Martin Herbert (1957-2014)
‘While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die’ (Leonardo da Vinci).
Martin came into this world and proceeded to reinvent it on his own terms. That’s the indelible impression I have of a man and an artist whom I knew for a tantalizingly brief period. He was a creator of alternative histories, a maker of plausible fictions, and a hybridizer of facts and ideas. His most recent work looked as though some Victorian autodidact and polymath working at the margins of orthodox science had produced it. In images of strange machines and impossible plant forms and geometries, we can discern the spirit of Verne and Wells, and the visual sensibilities of artists such as da Vinci, Escher, and Giger. The paintings, digital renderings, and soundscapes testify to Martin’s voracious enthusiasm for knowledge and the breadth of his curiosity. Ideally, he needed to have lived several long lives in parallel to fully explore his interests and capabilities. In a hypothetical multiverse, he would’ve been (and still is, maybe) a botanist and an exobiologist in one universe, a mathematician and physicist in another, and a musician and philosopher in still another.
But, in reality, we know of only one life, which we must live bodily. So often, this faulty biology that we possess threatens to circumscribe our ambitions and span. None can tell what ‘the morrow might bring’. So, we apply ourselves to wisdom in order to discern how to integrate the best, most necessary, and most fulfilling aspects of our passions and endeavours, and to focus them upon the present. Martin had that ability, and it’s the reason why we can celebrate his artistic achievement in the here and now, rather than as some vague potential that he might have realized had he lived longer.
Martin impressed me with his conscientious commitment to the craft and conceptualization of his work. He brought to his studies a rare practical intelligence and patience, one that demonstrated a fierce integrity of commitment. His considerable technical dexterities were allied to a well-defined art-historical sensibility, a sense of the tradition of ideas, and a solid understanding of his relationship to contemporary art. Moreover, he had the ability to interrelate manual and digital modes of imagining and imaging, which offered the prospect of intriguing fusions and intermedial experimentations. Like the very best ‘Renaissance man’, Martin lived in both the past and in the present, and anticipated the future — without tension, compromise, or timidity. He was also an affable and serious-minded gentleman (in the fullest sense of that term) who, while somewhat older than the majority of his MA cohort, had a heart that matched their youth. Martin was such a good exemplar to set before them; a paragon of sober, passionate, and joy-filled professionalism.
Recently, I told Martin that he reminded me of a walnut whip. ‘Oh! Like a well-proportioned cone-seashell, perhaps?’, he replied (His mind was ever that of a naturalist.) ‘No!’, I said (now, feeling more than slightly inane), ‘I mean you’re hard and wrinkly on the outside, but soft, sweet, and a bit naughty on the inside’. He saw the truth of it, and laughed. Thus his myriad preoccupations were matched only by the variety and complexity of his personality.
Martin went out of my world just a few weeks ago, and was naughty to the end. In the context of the MA Vocational Practice module’s presentation module, he’d delivered, with the uprightness and aplomb of a seasoned radio broadcaster, a reading about Giger’s surreptitious insertion of a phallic image into a college poster. ‘Of all the things you could’ve chosen to read …’, I moaned inwardly. But Martin was a maverick. Doing either the wrong thing at the right time, or the right thing at the wrong time, or the wrong thing at the wrong time were, for him, much more compelling options than doing the right thing at the right time. I had so much to say to Martin, and so much to learn from him.
Further information about Martin Herbert’s work is available on his website.