The ‘Cogra Bay Manuscript’
by Ambrose Reisch
(Written as a 'recall' of my earliest experience of visiting Brooklyn & the Hawkesbury river. January 2017)
In the mid 70’s I travelled to the Hawkesbury River for the first time. I was an art student studying painting. This experience of the river was, in the first instance, an artistic inspiration. In every way a sensory smorgasbord. But what has shown to be more sustaining for me is that it presented itself as a spiritual paradox. I remember that I saw this river, I smelt it, I tasted its salt. I remember the wind always heading in the other direction. Rowing was always hard work. The shoreline was not a refuge from the restless water but an inhospitable jumble of rocks and boulders, covered with oyster shells like razor wire. It wasn’t friendly. The tide was forever receding revealing a muddy archaeology. People didn’t lie around on the sand but went out on the water wearing gumboots in flat boats. The river seemed to remain at arms-length and this, with its shards of reality, made it compelling. The river would inspire me to muse about all kinds of things. Anything from the brushwork in a Rembrandt portrait to the first Herman Hesse book I ever read. A year earlier, I was fresh back from 2 years in Firenze/Italy, where I had studied classical drawing in a cultivated landscape of Renaissance architecture and art. Here on the Hawkesbury river the landscape could not have been more extremely different. Different in a positive way. Its primal turbulence became a counterbalance to the refined language of art, and to the poet’s contemplative gaze. And all the while, the river ebbed and flowed under the radar.
I would visit Brooklyn to hire a boat and row about in the wind and the water and those dark moody hills. It was on one of these crossings that I noticed a couple of shacks tucked in behind the ‘railway bridge headland’ in Cogra Bay. The shacks were only metres apart and located slightly up from the rocks and the water line. A poorly maintained track connected them and the rocks below. They seemed deserted and I was inspired. “I could work up there,” I thought, and I enquired into their ownership to seek permission, but without success. Overall my stay there was not going to be very long but it would give me a platform to engage the river from ‘within its own womb’. In the spirit of my youth I seized the opportunity and returned soon after with food and paper.
I used only a pencil, India ink mixed with shellac, brush and pen. To give body to the drawings a teabag sitting in a small cup of water served as my colour and wash. A hand-held ClaudeMirror provided a tonal aperture onto the landscape. In a more playful way it served also as a subversive device when, every so often, I resorted to splitting the image into multiple spaces. I had a random selection of papers that had been cut down to a manageable size. I also brought with me a few books that were always with me. I am probably more likely to read a writer than to look at a painter. Good writers make you think about what you are looking at.
A swim on arrival served as a baptism, and then I set to drawing. Once I made my first marks, there was a momentum that carried itself. Somewhere between reading the poets and looking out across the water, where Spectacle island was in clear view, I would orchestrate one drawing after the other that comprised both visual and literary references. The landscape was very dramatic and forever changing. They were long days and I produced a mass of drawings and writings. In those writings, I remember that there were quotations from my favorite writers and poets including Baudelaire, Rilke, Apollinaire, Nietzsche, Thomas Mann and Kafka, Frank O’Hara and Edgar Allan Poe. Each page was contained within a visual schema of Euclidean geometric design. This gave uniformity to the pages which reflected the formality of the scientific order of renaissance thinking. It was during the cinquecento in Italy that the mathematics and philosophies of the classical world re-emerged.
As the drawings were completed, each page in its turn was submerged into the river. Sometimes I would imagine how some of these beautiful words that I had so faithfully copied, would break away at times and go their own way. Breaking from the restraints of the sentence, to float freely as single words and then to divide once more to being individual letters. Floating freely, like plankton, becoming integral in the food chain of the water. One drawing, I recall, had the complete list of all the ‘titles of De Chirico’s paintings’. I was in awe of this drawing. I carefully placed all these beautiful enigmatic phrases on the paper, and punctuated them, here and there, by small illustrations of rocks, jelly fish, brooding headlands, and eyes that looked out of the landscape from all the literature I was throwing at it. Like a page in a sacred book, I copied them with the dedication of a scribe, dutifully applying his skill in the scriptorium of the rocks. I imagined this page had fallen to the river bed, leaving an imprint of De Chirico’s titles forever embedded at the bottom of the river.
Each completed drawing was lowered into the water, until it was fully saturated. This was a very careful process as it became heavier the more it was saturated. Holding the corners with small tabs, I would lift it back out. I would lay one onto the other, making sure that each sheet would bond with the one before. I had dedicated a drawing board close enough to the water’s edge as it was too fragile to carry the drawing up to the shack. Then another board was laid on top. This I repeated over a period of several weeks until the height of the pile was significant to suggest a volume like a book.
This was my ‘Cogra Bay manuscript’. Buried inside this tome were multiple drawings and hundreds of words. Along the outer margins which were in part loose and non-compliant one would see bits of drawings and random words and phrases that were part of a larger entry. At one of these edges I could just make out the last words of Apollinaire’s calligram 'Il Pleut'. Other edges revealed a bit of headland, and teabag washes with ink lines. The small previews along the margin added a sense of enchantment to what was buried inside. It was now a rectangular object and ratty on the edges. The result was a matted slab of paper that sported a decorative edge. It had the same scale and volume as an old 19th century bible I had at home. The matted slab of paper was discoloured and reflected the ambient tidal nature of the river water. One time a jellyfish rubbed up against the paper which was being submerged leaving markings that I could only dream of. Depending on the level of the tide the paper would be more soiled by river mud than other times. Each sheet came alive in the water. Being submerged it became vulnerable; its physicality severely compromised but it was in synergy with the drawings and writings that were buried on the surface. Like faded tattoos they bespoke a history and created their own memory.
When all was done, I took the entire Manuscript and submerged it one last time.