Faking a Correspondence (Holcombe to Paolozzi, 1968)

In response to Yelena Popova‘s request to create a bookmark for a designated book in the Study’s library at Nottingham Contemporary, I chose to fabricate a piece of archive material from the ongoing story of Robert Holcombe: a correspondence with Eduardo Paolozzi had already been referred to in passing in the construction of this fiction, and the presence in the library of a volume titled The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym (Basic Books, 2001) seemed to offer a perfect location for a fabricated archive letter to have been casually left as a bookmark by some unknown reader.

The combination of Boym’s subject (nostalgia as a curiously pervasive modern condition that does not exclude a longing for better or different visions of the future) and the references to a correspondence in Holcombe’s back-story suggested a useful coming together of fabricated past and diagnostic writings on the cultural symptom his creation appeared to represent. Since we were also asked to specify where in the book the bookmark might go, a spread between pp.76/77, showing (among other things) a study for a proposal transforming the Palace of the Soviets into an inflatable seemed to strike some of the right chords – though in truth, the letter could have slotted in almost anywhere in the book.

As for the correspondence being between the wholly fictional Holcombe and the very real Scottish sculptor, printmaker and artist Eduardo Paolozzi, that has its roots in a number of factors, not least Paolozzi’s own interest in Ballardian fictional games (a good piece exploring this side of Paolozzi’s work is excerpted here from David Brittain’s book on Paolozzi’s relationships with J.G. Ballard and Martin Bax at Ambit magazine). In some ways, though, the link has begun to take on a life of its own: perhaps it’s  gratifying (or potentially worrying) that some images (ostensibly made by Holcombe in the 1960s and 1970s, and featured as illustrations in the entirely fictional catalogue essay on Holcombe’s life and work reproduced here) have already managed to find their way into the results created by Google image searches on Paolozzi’s late sixties work.

So how ethical is it to implicate Paolozzi in this fabrication? One reason for singling him (and the wider Independent Group) out as the real-world link to Holcombe is their temporal alignment: the idea that Holcombe would plausibly have won a forces scholarship to art school within 5 years or so of the ending of World War Two puts him firmly into their formative milieu. But other reasons for a possible affinity with Paolozzi would centre on Holcombe’s similar historical positioning and interests. Like Paolozzi, he straddles the Surrealist influences of the 1930s, the ‘apocalyptic’ wartime British Romanticism and European Art Brut tendencies of the 1940s and the early interest in popular culture that emerged from both, and was to  mutate into British Pop during the 1950s and 60s. Among Paolozzi’s own life-long fascinations, complementing his interest in Ballard’s fictions, were such ideas as the creation of quasi-documentary and scientific formats within which to create new artworks.

Paolozzi’s famous 1952 lectures are one example: given the overall title BUNK!, these showed rapid-fire collage archives in a format that not only chimed well with the blend of surrealist and pop tendencies in the fictional Holcombe output, but also anticipated the very real cinematic approaches later pursued by Brighton based  Jeff Keen and the American West Coast auteur Bruce Conner, whose aesthetics helped shape Holcombe’s invention. The letter from Holcombe to Paolozzi presented here was, then, purportedly written from Holcombe’s hotel in Woolacombe, Devon, during the summer of 1968, while (we can only assume) the character was on holiday from his long-term job in the planning offices at Leeds City Council: it is also a visit possibly connected with his sister, Elizabeth Booth, who married in 1958 and lived in Exeter with her family from 1962 onwards.

The letter clearly addresses a few points within an occasional but evidently ongoing discussion between Holcombe and Paolozzi, whose wider context we can only guess at. None of Paolozzi’s return letters have yet been found in the Holcombe archive, and though it is possible that some exist (much of the archive remains in storage, and has not been catalogued, or even unpacked, since Holcombe’s death in 2003) Elizabeth Booth has sounded a note of caution in regard to further material emerging: she has explained that Holcombe wasn’t especially meticulous in keeping his correspondences in order, and took something of a slapdash approach to preserving even his own works. Had she not intervened herself, the whole archive might well have been carted away as part of the house clearance following his death, and she remains unsure if some material had not already been lost when she arrived to take control of the situation. This sole letter, then, may well be all that survives of the fictional correspondence. Its text and enclosures will be available for consultation in the Study at Nottingham Contemporary from the 15 April 2011.

Enc:  Reproductions of Holcombe collages, The Modernists: Diplodocus (1967) and 1964 Programme (1964), printed onto light-sensitive photographic paper.

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