The Vast Extent: On seeing and not seeing further

Lavinia Greenlaw

Research output: Book/ReportBook


After thirty years of investigating questions of perception and image-making through poetry, fiction, drama and essays, I wanted to draw this together in a form that was true to my thinking and to my artistic nature. I decided to write essays under the loose heading of Vision. I’ve let these essays evolve slowly to ensure that they have time to make their own connections. An extract from ‘Caves, sleep, absence of light’ has been published in The White Review and part of ‘Distance, deception, glow of fire’ in the London Review of Books. I’ve drawn on this material when giving an inaugural lecture at the Freieuniversität Berlin and a keynote lecture at the Royal College of Art. I also presented an early version of ‘Boredom, repetition, fixatives’ as the Hesse Lecture at the Aldeburgh Festival. My aim has been to address a general audience, from a personal and informal perspective, drawing connections and casting light rather than presenting conclusions. I have come to think of this as the exploded essay, and a record of how thought builds and ideas emerge. Each is a series of short texts that cast light on one another, rather like aspects of a poem. They align artworks, myth, strange voyages, scientific scrutiny, reminiscence and a poet’s response. I’ve followed all this back through my notebooks and found the moments when something they observed or made shaped me.

The parameters of the book are informed by my training in the Early Modern Netherlandish period and the formulation of empiricism, which was the starting point for my own work. I’m engaging with questions of representation, the writing of history and the canon by situating the radical ideas of women and other under-represented artists and scientists from that time to the present day in counterpoint.

From the time of writing my first poems, I’ve been compelled by questions of vision - in particular how we make sense of what we see. This preoccupation lies behind everything I write about: early photography and entering caves, shortsight, bad weather, microscopes and luminous clocks. There are things that help us see more clearly or convince us to see what’s not there. There are times when we want to see more or need to see less, or when we can only see what we expect to.

My approach to the scientific is informed by growing up in a family of scientists and doctors. While I’ve worked extensively in the science-arts terrain, I believe the only shared territory is in the early stages of imperative and process.

Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages190
Publication statusIn preparation - 12 Jan 2024

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