Waterlog: Art inspired by words inspired by landscape

ANGI KENNEDY The evocative landscape of East Anglia inspired the author WG Sebald to write his literary journey The Rings of Saturn. Now, almost a decade on, that extraordinary book has inspired in its turn an ambitious new exhibition.


“Across what distances in time do the elective affinities and correspondences connect?” - WG Sebald, the Rings of Saturn, 1998

The evocative landscape of East Anglia inspired the author WG Sebald to write his literary journey The Rings of Saturn. Now, almost a decade on, that extraordinary book has inspired in its turn an ambitious new exhibition.

It features innovative work by seven of the country's leading artists: Marcus Coates, Tacita Dean, Alec Finlay and Guy Moreton, Alexander and Susan Maris and Simon Pope. Each was specially commissioned to respond to the unique qualities of the region's landscape, using the tone of Sebald's work as their starting point.

A key work in the exhibition is a new film by internationally-acclaimed artist Tacita Dean who is known for her poetic, contemplative style of film-making. This is her first new work to be presented in the UK for eight years.

“Tacita Dean is probably one of the most important British film makers,” commented Nick Thornton, curator of art at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. “She was nominated for a Turner Prize and has received many awards since then. She now lives in Berlin and exhibits all over the world, so it is a great coup for Norwich not only to have a work by her in the city, but also to have one that has been inspired by the area.”

Most Read

The range of approaches to the Waterlog project makes it an intriguing exhibition, which comes from the Film and Video Umbrella (FVU).

It was the idea of Steven Bode, director of FVU, which curates and produces film, video and new media projects by artists that are commissioned and presented in collaboration with galleries and venues nationally and internationally such as this Norwich venture. Waterlog will also be visiting The Collection in Lincoln later in the year.

Bode, like many others, had fallen under the spell of Sebald's The Rings of Saturn. The book, which was first published in German in 1995 and later translated into English by Michael Hulse, recounts a journey on foot through coastal East Anglia, where Sebald had lived for more than 20 years.

It also pulls on strands of thought from across the world and is a distinctive piece of story-telling that weaves history, people and landscape together in an extremely readable style.

WG Sebald, known as Max, was a novelist, critic, autobiographer and biographer who was born in Germany in 1944. He was a lecturer at the University of East Anglia and in 1987 was appointed to a chair of German literature there, two years later becoming the founding director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. He died, aged 57, in a car crash in December 2001.

Bode and curator Jeremy Millar wanted to pull together a project that focused on the landscape of East Anglia, using The Rings of Saturn as its inspiration.

“We were both big fans of his work,” said Mr Millar. “There is something in this overlaying of history on to the landscape which Sebald does so brilliantly. Also East Anglia has a very rich history.

“We were keen to invite artists to explore part of the history and to give them free rein, but always with Sebald in the background.

“We were never asking them to illustrate a particular part of it. You would get a really boring show if you did that, because the artists would not feel they were being original in their ideas.

“But we wanted it to be part of their thinking, in a way they should take that tone of voice. And, in fact, they are all artists who are very thoughtful and who produce work based on a certain amount of research.

“They share a sort of feeling, a sensitivity to a particular place and also a lightness of touch. That's what I think is really good about this project - they seem to knit together nicely.

“When you are putting together an exhibition like this it is almost like organising a dinner party - you don't want someone loud and boorish next to someone who is quiet. It is about a tone of voice, a shared feeling.

“From these artists you get something which is considered and thoughtful and maybe even demanding in some ways, whether in the amount of time it asks you spend watching a video for instance or in making you think about something.”

The references to The Rings of Saturn are certainly there for those who know what they are looking for - from the bitterns of Marcus Coates' work to the loss of trees and people reflected in Simon Pope's participatory piece.

But, as Mr Millar is keen to point out, a knowledge of Sebald's work is not necessary to enjoy the exhibition.

“We are very keen that it is not an elite exercise for people who have read the book and understood it. I would hate for people to feel that.”

Mr Thornton agrees. “Each work will have a bond and knowledge of the book. But I think you will be able to appreciate the exhibition without having read it. It is more about the inspiration of the text and it can be seen as something that makes you think about the importance of museums and memories, and about the new collections and ways of thinking about objects.

“It will be really important for visitors because it is a local writer who was internationally important, and that has encouraged internationally important artists to come to the region and produce work based on the people and landscape of this region.”

t The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts was particularly keen to be involved with the Waterlog project because of the links with WG Sebald.

As well as being an internationally respected author, Sebald had strong associations with the University of East Anglia. He was a member of faculty from 1970 until his untimely death in 2001 and also founded the UEA's British Centre for Literary Translation.

Between now and late April, the work of Alec Finlay and Guy Moreton, will be featured at the Sainsbury Centre Link.

Moreton and Finlay's work draws on the drowned Suffolk town of Dunwich, which was one of the most important ports in medieval England. At the height of its fortunes in the 12th and 13th centuries, it may have possessed as many as 18 churches, chapels and religious buildings.

A series of major storms and poor maintenance in the town's sea defences allowed natural erosion to occur, and over the following 200 to 300 years, Dunwich was lost to the sea.

The works by Moreton and Finlay will occupy two of the three large exhibition bays in the Sainsbury Centre Link at first, and a further bay will be filled from early May to June 24. People will be able to see a series of related works created by the two artists.

Inspired by the local legend that on certain days church bells can be heard ringing below the waves, Finlay has made a series of 13 watercolours representing a bell method - the score used in church bell ringing. Such methods usually consist of rows of numbers, one for each bell to be rung, Finlay has replaced each number with a coloured circle. In this way he has created simple pictures which translate music into colour.

Accompanying Finlay's paintings are two quietly assured large-format photographs by Moreton of the ruined church of St Andrew's at Walberswick.

Finding itself at the mouth of the new storm-formed inlet, Walberswick persisted as Dunwich perished, good fortune like coastal material drifting elsewhere.

From early May to June 24, Moreton will exhibit further photographs in the third bay of the Link, alongside a display of drawings by Finlay.

t Waterlog exhibitions are at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery from Sunday February 3 to Sunday April 15, and at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts from now until Sunday June 24. Details of opening times at www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk and www.scva.org.uk


A major new film by Tacita Dean forms a central element of the Waterlog project.

Her comment, as winner of the Hugo Boss Prize last year that “nothing can be more satisfying than arriving somewhere without any clear idea of the route”, fits perfectly with WG Sebald's own literary ambitions, and lies at the heart of her earlier essay named after the writer.

This film consists of a portrait of the poet and translator Michael Hamburger, who was a great friend of Sebald, and continues a series of studies of individuals and their environments.

A meditation on a life that stands for the lives of others, the film - simply entitled Michael Hamburger - will be Dean's first commission in Britain since 1999.

Jeremy Millar, curator of the exhibition, believes that in the 28-minute film Dean has encapsulated the concept of using Sebald and The Rings of Saturn as an inspiration. “You would make a connection of certain people and places, but it is almost more the sense of it than of understanding him or knowing him in some way,” he said.

And Nick Thornton, curator of art at Norwich Castle, added that he hoped Mr Hamburger would be coming to the opening of the exhibition in the city this week.


Pope's recent work has centred on the notion of walking as an artistic and social pursuit.

The two aspects come together for his Waterlog work.

From the collection at Norwich Castle, he has drawn together a selection of paintings from the Norwich School, which was the first provincial art movement in Britain.

Ten of these works - which centre on trees and the landscape - will be hung within the gallery. All will be draped with black silk, reminiscent of the ancient Dutch ritual practised in homes where there had been a death. Landscape paintings and mirrors would be draped with mourning ribbons so that the departing soul would not become distracted on its final journey.

Each week, just one different painting will be unveiled.

A selected person will be asked to memorise the painting and then to walk to a location of their choosing - it may be that in the painting or a place which reminds them of it in some way - before describing the picture from memory.

This recollection will be recorded on tape and photographed and will be put on the Waterlog website.

Jeremy Millar, curator of the exhibition, explained: “There is a frustration about this project which is quite deliberate. Simon has done a number of projects previously which were based in some ways on the book and film Fahrenheit 451, where all the books are destroyed and there is almost this counter-culture where the books are memorised.

“It is about turning people into participants rather than viewers of a piece of work, being active not just passive.”

Pope elaborated: “It is about the relationship of the person and the landscape. What do we bring to a place? Our experiences, our knowledge of the history. This is offered up as a memoir to Sebald in some way.

“He had really picked up on the destruction of the trees as a metaphor for the displacement of people as well as the destruction of the landscape.

“I was kind of thinking about identifying that metaphor.”


Coates' work is often linked to the notion of “becoming animal”, as either a spiritual journey or one that imitates base behaviour. For Waterlog, he is exploring the relationship between birds and cultural mythology, by creating works which revolve around the most elusive bird of the region, the bittern.

Long-perceived as a messenger of doom, the bittern has a booming call which forms the basis of the audio to Coates' installation at the Norwich Castle Museum rotunda.

He will also be displaying 11 bittern specimens from the museum's natural history collection. At their most endangered there were only 11 male bitterns left in the wild - indeed, the museum had more specimens in its collection!

Known as “skins”, the birds' bodies have never been stuffed; their limp, frail forms are a reflection of their own endangered status.

His interest goes back to childhood memories of bird-watching trips and his longing to spot the bitterns. The bird is also mentioned several times in The Rings of Saturn.

Jeremy Millar said: “Marcus is a fascinating character. A lot of his work in the past has been about animals, and he almost impersonates them, getting inside their skin and trying to become the spirit of the animal, like a shamen living out in the forest as a stag.

“The good thing about him is that he realises how ridiculous this seems to many people, particularly in a society in which people - even those who don't live in big cities - have lost touch with animals.”


Susan Maris was born in Gorleston and, with her family still living in the area, was keen to be part of the Waterlog project. Susan and husband Alexander have collaborated for more than 15 years, often exploring the relationship between myth and landscape.

Much of their work, which includes photography and video, is focused on particular geographical sites which reverberate with broad cultural and environmental concerns, or on a specific artistic event which took place there.

For Waterlog, the Marises - who are based near Glasgow - have created a video and sound work entitled Silentium, which takes as its muse Benjamin Britten and a piece of music created by one of his greatest admirers: Tabula Rosa by Arvo Pärt.

The recording takes place in Britten's Chapel House Studio, where he retreated for peace and quiet from the noise of the US Airforce planes flying over his former residence, The Red House.

Following the river inland, the Marises capture Britten's search for silence in a series of haunting video sequences which will be presented on a large high-definition 42-inch flat screen monitor with the related soundtrack.

Alexander explained: “My wife and I have always wanted to do something like this.

“We were thinking about that process of going through a long period of silence, something which artists and writers often do before they produce work. We wanted to explore this through the landscape of East Anglia and the musical score.

“We knew that Benjamin Britten spent time walking up and down the coast, absorbing the music of the landscape and also retreating to the peace and quiet of the Chapel House Studio.”


For Waterlog, Alec and Guy are producing a collaborative work based on their fascination with the city of Dunwich - one of the foremost landmarks of medieval Britain before its disappearance beneath the waves.

Guy's photographs of ruined churches will be placed alongside Alec's watercolours of 'bell methods', a way of expressing the intricacies of bell-ringing in visual form.

As well as this collaboration at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, both artists will also be showing works at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

“Guy uses a large 8x10 inch camera, so he ends up with these fantastic quality prints,” said Nick Thornton. “They are very elegant and subtle.

“Alec is a quite different artist, a poet and book-maker who works in lots of different ways, publishing artists' books as well as often working with text.

“For his piece at the Castle, he has made circle poems on lifebuoys, while Guy has some pictures of the Yare and Waveney Valley marshes and the Blyth Estuary.”

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter