‘A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them. They then dwell in the house next door, and at any moment a flame may dart out and set fire to his own house. Whenever we give up, leave behind, and forget too much, there is always the danger that the things we have neglected will return with added force.’ -from CG Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

This blog records significant things I have learned (distilled in green) and concentrates on my creative process. It is inspired by Jung’s Red Book and shows the occasional excerpt from my sketchbooks…

Justin Coombes: spread from S#3 sketchbook 2020-21

Tue 7th June ’22  A Moment’s Thought

For the last three weeks, Ritu, Siddharth and I have been staying at Ritu’s parents’ house here in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. It’s been great for Sid to meet his Indian grandparents, uncle, auntie and cousin, and it’s the first time R and I have been able to see them all them since the pandemic. It’s my first time outside the UK for nearly three years, and the very refreshing change of scene has also helped my work.

As well as casting the role of Anna Akhmatova’s spirit for my film ‘Three Concepts of Liberty’, I have been fine-tuning the film’s script (a 350 line poem), ready to record the voiceover component back in London with my two actors within the next six weeks. And as a parallel research activity, which has helped with sharpening the script, I have been reading Frances Stillman’s The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary. It has some rather exhaustive accounts of different metrical forms, rhyme schemes, and so on. I’ve been leavening this quite heavy reading with returning to works of favourite poets that contain the quintessence of what Stillman theorises about. I live in hope, of course, that whatever magic these poems contains leeks into my work in some way.

Gustave Doré .’Expulsion from Paradise (Genesis 3,24)’, 1865, woodcut after a drawing by Gustave Doré. From his series of 230 Pictures of the Bible. This woodcut was made in the year of Yeats’ birth.

WB Yeats’ poem, Adam’s Curse has been a touchstone again. I memorised this poem a couple of years ago, and am very glad I did: I seem to have internalised certain things about it. It both demonstrates and spells out particular poetic qualities that I am trying to achieve. Here are the opening lines:

             We sat together at one summer’s end,

            That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,   

            And you and I, and talked of poetry.

            I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;

            Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,   

            Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

I’ve known for some time that lines (especially in a play or film script) work best when they seem in some way spontaneous, and that that quality often only comes after ‘much hard labouring’, in Yeats’ phrase. But I have just realised here in India that I can apply the principle of ‘a moment’s thought’ as much to creation of lines as to their reception by an audience. I have hit a fine groove of researching, writing and editing daily (morning and evening), and I have noticed that my lines seem to be better if I give them only a moment’s thought. I mean that repeatedly returning to unresolved lines (I’m regularly reworking about 20 lines a day), speaking them aloud, and allowing my instinct and ear to accept immediately what works (and reject what doesn’t) seems to produce better results for me than an earlier mode. I exaggerate to make my point, but that earlier mode was something like, ‘don’t leave your desk until these 8 lines feel right’. I’ve long known (and this seems to be backed up by recent studies) with my drawings that thirty minutes of high intensity daily for four days can be much more effective than two hours continuously, even if I’m able to keep total flow and concentration for those two hours. Now I realise the same principle can apply to my poetry composition, and its editing. 

The ‘flash of inspiration’ is a powerful cliché for a good reason: instinct is a mighty tool, and I am slowly learning that it doesn’t have to be at odds with being very methodical and thorough, an idea explored in great depth by the research of Daniel Kahneman. Instinct can, and should, be trained.  It took me many years to arrive at this moment’s thought!

Mon 21st Feb ’22 What is Dependent Origination? Part One (Links 1 to 3) 

This is the first in a series of four posts in which I will explore the core Buddhist concept of Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppada in unaccented Pali). Out of necessity, these posts will be a little more academic and complex than most of my Green Book entries. 

Dependent Origination (also known as Dependent Arising and Co-dependent Arising),  teaches that all phenomena are dependent on other phenomena. It is most commonly depicted as a circle with twelve interconnecting links. 

Anonymous, ‘Bhavachakra’, 2021, 17.3” X 25.1” Silk Print Thangka Scroll: it shows, in the outer circle, the twelve links of Dependent Origination. Picture courtesy of REAPP publishing.

Linda S Blanchard, in her book Dependent Arising in Context, offers the following definition: ‘it describes the arising of the parts of our sense of self that cause problems’. Based on my partial understanding of what it is, I like to think of it for now as a doctrine of unintended consequences. 

Blanchard’s book was recommended to me by one of my Dharma teachers, London Insight’s James Blake. I’ve subsequently set myself the task of provisionally answering what DA is as part of the research for my short film, ‘The Right Speech’ (working title), which will form the first part of my series of works, Triple Enlightenment. Parts two and three are, respectively, in progress and complete. 

The basic concept for my film is that Queen Maya of Sakya, the Buddha’s mother, speaks to her unborn child. The title comes from one of the Noble Eightfold Paths of Buddhism. As I currently conceive of it, it will be constructed from a mixture of found moving-image footage and 4D scans of my own son Siddharth (‘Sid’), in his mother Ritwiza (Ritu)’s womb seven months into his gestation. I have been inspired by contemporary perinatology and my own historical speculation about the two months before the birth of the Buddha.

Maya will speak in rhyme to her unborn child, reciting, parts of the Creation Hymn of the Rigveda and anticipating how the Buddha himself will be named once he is born. 

Recent research in brain wave patterns has shown that unborn children recognize words in the womb from ten weeks before birth. It is therefore perfectly possible that this event took place historically and did affect the young Siddharth as he grew up in his home, later both distilling and breaking from doctrines he grew up with in order to create Buddhism. As with my other recent projects, I want to create a playful but serious and lyrical exploration, using arresting, haunting imagery, of an important spiritual and philosophical issue. The project is both a part of my own spiritual development as a secular Buddhist and my professional development as a writer and artist. 

I will use some of the examples and imagery given by Blanchard, especially those in the second chapter, ’A Secular Understanding of Dependent Arising’, in order to illustrate my provisional understanding of the twelve links that make up the chain. I will also make reference to the Tibetan bhavachakra: the ‘wheel of life’. This a mandala (shown above) which features the twelve stages of dependent origination in its outer circle. And I will also draw on other examples and my own figures. Whilst I find the individual links and their visual metaphors or similes relatively easy to understand, I find the way in which these images work a sequence in the bhavachakra very confusing: it is a little like a comic strip showing flashbacks of a drunken night out. So one aim in writing this series of posts is to establish a clearer, sober-minded recollection of that night out! 

Once I have completed my summaries of all twelve links of the chain, I will have at least two more aims: to come up with a single story or narrative which does make sense to my audience and me, so that mnemonics for the process would be unnecessary; and then to work out a way in which this story or imagery might align in a coherent way with my core idea of Maya speaking to Siddharth and in some way subconsciously (?) inspiring him to make his critique of a Hindu creation myth. A qualification to the first of these two aims: I have a very strong suspicion that one reason Dependent Origination can feel so opaque is that it cannot lend itself to any straightforward kind of narrative explanation. Narrative is often a convenient and even consoling method for us to reform our past experiences into a shape that makes sense to us. But the daily flux of everyday life and existence is not essentially like that. Is there something fundamentally childlike and consoling about stories? And will I have to accept that Dependent Origination cannot be turned into a digestible story? 

I am also ‘scratching an itch’ with this project. I have been studying Buddhism, as well as trying to practice it (the two seem inseparable) in an informal way for nearly four years now. Of all of its concepts I have so far explored, Dependent Origination is by far the most difficult. Others (the Triple Jewel, the Four Noble Truths, the Three Marks of Existence and the Noble Eightfold Path), whilst each having great depth, have also felt fundamentally ‘graspable’. You tend to have an ‘a-ha’ moment, where the concept suddenly makes sense. Different accounts of the same concept tend to illuminate each other: they are mutually complementary. By contrast, those definitions I have encountered so far regarding Dependent Origination have tended to deepen my confusion. Perhaps I have been reading too widely around the subject, so with this in mind, for the purposes of these posts, I will centre on Blanchard’s book, which itself draws heavily on a number of original Pali texts, as well as Richard Gombrich’s 2009 book What the Buddha Thought and Joanna Jurewicz’s 2000 paper Playing with Fire. Blanchard is scrupulous with her sources, making frequent reference to the original suttas and their exegesis. I will try not to get too bogged down in that, and am trusting Blanchard (especially with Jurewicz and Gombrich, who edited the book, behind her!)…  

The first link in the chain, a position we all start from, can be roughly translated from the Pali (‘avijja’: I will use unaccented transliterations of the words) as ignorance. I am ignorant of Pali but do know that the twelve links do not have direct English equivalents, each being multi-layered. Blanchard unpacks Sariputta’s definition in the Majjhima Nikaya of suffering by emphasising that ignorance is suffering. It is a false sense of self (anatta) that causes the problem of dukkha and that therefore only problems generated by that sense of self are the definition of dukkhas. So dukkha is not, for instance, knowledge of our own death per se, but those unwholesome, anxious, excessive layers of thinking we add to that knowledge: questions such as ‘will I achieve all the things I feel I must do in this lifetime?’, ’will I die painfully?’, ‘how much will those close to me suffer?’, etc. The bhavackra image here is that of a blind man, but it might be better to think of this first link as having no image at all. 

The second link in the chain is sankhara, which is perhaps the ‘knottiest’ of all the twelve terms. It can be translated as ‘formations‘, ‘volitional constructs’, ‘that which has been put together’ or ‘that which puts together’. For Blanchard, in its dual sense of representing both drive and actions (including our thoughts), this link represents the whole chain of dependent origination: ‘everything else is just details’. Again, Blanchard cites Sariputta’s definition in the Majjhima Nikaya of this term, in which he emphasises three kinds of formations: the bodily, the verbal and the mental. We should look to a ‘field’ of what is happening. Blanchard works with this metaphor: a field which we tend will still grow weeds.

As we learn to become skilful custodians of the field, we learn what needs to be pulled out (the weeds) and which useful seeds we can plant in their place. Not everything grown in the field is a weed. In Blanchard’s’ formulation (this is not explored by Sariputta), we need to look out for all ‘all the unnecessary things we do to shore up our sense of self’: sankhara describes both the things we do to preserve our sense of self (the activities) and the drive to keep doing that. This leads me to think of Jung’s formulation of the persona: those ‘social faces’ we all develop, both consciously and unconsciously, to advance and protect ourselves in the wider world. I will write a separate post at some point about some of my artist-heroes’ skilful use of their public personae, especially Leonard CohenBob Dylan and David Bowie.  But staying with Blanchard’s field metaphor, I would add the idea of how a single bulb might produce both red and white flowers, but we only want to preserve the latter: the red flowers therefore are sankhara even though they must be grown in order to have the wholesome white flowers. There is a direct link to my creative process here: in the very early stages of a project, it is impossible to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ideas: one just needs to be receptive to them and put them in a holding place until one knows which to take forward.  

Blanchard also emphasises that the term sankhara derives from a word for rituals, especially those rituals used in community with others (again, a link here to the Jungian social persona). In the bhavachakra, the most common image here is of the potter’s wheel. What I especially like about this is how the pot only takes shape through the repeated movements of the potter’s hands, or their being fixed still. The repetitive action, or fixity, of the hands on the clay makes the formations. 

The third link, vinnana, is commonly translated as ‘life force’, ‘discernment’ or ‘mind’. Blanchard uses the term’ consciousness’, but prefers the term, ‘awareness’. Again, drawing on Sariputta’s definition, she lists the six ‘sense bases’ of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and ‘mind consciousness’ coming together to form consciousness/awareness. She emphasises again the metaphor of the field, stressing that ‘the potential for awareness is always there, but it isn’t active (it isn’t ‘real’) until it is being tended. Again, whilst this consciousness would include all of the positive attributes of being alive and keeping ourselves alive (knowledge of what types of food we need, how much we should drink, etc.) Blanchard claims that the Buddha’s focus was on those types of consciousness that perpetuate dukkha. So the emphasis is on excess: grasping for more than we need. The bhavachakra image, again very appositely, is a monkey (sometimes a man) grasping for fruit. And this also fits nicely back in to the field metaphor used by Sariputta. This link, along with the fourth link (‘name and form’, which I will describe in the next of this series of posts) are the only two which the Buddha described as being interdependent.

I’ll finish this post by adding three more images that feel important for me at this stage of research for ‘The Right Speech’. The first is from the ancient Hindu Agnicayana ceremony. This complex, time-consuming, expensive rite, still practiced in many parts of India, is a symbolic recreation of the sacrifice of the cosmic man Prajapati (the first man/God (Brahma in a later incarnation)) who was shattered into countless pieces in the birth of the universe. It involves complex algorithms in the construction of a fire altar in the shape of a huge falcon from bricks (explored further in this article).  

Building the falcon-shaped fire altar ‘syena chithi’ during ‘panjal athirathram’. Picture courtesy of Arayilpdas at Malayalam Wikipedia

The myth, and this rite, is examined in Blanchard’s first chapter, ‘Burning Yourself’. As far as I currently understand, Blanchard and Jurewicz’s claim is that the Buddha’s formulation of Dependent Origination was in part modelled on a refutation of the Prajapati myth. There is a satirical dimension to the Buddha’s teaching here: Prajapati’s story was as familiar as the days of the week to Hindus of the time, to the extent that the Buddha would not have even needed to spell out some of the allusions he was making. And these omissions (the Buddha wrote nothing down: all his teachings were preserved by scribes) are one reason for some of the subsequent confusion around the meanings of Dependent Origination. 

The image of Prajapati making his son Agni, the god of fire, connects for me with the photograph below from Ritu and my Hindu marriage ceremony in 2015. According to custom, Agni himself witnessed our sacrament.  

Ritu and I during our marriage ceremony, Lucknow, 2015

Now, six years after our wedding, following the origin, in November last year of my first legal dependent, our son Siddharth, I think of how I would like him to grow, I think of Dependent Origination’s injunction to not over-identify with any image of oneself (especially unhelpful images); I think of letting little Sid flicker like fire! He has some stomach trouble which we are trying to resolve: in some contexts, Agni can refer to fire in the stomach. The associations mount up.

The third image is this book cover from our home library, featuring an elderly Henry Moore in Gemma Levine’s photograph of him. In this picture especially, I see uncanny similarities between the sculptor and my father, who is the age now that Moore was when the picture was taken. It feels especially significant to me that the photograph was probably shot in 1977, the year I was born. And for reasons that I do not want to go in to here, I believe my father did not touch me a great deal when I was a very young child. 

Courtesy of Gemma Levine and Book Club Associates

It is a pivot image: I see myself (as the clay maquette) and my father (as Moore) but it also telescopes me forward to 2022 and my role as a father to baby Sid, and the sense of connection I feel when touching him, changing his nappies, changing his clothes, bathing him and taking him to his first swimming lessons: the magical erasure of those non-touches of my father’s. And the necessity of keeping our child, in some senses, in unfired form. Am I overthinking? Am I over-writing? How much of all of this is too much? Are these unwelcome sankharas? Am I over-burdening my project with so many references and associations that it might break? I think my answer at the moment is, ‘no I’m not’, because I am still at that stage of research where I am working divergently. I just found this gem, where Rob Burbea in his Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Dependent Arising cites Shavaripa

             ‘Do not see fault anywhere.’

And also this, from Yuval Noah Harari (probably from his book Sapiens?): ‘Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln – any attempt at remoulding will only scratch or break them. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom.’

A central role I see for Ritu and I as parents is to mould Sid, so that he will be a free thinker (and do-er) for the rest of his life in ways that are productive for him and others. We are dancing between this careful moulding and something more spontaneous, more fire-like. But we will do our best not to bake him! And what of the quasi-fictional Siddharth whom I am creating for The Right Speech? More on him soon… 

Fri 4th February 2022: TO A GREAT TEACHER.  I was saddened and inspired to finish a new sonnet when I read about the death, at the stroke of midnight, of Thầy a few days ago:…/thich-nhat-hanh-dead…   

I have read many books on Buddhism in the last four years, but his Being Peace and The Miracle of Mindfulness stand out as the best examples I’ve found of how to apply the philosophy effectively, without becoming bogged down in the vast literature and culture that surrounds it. This has been especially useful for me, prone as I am to over-thinking, over-analysing and often approaching things in an overly academic way. 

Men who lived to ninety-five (for Thích Nhất Hạnh)

Did these great men, who lived to ninety-five,

teach dirty truths about being alive?

W.E.B. Dubois, for all his fame,

wouldn’t let his friends his use first name!

Did president-poet Léopold Senghor

kick and punch his first wife to the floor?

Mandela torched offices with his friends

in their long march to make apartheid end…

Each ate their shadow many, many times!

But you, Great Teacher, committed no crimes,

and submitted yourself to the violence

of virginity, and in silence,

half-smiling, faced down death’s dumb release

with your greatest message: ‘we must be peace’.

Looking at the Word file in which I wrote the poem, I see that I started making notes for it in November 2020, musing on the fact that I knew Thầy was severely ill and calculating that he was quite likely to die at the age of ninety-five. I became curious about other men who had died at that age and drew up a shortlist: I then wrote several of the lines over Christmas 2020 and knew that I wanted to use the ‘twisting’ form of the sonnet, with its set-up in the first eight lines followed by a refutation/retraction in the last six lines. 

Thầy (Thích Nhất Hạnh) photography courtesy of

I wrote most of the actual poem in about an hour whilst sitting in our car at Whipps Cross hospital as Ritu took little Sid in to A & E (not a real emergency: we just couldn’t see a GP on a Saturday). It was quite impulsive: I read about Thầy’s death in the news online on my laptop and had a slight sense of anxiety hanging over me regarding Sid’s health as I wrote it. That manageable anxiety probably rushed me along to finish it and also meant that the focus of writing was a welcome distraction. 

I’m struck by my (rather male?) geekiness  in finding this particular significance in a number, and how I have a slight sense of shame around writing the poem, thinking about what Thầy himself would have made of my focussing on the darkness in the behaviour of the other famous men I list, and the coincidence (?) that all three of them are black, whereas Thầy was a light-skinned East Asian. I’m planning to submit a number of my poems for publication in the next few years, and if I include this poem, I want to clear something else up before I put it into wider circulation: Did Senghor abuse his first wife? They divorced, but I can no longer find any reference to abuse online, and the notes from over a year ago are unclear as to whether it was Mandela or Senghor who hit his wife.

Shading in to this question of my own unconscious bias (are black men more violent? – did I mix up these two men’s behaviour because they are black?) is a theme that is particularly important to me as a first time father to a baby boy: how do I model the ‘right’ masculinity to Sid?  I have my own ideas I would like to pass on to him about controlling and mastering one’s aggression and physical power: I am recommencing martial arts this month, trying Judo for the first time, after spells with MMA and Kung Fu, and will come back to this theme. 

Fri 11th Nov ’21 AND BREATHE…  With a tiny bit of breathing space between the end of my solo exhibition and the arrival of my baby boy Siddharth, I am enjoying this thoughtful, dense reflection on the exhibition by fellow artist, writer and lecturer Julian Lass:

I met Julian when he was also studying at the Royal College, and always enjoy our conversations, so it seemed a natural fit for him to write a review. We exchanged some emails and phone calls in the months leading up to the show. Here’s part of an email I wrote to him earlier this year: 

… (about) making a distinction between ‘contemporary’ and ‘classic’ art. I can’t put it into a single sentence, and it’s a little woolly I’m afraid but here it is:

The art that really means something to me, and that I aspire myself to produce, has a complex, layered and respectful relationship to its own earlier forms. A lot of modernist painting, especially its ‘purer’ forms (say the late works of Malevich, Pollock, Mondrian etc.) leaves me (and a lot of people) utterly cold. I think for me, the reason for that is that those artists were working, by that point in their careers, under the misapprehension that art can be produced in the same way that science can: that somehow all previous theories can be disregarded once the latest ‘correct’ theory is found and becomes axiomatic. For me, great art remains in a productive relationship with the past, and that also keeps it in some way ‘fresh’. Rubens’s paintings, for instance, feel contemporary in some way and will always be ‘classics’. Poetry is also really interesting in this sense because, often more obviously than in images, poems contain their own history, i.e. the previous incarnations of whatever metre, rhythm, rhyme scheme, etc. are being used. Of course, words themselves also contain their own histories: you just have to look at their etymology. 

There is another author (some living art theorist think) who makes the same kind of points I’m making above, and I’ve being trying to find the passages, but I’ve drawn a blank. I’m really glad you mentioned Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History’. That passage of his, and the Klee monoprint, is really important to me. I actually staged some photographs with Ritu based on it which I plan to work up into collages/drawings/prints at some point in the future.

Sister Corita Kent, ‘i thirst’, 1964, serigraph, 24 x 36″ image courtesy Artforum International

Our conversations also covered the relationship between critical thinking and art ‘making’, and I mentioned number 8 of Sister Corita Kent’s 10 Rules. I partially agree with her and will unpack this in a later post… 

Tue 11th May 2021: HOW I KNOW IT’S FINISHED With the prospect of my first solo show in three years coming up this October, I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently. The exhibition will picture India’s Falgu river 1,000 years from now, changed by biological adaptation and global heating. My film, drawings and lightboxes show two fictional female bota­nists, discussing (in rhyming verse) science, morality and the soul. 

The question of a whether or not a work is finished is especially important to me this time around, because this show will contain ‘works within a work’: the short film (an animation/slide-show) at the centre of the show will be constructed in part from a series of my own drawings. A selection of these drawings will also be displayed in the gallery, and lightboxes will display prints made from scans of some of the drawings. So whilst drawing these pictures, a joint dead­line hangs over me. On the one hand, I obviously want to be happy with them; on the other, I need as much time as possible to make multiple edits of the film. So it is important for me to ‘lock’ the drawings (i.e. declare to myself that they are finished) early enough that I can have clear head space for working on the film, which is the most complex part of the whole enterprise. I don’t want unfinished or insufficiently developed draw­ings nagging me whilst I work on the animation. 

‘Durga Dragon’, graphite on cartridge paper, 22nd April

I have recently completed this small drawing of a lizard-like embryo in an egg, which I’ve given the working title, ‘Durga Dragon’, after the Hindu goddess of power, strength and protection, since she also has several sets of arms . We are viewing her through the ‘soul scanner’ that my fictional botanists operate, hence the blue cast to the drawing and its X-ray like feeling (in the 3rd stage). It was to have eventually been displayed on a lightbox. As has been my habit whilst making these drawings, I kept a written checklist for reference, along with doodles, just out­side the frame, i.e. only the central A4 area of the A3 piece of paper will finally be displayed. This has helped me to trace the most significant changes in the drawing easily. A perennial problem for me as an artist is overthinking and over-associating: lots of new ideas come to me while I am working on a piece.

When things are going well and I get carried away, I sometimes try to incorporate all of these ideas into a single artwork: I try to cram the whole world into a single piece. This never works. The checklist acts as a kind of ‘holding area’: perhaps the idea won’t make it into the final drawing, but I’ve got it off my chest and can review it when I resume work on the piece. I rarely know for sure when a work is finished, but I know when it’s not finished: the piece has certain quali­ties I like, but others that I don’t, and I know I’d feel uncomfortable showing it to others. The desire to want to keep looking at something I’m working on, even after I’ve put it aside for the day, is usually a really good sign. It means I’m onto something, that I like it, I’m passionate about it, and that there is still more to do. 

Durga Dragon’, graphite on cartridge paper, 30 April

A sign that I am probably on the ‘home run’ is when the artwork, like a wise child correcting her parents, starts to know better than I do what I should do next. For example, I remember (and can see from the notes) that I initially wanted this drawing to have a marked vignette to it, with Durga Dragon’s soul glowing. Her soul would have been just a single, small white orb: in the end, I decided not to draw it, feeling there was already enough going on inside the egg, with her skeleton, flesh, yolk sac and allantois. More to the point, I realised drawing the soul was a doomed task, and one is much better off keeping such an ineffable subject invisible: there is another blog post I will make on this subject, exploring Paul Schrader’s definition of transcendental style in film. 

‘Durga Dragon’, digital file, 1st May

In the proposed version of the drawing I described above, which did not finally materialise, the area outside of the shell, i.e. the hands of the scientists and the foliage, would have been much darker, accentuating the form of the egg. The overall form would have been graphically simple, with high contrast between the glowing, bright oval in the centre of the picture, and the large, dark, frame-like expanse around the edges. But once I had drawn Durga Dragon’s skeleton, I decided this was the true focal point of the work, and that the drawing, which relies on precisely defined forms, needed to have a relatively even contrast overall. The rest of the drawing then started to leave me alone. I’m far from entirely happy with it, but at the same time, I know that it will work in my animation, and that it’s at least as effective as the majority of the pictures in the series. I feel quite fond of it and am not embarrassed by it. And even if I started it again from scratch, I’m not sure it would be any better. Most excitingly for me, I have also realised through making this drawing and reflecting upon it, that the initial X-ray, ‘negative’ effect that I wanted to use does not really work: the process of inverting the image in Photoshop makes my drawings look scratchier (like chalk drawings) and less elegant than the pencil originals, and they just don’t feel right, so I have reverted to the ‘positive’ original drawings for now, albeit keeping the indigo cast that shows the soul-scanner is operating. Furthermore, I’ve realised that the ‘soul scans’ in my exhibition probably need to be made separately from the ‘stills’ or ‘cells’ that make up the animation. I want to use layering within the soul scans on lightboxes. This will invite close scrutiny from the viewer, like an Idris Khan or Michael Wesely photograph. This kind of subtlety and need for long-looking would be lost within a moving image context, even when using a slower, ‘transcendental’ style. The collage I want to make for the still exhibition lightboxes ‘happen’ spatially; the collage (or montage) of the film happens temporally. 

Durga Dragon’, ready to be used in ‘In Indra’s Net’?, 3rd May

A work can be abandoned, or one can, to some degree, out of necessity, settle for its imperfections (as I’ve done with Durga Dragon), but often such works can generate new ideas and insights. That seems to be the case here. I can’t offer a formula for knowing that one of my artworks is finished, but I do know my critical senses sharpen when I slow down and reflect. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of trusting your instincts?

Sat 27th March ’21: ANNA THE IMAGINARY MENTOR For my closing group tutorial with my students at the Ruskin School of Art this week, I led a discussion on the theme of ‘studio visits’ and chose as my ideal visitor the poet Anna Akhmatova. Her relationship with the philosopher Isaiah Berlin is the main subject of a short film I will direct, for which I am currently writing a script. Akhmatova’s long ‘Poem without a Hero’ features Berlin, albeit in a veiled manner typical of her work, as ‘the Guest from the Future’. She drew great inspiration from their celebrated 14-hour conversation when Berlin secretly visited her in St Petersburg in 1945. I have been thinking about Anna as an imaginary mentor: my own guest from the future: that person whom I would like, and be afraid to, welcome to my studio/study in one years’ time.

Here is her short poem, The Muse, from 1911:

And here is a list of reasons why she is a hero, and a muse, of mine, whose best characteristics I am trying to adopt:

  1. She wrote from her soul: hers was a fundamentally romantic spirit, but she managed to balance it with practical bloody-mindedness. For instance, whilst she was offered many opportunities to escape Stalinist Russia, she stood her ground.
  2. Her poetry makes tiny details tell a much wider story: the rustle of her lover’s spurs as they walk together through an otherwise silent, snow-covered wood of pines; the sound of rickety floorboards; smoke lifting from the earth after a battle; the trembling of dragonflies.
  3. The formal range and development of the poetry. It never stops growing across her life, and varies from the shortest lyric fragments to long song-cycles. 
  4. She was a popular poet: her art might have grown from a very rarefied sensibility, but it struck a national chord and is for the most part very accessible. Communist dissidents memorised her poetry in numbers that would make the best known Instagram poets of today envious. Stalin spared her life strategically.  
  5. As with her contemporary ‘Acme-ist’ poets and the Imagists in Western Europe, there is a compactness of form and clarity and lightness of expression. But with Akhmatova, the emotional restraint soften seems to betray the violence of her passions bubbling underneath it all. 
  6. She liked to write in the lyric mode, because it was like a ‘suit of armour’, i.e. it allows you to express your most private feelings publicly without exposing yourself. 
  7. Although, based on her photographs, I don’t feel I would have been physically attracted to her, she still serves as a romantic muse: she had a cluster of ‘feminine’ physical qualities which I do find attractive (the aquiline nose, the reediness) and is easy to imagine how she captivated the painter Modigliani and the poet Alexander Blok.  
  8. I am a Jungian: I am a heterosexual man, and my soul, my anima, is female. This male armour of mine helps me protect my female soul, who is a poet. My mother is also called Anne.
  9. As with many other historical figures that interest me, she is a kind of ‘entry point’ to enchantingly vanished worlds: late Imperial and early Communist Russia. Reading her poetry and learning about her life make this period of time come vividly alive for me. 
  10. I will never meet her: as she wrote in a late poem fragment: ‘waiting for him gives me more pleasure/ than feasting with another’. She can never disappoint me, but my introjection of her can help me. When my own work disappoints me, I have this imagined mentor to impress again when I rework my work. 

All of the above are straightforward, positive attributes but I should also mention her weaknesses, because there is also a lot for me to learn from these qualities too. There was a certain ruthlessness: the flip side of bloody-mindedness is of course that it can hurt others. This is evident in her relationship with her only child, Lev, one of the subjects I explore in my film. Lev’s parents, Akhmatova and Nikolay Gumilyov, divorced when he was 7, and his father, also a poet, was executed by Cheka, the Bolshevik secret-police, when he was just 9. He spent most of his time between the ages of 26 and 44 in Soviet labour camps. Attempting to secure his release, Akhmatova published a dithyramb (an ode), to Joseph Stalin. It did not work, but perhaps prevented her own imprisonment: the Soviet secret police had prepared an order for her arrest, but Stalin decided not to sign it. Lev’s relationship with his mother became strained, as he blamed her for not helping him enough and loving poetry more than him. She explored her feelings about Lev’s arrest and the period of political repressions in Requiem (published in 1963). There is a test of loyalty and priority in this situation that most artists who become parents must face. We are haunted by the remark, made by the English literary critic Cyril Connolly, that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway’. I am trying to arrange my life in such a way that I might become a parent without compromising the quality of the art I make. The trade-off to which I would be resigned is in the quantity: I would almost inevitably make less art as a parent, but I like to believe I can settle for that. And of course, only Akhmatova and Lev could have known (and would have inevitably had differing accounts) of how good a parent she was. As a woman of Russian nobility, she might well have claimed that he needed a certain steeliness from her which could no longer have been provided by his executed father.

As well as this hard-heartedness as a mother, what I have read about her so far suggests she was an inveterate snob. Again though, I feel an ambivalence towards this quality. I don’t approve of snobbery in everyday dealings with others, but feel a kind of critical snobbery is essential to making good art. And you can be the best kind of snob towards yourself: that is, accept yourself as a person with your failings and mistakes, but never settle for producing something mediocre in your art, just because you are tired of a project, or you think it might sell, or you feel you are working on small details that others wouldn’t notice or care about. The only real standard you can set is one that you have made yourself. For the last five years or so, I have been making art that explores interior conversations: the contradictions of being alive, the fact that I (and everyone else) must sail a clear course through crosswinds that want to send us in any number of different directions. Akhmatova, my guest from the future, would be welcome to my studio in a years’ time, perhaps in ten years’ time. But I hope, ultimately not to even need to invoke such figures as her, because I will have become my own mentor. This, incidentally was the final teaching of the Buddha: that we must each realise our Buddha nature and become our own mentors.

Anna Akhmatova with her then husband Nikolay Gumilyovand their son Lev , 1914 or 1915

I am fundamentally an artist, not a scholar, and it is important for me not to get too wrapped up in obsessive, ‘academic’ approaches to research. Only knowing Akhmatova’s work in translation gives it a certain fuzziness and stops me from becoming too obsessive over it: I will only ever know its  approximation. Judith Hemschemeyer, one of her English translators, learned Russian specifically because she wanted to know Akhmatova’s poetry in its original voice. I will never learn Russian. Much as Akhmatova’s translated work impresses me, I’ve never felt envy of it in the way that I quite often do when I read English language poets. So again, as with her being dead, there is a certain distance and safety in making her a hero. Was Akhmatova tormented by her meeting with Berlin? Did she describe him as being a ‘guest from the future’ because she saw the 1940s Britain that he inhabited as something like the stable democracy that Russia might eventually become? Perhaps I will find out in the book I have just bought to aid with research: The Guest from the Future by György Dalos. For now, I’ll close with the thought that the word ‘tormentor’ contains the word ‘mentor’…

Sun 7th Feb ’21 This week I (re)learnt that the best way for me to create is to stick my neck out in some way. By making gallery proposals (ie making something concrete, with consequences) with my friend Jinjoon, I discovered/created/confirmed what the first part of the ‘Triple Enlightenment’ project should be: a short animation (working title, ‘The Right Speech’) speculating on the Buddha’s last two months in his mother’s womb before birth and inspired by this lovely nugget of research (more on this soon). I am very excited about it… Did I just learn this or re-learn it? Interesting that I confused these two words: and

Sun 31 Jan ’21: A PHILOSOPHER OF TOLERANCE Like many others, I find Isaiah Berlin, an assimilated-British Latvian Jew, to be a mesmerising speaker, and I am grateful there are so many high-quality recordings available of his lectures and interviews. His work brilliantly condenses complex ideas. He had the public intellectual’s gift for making you feel cleverer than you are. But it’s his appearance and manner that have preoccupied me recently, as I am researching a very short film, that I hope to shoot next year, inspired by his relationship with the poet Anna Akhmatova, and by some passing similarities between him and my grandfather. More on this soon. I especially love the rat-a-tat-a-tat of his delivery and the very brief pauses he makes before firing off another sentence. Like many immigrants, he also somehow became more quintessentially ‘of’ his adopted country than someone born there. This makes sense when you consider the pressure to fit in when a person first arrives: doubly so when you consider how stand-offish and cold we Brits can be. I wish I’d had the chance to meet this extraordinary man in the year or so in which I was living in the same city as him. This interview was recorded in Oxford in 1997, shortly before his death, when I was in my 1st year as an undergraduate there:

Perhaps in a C-19 world, post-Trump, post-Brexit, with environmental collapse a real possibility, we need to understand value-pluralism more urgently than ever.

Sat 21st Jan ’21 I’ve completed editing and mixing the soundtrack for the film component of In Indra’s Net, my forthcoming show at HOXTON 253. It’s been a fascinating, though often frustrating, journey learning the basics of the sound-engineering software Adobe Audition. Much easier to get your original takes right in the ‘live’ recording studio than to spend hours patching multiple versions together in postproduction. But a delightful side-effect of concentrating so intently on sound is becoming more aware of the sonic intricacies around you in daily life. As Eden Phillpotts put it (though the quote is often misattributed to WB Yeats or Bertrand Russell): ‘The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.’

Actors Susie Emmett and Sakuntala Ramanee recording the voice parts for the In Indra’s Net film component in my home studio last year.

Sat 16th Jan ’21: HESSE’S GIFTS I’ve been thinking about Hermann Hesse this week. His short story collection Strange News from Another Star is one of his lesser known books, and one of my favourites of his, because he does in these miniature pieces, especially in the numinous ‘Flute Dream’, what he takes several hundred pages to do in Narcissus and Goldmund, Demian and Steppenwolf.

His greatest gifts: (1) his eye for detail (2) his ability to make those details ‘sing’ as part of the larger world he creates (3) his ability to express a person’s darkness and the fact that that darkness should be confronted and mastered, and then skilfully sublimated, never denied (4) his capacity to make his characters convincingly experience the world afresh many times over the course of their individual journeys. That is how you must live to avoid becoming stultified by compromise, laziness, habit or the three poisons. In art, an entire world, as ‘real’ as this one, can be conjured by the mingling of the writer’s and reader’s imaginations, or of the artist’s and viewer’s. Hesse stands out in his talent for achieving this with the tiniest of details.

Fri 1st Jan ’21: INNOCENCE & EXPERIENCE  It’s a new year: time to look both back and forward at the same time, with a consideration of this piece: ‘Eden’, from my 2007 series Urban Pastoral. I can see now that I was coming to the end of wanting to use my ‘photosynthesis’ projection technique. Photography is for me a way of perceiving and recording the world, and of determining how I relate to it. It is a means to imagine myself as other people and beings: a way to see through others’ eyes, enlarging my capacities as an artist and as an empathetic human being. With ‘Eden’, I photographed a sycamore tree that I had seen thousands of times in my parents’ garden as a child. I then projected the original daylight photograph back onto the same tree at night, so that the projection of the tree fitted the tree itself at 1:1 scale and then rephotographed the whole thing at a skewed angle and using a very long exposure.

Justin Coombes: ‘Eden’, photograph

I wanted to relay to the viewer how such banal scenes assumed a sort of magical significance for me as I was growing up, precisely because I had seen them so many times. I was trying to find a visual means to express how memory, nostalgia and desire skew our visual relationship to the experience. That home in Devon, where my parents, about to turn 80, still live, was indeed an Eden for me: ‘For our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the world. If we look at it intimately, the humblest dwelling has beauty’ – Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space. I learnt how to tell the truth, but tell it slant in making those projection pictures.

Justin Coombes: ‘East of Eden’, photograph

Eighteen months later, as the inaugural artist-in-residence at Valentines Mansion in Ilford (reportedly the most haunted site in Britain, and coincidentally just down the road from where Ritu and I now live in E17), I wanted to use the same process for what was possibly the last time. Much as I thought the projection technique produced fascinating, layered results, I had been making pictures on and off like this for a decade and was getting bored of it. Coincidentally, I had just broken up with my then fiancé. So I was grieving that relationship, hence the title of the series and my Valentines Mansion exhibition, ‘Grief Tree’ from which this picture is taken. I had full access to the haunted gardens of the mansion throughout those sharp autumn and winter nights. It was certainly cathartic to be making pictures (usually in quite cold, unpleasant conditions) that obliquely memorialised the relationship. The ‘East of’ part of the title was thus a literary and filmic reference (I do this quite a lot with titles, but am trying to wean myself off it), a reference to how far I was from my childhood home, and an acknowledgement that I was still using some of the visual framing techniques and inspiration from my childhood. I hope I always do. But I was indeed a long way from Eden at that point, and have gone to my own Hell a few times since:

Reader, Forest Chorister, it felt liberating for me to make this first Green Book entry. I look forward to hearing your responses and tapping in to the individual and collective wisdom of the Forest Chorus.