What I’m Reading: Artist and Writer Marion Coutts

It’s a little startling to realize that The Iceberg was Marion Coutts’s first book. She’d already built a years-long reputation as a visual artist prior to taking it on. A look at her work makes it apparent why. It’s precise and allusive, as distinct as a firm voice speaking above the din and saying just what must be said, without over-explaining. This is an intelligent artist who assumes a knowing audience. The results are a pleasure to behold, they’re meditative without being too detached. Not surprisingly, she often hits these same marks in her writing.   

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Marion Coutts, Twenty Six Things, 2008, Super 16 film still

But Coutts’s first book wasn’t, say, an insider’s memoir of the art world or a thinly fictionalized account of those circles. Instead, she took a life-altering event, her husband Tom Lubbock’s brain tumor diagnosis, and wrote through the experience in meticulous, forthright detail. The Iceberg and Lubbock’s own account of events, Until Further Notice, I Am Alive, make a remarkable pair, a testament to their deeply shared experience, not merely through Lubbock’s illness but over the course of their relationship and marriage. Fittingly, Prophet, a piece Coutts finished in 2001, serves as the cover image for Lubbock’s book.

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Marion Coutts, Prophet, 2001

“In a marriage of near ten years and a friendship of longer,” Coutts writes, “all visual experience is for two…Soon, sometime soon I will have no one to tell this to. What will experience be then?” Indeed, Lubbock was an artist in his own right and art critic for the Independent. They can’t have always arrived at the exact same conclusions about what they’d seen, but what a touchstone to lose, a second set of eyes so discerning, and so close as to probably feel like an extension of the self. I didn’t ask her what the answer to that question is now, in part because she’s no doubt still resolving it for herself at times. What she has done, however, is continue writing – “I am working on new writing. I have quite a lot of words though I don’t know what they pertain to and look forward to clarification, from where I know not,” she tells me, and preparing an exhibition of her work, her first since 2008. It’s composed of installation, photographs and drawings. Look for it at Tintype in London, early March 2017.

The questions I did ask Marion Coutts? What she’s reading and why she’s reading it. And though she claims she doesn’t actually read much, if this list is any indication, she has well-defined tastes but stays open to the serendipity of being  unexpectedly handed a great book:

I did my first ever writing residency this summer at Cove Park in Scotland. Two weeks around solstice. I highly recommend the experience. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was the book I read on my first day there and I read it in one sitting – another first. I would never have time to do that at home. It left me very energized. I thought it a brilliant, unusual work and why it is feels so unusual is interesting as it speaks to and about happiness, family and the many inventive ways that belonging can manifest and these are all things that humans have a ravenous interest in. The Argonauts also brings up all sorts of ethical questions around writing about those near you – which I have done – nearness and its opposite being one of the motors of The Iceberg. And because I am very curious about form – I haven’t yet found my way to future content – I am looking to ways that writers – and artists – choose to structure the things in their head. I loved the tempo and sound of The Argonauts, the individual paragraphs, big and small, making the running, the way the parts connect to the whole and what is the whole allowed to be anyway? Interleaving and splicing, the book compresses, digresses, expands and explodes yet holds the reader very, very close all the while.

I am a visual artist. I have written one book which must serve for the time being as my single model so I feel the lack of habits as a writer. This may be a problem or may not be, but I’d quite like to acquire some habits because they can sometimes get you started. (I know they can do the opposite thing also.) Instead of books I want to read there is a whole stack of shows I want to see at the moment. James Ensor at The Royal Academy, Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s at The Photographers Gallery, Rauschenberg at Tate. Unlike books, exhibitions come to the end of their run and then you’ve missed them. This happens all too often. What it means to write visually is something that occupies me.

I don’t actually read very much. And the books I read come to me by diverse routes. Through a friend, I was introduced to Sven Lindqvist’s Desert Divers. I found him a terrific voice and guide. (The book is translated by Joan Tate.) He talks about the European explorers and romantic visionaries who projected themselves onto the Sahara and wrote it up for folk back home. Lindqvist went there too, and wrote what he found in bare prose: dreams, dust and the deep residual violence of the colonial project.

Through another friend, I read Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding which describes a weekend in the life of a girl on the cusp of change. I wish I had come across it long ago. It is a book a younger me would have loved. And recently I read Tolstoy’s Happy Ever After which compresses a life into eighty-four pages. In his story of Masha and her marriage, he gets into a teenage girl’s head and is also outside it, looking from afar as she ages, like through a lens. Terrifyingly elegant. And elegantly terrifying.

After The Iceberg came out, publishers started sending me books on dying and grieving. I had one more come through my door this week. I was surprised at first but it seemed to go with the territory. I have to say I don’t read them. I did make an exception for Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers which wasn’t posted through my door, I bought it in a shop – again slightly unusual for me. It is very compact. Porter thinks around loss through three tight-knit views; a bereaved husband, his sons and a volatile fiction called Crow, who inserts himself into the aftermath like an unwanted houseguest. His writing inside the heads of the young boys is great.

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Boy Looks at Rock on Top of Another Rock (2016) digital print on Canson

And a big find of the last months, apart from The Argonauts, is the poet Denise Riley’s Say Something Back which uses words to say difficult and surprising things in a way that I can’t get enough of.

Marion Coutts

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