Alexander Tucker is a multifaceted artist. He constantly shapeshifts and is hard to pigeonhole, whether he is creating music, sculpture, illustrating a comic or creating a painting – so it makes sense that his new posthumous project with Keith Collins, Fifth Continent grows from a part of his life that is foundational and intimate. Being a 14-year-old haunting the shoreline whilst growing up in Dungeness, Tucker was to meet Collins on his wanderings, whom he would become very close to as he developed his pathway as an artist himself. Collins was arguably better known for his relationship as Derek Jarman’s long-term confidant and companion, but was also an impressive artist in his own right. Over the years both Tucker and Collins shared many perspectives on music and art, and both very much believed this Kent landscape is non-static and ever-evolving, being drawn to the unusual and complex echoes that exist between or just under the surface of this striking headland.
All the years of walking around the shoreline in his late teens and twenties with a CD Walkman found Tucker starting to let sounds of place and sounds that influenced him imbue his work – he cites The 13th Floor Elevators and their collaborative approach as a creative influence but also acknowledges that the constancies and surprises from the environment are equally important. “If you are really lucky, when the full moon appears from behind the clouds and especially when the wind has dropped, it’s a magical moment and all sounds and feels different to the place moments before…” he says.
Outside the cottage, Tucker took his guitar, chose an open tuning, and placed a mic in the belly to try to get the wind to blow into the sound hole. The wind was just too strong, and in frustration after many hours he discarded the instrument on the ground, which is where the accident becomes the art – the grasses of the garden hit the guitar strings, the power lines buzzed in confluence and if you listen closely there is an audible pulse of his old 8 track which was on its last legs but adds to the impact. Fate, Tucker feels, took over.
What is evident from both listening to the album and reading the anthology is that Tucker has a very intense respect and love for Dungeness in all its facets. Like Collins, he was cognisant of the magical elements that Prospect Cottage holds in its atmosphere, which are both everyday and unique. “By being down at the cottage, sifting through things, cataloguing the huge collection of CDs, a homage to Collins felt obvious, his presence being everywhere,” he says. “The first step was to record at Prospect cottage, primarily in the writing room – my favourite room in the house. It is very still in there, there are four or five gorgeous paintings, and you can just about see the strip line of the sea from the window. I set up my equipment and started improvising – taking my cello and plugging it into the modular system, processing the loops, and improvising with my voice. I was interested in creating tissue paper-thin layers, developing organically.”
On the tracks of the album one can hear the melodic rich click-clacks of the kitchen clock, the shift of gravel underfoot, echoes of voices wafting on a breeze. Arguably, the most breathtaking surprise is the poem that Collins recites at the close of the album, about his all-pervasive grief for Jarman. It was discovered by Tucker on a dictaphone, found quite accidentally when it was given to him by Garry Clayton, Collins’ husband. This poem speaks of grief, of mortality, and of love, and is beautifully hewn, exquisite and spoken in mellifluous tones, leaving an echo long after the final click of the footsteps on gravel peter out and the tape recorder snaps shut. Intimacy is often hard to convey in art –- there is the distance between the viewer and the artist’s intentions, and indeed retrospective curation, but Fifth Continent feels that it has evolved not to take possession of place but to honour it.
Collins liked to photograph things in decay. One image appears to be a constellation, and on closer inspection you realise it is the cracked paint on a boat’s hull, miniature worlds within the landscape that make you look, and look again. The chaos and surprise Collins felt were needed to disturb the tabula of daily life. Tucker says “When I’m mixing things, it’s a real gift, to ensure the ambient sounds are heard as much as the voice is,” he says. “There is always a balance and intention to set equal volume, like collecting a series of images and layering them over each other to create a new surface or sound. You can view each person’s part individually or the overall piece, and the incredible number of layers feeding off each other and co-existing, like Dungeness itself.”
I wonder if Tucker was self-conscious of being in the curatorial role as much as the artist nurturing the project, whilst inevitably grieving for Collins. He seems to consciously want to remove himself from the centre of the work – akin to throwing a pebble into the ocean interested in the ripples rather than the splash providing an opportunity to widen perspectives and open doors. The accompanying book, Fifth Quarter, is as multi-layered as the album. Contributors range from artist Simon Fisher Turner, musician Cosey Fanni Tutti, writer and broadcasters Luke Turner and Jennifer Lucy Allen, and filmmaker Mark Titchner. Some examine memories of Jarman and his work, some examine queerness in art, and others the complexities of art and place – but it never seems to fall foul of becoming nostalgic, and rather chooses to peer out on the horizon to new ever-changing shores.
As we sign off our meeting, Tucker says with slight sadness there were many lost opportunities to collaborate with Collins in person before he died. Circumstances didn’t quite align to meet before he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour, both artists always thinking there would be more time to reunite. One cannot help but think that this is his time now, to reunite energies with Collins and set sail on the same wind that played the strings deep in the stems of the garden of Prospect Cottage.
Interview by Kirsteen McNish.