15 June, 2004Issue 3.3North AmericaThe Arts

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The Notebooks of L.F. Morgan

Peter Golders-Balham

An advance look at the editor’s introduction to the forthcoming publication of the notebooks of London internal conceptual artist L.F. Morgan, compiled for the first time in a single volume.

I first met Morgan in a café on the Strand. He was sitting on a stool facing the street and watching people through a large, immaculately clean window. Placed before him on the narrow wooden ledge which ran the length of the window was a small notebook, the pages of which, I could see as I sat next to him, were covered in an almost illegible scrawl, with scattered emendations filling the margins and the uneven spaces between the lines. Arrows and elisions further obscured the pages. Occasionally he would turn his attention away from the window to his notebook and begin to write in a hurried and rather excited fashion. Such figures are not uncommon in London and I took no special interest in him as I opened my book and began to read. I suppose the gesture with which I opened the book distracted Morgan from his thoughts, and, from the corner of my eye, I could sense that he had turned his face to me, and was studying me as intently as he had been studying the scene on the street.

It is of course standard in the description of such meetings to recount the first words spoken by one person to the other, revealing thereby the reasons that what could otherwise have become nothing, became instead a friendship. I can offer no such description here, for I do not remember whether Morgan introduced himself to me, or I introduced myself to him. In any case, we began to speak of art and artists, and had a rather interesting conversation which lasted for perhaps an hour or an hour and a half, and we arranged to meet again in the café for a similar discussion. It was our relatively regular weekly meetings in this café on the Strand which constituted our entire friendship, and in the following eight years I learned little about his personal life and, I am certain, he learned even less about mine. We were interested in art, not in each other, and being the both of us rather bohemian characters with regular and retiring habits, we each of us guarded our privacy closely – perhaps a little too closely, but one is taught to be close and guarded in London.

It was with some surprise, therefore, that I received at my flat one morning a package which bore some illegible marks in Morgan’s distinctive hand, and to which a letter bearing the logo of a rather distinguished legal firm was attached. I opened the letter and began to read it with growing curiousity and some dismay, for it recounted the death of Morgan, and the desire he expressed in his will that his notebooks should be sent to me upon his passing. Apparently my friend had been suffering from a terminal disease for some time, and had been well aware of his impending demise for more than a year. His health had never been good, and over the years I had seen some rather disturbing fluctuations in his appearance, but nothing which seemed to be a cause for any real alarm.

There were no indications, I feel it is necessary to add, that I should either read or publish Morgan’s notebooks. In fact, after a cursory attempt to read them on the day I received the package, I relegated them to the back of a neglected closet. Some time later I became ill and, in a moment of boredom, I took them out of the closet and again began to read them. I will not say that I was immediately entranced, that I stayed awake for three days in order to read them, and read them over again; in fact, almost as soon as I opened the first notebook which came to hand, I fell asleep in my reclining chair. I suppose if I had had the energy, upon waking, to return the notebooks to their closet, I would have done so, and left them there forever. But their nagging presence beside my chair began to disturb me and, too indolent to pick them all up at once and dispense with them altogether, I instead picked one up and began to read it with something like real attention.

As I suppose is true of most notebooks of this sort, Morgan’s are certainly messy, written in various colours of ink and in various states of locomotion or excitement, but the range of subjects engaged with is, to say the least, remarkable, if not entirely unique. This aspect of the notebooks reflects with some accuracy Morgan’s habitual manner of speculation, which was evident in all of our conversations. He would incessantly and without any intelligible transition interrupt his speech, and to my irritation would sometimes even interrupt my own, in order to engage in the description of a work of art which he had, for whatever reason, come to imagine. In any case, I developed an interest in his notebooks, and began to read them regularly. It was only when an acquaintance reacted with excitement to my description of one of Morgan’s imagined works that I began to consider the possibility that they might be of interest to others. Rather naively, I sent some of them to a publisher who, to my surprise, accepted them for publication and asked that I edit them into a presentable form.

The present volume is the result of my considerable efforts to comply with this charge, and some explanation of my method is in order. Because personal references were, as I have indicated, rarely made by either of us in our conversations, and because they seem to me to be entirely tangential to any consideration of the works which he imagined, I have been rather selective in my editing, and have carefully omitted any details which might reveal something definite of Morgan’s personal life. One such detail, however, requires some discussion, as it is directly implicated in the technical difficulties of transcription, and in the incoherent appearance of certain entries: Morgan was, I am afraid to say, something of an alcoholic. The following example of an intoxicated entry, in which I have inserted my own sober footnotes, demonstrates as well as any other the problems which Morgan’s addiction produced for me in my role as editor, and my attempts at a solution.

Sitting in a pub and listening to the music with a pint. Smoking. The music is banal and I think repeating – wait – yes, repeating I think, skipping back seamlessly to an earlier and equivalent rhythm. No one noticing. Repeating pints, waiting for someone1

in a pitch black room with three candles attached but unlit. Have attendants dressed in red with things on their heads approach from time to time and light the candles with matches while it begins to move. Then it opens (not from the top, but from the middle eyepiece) and a long arm extends holding a symbol when a loud voice comes through the speakers and says “Interdeterminedependence lighting in”2

The entries I have selected for publication are only those which represent most accurately Morgan’s fascinating talent for imagining art works of a conceptual nature, and if some of the descriptions seem to be incomplete or generated without any identifiable context, it is either the fault or the consequence of the haphazard, momentary style of Morgan’s writing, and not of my own careful scholarship. The following passage is a representative example of this particular weakness:

I saw a tourist take a picture and I sat on a cold stone circle surrounding a boring fountain. Photograph an empty site from six directions. Somewhere in the City construct a small pyramid of grey stone cubes, having beforehand photographed each side of each of the identical stones. Photograph the pyramid from the same six directions and demolish the pyramid with hammers and dispense with the fragments. Photograph once again the empty site from the same six directions and display all the photos of the site and the pyramid in a gallery, with a separate binder for the photos of each stone. No artist’s statement, I think, is necessary.

Since the notebooks are undated, it was impossible for me to present them in what was without question their chronological order. Furthermore, where concrete historical events are referred to, they are often represented as reminiscences, and Morgan’s engagement with a particular event was often evident in more than one entry, and, even, in more than one notebook. Where his references are particularly ambiguous, I have found it difficult to abstain from engaging in some interpretation of his intention, as in the following entry, which was, I believe, written before the bridge in question was repaired and re-opened to the public:

On my way out – bored – I contemplated the Millennium Bridge, in a gallery frame of mind it occurred to me that it’s maybe the most brilliant and penetrating work in all of London. A two-part photographic exhibition, presented in separate rooms. In one room hang photographs of pieces of bridges and buildings that’ve fallen because of an architect’s or an engineer’s incompetence. In the other room hang photographs of similar structures that’ve fallen as a result of natural catastrophes, like floods or earthquakes. The title should refer to various forms of failure. A sort of artist’s statement necessary, in order to avoid the work’s being considered a cliché or something of that sort – yes, the statement would have to be very carefully worded. Maybe too a corollary work in which the first room contained photographs of structures currently being used successfully, and the second room contained photographs of structures that have become obsolete, like abandoned railway tracks or empty warehouses, or unoccupied apartment blocks.

Of Morgan’s penchant for bad puns, I will say nothing, save that they seem in some way to be central to his works. They are often, for example, offered as possible titles for exhibitions and performances. I could not, therefore, justify their omission from this publication, even though they are in rather poor taste, and may serve to diminish the effect of his writings as a whole. His rather cynical conflation of the art world and a popular American entertainment park will serve as an apposite illustration of this rather frustrating tendency:

Sitting in a bus in the drizzle. Maybe organize a performance piece called ‘ArtLand’, in New York (definitely in America), in which garish simulacra of galleries and well-known works would be constructed, maybe in Central Park. In and among these have various individuals walking around mutely in exaggerated, fuzzy, colourful costumes modelled on famous artists – Andy Warhol would be easy – and shaking hands or selling postcards and trinkets and having their pictures taken with children and making strange movements with their arms. Perhaps a real artist, without a costume, as a mascot – an interesting reversal, though somewhat incoherent, mascots being more suited to sports teams and fraternities, than to art galleries. If it’s successful I could put on a similar performance in Paris, and call it ‘EuroArtLand’, though an ‘ArtWorld’ might be a bit over the top, and I wouldn’t know where to stage it.

However misguided it may have been, Morgan’s evident dissatisfaction with the contemporary art world was by no means a consequence of ignorance. His formidable familiarity with currently fashionable figures and movements, in fact, presented me with significant difficulties, especially in cases where he was clearly engaged in some form of parody, the object of which I was unable to identify. In the entry below, for example, such an identification is undoubtedly necessary:

Walking along a suburban street this afternoon I noticed the buildings were decaying, pieces of brick ready to tumble down discoloured and chipped, paint on window-frames peeling. Garbage bins sometimes overturned and usually bursting with chippy styrofoam boxes and curry detritus. Every once in a while a house probably lived in by a pensioner with stainless lace white curtains, maybe a gaudy well-dusted ornament or two and a well-kept front garden, but still with the crumbling brick, sometimes painted. Cracked sidewalks and roads with patchwork signs of jack-hammer work for some infrastructure tweaking. An old used mattress, left on the pavement, burst in places with dark patches from puddles. Or an old couch, left behind, used up. Take an old armchair with coffee stains and faded patches from the sun and sitting, torn in places and with a broken footrest extended only from one side, only three twisted and loose wooden feet left, and put it in a gallery, maybe put a crumpled biscuit wrapper on it. Nothing else in the white room, except maybe a long text from a commentator, or a curator, about the philosopher who used to sit in it; the title, ‘Chair’.

In spite of my professional inclination to present a comprehensive explanatory concordance for each entry, I have chosen to include in the present volume this and other intriguing passages which my investigations have failed to illuminate.

Allow me to add a final word on what is perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Morgan’s works. They were none of them, to my knowledge, realised, as it were. Never were any of his strange projects built, performed, or otherwise displayed in any public space whatsoever, let alone that of the gallery. I do not know if this was the result of his failure to procure financial support from the art officials of this city, or because he could find neither the energy nor the confidence to seek their support in the first place. In the ‘Humanimal’ entry, for example, there is a lazy, offhand reference to funding which seems to reflect this sort of confused ambivalence:

Habituated to the rhythms of the station and the smell of something rotting, spilled drinks and fast food and bored looking histrionic people, I waited without anticipation. My mood dissipated as I boarded the stifling train and began to notice the numberless crowd of silent figures – I realised I was one of them. As I hung my head, crushed into a corner near the doors, I considered developing a public performance, recruiting maybe one hundred people who would dress in suits and wear masks of cows’ heads and board trains in various stations in the morning, mooing. Perhaps I could gather some funding and start an advertising scheme before the performance, disseminating posters throughout the city with the name ‘Humanimal’ and a date. Then it occurred to me that the strange silence and stillness of employees in the morning, thousands of them standing quietly on platforms, is itself a rather interesting work.

There are, however, numerous alternative explanations for Morgan’s strange reluctance to produce. Perhaps, for example, it was a coherent part of some comprehensive project, or he considered conception to be the end of conceptual art. Personally, I suspect that his habitual references to practical structures and unstaged events as though they were in fact works of art, may have mitigated any desire to present before the world his own, less ambitious, imaginary works, which, he was well aware, do indeed seem pale in comparison, as the following entry demonstrates:

Young French men drinking and saying ‘Mind the Gap’ and laughing without noticing the name of the train station.3 Tourists having their pictures taken in front of Big Ben and wearing t-shirts with cartoons of London monuments. Standing in line for two hours to ride on a Ferris wheel and eating ice cream, kids on leashes, and looking for pub fayre. London Bridge declared disappointing, a tourist asking when the falling-down show starts. Docklands somewhere in the background, grey above brown water. Fill a gallery with dilapidated and badly painted wooden models of tourist shops and places of entertainment, like rides through famous buildings and places, or gambling and fun houses empty and grey in the off-season. The most out of place and depressing sights I know. I can’t think of a name for it, and it seems a little too straightforward, even if the title is suitably ironic. In any case this has already been done in Southend, and much better than I could ever do it myself, since it would be hard to imitate in a gallery large places designed for amusement built against the backdrop of an incredibly ugly coastline covered with uncomfortable rocks and poorly constructed docks and breakwaters stretching in silence into the distance.

Finally, Morgan’s intense misanthropy, as embarrassingly straightforward in the following as it is in many other entries, and usually associated as it is with gallery patrons and gallery works, may also have contributed to his reluctance to execute his ideas:

It’s late. I can see my reflection in the television. The sound of a car alarm and two foxes fighting outside. She’s having sex downstairs again, I think, or maybe having a bad dream. All the windows outside are unlit. Installation in which a row of televisions are placed against a wall, the screens removed and replaced with mirrors reflecting the spectators’ faces and the gallery, including perhaps works hung on the opposite wall. This though has probably been done already. Perhaps I could call it ‘56 Channels and Nothing On’.

In any case, I suspect that Morgan’s reluctance was the consequence of a combination of these factors. His decision in the end, however, to send his notebooks to me, appears to indicate some inclination to communicate his fascinating conceptions to posterity. The publication of these notebooks, therefore, is the consequence both of his and of my own desire that his imaginary works should be brought to the public’s attention, rather than remain forever consigned to the obscurity of a closet, or a rubbish heap.

    Notes

  1. The following half-page is blurred by what is evidently a stain from some sort of liquid, but Morgan continues as follows in what appears to be the same entry.
  2. Having found the following three pages of the notebeook in which this entry was made indecipherable, and having shown the above passage to the publisher who seemed to consider it of some interest, I was instructed to solicit the services of a handwriting expert for a professional analysis of what, I am afraid, is in fact a drunken scrawl. Consequently, I approached an old friend of mine who, being an experienced scholar, is familiar not only with the deciphering of manuscripts, but also with the relevant effects of inebriation. He subsequently pronounced the entire passage illegible, with the exception of the final few words of the entry, which are as follows: “Nine knots in it. Yes, the universe is a string, with nine knots in it”.
  3. Waterloo, evidently.