“No light, but rather darkness visible”*

*Book I of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”

At Limehouse a year and a week ago I was reflecting here on R S Thomas’s poem, “Threshold”, taking in the Harrowing of Hell along the way. Then, in mid May, I recalled Seamus Heaney’s description of poetry as “more a threshold than a path”.

Today I’m at Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, which was owned from 1800-1810 by the architect John Soane, who radically rebuilt it, intending it to serve as his country villa for entertaining. A £12m building programme has returned the Manor to Soane’s original design. The newly created Pitzhanger Gallery is showing for its inaugural exhibition a series of sculptures by Anish Kapoor, the Bombay born British sculptor. They “echo Soane’s complex use of mirrors and light to double and dissolve space.”. For further background, read Matthew Collings’s recent Evening Standard review of 12th March.

A Tate biographical note on Kapoor says that his work “explores polarities such as light and dark, substance and emptiness, place and placelessness…”. Kapoor himself said, “I am interested in sculpture that manipulates the viewer into a specific relation with space and time.”.

My thoughts turn to his “Descent into Limbo”. Last August, an unfortunate visitor to this installation was manipulated into a very specific relation with space and time as he succumbed to “l’appel du vide” of the eight foot deep pit, painted black to give the illusion of an endless chasm. (His resulting visit to hospital was brief.) Jonathan Jones observed at the time that “Installation art can put us at real risk, as if we were climbing a mountain or exploring a cave.”.

In Catholic theology, Limbo (Latin limbus, edge or boundary, referring to the “edge” of Hell) is a doctrine concerning the afterlife condition of those who die in original sin without being assigned to the Hell of the Damned.

Kapoor has said of his work that separating the object from its object-hood is

“…a sort of descent into limbo, a sort of going below, going beneath, going underground….At the heart of this is darkness.”

The Caribbean novelist, playwright and scholar, Jan Carew, spoke in his 1978 paper “The Caribbean Writer and Exile” of classical Akan theatre in which the archetypal middle-man stood between powerful spirits opposing each other:

“These spirits were involved in eternal conflicts which could only be resolved if the human being periodically renewed contact with communal wellsprings of rhythm, creation, and life.

The Caribbean writer today is a creature balanced between limbo and nothingness, exile abroad and homelessness at home, between the people on the one hand and the creole and the coloniser on the other.”.

Post colonial scholar Professor Simon Gikandi points us to the other use of the word “limbo”, closer in this sense to “limber”:

“The most dramatic metaphor for this process of cultural transformation is the limbo dance. Edward Brathwaite, who sees the limbo dance as a metacode for New World writing in general, speculates that the dance evolved on the slave ships in the middle passage as a therapy for the cramped conditions in the holds: it was a creative way of using limited dancing space.”

Barbadian poet Brathwaite asks in his poem “Limbo”:

“Who will suggest a new tentative frontier?”.

In her review (“This is a book out of the unconscious, where the best novels come from.”) of Hilary Mantel’s 2005 novel, “Beyond Black”, Fay Weldon observed: “Hilary Mantel has done something extraordinary. She has taken that ethereal halfway house between heaven and hell, between the living and the dead, and nailed it on the page.”.

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