Nicola Simpson, May 2017.
In 1968, after the unexpected and tragic death of the artist and concrete poet, Kenelm Cox, Houédard designed a series of works ‘in memoriam’ to his deceased friend.
The most noted one is the poster-print ‘sun -cheese wheel –ode a double-rolling-gloster memorial for kencox’, printed by South Seas Publications in 1968. This is a visual constellation of letters, formally not unlike the directional mandala found in his palindrome poem ‘d-r-a-w-n-i-n-w-a-r-d’ and made up from all the letters not in the name ‘Ken Cox’.
The poem is intended to be read out loud and a ‘machine reference’ of instructions, for such a performance, are included on the back of the poster. Therefore in a vocal performance of the ‘sun -cheese wheel –ode a double-rolling-gloster memorial for kencox’ all the letters not in Ken Cox’s name are sounded out: the absence of sound – the absence of the name Ken Cox – being, in effect, the sound piece.
These three xylographs, perhaps called ‘ a mobile totem memorial for kencox’ are best understood contextually as the complementary piece to the ‘sun-cheese wheel-ode’. The intention was to suspend these works as a hanging vertical mobile and each totem is made up from the letters in Ken Cox’s name, and only these letters. And, similarly to the ‘sun-cheese wheel –ode’, the name, Ken Cox, is again still silent. Each totem moves through the air as slow or as fast as the flow of air around them. The totemic column of letters is a direct reference to the form of Cox’s piece ‘Suncycle’. But unlike Cox’s piece where the letters are always visible in some degree of completeness, like the sun’s permanent visibility somewhere on earth at all times, here the mobiles are only printed on one side. The presence of KEN COX spins around in the impermanent and transitory wind moving from presence to absence then presence again. The letters are both static and momentary. The shining foil, out of which the mobiles are constructed, catches the light rendering the text almost invisible and again the choice of this thin metallic sheet/page/paper is an intuitive material to evoke how the light catches the cast-brass of Cox’s ‘Suncycle’. Out of all the diverse poemobjects Houédard designed, these totems come closet to what Cox meant, when he stated ‘one of my chief concerns has been to unite movement with words – to try to bring some kind of indivisible unity between the words & movement –‘.
Each column of letters is also an example of mirror-typography with a line of symmetry passing between the shapes. Letters are either reversed or reflected. It feels that Houédard‘s text has found a thoughtful and playful way to reflect unity and dualism in the two stressed syllables ‘ken’ and ‘cox’.
Across the three totems in this collection, each letter appears with its inversion or it’s reflection. One effect of this is to have the two semi-circles of the letter C gradually move into a complete cyclic union with the interlocking letter Os. But careful attention reveals the pattern made by each of the letters similarly create a central absent empty space: the rhombuses shaped by the inverted letters K and X, the rectangles held within the letter Es and the triangles residing inside the Ns. Houédard encloses a very deliberate spiritual geometry within the abstraction of these letters, that references the kinetic calligraphy in Cox’s own work, Cox’s interest in Chinese and Taoist philosophy and also Houédard’s own interest in these ideas, as elaborated, at length, in the three essays he writes in dedication to Ken Cox. In the third of the third of these essays, ‘ken cox keeping still in the book of changes’, Houédard makes the paronomasic connection between ‘the glostershire ken & the i-ching ken’, (as ken is the name for the fifth of the eight trigrams in the I-Ching.) before making the link more fully in Cox’s work between order and chance, symmetry and asymmetry. So when we look again at the totems we can see that there is more than a simple repetitive geometry at play here. The typography creates shapes that transform each letter into what may be called a ‘concrete trigram.’
It is also important to consider the form of the totem. In his essay on Cox, ‘the singing of feeling’ Houédard makes the connection between Cox and the shamanic, but these works are best understood within Houédard’s own interest in the shamanic. This was at its height in the period 1967-8, as is evidenced by typestracts on this period such as ‘shaman with 5 chakras’ (200267) and references to the shamanic in his prose and his collaborations with the Exploding Galaxy and his performance works, such as ‘the cosmic ballet’. As these silver totems revolve and spin in ‘microgales’ it is difficult not to sense their relationship with the language and paralanguage of the sacred. These poemsculptures simply create their own micro-environment. Then transcend it.
Dom Sylvester Houédard, ‘the singing of feeling’, Lisson 1968, Ceolfrith 15, Ed. Charles Verey, Ceolfrith Arts Centre, Sunderland, 1972.
Dom Sylvester Houédard, ‘ken cox keeping still in the book of changes’, Ceolfrith 15, Ed. Charles Verey, Ceolfrith Arts Centre, Sunderland, 1972.