Spoke at Droit House, Turner Contemporary, Margate, at the opening of ‘Soapsuds and Whitewash’ 10 March 2005.

Elizabeth James

I first came across the work of Alec Finlay many years ago, in the shape of tiny publications put out by his press, Morning Star. Among other things, the press issued a series called Folios, a euphonious name that has some rather grand associations: you’ll know that the works of Shakespeare were collected together in a famous edition known as the First Folio. ‘Folio’ was a technical printers’ term, meaning that the paper sheets were printed with four book pages and folded just the once, making for quite a large volume. All the word means really is a folded sheet, and the Morning Star Folios had a kind of quintessential modesty in their material form, while the contents were usually a text and an image, commissioned or collected from the most marvellous poets and artists. They were little affordable collectibles, treasured by people who like their luxuries spare and even a bit secret, rather than lush and conspicuous. I saw these as primarily poetry pamphlets, in the tradition of what we call ‘small press’ publishing. The National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I work, subscribed to them because they related interestingly to its collections in categories such as illustrated books and artists’ books. At all events, in this nexus of text, image and print, and also in their aesthetic, there is a real continuity with the work Alec has been doing here in Kent, but there are also obviously developments on. Then, with a remarkable sense of taste and affinities, he was bringing artists and writers together to produce something for readers. Now, both he himself, and the readers, are stepping onto the page, or into the scene, writing and sitting.

Alec has also specialised in publishing anthologies: not, as so many anthologies are, merely thematic. gimmicky or conventional rehashings of a lot of poetry selected from only previous anthologies, but books with a real rationale or a new idea, usually soliciting new work. [Mentioned two of my favourites, Libraries of Thought and Imagination and Wind-Blown Clouds, as they were on display.] Alec has a real gift for inspiring both experienced writers and beginners. [In the series of Renga meetings he has organised over the last few years, where a group of people together writes a sequence of linked verses, this process happens tangibly, face to face, in real time, it can be quite thrilling. Omitted this sentence in speech] Alec has been called ‘an editor of genius’. Does that sound a bit oxymoronic? Surely geniuses are the people that editors have to try & organise, get under control? eccentric solipsistic and anti-social. Do I dare here to invoke the image of Turner here? But I think there’s a genius, a spirit, in the creativity that’s coordinative, social; complex rather than just inexplicable. Editors combine and collaborate, bringing ideas, means and people together. I ought to declare and interest here: Alec exercised a definitive editorial influence on my own life when he effectively introduced me to the person who is now my partner. But here again, among editing, curating, writing, making, and gathering together I see a significant trajectory into the new work Alec has been doing with communities, social formations, in the last few years. It is fortuitous that this commitment to engaging people not merely as passive consumers of poetry and artistic experiences but as participants and co-creators is sympathetic to some of the more laudable aims of national policy for the arts today, but for Alec I believe collaboration is not ultimately about social intervention per se, but arises from experimental artistic imperatives, and his sense of standards in the material outcomes of any project means that no one is patronised by being excused the demand for quality.

Another type of genius it seems appropriate to invoke is the Genius Loci, the spirit of place. An aspect of the development in Alec’s work that interests me is the increased engagement, literally, metaphorically and, I think, metaphysically, with place and time. A book can go anywhere; here the texts become an image, written, or should that be, drawn, on the walls and there’s something about them that can’t be taken away, even though the words can travel, in the living mind and memory of we who see them, or by an act of copying. Conversely, it has always been recognised that books can take you anywhere – in your imagination. But Alec’s letterbox project exploits the fact that a text can lead you literally to another place. As for the poems that are currently installed or soon to be installed, in letterboxes at various locations in Thanet and across the world – they are as it were dormant, more or less unreadable until someone comes along and by an act of printing revels them. All of which makes it rather harder now for the National Art Library to collect the work of Alec Finlay, than when it consisted basically of discrete publication. However, if I could end with a little non-commercial plug for my institution, I’d like to mention that out horizons too have been widening in the last couple of years. since the National Art Library has been merged with the Prints, Drawings, Paintings and Photograph collections to form a new Department of Word & Image at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and I’d like to encourage everyone to come and visit, either to see the terrific new galleries we’ve recently installed for paintings, drawings, and miniatures, prints and photographs, the latter two in particular usually featuring very contemporary work; or come to the Library, which is open to everyone, either follow up your research interests in art and design, or to explore our extensive special collections, and check out for yourselves, among much else, where Alec Finlay was coming from, when he arrived in Thanet.

Thank you for inviting me to share this event with you, and I think we can now declare the exhibition open.

First published in an information leaflet published by Turner Contemporary to accompany the exhibition Soapsuds & Whitewash, March 2005

Elizabeth James is a poet and librarian. She works as Documentation Manager at the National Art Library, part of the Word & Image Department of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. She pursues research in book history, and writes occasionally on contemporary art.
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