Author, poet and photographer Matthew Smith writes about the art of the collection or series – and making smaller works of art into something greater than the sum of their parts.
In an old TV interview, Hayao Miyazaki described dreaming up the part towards the end of Spirited Away, in which the train moves out over a still sea which mirrors the sky. The water seemed to Miyazaki in retrospect to resonate with other images of water in the story, even though he hadn’t been considering them at the time. When Chihiro becomes stuck in the town of ghosts at the start, water blocks her exit. In the train scene, it symbolises the calmness and clarity of her soul. Throughout the film, we can associate water with the movement of one’s inner life. A film writer and director has a special role to perform when constructing a narrative: they have to be able to build a structure that will be revealed within the unfolding of time for the viewer, but that structure will need to make thematic sense outside of the constraints of linear thinking. Crucially, Miyazaki believed he had received help from a part of himself which, as an artist, he had grown to rely on: he credited his deeper subconscious, or unconscious mind, with an ability to see the bigger picture, freeing up his thinking brain to tell the story. In this way, he was always able to surprise himself.
When an artist works in a field that requires a series or a collection of smaller works to be compiled, the same logic must apply. It is something that artists often struggle with, if the overarching narrative line of a novel or a film is absent. We read countless stories about bands arguing over the track listing of albums that we consider to be masterpieces, which we as listeners can’t imagine playing out differently. Radiohead and Pavement seem to be prime examples. Nigel Godrich, long-time Radiohead producer, arguably tipped Pavement over the edge when he condemned them for not going ‘all the way’ on their final album, which he took the helm for: he wanted them to start ‘Terror Twilight’ with a long and dense song similar to the way ‘Paranoid Android’ helped kick off Ok Computer. The band felt this was forced and wanted to keep things accessible. The way songs on an album should follow one after the other is highly charged because the hidden narrative a decision-maker proposes is necessarily more subjective and particular to their tastes, with fewer accepted ‘rules’ they can point to in order to back up their preferences. Years after their split, Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus decided Godrich was “right, probably.”
In the literary world, poets have this challenge, although the problem may seem more complex. Where does a poet start when they are putting a collection together? They may have over fifty pages’ worth of material as a list of separate files on their computer, alphabetically ordered. They may be approaching twenty or thirty pages. The latter amount is a good time to start structuring. First, the poet will be excited and inspired to sense that a bigger picture is starting to form. This can provide motivation to keep powering on with the work. Secondly, the growing organism of a collection can start to inspire new poems by demonstrating which images, emblems and recurring ideas are starting to form patterns, and which areas of these patterns could benefit from deeper investigation. You may quite naturally choose a poem which contains the idea of walking across a threshold to open your collection. You may realise that this idea was more important than you had previously given it credit for. You may then see that there are actually a few poems which contain thresholds in your folder, not all of them obvious points of crossing over, for example, one might detail someone leaving the limits of a field to step onto the wilder grasses of a moor. You may decide that the threshold poems are going to be aligned towards the start of your work. An empty space reveals itself: the climax of the collection, the final stretch, may need to investigate the darkness that seems to lie beyond the threshold. Or perhaps it may take the reader through this darkness and out the other side. Perhaps new kinds of threshold are needed at different stages of the larger work. Thresholds may become a less prominent strain of imagery, or they may become a guiding through-line. They may inspire the title of the work, become the guiding star of the collection. Suddenly the logic we are applying is not so foreign to that of the novelist or the director of films.
The fine art photographers whose work is most highly prized, tend to be masters of sequencing when it comes to putting series of photographs together. In the world of Japanese photography, the book often takes precedence over the gallery show as the idealised way of appreciating a photographer’s work. The format, of course, lends itself to the narrative virtuoso. Rinko Kawauchi has found a devoted following with works like Illuminance, which offers constant variety in terms of colour, perspective, the personal, the impersonal, the moods that we are drawn into. However, underpinning this ever-changing stream of visual sensations are constantly repeating symbols and structures: the flower, the beam of light, some oft-overlooked members of the animal kingdom. Throughout we find unity emblematised by the circles she captures, in a weightless bubble blown by a schoolgirl, in concentric ripples on water, in graffiti on a wall. The patterns at work reveal themselves to the dedicated onlooker, suggesting a hidden narrative in the world around us which is atemporal and not bound by space.
Masao Yamamoto is another master of the photo series. He takes photographs in colour and in black-and-white, often printing them at a very small scale, keeping them in his pockets and in his bags as he goes about his life. He feels these prints take on something more of him, and gain a history of their own through wear-and-tear. But what is truly inspiring is the way these micro-prints may be presented for sale as one work of art in a beautiful case, as though they had been found as a jumbled set in someone’s abandoned attic. Yamamoto said in an interview in the Telegraph in 2006: “I like the idea that photographs are kept and looked at with affection. That is what gives them meaning.” You can find one such set of 37 silver gelatin prints with their lacquer box on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London today. The discoverer of the box begins to work their way through the prints, soon beginning to understand that a greater work of art is unfolding in front of their eyes, although responsibility for the final sequencing of that work will fall to them. This is narrative construction as collaboration, and we find it of course in the history of many artistic genres: Nabokov’s Pale Fire begs to be read in a non-linear fashion. That does not mean that narrative is absent.
After Krzysztof Kiéslowski released The Double Life of Veronique in Poland in 1991, he claimed he gave each cinema showing it a slightly different edit of the film. Coffee shop discussions of the seminal work, which might normally air out each individual’s subjective version of a film, took place with an unexpected narrative twist: the viewers had all seen a slightly different film. Although one version was then put forward as authoritative, for a time the film had become a story that was singularly expansive, that stretched beyond each individual’s hopes of narrowing it down to something they could say they had ‘understood’.
Masao Yamamoto will often exhibit his works in a unique way when he takes them into a gallery space. By clustering them together, in a vast nebulous mass that stretches out past the limits of vision when the visitor moves in for close inspection, he points to the limits of image-sequencing and of the thread of the story in the work which is a collection of smaller works of art. At the same time he reinforces its necessity and its magnetism. Whether your story is chronological, or bound by images and ideas alone, the pattern is the key to crystallising the whole, and to sparking real progress in the first place.
About the author of this article
Matthew Smith is an author, poet, photographer and publisher. His first novel is The Waking, and his first poetry collection is Sea of the Edge. His photography, meanwhile, has been included in group shows with the New York Centre for Photographic Arts at Art Santa Fe 2019, at Black Box Gallery in Portland and at the Museo di Casa Giorgione in Castelfranco. His first solo exhibition will be at the Hagi Art in Tokyo in January-February 2020. You can follow him on Twitter @msmith_wundor.