To most people in the climbing world, John Redhead was best known as arguably the finest rock climber of his day. Some of his routes had to wait for up to ten years before a second ascentionist had sufficient madness or bottle (not to mention ability) to repeat them, and were characterised by lethal seriousness combined with cutting-edge technical difficulty. Many have had no third ascent and Margins of the Mind remains unrepeated, eighteen years on (“What does that say about the youth of today?”, says Redhead). However, his primary means of self expression was his painting; big canvases which mattered more to him than his climbing did, and which was a side of him hardly revealed to the often un-artistically minded climbing public.
The Mary Station © John Redhead
John Redhead is currently touring internationally with his multi media intervention - Remains of Languedoc. I interviewed him recently about his work.
The Cathar Forensic series - when did you create these?
Little more than a year ago I recorded some sounds at Montsegur (the last stronghold of the Cathars) - and took these raw sounds to the studio where I started to sketch - after three months I found the 'intent' needed to work the images into the sounds, evoking something of the energy needed to realise the paintings. From the start I have known that there are only about twenty works before the energy fails. It's limiting stuff! It's draining. Some artists play a style out and keep churning out, but that would make me ill - so that will be the sum lot! I will then involve myself with some other theme.
God will recognise his own © John Redhead
How did you come to find out about the Cathars?
I have known something of the cathar situation for a while - I have a friend in the village who was the president of the Scottish Theosophical Society who is well versed in the 'Mary'/St John stuff and he introduced me to a book - The Blood of Toulouse by Maurice Magre (in French) - and I edited a section of this for an English translation - enthralling stuff and a better read than The DaVinci Code! This was only on paper though. Only recently did the landscape hit me. It's pretty obvious that something went on in the area...not just by travelling through it, walking the hills and seeing the sites - but the geometry and energy of the landscape - physical! I did a similar intervention in the slate quarries of Llanberis - again, the landscape having absorbed what went on there - Soft Explosive hard Embrace. Again, images conjoured up by the textural sounds found there.
One of the pieces is entitled 'rape - a catholic tool' Why?
The Cathars or rather 'The Pure Ones' (Cathar being a derogatory term coined by the catholics meaning heretic) believed in transcendance from the physical - they were trans-material. As such, the body, the earth, procreation were the result of the Devil. As there was no omnipotent God, they needed to free themselves (their soul) from this prison. For the Cathars, homosexual sex (non procreative sex) was preferred to marital sex. At that time the Roman Catholic church was the opposite and procreative sex (rape etc) preferred over non procreative sex.
Cake or Death © John Redhead
Another is entitled 'God will recognise his own' - what is the religious significance of this body of work?
On the seize of Beziers a crusader asked the commander Papel Legate Arnaud- Amaury how to tell a Cathar from a catholic, the abbot replied "Kill them all, God will know his own". I keep my own feelings out of my work for the intent to work. However, if I were to take a personal approach, this saying sums up much of the problems that religion causes - and causes to this day. Seven centuries later, what have we learned? Bullying a belief system onto others that are just 'other' still orders the world!
Rape - a catholic tool © John Redhead
What are your own feelings about god?
I have a spiritual 'other' energy in all I have ever done! I am aware that a part of me is a microscopic part of the whole of creation and beyond - and connects me with everything else...this has nothing to do with god or religion. I don't have to have a belief system to understand a wrongness! The Kaballah makes sense to me - and other pre Christian gnostic stuff - the Uphanishads Hindu scriptures also, Buddism, The tao etc...Pagan ideologies! The shamanic influence is strong in my work. But I don't need any of it to make me aware of who I am and what to do - the spacecraft will appear soon enough!
Is there still strong feeling in the region where you live in the south of France about the The anti-Cathar Albigensian Crusade?
I say that the Cathar forensic searches for fragments as much in the future as in the past. This area of Languedoc was the civilised, tolerant, educated part of what was to become France. The Cathars mixed with the muslims and jews to have discourse and share mutual source material. This ended with the crusade - and the fuedal lords of the north and King of france helped the Pope in disposing the Cathars of their land. French was only imposed on the region in 1700. All other tongues where expunged violently. Anyone who spoke Occitan was burned (remember that Richard the Lionheart King of England spoke Occitan as his common language). When genocide hits the land, the land does not forget..and more importantly with the soul of the people. Civility and chivalry died in this part of the world! Among the French they say this area of France is the 'arsehole of France. The French being generally intolerant and in my opinion openly racist this may have more to do with the Catalans - another race under the subterfuge of the French. The area where I live is historically and culturally Spanish (Catalunya) and now traditionally communist - from the Franco days over the border - Picasso stayed here! The Nazis were embraced here however as the mountain people adapted yet again to change. There is a strong Pagan element in the old folks here. Mary and John the Baptist are worshipped above jesus and the witches (the Bruixa) have their ceremonies. Some houses have larger facing stones on the walls to attract a witch to 'sit down'...and some have trident shaped forks on the apex to stop them (espanta bruixa). I have the exhibition showing in my village at the moment...the mountain folk are not used to art!
Do you really believe that the divine message originally came from Zarathustra and was kidnapped by the church?
At the time we are talking about there were three strands of 'Christianity' - The Jew Jesus line, the Paulicians and the gnostic stuff. To me there is nothing 'divine' with Roman Catholism and the Jesus story is well dodgy! The gnostics travel way back beyond time and possibly hold the most of what was the essence of Christianity. The Cathars were certainly heretic because Catholism wasn't their Christianity! There is something to grasp with the Essenes, the Manicheans, Bogomils...ancient manuscripts for the church to die for! Religion holds no power for me... there is more power in a dog turd on the pavement! However, one must always read between the lines!
The Devil Seeks a Shoulder © John Redhead
Were you brought up a catholic and does this bear any relation to the work you're now producing?
My work is merely a response to where I find myself - I think the primary role of art is that of engagement with the community - not in a local sense but offer the potential of a wider, alternative vision...like offering a chariot to a stranger place! Having no 'axe to grind' or no picture to paint means that I am not fudged in the personal! I am not an artist in the sense that I 'produce' paintings. It is an organic process, often slow and spasmodic, which I hope creates the potential for possibilities, dialogue and latitude. Is it a religious tenet to make the effort to understand oneself in the cosmos? In Hindu scriptures, it is one's duty to connect 'The city of Brahman' in one's heart to the cosmos. Is this religion or a way of life? I think religion can take you away from this goal...communication other than the literal is poetic - transformative. In Thailand it is considered a duty to learn something new from a stranger every day! Anyone can make pictures to sell and the art galleries are full of style and products and concepts that are displayed like labels in the high street. Not my deal. There is no religious motive in this latest work, but being a religious subject with implication for today, religion informs it.
Ships of Bugaresh © John Redhead
Do you still climb?
The physical act of movement on rock is still important to me. Bouldering mostly on warm rock near the Med. The sangria is good for my old injuries!
The Mary Station © John Redhead
Was there any religious significance in any of your route names?
All my route names where significant! The religious aspect is in the eye of the beholder! Religious in the sense that they were meaningful and thought out and related to the worship of a divine being? Hmm! Devotion to the superhuman? Religious in the sense of being a football supporter? Employing a certain poetic, some route names certainly had a divine quality! For instance, Margins of the Mind or Rite of Spring. Others were just pure filth! All is sacred.
What are your feelings about Llanberris? It seems to be a place to which you return time and again. Do you still consider it home?
Yep, Llanberis and its mountains are still home! When the evening sun reaches under the black clouds and spreads its luminous green light for all to bathe in - yes - you are home - and the sun embraces the Welsh hills every evening to die! As Augustus John said, "The changing skies reflect our temperament more so than a perpetual blue". It's also nice being in the perpetual blue on the Med, but after a little while I need to play with it and mix a little black reality in there! I'm not a tourist.
God Will Recognise His Own © John Redhead
How do you feel about living in France, up in the Pyrenees? Is it inspiring, artistically?
I'm in the process of writing a book called 'Colonists Out' - (from the political graffiti around Llanberis) exploring what exactly a 'home' is. This was inspired from moving out of Wales into the unknown and realising that we are all 'colonists'. As such our duty is to protect and nourish the land we find ourselves in. I am working in the Pyrenees much the same as I have always worked - be it living in Leeds or Liverpool or the Welsh hills. I don't portray the landscape in a romantic, wooly way - more inspired to interview that lone soul stumbling down the street or take recordings from a heroin addict in a doorway, or construct huge panels of painting and obstruct pathways in the hills! The only art this region of France recognises is that of hunting wild boar! The hunters are the artists! I came around a corner on a piste the other day and there on a stool slept a hunter with his finger on the rifle's trigger pointing my way...I stopped the van and approached him cautiously...he awoke with glee thrusting a bottle of pastis in my face! The church in my village is at an altitude of 666m - this attracts a few alternative types! 200 years ago the church steeple colapsed killing some of the congrigation...on the French side you have Ceret where Picasso lived and on the Spanish side you have Figueres where Salvador Dali lived - Franco woz ere, Pan's Labyrinth was filmed here, Naploeon fought wars here, the Nazis were welcomed here - the Jews escaped into the hills here - this is all history. This does not inspire me as an artist, but informs me - possibly creating a template to work with and reach into and draw a body of work out. I am mostly working with sound here - the area has a musical tradition. I feel my next work will be on the Spanish side (who are more tolerant and engaged with the arts at every level) for a 'bruixa' (witch) theme! Perhaps barcelona which is only one and a half hours away.
Death To Civility © John Redhead
Tell us about the soundscape 'dead room chiseller'
Dead Room Chiseller. My new project! A sonic exploration in loss and suffering.
Five tracks taken from recordings of the homes and from the voices of those in suffering from loss. For some, a loss can become unbearable, and the living space a torture cell of times and moments and actions of the past. It seems a ‘sticky’ land of hauntings and negative thoughts, where one is unable to travel through to new possibilities. This land is entered and life stops.
All buildings have a presence, and for me the hauntings are part of a sculptural sound that has dialogue with a mythological landscape. This ‘virtual’ land has its origins in the very heart of the home and through visualisation and intent its auditory aura can be meaningful. Giving ‘tongue’ to this skirmishing connects beyond the subjective and personal. I believe such a manifestation can help dissolve the torment and ablate the woeful state of loss.
This mapping of souls is a kind of sonic mourning, a digital keening that can evoke a unique sense of perception, not only of the world but of your immediate environment and living space.
For me these ‘songs’ have a certain musical imagery and may be familiar or suggestive. Death and the field of parting is certainly a subject for the ‘banshee’ to enter and pull out some meaning and hope and renewal.
This canvas is not just a song, but a song sung before the mystery of time.
Did you see The Culture Show special about John Lydon? In it John talks about composing music through the grief he was experiencing. Have you ever felt any kindred feeling with John Lydon or his work?
Don't see the culture show - I don't watch TV - no time and no reception!Would you ever consider working with other musicians? Musicians like John Lydon or Jah Wobble, say? Or do you prefer to work alone as a musician?
I am not very good at working with others! Something about me. I have tried and will continue to collaborate if it suits. Certainly the soundtracks that I do have an interesting place on the musical energy spectrum but perhaps need to be brought into the wider arena - this is where working with others helps...I tend to 'tangent' my energies to work on other projects...I have five or six at any time! I lack organisational skills and have a poor memory! My big truck that moved me to the Pyrenees has gone back to Earth after having been parked up on some land belonging to a friend (Gilad Atzmon from the Blockheads!) I finished a series of huge paintings in it as part of the 'Interview with the Streets' project and finished the soundtrack (using Gilad's sax sounds), 'Hero Gone Bent' a textural city soundscape with the transcripts from girls working the streets (two have since died) - this was four years ago...and I haven't been in the truck since!
Dead Room Chiseller - A sonic exploration of loss and bereavement - five tracks of recordings from the homes and lives of those in suffering...sonic mourning...
A Cathar Forensic - Words, images & sounds from Montsegur to Rosslyn - “Kill them all, God will recognise his own.”
Sunday, 15 February 2009, Tuesday, 17 February 2009 at Galeria Kokopelli, Placeta Sant Antoni, Sant Lorenc de Cerdans, France 66260
LLAMFF 2010, 5th to 7th March, Llanberis, Wales