Corp’rate Day

thoughts on art and fiction

Something that Was Not a Bird

The Uses of Transformation in Contemporary Ekphrasis


I am about to present for you a series of three texts which demonstrate my on-going investigation of metamorphosis as a linguistic, narrative and imagistic device in writing about visual art.

Cathy Wilkes, Our Misfortune, 2001, various media and dimensions

Cathy Wilkes, Our Misfortune, 2001, various media and dimensions

The very idea of a ‘use’ for transformation is opposed to conventional logic – but might it be argued that we increasingly take for granted what were once regarded as wholly fictitious phenomena? Doesn’t the Apple Corporation now assume a world in which we conjure images on a screen and change their shapes merely by touching them? The transformation of a form or image is no longer the aesthetic experience that disrupts our perception of reality (as it was for some Surrealist painters) but a condition of that everyday reality itself.  Images of transformation in art and writing (and an amorphous approach to language) can thus offer means through which to engage with the bureaucratic and technological material of contemporary capitalism – to dramatise the mundane as well as the quixotic – perhaps because in recent years ‘fantasy’ and ‘fiction’ have come increasingly to constitute the fabric of our ‘banal’.

The transformation of materials – and the stresses and limits of that transformation – are a practical reality for artists (as they are for cooks and gardeners) – they are ‘useful’, then, in that sense as well as in any way magical.  But transformation is also a condition inherent in writing about art, given that the author, in translating her experience of the work into language, creates the misleading impression of having changed pictures and objects directly into words. Ekphrastic writing is sometimes thought to avoid this false impression, since it resists the kind of epistemological authority assumed in relation to the artist’s oeuvre by a conventional critical text. In my own works of ekphrasis, I seldom end up straightforwardly describing the objects in question.  My aim is rather to produce a kind of self-enclosed textual object in parallel– and that object can even operate in emotional and tonal contrast to the work from which it was derived.

Time does not allow me to undertake a thorough critical dissection of my individual writings today – however to provide some sense of the literary and philosophical context for my particular approach to ekphrasis I have interspersed them with quotations relevant to the theme of metamorphosis in art and literature; these are heterogenous both temporally and in terms of genre. The readings are accompanied by images of the relevant exhibitions or works, but I’m not going to provide any commentary on the relationship between text and image, here. You are liberty to speculate upon that connection as I read, as much as the limitations of PowerPoint will allow.




Even those who know very little about Shakespeare might be vaguely aware that his plays value social order and stability and that they are written with an extraordinary eloquence, one metaphor breeding another in an apparently unstaunchable flow of… “textual productivity”.  The problem is that these two aspects of Shakespeare are in potential conflict…  For a stability of signs…is an integral part of any social order: settled meanings, shared definitions and regularities of grammar both reflect, and help to constitute, a well-ordered political state.  Yet it is all this which Shakespeare’s flamboyant punning, troping and riddling threatens to put into question. His belief in social stability is jeopardized by the very language in which it is articulated. (Eagleton, 1986: 1)

Terry Eagleton, William Shakespeare, 1986

First Reading: ‘Sentences Not Only Words’

Text commissioned for  a solo exhibition by Lorna Macintyre at Mary Mary Gallery, Glasgow, May 2009. Mode of dissemination: printed hand-out freely available on site.

She was at that time planning her long book, The making of Americans, she was struggling with her sentences, those long sentences that had to be so exactly carried out. Sentences not only words but sentences and always sentences have been Gertrude Stein’s life long passion. (Stein, 2001: 47)

Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933

…there stands before me a family of octopuses on four legs, with a fifth serving as a tail, and a sixth- a trunk. How much (imaginary!) divine omnipotence there is in this! What magic of reconstructing the world according to one’s fantasy and will! A fictitious world.  A world of lines and colours which subjugates and alters itself to your command.  You tell a mountain: move and it moves.  You tell an octopus: be an elephant, and the octopus becomes an elephant.  Your tell the sun: ‘Stop!’-and it stops. (Eisenstein, 1993: 3)

Sergei Eisenstein, Eisenstein on Disney, 1941

Second Reading: 1-o

Text commissioned for a solo exhibition by Cathy Wilkes at Switchspace Glasgow, December 2004. Mode of dissemination: printed hand-out freely available on site. 

The vaguest feelings become classifiable entities, that can be counted and settled in broad daylight according to the cognitive order of the hardest and most precise anatomies, in comparison to which the finest articulations of …crustaceans or of armors take on the vague, dubious, and amoeba-like contours of the most deliquescent jellyfish and soft watches. (Dalí, 1998: 247).

Salvador Dalí, ‘On the Psychoatmospheric, Anamorphic Objects,’ 1932

The mercantile society evoked in the [Arabian Nights], the many tales of buried treasure,…gives goods, artefacts of every sort – utensils, bibelots and toys – an independent presence and vitality.  This animist narrative does not only dramatise supernatural interventions, it perceives the wayward powers of goods themselves in exchange, what has been called the “tournament of goods”; and it explores prophetically through a myriad of stories the spell they cast on us, on people… Manufactures, as loci of true stories and translated selves, possess the inherent power of magnets and foreshadow the eerie liminal life of new forms of cyber-existence.

Marina Warner, The Voice  of the Toy: Writing Magic and Enchanted States, 2008

3rd Reading: ‘Pearlescence and Patience’

Text commissioned for the monograph ‘The Flight of O’ published to accompany the solo exhibition by Zoe Williams at Spike Island, Bristol, May-July 2010.

This presentation was originally delivered for the symposium, ‘Writing into Art’, University of Strathclyde and Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, 19th June, 2013.


Dalí, Salvador. The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí. ed. trans. Haim Finkelstein. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Eagleton, Terry. William Shakespeare. (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986).

Eisenstein, Sergei. Eisenstein on Disney. ed. trans. J Leyda. (London: Seagull Books, 1993).

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. (London: Penguin, 2001).

Warner, Marina. ‘The Voice of the Toy: Writing Magic and Enchanted States’. Lecture delivered at Stanford University, Stanford, 14th April, 2008)