Summary

Vathek* is a version of an earlier artist’s book and novel The System of Landor’s Cottage. A Pendant to Poe’s Last Story (T11929) that Graham published in 1987. In 1998, the artist produced Le Système du Cottage Landor (T11938), which is a translation in French of T11929. Vathek* is the same as Le Système du Cottage Landor in every respect except that it has a dust jacket over a plain cover. The dust jacket is principally dark red with white coloured lettering. The title Vathek appears on it in large italic script against an orange background with a decorative border around it. The dust jacket presents the book as Vathek by William Beckford (1760–1844), an extravagant Gothic novel, first published in 1786 in French. Graham’s addition of an asterisk to the title, which on the cover of T11939 looks like a flower, differentiates it from Beckford’s novel. Vathek* was published in Brussels by Yves Gevaert, who also published The System of Landor’s Cottage. A Pendant to Poe’s Last Story. It was produced in an edition of thirty, of which Tate’s is the second copy.

Graham is a Canadian conceptual artist, who lives and works in Vancouver. His work appropriates material from a diverse range of sources, particularly literary works. These include writings by Herman Melville (1819–91) and Ian Fleming (1908–64) and the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98). In The System of Landor’s Cottage he uses a short story called Landor’s Cottage by the American mystery and horror writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49). Poe’s narrative was inspired by his final home, a farmhouse in New York State (now part of the Bronx) where he took up residence in 1846. A photograph of it is included opposite the title page of Vathek*.

The theme of the literary pendant or extension is central to Graham’s concept in The System of Landor’s Cottage, which is presented as a pendant to Poe’s narrative. In the original story, Poe describes an idyllic house that the narrator stumbles upon on a country walk. In The System of Landor’s Cottage, Graham extended this tale into a 312-page, fourteen-chapter novel by inserting into Poe’s narrative a lengthy description of an annexe to the house, which provides a metaphor for the literary supplement it constitutes. The addition is so much longer than the first story that it threatens to overwhelm it. The artist has explained:

[I]nterrupting the narrative, I have taken over Poe’s first-person narrator’s voice and his viewpoint, describing in this voice and from this viewpoint a small room which houses a machine ... highly complex and of no apparent rational function, a machine which seems ‘out of place’ and which calls for an explanation. The explanation is subsequently provided by Mr Landor himself, the owner of the house and the narrator’s host who undertakes to describe the origin and history of the annex. The main body of my novel is taken up with Mr Landor’s account of the components of the annex-machine, and the relation of the apparatus to the cottage as a whole.

(Quoted in Rodney Graham, 1988, p.40.)


For the text of The System of Landor’s Cottage Graham was inspired by the novels of the French writer Raymond Roussel (1877–1933), whose complex writings, which play with systems of language, were favoured by the surrealists. Graham’s narrative extends Poe’s with a series of stories within stories in the spirit of Roussel (Russell Ferguson in Rodney Graham, 2002, p.59). The artist has explained: ‘I have tried to make (my) text from pre-fabricated textual elements, and through a kind of ready-made rhetorical style – somewhat flat and rigid – with the hope that by means of a stress on grammatical and rhetorical “rigor” I might erect a hollow structure in the shape of a novel out of sentences of maximum structural integrity’ (quoted in Rodney Graham, 1988, p.7).

Poe quotes Vathek in Landor’s Cottage and it was this reference that first made Graham aware of Beckford’s novel. T11939 plays with the connection between Beckford’s early story and the genre exemplified by Poe, and includes an unacknowledged quotation from it. Graham considers Vathek* to be the ‘original edition’ of the French version of Landor’s Cottage (email from Andre Gordts to Tate curator Max Andrews, 22 November 2004, Tate Gallery Records).

Further reading:
Rodney Graham, exhibition catalogue, Vancouver Art Gallery, 1988.
Dorothea Zwirner, Rodney Graham, Cologne 2004.
Friedrich Meschede and Yves Gevaert (eds), Rodney Graham. Through the Forest, exhibition catalogue, Museu d’Art Contemporani, Barcelona 2010.

Alice Sanger
July 2010