Our second session of my Poetry from Art course was at Tate Britain in the video installation High Wire by Catherine Yass. The video fills a wall but the first thing you notice is the sound of wind buffetting thirty-one-floor-high tower blocks in Glasgow's Red Road. It's such a cold sound that people could feel the blast on their backs as we sat in a circle in the gallery next to the room. The camera views are mainly ones from the camera attached to wire-walker Didier Pasquette's helmet as he inches out onto the cable strung between two of the buildings.
We saw the building opposite veer vertiginously down to the ground, shake then steady itself. And he's off, walking on air, all the time the gusts getting stronger. He walks like a ballet dancer, surely and at a fairly smart pace. A gull flies past him and he stops; his long metal pole dips too low one side. His mouth is moving and later we realise he's shouting that the winds have defeated him and the wire is moving too much. There is nothing he can do but go back and the slower backwards ballet seems impossible but must be done.
A gull flies past him just before he stops
After watching the sequence we talk about the history of wire walking or rope-dancing as it was once called, how some wire walkers perform domestic feats in the air, such as cooking a meal, almost as if they are making a home in the sky. I quote Jean Genet who wrote that the role of the wire walker is to bring his wire to life: 'you will perfect your leaps...not for your own glory, but so that a dead, voiceless steel wire at last may sing'.
Yass' project was set up by Artangel and they have published an excellent book with stills and essays about it where they said: 'We had this clear image of finding these streets in the sky'. Yass has written:
When I was a child I climbed out of my bedroom window, on to the roof and up to the top. It was about six in the morning. I sat astride the rooftop, exhilarated and frightened. Coming down was harder as the tiles kept slipping, making me lose my foothold.
High Wire is a dream of walking in the air, out into nothing. But it has an urban background and the high-rise buildings provide the frame and support. The dream of reaching the sky is also a modernist dream of cities in the air, inspired by a utopian belief in progress.
Every time I see Didier turning back I remember hearing him shout, from where I was standing on another rooftop, 'C'est pas possible!' But something was possible, he returned safely. And something emerged from the actuality of the walk, which was a moment when reality became more of a dream than the dream itself.
We then read Tony Hoagland's poem 'From This Height', and discussed how he opens up time into historical time, telescoping into the past and also outwards, broadening the view, from within the constrained space of the couple on "the eighth story of the world" as they hear the wind which "rubs itself against the walls of the condominium". I wanted the group to feel that they didn't have to restrict themselves to writing literally about the installation, to be inventive and open it up into any direction that served to make the poem matter for them.