Dom Sylvester Houédard’s Cosmic Dust

Dom Sylvester Houédard, In memoriam Aldous Huxley, 1963, ink typed on paper, 10 × 17 cm. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery, London & Rome

Endlessly Inside at Broumov Monastery presents 60 often achingly meticulous works by Guernsey-born concrete-poetry pioneer

Endlessly Inside, the second exhibition in the ‘Ora et Lege’ (‘Pray and Read’) series of exhibitions at the Baroque Broumov Monastery on the Czech-Polish border, presents 60 often achingly meticulous works by Guernsey-born concrete-poetry pioneer Dom Sylvester Houédard, known as ‘dsh’ or ‘dom’. Houédard, who entered a Benedictine abbey aged twenty-five, perhaps surprisingly became active in London’s 1960s countercultural scene, an engaged reader of Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist texts, and the producer of what he called ‘typestracts’. This term, a portmanteau of ‘typewriter’ and ‘abstract’, refers to object-poems made on an Olivetti 22 typewriter using black, red or blue ink ribbons.

Many of these, especially those from the late 1960s, ostensibly demonstrate the meaning of Mahayana Buddhist and Shiva and Vajrayana Tantra doctrines (among others) via rigid architectonic diagrams. yantra of sex (1966), for example, renders the cosmic significance of human intimacy as long cuboids laid over one another in a hashtag shape, while the nine layered universe of the pawnee (1967) presents a tiered cosmology influenced by both Tantra and shamanism: the celestial pole that holds everything in existence together rendered as short ink lines passing through nine closely connected square slices.

The typestracts, however, comprise just one part of Houédard’s work, which curator Monika Čejkova splits into three sections. One, displayed on a wall towards the back of the monastery’s refectory, shows typestracts that correlate Catholicism and various Eastern religions, or pay tribute to artists Houédard knew or loved, like 250766 (For Raoul Hausmann 65) (1966) and memorial for marcel duchamp (1968). The second section comprises ‘laminate poems’ and ‘cosmic dust poems’ (1966–68), poetic plans for colourful, polygonal speculative sculptures made from strips of various materials – mostly newspaper cuttings and PVC – sealed in transparent, sometimes coloured vinyl plastic laminate. A third, upstairs in the vast and magnificent library, consists of myriad poetry books, folded poems, posters, opening cards, all designed with crisp sans serif typefaces, and correspondence from 1964–80 displayed in a glass-topped cabinet.

While works like yantra of sex and the nine layered universe… are by no means straightforward, viewers can interpret them if they know a little about what the titles refer to. Making sense of the visualisations of ancient teachings of inner blue womb and homage to Bodhidharma the roly-poly daruma (both 1967) in the first section, however, depends on Nicola Simpson’s persuasive catalogue text. The strict abstract shapes of inner blue womb look like a four-pronged fanlike structure made of half-circles on a flat scored plane, but apparently show us a uterine existence, the human mind pregnant with the possibility of everything that could ever exist, including both things present in physical space and colourful mental inventions. homage.., meanwhile, explains a sixth-century text by Zen Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, distinguishing between methods of reaching the enlightened realisation that all things are of the same nature: ‘entrance by reason’ (higher intuition) and ‘entrance by conduct’ (correct actions).

Houédard’s work, this show demonstrates, deals with prayer, reading, the infinite and the inner in a way applicable to those without belief: how to always stay open to others, even under conformist social conditions. Living out the Benedictine spirit of ‘prayer and work’ by expanding into art the order’s three-step Benedictine practice of ‘holy reading’ – reading aloud, a second reading to deepen the understanding, and then prayer – Houédard’s art generously ‘reads’ other religions and practices in a swelling embrace of the farthest reaches of humanity and divinity.

Endlessly Inside at Broumov Monastery, 25 June – 24 September

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