A vivid account of a close friendship that evolved into a working relationship when Richard McNeff became ‘spontaneous fixer’ (Flanagan’s description) of the sculptor’s show held in June 1992 at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Ibiza, where they were both living. McNeff was to gain a privileged insight into the sculptor’s singular personality and eccentric working methods, learning to decipher his memorably surreal turns of phrase and to parry his fascinating, if at times unsettling, pranksteresque quirks.
In September 1992 Flanagan and McNeff took the show to Majorca, resulting a lively visit to the celebrated Spanish artist Miquel Barceló. The following year McNeff was involved in Flanagan’s print-making venture in Barcelona and in his Madrid retrospective. Flanagan rescued him from a rough landing in England in 1994 by commissioning a tour of stone quarries there. Subsequently McNeff ran into a fourteen-year-old profoundly deaf girl who turned out to be his unknown daughter. She had a talent for art and the generous sculptor was instrumental in helping with her studies.
Late in 2008 Barry was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. By June 2009 he was wheelchair-bound. Two months later he died, and McNeff read the lesson at his funeral. Fleshed out with biographical detail, much of it supplied by the sculptor himself, supplemented by photographs and details of the work, this touching memoir is the first retrospective of a major Welsh-born artist. With Barry Flanagan captures the spirit of this remarkable Merlinesque figure in a moving portrait that reveals a true original.
ISBN: 978 1 84351 322 3 – hardback (also in Kindle) – Lilliput Press
“It is a very personal and often hilarious recollection of McNeff’s support of Flanagan … a compelling portrait of this great artist.”
Barbara Dawson: Irish Arts Review
“This book is chock full of ‘Flanagan anecdotes’ and as a reader I felt like I was being let in on a secret of these bohemian artists who had lived in Ibiza and their hippy and boozy lives. It is a fascinating account and whether you are familiar with Flanagan’s artistic work or not, this is an extremely interesting biography which is a great read that will leave you more knowledgeable about the artist as well as entertained by the stories.”
The Dublin Duchess
Miquel Barcelo and Barry Flanagan, Cerámiques i Dibuxos (ceramics and drawings)
Enrique Juncosa and Richard McNeff.
Published to coincide with the exhibition of the artists’ work at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Ibiza 27 of April to 31 October
2012. Contains my account of the artists’ first meeting in English, Spanish and Catalan.
Piece in the Guardian to coincide with Barry’s show at Tate Britain (27 September-2 january). There is also a picture gallery of his work.
‘Hare today, but not gone tomorrow’
1) Barry Flanagan: In Appreciation
2) Head of the Goddess in my Hands (about the sculpture)
3) A Reduction of Invertigo (short story)
BARRY FLANAGAN: IN APPRECIATION
When I first saw Barry, at a wedding in Es Figueral in the late eighties, going by his dusty denim suit and general boho air, I judged him to be another of the many artists on Ibiza who eked out a modest, at times precarious living in pursuit of their calling. It was not until sometime later that I discovered he was an artist-star as celebrated in Tokyo as he was in London, Paris and New York.
Barry was born in Prestatyn, Wales, in January 1941. In his youth he tried his hand at labouring, the cello, quarry work, dental work, and making props on the film set of Cleopatra. All of these disparate callings appeared, in one way or another, in the work that began to emerge from his time at St Martin’s School of Art.
In the Sixties he was firmly associated with the avant-garde and worked in performance art, drawing, film and found art. His reverence for materials and form was immediately noticeable and he was equally at home with clay, cloth, rope, sand and stone. His work was also distinguished by evocative, playful titles such as Sixties Dish, a cello reflected by a mirror on a sofa. He narrowly avoided becoming the target of the kind of ridicule that was heaped on his friend the American minimalist Carl Andre, when the Tate bought the latter’s bricks, for works such as Barry’s own Pile, literally just that – a pile of differently coloured blankets. What marked the sculptor out as well was his humour and subversiveness, inspired to a considerable degree by the French writer Alfred Jarry, inventor of Pataphysics, the “science of imaginary solutions”. These qualities were implicit in the bronze hares he started modelling in the late seventies, which brought him rapidly into the public eye.
I once told him a talent such as his would inevitably find recognition and was surprised at how angry he became. Resentful of the way “money punishes art” and realising the Flanagan money he was producing, notes drawn and signed by him for £5, £10 and £20 pounds, had a limited spending power, Barry foreswore the clichéd pose of the artist starving in a garret, and took some business courses, anticipating Brit Art in his lack of squeamishness concerning success and wealth as well as in the remote method of production he favoured for the bronzes.
What began as a friendship between us took on a more workmanlike direction and I became his “spontaneous fixer” for a period in the early Nineties. Among other things, I assisted him on the show he shared with the French sculptor Marcel Floris at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Ibiza in 1992, which we later took to Palma. This in many ways was the equivalent of the Rolling Stones gigging in a local pub, but he set to with gusto and the results were fascinating. The word genius is bandied about with great freedom these days, but seeing him in action was a revelation, and being present when he was literally struck by an idea, a lasting privilege.
Barry passed away on August 31 after becoming afflicted with motor neurone disease. He has, in the words of Auden on Yeats, “become his admirers”. The obituaries speak of “Britain’s best-known and most controversial modernist” (The Daily Telegraph) and of “one of the most versatile, imaginative and radical sculptors of his generation” (The Independent). He will be remembered in other ways as well, such as by the “Warm amen” to The Independent obituary posted on the internet by Tony Crofts of Bristol, in which he recalls the sculptor’s personal generosity in a moving anecdote.
How many must have seconded that amen amongst the congregation who filled the church of Puig de Missa in Santa Eulalia for the service held on the morning of the eleventh of September. The fact that the key had taken an hour to turn up and it seemed at one point that proceedings might have to take place outside was neither surprising nor unappealing to those who knew Barry.
Eventually the doors were opened, and Jessica Sturgess, Barry’s partner, recited “Head of the Goddess in my Hands”, a poem by Antonio Colinas, which open on the page of The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse forms part of the work of the same name that can be found on permanent display at the Ibiza art museum. The date beneath the title, 654 BC, is the date of the foundation of the city of Ibiza; the goddess is Tanit, and the poem speaks of how the work of a sculptor endures beyond him.
Flan, one of Barry’s daughters by his first marriage to Sue, the other being Tara, recited, with feet bare, Jarry’s extraordinary description of God – “the tangential point between zero and infinity”. Later, in his sermon, the priest referred to this with some puzzlement, a detail Barry would have loved. The sculptor’s startlingly original collaboration with Hugh Cornwall of The Stranglers was also played: “Mantra of the Awoken Powers”, in which Barry, recorded down an answer phone, recites the poem by Sex W. Johnson against a background of electric guitars. More conventionally, there was a Eulogy by Enrique Juncosa, director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, where a retrospective of Barry’s work was held in 2006, hymns and a reading from Ecclesiastes.
In the afternoon, family members, friends and fellow artists, including some of the leading figures in the world of European arts, gathered at the family house, Barry’s former studio on the road to San Carlos. Sandwiched between performances by two groups, various friends related anecdotes or recited pieces in tribute to Barry, ending most movingly with farewells from his children by Renata Widmann, Alfred and Annabelle.
To those who will miss seeing the sculptor on the island, complete with heavy corduroy jacket in the height of summer, pausing with a slightly distracted air to admire the ironwork on a grille or engage workmen in conversation, there are relics of his to be found. Apart from “Head of the Goddess”, there is the delicate Kourus horse he gave to Santa Eulalia and a wonderful ceramic that can be seen in the garden of a restaurant on the town’s promenade. More even than these, however, is the gratitude he left in the hearts of the many he helped and inspired with unstinting generosity. Barry was someone who enhanced both his surroundings and those around him, not just with works of endlessly-suggestive wit and beauty, but also by deeds dictated by the heart.
First published in IbizaNOW
On a line with the prancing hare, placed between it and the hanging cloths executed in the seventies, is the remarkable golden torso of a woman and the almost featureless black head that gazes up at her, both mounted on rectangular wooden architect’s blocks. The head rests on a large paperback edition of The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse , opened at a poem entitled Head of the Goddess in my Hands, which bears beneath these words the date 654 B.C., the year of foundation of the city of Ibiza. The head in the poem is that of the Punic goddess Tanit, but the poem essentially treats of how the work of a sculptor endures beyond him:
On the morning of the exhibition the author of the poem, Antonio Colinas, one of the foremost poets working in Spain today, came and gave his blessing.
(Extract of a review for Ibiza Now of Barry Flanagan’s exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum of Ibiza in the summer of 1992, as quoted in the chronology of the catalogue for the 1993 retrospective in Madrid.)
Following is the ‘lost’ appendix that was intended for With Barry Flanagan. It is a continuation of the drinking scene in Palma de Mallorca on page 102 and features the actual appearance of Flanagan’s hero, the French playwright Alfred Jarry.
(When Barry met Jarry)
Then a strange thing happened. Transported in a Tardis of Fernet Branca, I entered the Flanagan dimension. My relationship with space and time altered so all at once we had fast-forwarded to late afternoon and were grinning at complicities that would have made no sense to anyone else, except perhaps the shade of Alfred Jarry. As though summoned by this thought, a man entered the bar. He was extraordinarily thin and attired in bicycling gear – a tight sweater, short coat and old trousers tucked into socks that disappeared into dilapidated plimsolls. Strapped to his head, a pair of goggles sectioned his long, centrally parted hair, which was very black and dripped with grease. He had a thin moustache and his eyes were dark and phosphorescent like a nighthawk’s.
‘Shitter!’ the newcomer exclaimed as he approached, in what sounded like a distinctly malevolent tone.
Barry, however, did not seem at all put out by this. ‘What marvellous kit!’ he exclaimed.
‘Thought I’d put on my flea market best as the controls of my Time Machine indicated a ‘pataphysician was here. It seems I was mistaken.’
‘I am that ‘pataphysician,’ declared Barry grandly
‘Ah, you like pâté on your physics?’
‘I prefer the patter of the quantum,’ responded Barry. ‘Now permit me to make a ‘pataphysical introduction…’
The sculptor turned in my direction and a gasp escaped his Fernet-satined lips. The newcomer, however, did not bat either of his scimitar-like eyebrows as he exclaimed:
‘Bosse-de-Nage, companion of the good Doctor Faustroll! I thought you had died in the archipelago.’
‘Ha ha!’ I replied.
I wanted to express myself more eloquently but ‘Ha’ seemed to be the only sound my mouth was capable of uttering. Furthermore, my arms were covered by thick yellowish-brown fur and instead of hands I now had paws.
‘A considerable improvement,’ murmured Barry.
Both he and the newcomer found my repetition of one syllable very succinct and looked at me expectantly as though waiting for more. I was, of course, by far the drunkest of the three, practically obliterated by the pungent and herbaceous spirit. Without further ceremony, the cyclist lowered himself onto a chair and slapped Barry on the knee.
‘I always like to pat a physician,’ he said.
‘I’m not a doctor though some might say my practice is prolific,’ retorted Barry who was drunker than anybody – completely paralytic, in fact.
‘My name is Alfred but you may call me Jarry,’ declared the cyclist.
He was obviously much more pissed than either of us. There seemed to be no rise and fall to his phrases: every syllable carried exactly the same dead weight, even the silent ones. His intonation was like Holland, though he was not speaking Dutch.
‘The man needs a drink!’ cried Barry. ‘What will you be having, Monsieur Jarry?’
‘Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder, especially with an ether chaser.’
‘A prudent choice,’ said Barry.
I went up to the bar and tried to order the former but finding no words forthcoming apart from the obligatory ‘Ha ha!’, I pointed to Mari Mayans absinthe. Fortunately, it was the foremost of a drizzle of bottles that stood beneath a large mirror. The mirror bore the image of a dog-faced baboon. The depiction was incredibly lifelike. Strangest of all, as I lowered my arm so did the baboon. I opened my mouth and the animal did too, revealing a row of yellow fangs. I was pondering what new optical marvel this was when I was struck by a disturbing suspicion. I winked and the saucy creature winked back: the baboon was I! This came as such a shock that I did not trouble the barman about the ether, which I timidly suspected might be against the law and was besides beyond my powers of mime. I returned to the table, bearing the glass and a small plastic bottle of water.
The newcomer peered at the drinks in disgust. ‘Where’s the ether?’ he demanded.
‘A regrettable omission,’ sighed Barry.
‘But I’ve been waiting an ethernity.’
Barry and the cyclist seemed to find this surpassingly droll, but nothing more ventured from my lips despite their patience. The cyclist peered suspiciously at the green liquid.
‘What’s this?’ he demanded.
‘Absinthe,’ said Barry.
‘So where’s the fork balancing on the glass and the sugar cube cradled by it like Lautrec on a floozy’s knee?’
‘A regrettable lapse,’ Barry murmured.
‘This absinthe is pastiche!’
‘More like Pastis,’ said Barry. His tongue forked across his lip like a lizard’s.
‘Ha ha!’ I put in, a comment the other two found surprisingly enlightening. There was a long pause as they waited for me to elaborate but in this they were disappointed.
Jarry sipped some of the liquid, spluttered, and spat what he had drunk onto the table. The barman, who was cleaning glasses, ignored this.
‘Maybe you should add water,’ suggested Barry.
‘Water! That odious poison, swimming with microbes and the oily scales of fornicating fish. Water! A detestable liquid that gives birth to the drowned so they can bore us with their nautical anecdotes. Water would turn this impeccable and translucent liquor into milky sludge. I would sooner tar my face with gold leaf and honey. I tell you, Sir, this is not absinthe!’
If Jarry meant it was not the tipple of choice of Montmartre, he was right. Wormwood, the mind-altering plant that put absinthe on a par with peyote, had been subtracted from the beverage in accordance with a directive from Brussels. I wanted to explain this, but all that came out was a succinct ‘Ha ha!’
‘Trust those Belgians to fuck everything up,’ he said. ‘Get me a real drink, will you! Something to burn the throat and demolish the senses.’
I was by this time almost too drunk to stand, in terms of inebriation way beyond the other two, pie-eyed on the summit of Everest while they swayed among the foothills. I managed, however, to get to my feet and stagger to the bar where the barman supplied me with another bottle of Fernet Branca and a large brandy for Jarry.
‘That’s more like it,’ said the latter after he had drained more than half the contents of the glass in one long swallow. As far as being hammered, he had all the nails in him, being totally and utterly legless, whereas Barry and I had between us still one limb to stand on. The cyclist finished off the brandy and loudly demanded a refill.
‘Fancy a nibble with it?’ suggested Barry, who on a plastered scale of one to ten was definitely a nine, while the cyclist and I were all at sixes and sevens.
‘A nibble!’ Jarry hissed in a flat and deadly tone as though it were the most horrible word that had ever been invented. ‘Do you know what food does? It kills people. They eat all their lives and then they die! Munching, chewing and masticating destroy the teeth, whereas liquor irrigates the incisors. In a truly enlightened society avocados would be axed, beef banned, cheese censored, duck ditched, eggs excised, fudge forbidden, gherkins grounded, ham hexed, ichimi interdit, jam jettisoned, kumquats kiboshed, lamb liquidated, melon massacred, nuts nixed, offal off, peas proscribed, quail quelled, ratatouille rubbished, salami severed, treacle terminated, ugli fruit usurped, veal vetoed, whelks whacked, xacuti x-ecuted, yogurt yucked, zucchini zapped!’
‘I think I get your drift, ‘ said Barry. ‘So alcohol…’
‘Would be absolute! Aquavit advisable, beer binding, cognac compulsory, drambuie de rigeur, eggnog essential, Fino favoured, grappa glorified, hooch hailed, Inishowen imperative, Jägermeister judicious, kahlua king, lager longed for, moonshine mandatory, Napoleon brandy necessary, ouzo obligatory, Pétrus paramount, Queen’s cocktails quenched, rum requisite, sangria stipulated, tequila treasured, Ultimate Margarita unavoidable, vermouth venerated, whisky welcomed, Xanthia x-pected, yashmak yearned for, zinfandel the zippiest! Just think of all the drinking time you lose because of lunch and dinner!’
The barman had stopped cleaning glasses and with a gleam in his eyes clamped a large cigar between his lips. Taking this as his signal, Jarry pulled a pistol out of his back pocket and fired. The shot embedded itself in the mirror behind the bar, which shattered. We hoped the barman’s fury at this might be mitigated by the fact that the bullet had lit his cigar.
‘Voilà!’ cried Jarry.
Far from being delighted however, the barman swore softly to himself, and, lifting the receiver of the telephone next to the cash register, began to rapidly dial.
‘You are completely right,’ agreed Barry. ‘It is time to reassemble elsewhere.’
Outside we found the sea had invaded Paseo de Born.
Ultramarine and turquoise hues danced in the ripples of foam that gently lapped our feet. As far as the eye could see there were islands of all shapes and sizes. Strangest of all, the sea between them seemed to be a different colour whichever way you looked. We soon discovered the reason for this as we waded in. This section of sea was as dark as wine and actually composed of the stuff. Inevitably, we took a few sips as we swam, enough for the cyclist to conclude it was Bordeaux – Pétrus, in fact – though he was not sure if it was the 1865 or 1866. Inspired by such a wine-dark sea, he began reciting the Odyssey in the original Greek.
The first island we came to was entirely made of crystal. It was a bit tricky for my companions to pull themselves onto the jagged shore, but with my long, dexterous arms I found this easy and of course my feet had a grip far superior to theirs. Crossing the surface, which refracted light like a prism so our footfalls seemed to fall on rainbows, we came to a grove of tobacco trees. The ground beneath them was covered with butts but hanging like leaves from the branches of the first were clusters of fresh, cork-tipped Craven A. Jarry broke off a bunch, stuffed the seven cigarettes that composed it into his mouth and lit them by firing his revolver. After passing one to me and one to Barry, he inhaled his quota in greedy puffs and scanned the island in every direction. Apart from the trees, there was only crystal. Whatever he was looking for remained elsewhere. I, however, became increasingly attached to the place, for finding the smoke unpleasant I broke my cigarette in half and began chewing the unlit portion whose pungent taste immediately made me crave more. I went into the glade and randomly plucked Three Castles and Capstan Full Strength, discovering after several hours of pleasant and dedicated chewing that Passing Clouds was infinitely superior.
Returning to the shore, we dived into the sea and made for the next island. This time we found ourselves swimming through warm saké. Barry, particularly, enjoyed this and began reminiscing about Japan. But Jarry complained the rice wine was not strong enough for his liking. On the next island there were mud volcanoes that made gurgling noises as they threw wet soil into the air – Blurp! Blurp! – which spattered our faces. Barry, of course, could not resist gathering up several handfuls, which he kneaded into a ball and then began modelling, giving quick-fire glances in Jarry’s direction as he did so.
‘Why does everyone want to reproduce my mug?’ demanded the latter, reciting a long list of artists he had posed for which included Rousseau, Gauguin and Aubrey Beardsley.
Barry, who had no time for namedropping, ignored this and continued to mould the clay, subjecting his model to frequent scrutiny as we walked. The word in fact does not describe our progress: neither does stroll, stray, saunter, sway or sidle. In fact, they staggered and then slid; I, of course being much more agile loped along on all fours. The passage of time and our exertions had put us on a par in terms of drunkenness: we were communards on the piss, entirely on an equal footing in terms of both tipsiness and the terrible thirst that made us anxiously scour the bizarre landscape for any sign of drink.
Fortunately, the next stretch of sea was to everybody’s taste consisting as it did of various single malts, sectioned by the current into zones. Jarry was at a bit of a loss at this point and let Barry be our guide as we immersed ourselves in Talisker, Bushmills, and then a Lagavulin whose peaty fumes made me almost lose consciousness. When not pondering vintages, Barry crooned pleasing Irish ballads.
We went on like this for many years, crossing oceans of rum, vodka, sloe gin, as well as the Straits of Guinness, seven seas of rye, and Mare Mort Subite, a dark sea abrim with mussels and the drowned, who floated by with happy smiles upon their faces. My favourite, though, was a lake of lager, whose blond surface was whipped into froth by wind. Sweet Afton trees, whose fruit I plucked and chewed, surrounded the lake. My companions found this a little plebeian, however. Barry going off to wallow in a pool of Connemara malt while Jarry stumbled on a cave of ether that was much to his liking. We travelled to hundreds of other islands in what seemed an infinite archipelago, each with unique fantastic features that are recorded elsewhere. Finally, we reached one covered with rusting pyramids of mild steel and this Barry christened Cairo, informing us it had been made by a tribe of girder-welders. In the exact centre of the island we found Jarry’s Time Machine.
The machine consisted of a jointed, ebony structure that resembled a bicycle frame. At rest the machine sat on the circular rings of two gyrostats while the nickel ring of a third arched over the controls. The latter was made up of a lever with an ivory handle, which controlled the motor’s acceleration, and another on an articulated rod, which slowed the machine down. There were four ivory dials, which marked days, thousands of days, millions and hundreds of millions of days. Under the driver’s seat were the storage cells of the electric motor. Alongside these were the pedals that controlled them.
‘I was actually hoping to go back and see Jesus race the thieves,’ said Jarry, ‘but of course from the time machine’s perspective the past comes after the future so you have to do the former first, which explains why I dropped in on you. The machine works on the same principle as Breughel’s painting, The Massacre of the Innocents. You will have observed how the soldiers on the canvas batter down doors with the butts of their muskets in the streets of a Flemish town. This beneath a misty northern sky, as little like Herod’s Palestine as can be imagined. Yet make no bones about it: what you see is the massacre. Time not being matter, does not matter. Once you realize that you can set the controls for anywhen.’
‘John Latham, who reduced everything to a dot, proposed time not place to be the quarry. Speaking of which, I wonder how the shark’s decaying,’ ventured Barry, putting the finishing touches to the clay head, which by now was the spitting image of the chrononaut. He turned and looked at me. ‘You should say thank you.’
I tried but all that came out was the inevitable ‘Ha ha!’ This time Barry and the cyclist did not wait for more. They had by now concluded that the frequency of my utterances was the key and shared an elaborate system of allotting book-length meaning to the two syllables, depending when and how I said them. They nodded sagely to each other. The timing of my statement opened itself to no other interpretation other than that of gratitude and farewell.
Jarry pulled down a side panel and hoisted himself onto the saddle. He began to pedal furiously, sliding the lever forward as he did so. The Time Machine started to vibrate and then lifted off the ground till it was hovering just above our heads. Its pilot favoured us with a brusque nod and called out, ‘’Pataphysics is the science…’ as he and the Time Machine vanished.
‘Why do they always give you what you want and then take it away from you?’ demanded Barry.
‘Ha ha!’ I agreed.