.  


道, the two-thousand-year-old Chinese philosophy has played a crucial role in creating and shaping the definition of the ‘ideal’ man. While Confucianists spent night and day studying social matters, encouraging people to learn how to behave virtuously and gracefully until this was ingrained in them, Taoists sought the meaning of life among the mountains and rivers; it was the murmuring of the brook that let the cat out of the bag.  


Water, a frequent metaphor in Taoism, represents the highest virtues of a human being. With there being a common assumption of Taoism as going with the flow, the famous comment, “Be water, my friend”, made by Bruce Lee, has reinforced this idea and identified water as a vessel for the ‘truth’ of Taoist teachings. The idea is that realisation of the self is more important than any material success. Water, flowing in the Mountains of Immortals dear to the heart of the Taoists, always stays somehow grounded. It runs through the depths, behaves gently; it never controls, it is related with time, it abides by nature. Taoists giggle in faces of the Confucianists in their attempts to practice being virtuous: the worst kind of virtue never stops striving for virtue, and so never achieves virtue.


“言,善信。” Lao-Tzu believes that existence is far beyond the power of words to define, he emphasises the importance of picking the words that tell the truth. Translating is more about delivering the subtle spirit and feelings embodied between the lines, than pouring out words from one language directly into another. As water becomes the vessel, the carrier, of the hidden secrets of Tao, the words become the vessels of meanings. Vessels might have different sizes, colours and shapes, but the liquids inside can remain the same. To ensure coherence, no word could or should be picked without a purpose, a clear aim that there will be no (or at least less) evaporation of content during the process of changing vessels. What if someone knocks over the vessel whilst pouring in the liquid, or evaporation just happens for no apparent reason? Relax. Let it go. You might see Lao-Tzu smiling good-naturedly and telling you: the core and the surface are essentially the same; words making them seem different is only an appearance.


When Confucianists give public speeches about moderation, social harmony and personal achievement, the Taoists put on a plain dark blue robe, leave the crowd and start a journey toward self-actualisation. The two teachings belong to different worlds: if being the ideology of the ruling elites is the ultimate goal of the Confucianists, Taoists dedicate themselves to finding inner peace, in an attempt to shake off ideological and structural shackles, and build their refuge somewhere near the bickering stream in a mountain far away. 




“The supreme goodness is like water.

It benefits all things without contention.

It dwells in places that all disdain.

This is why it is so near to Tao.”

——Lao-Tzu, The Tao Te Ching

Gordon Cain - Flood
FLOOD Gordon Cain
Adam Chodzko - Fluid Dynamics; The Quail is Rising

Under Essex Road, London, flows the remains of the New River, a sophisticated engineering project from the early 17th century. In 1613, to celebrate its launch, a play was performed; and there is the suggestion that Fluid Dynamics; The Quail is Rising (2020) is a contemporary revival of this imagined play. The video proposes that from the remains of its systems of flow arise the fragments of a collective imaginary that draws aquatic elements from that vicinity together across time.

Mark Wingrave & Gala Uzryutova - Pages from the River
Mark Wingrave & Gala Uzryutova - Pages from the River
Mark Wingrave & Gala Uzryutova - Pages from the River
Pamela Crowe - Spillage

Spillage is a dialogue taken from a longer work. It considers how a person is formed in response to others: how we fill gaps left by another’s shape, as if we are a work of relief; whether we might also be shaped by the gaps of those we have lost, or never met.

Kate Pickering - Cell

The crowd enters a Victorian bath house. The door to a bath cubicle is open, some people come inside, others crowd in the corridor. There are some step ladders. A few people climb up them to see over the wall of the cubicle. One person climbs up on the wooden bench next to the bath. I sway, and then climb in.


You sit in the bath. You turn the brass lever, it is stiff but with an effort it turns, squeaking as the helical threads rotate in the interior, until a cavity opens. Instead of clear water, it splutters and spurts a dull coloured liquid containing flecks of dark matter. The tap chugs noisily, expelling ancient air trapped in the pipes, the viscous liquid spewing out. You do not move. It continues to pour a steadily thickening grey mixture into the bath cavity. It is warm. It slides into the gaps between your fingers and toes. You think of workmen pouring liquid concrete into steel foundation grids, slopping through metal funnels, spattering their boots. The aggregate pours out, piling into concentric circles, small lumpen pieces clinging inside the mix. The wet concrete is filling the bath, filling all the gaps around you, moulding to your shape. Already, the mingling warmth of the concrete and your perspiring body is causing the water vapour to escape. It begins to harden and dry.


The crowd moves, there will not be much space for manoeuvre. Each person will find a new spot to stand in. The crowd, aware of those bodies close to them, imagine being fixed in place, and become still. I climb up onto the far side of the bath on the wooden ledge and begin to read. 

12th June 2010

I have travelled in a cable car up the side of a mountain, and now I am almost at the top, on a flat paved area near an abbey. The mountain is part of a craggy range, its carapace serrated and pink tinged. These serrations are points on weathered protuberances resembling vast fleshy stalagmites. Surrounding the flattened outcrop is a low wall, to prevent falling. A woman is sitting on this wall, posing for a photograph. Behind her is a 4,000 foot drop to the valley below, a vast empty space forms the background. I see her but have to turn away, anxiety has caused my head to spin. 

The crowd moves again, each looking for a new place to stand, and a new vantage point to see from. I climb back into the bath, and continue to read.

Concrete is almost always used in the creation of a building’s foundations. It is reinforced with steel to provide tensile strength and enduring stability. The concrete that holds you is seemingly inert, but as minutes leech into hours, small exchanges take place between the concrete and your body. Where it has hardened near your skin, it has absorbed sweat. In turn, micro-particles of aggregate have been absorbed in through your dermal layers and into the blood and lymphatic systems. The water vapour has risen in the cubicle and clings to the corners of the room where a mould begins to spread.

The crowd shifts into a new configuration. I stand up in the bath, facing those inside the cubicle.

17th October 1993

I am seventeen years old. I am standing waist high in a large container full of warm water. I have chosen to be baptised. Two hundred people sit watching, expectantly. The pastor and an assistant stand in the water alongside me. I am asked a series of questions, asked to make a commitment to a new life and to the church. I read the answers from a sheet. I cross my arms over my chest as though laid out for burial. I am pushed forcefully down into the water, which rushes noisily into my ears and nose and over my white baptismal gown, which billows into a cloud. I am pulled back to a standing position in a moment of spatial and temporal confusion, transition at high speed, moving from one moment to another and I am made new. Water runs in rivulets down my face and the gown clings to my body. I am elated, my place secure. 


The crowd shifts. I lie down inside the bath.

15th August 2014.

I am floating, spread eagled, in a salt heavy sea. My ears are filled with water, muffling the sounds of the crashing waves and people calling. I look up at the sky as my body is buffeted. I see flocks of birds. Fish swim beneath me through near transparent water. Eddies swirl the sand upwards in dirty spirals. I feel a rare sense of calm and I stay until I am called. 


Later we hunt the rock pools overlaid with glistening green weed. I spy a group of men gathered around a strange stony outcrop formed of helicoid shapes. The men have cut a section away, revealing a deep red interior fleshy inside the rock spirals. It is a bisected Pyura Chilensis, a ‘blood rock’, a hermaphroditic sea squirt or tunicate which resembles a mass of organs enclosed by a mimetic rock-like exterior. This sea creature is known for having a high concentration of the mineral Vanadium. Vanadium is used as a steel alloy, resulting in a significant increase in the strength of steel, often used to reinforce concrete foundation slabs in buildings.

The crowd finds a new arrangement. I sit on the side of the bath with my legs inside.

4th May 2016

The body of a man wearing 'concrete shoes', hands tied behind his back in an obvious homicide, has washed up on Manhattan beach. A Kingsborough College student discovers the corpse wrapped in a plastic bag on the shoreline near Sheepshead Bay. 

I lie down inside the bath.

It is almost impossible to weigh a body down enough for it to remain on a river or seabed. As the body decays it releases gases into the tissues, inflating and distending the skin. The body becomes lighter than water and rises to the surface. When fully distended, it is almost impossible to sink this body even with counter weights.


Minerals flow through our bodies. Although they are essential for life, they aren’t made by the living, they originate in the ground. Concretions of mineral salts form into stones in organs and ducts of bodies. Gastroliths, or stomach stones, used to grind food in certain species, can range in size from sand to cobbles.

The crowd finds a new position. I climb out of bath and stand facing it.

24th August 2017

I am in Knaresborough, at the Petrifying Well, the only one of its’ kind in England. This ancient well is endlessly filled by a waterfall flowing over a rocky outcrop resembling a giant skull. The waterfall has a high mineral content turning anything within the flow to stone. Below it hangs a series of objects suspended on a string within the water’s trajectory. These objects – teddy bears, teapots, socks, a tennis racket – have become shrouded with a stony coat as the minerals dissolving in the groundwater stop up the pores in the objects. Beneath the falling water is a smooth façade of rock with vertical undulations and streaks. It has flowed for a century over a Victorian top hat and bonnet, which camber out from the façade, leaving a concave cavity underneath.


This Victorian slipper bath was once a functioning part of the washhouse. A bath towel would be draped across it to preserve the bathers’ modesty, the bath resembling a giant slipper. The destitute and elderly would come to the baths to die, washed and clean shaven, cleansed of the dirt of the earth by the bath, to avoid the indignity of being found wrapped in rags.


I climb back into the bath, and sit, facing outwards.

Concrete thinking is a form of literalism, defined as both: ‘the interpretation of words in their literal sense’ and ‘the literal representation in literature or art’, suggesting an adherence to truth and reality [1]. Concrete thinking, this understanding of the world as it really is, orients us. It fixes us in place. 

As Sara Ahmed points out in Orientations Matter, to be oriented towards something is to turn to it, to have bodies directed to it [2]. Let us flesh this thought out: being entranced, or enchanted by a thing is to become particularly fixed within that orientation. Disorientation follows from disenchantment, where that which once enchanted loses its power, the unhinging from it causes a dizzying turn away. 


A narrative forms an orientation from which the fabula arises, fragile at first, emerging falteringly like mist rising off the ground. A fable is the speaking of a story, but it also refers, in old European law, to a contract or covenant. It is both the foundation stone of law and the shifting realm of imagination. The narrative grounds us. This orientation is felt in the gut, carried in the mouth, produces the rhythm of our blood and the sensations in our skin as we speak it. The fabula is the atmosphere in which the extraordinary, the visionary, the fabulous blooms and envelopes. Myth forms a narrative that, in its repetition and reinforcement, provides a foundation on which a community is built and a fabulation is conjured.


When we use the word myth, we mistakenly understand it as a fiction, as a widespread, popular belief that is false. Yet for Jean-Luc Nancy, myth has a foundational and operative power that materialises in the real, and it is a mistake to dismiss myth (or fiction) as immaterial. What the ancient Greeks originally called muthos was a true story, a story that unveiled the true origin of the world and humankind. Nancy writes: ‘it is not by chance that its modern usage in this phrase that underlies our knowledge of myth – that myth is a myth – produces in a play on words, the structure of the abyss’ [3]. The repetition of the mise en abyme: a myth is a myth is a myth is a… ad infinitum, figures the dizzying fall which comes as a result of the collapse of founding structures. 


Nancy writes that mythic speech is: ‘a way of binding the world and attaching oneself to it’ [4]. Bodies speak a narrative of narratives into being, bodies that ingest and seep and pulse and in speaking find their footing. The foundation story, the story of how the community came to be, underpins and authorises. The leader leads the chorus, enchanting this story, repeating and repeating until it materialises as a stable ground. Life stories become framed within and reinforced by the mythic narrative. The muthos holds the community, binding the world and attaching us to it. The muthos is a concrete story, a concretion. 


I lie back in the bath. The crowd now moves inwards, shuffling together until they are uncomfortably packed in.

The water vapour continues to rise as the concrete hardens and sets. Your sweat mingles with the vapour, which clings to the walls and meets the windows where it cools and trickles in branching lines. Through the heat haze you notice a speckled mould forming in the crevices and corners of the walls. You look again, perhaps it is something mottling the vapour, tiny specks floating inside. Your vision breaks up into spots. These dots begin to sharpen, crystallising into a vast crowd gathered together in a brightly lit auditorium, countless bodies packed in tight, held in place, finding themselves in the upsurge of feeling, the joy of being part of a vast spectacle of one-ness, pieces in the aggregate, flecks in the mix.


The crowd is free to disperse.


[1] ‘Literalism.’ Oxford English Dictionary [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 1.10.17]
[2] Ahmed, S. (2010) ‘Orientations Matter’ in Coole, D & Frost, S (Eds.) New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics. Duke University Press, p. 234.

[3] Nancy, J.L. (1991) The Inoperative Community. University of Minnesota Press, p. 52.

[4] Nancy, J.L. (1991) ibid, p. 49.    

Q Liu
Qingqing Liu - If there is confession, there is love
Qingqing Liu - If there is confession, there is love

Installation with a film (2020), suitable for any sink.

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