‘Standing Above Everything’: spiders, Major Hingston and the Everest

Euophphrys omnisuperstes or “Standing above everything” is a spider living living at 22,000 ft on the Himalayas.

The first specimen was collected by naturalist Richard W.G Hingston as he joined George Mallory, Andrew Irvine and other adventurous men in an attempt to climb Mount Everest in 1924. Hingston thought the spider to be cannibalistic and the highest resident on Earth.

‘Standing Above Everything: idle days and major battles’ is an exceptional publication by Ruth Clinton, Michael Hill and Niamh Moriarty that beautifully documents this man’s adventures and the expedition.

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The authors spent time digging through the Trinity College’s archives, and the book showcases latern slides and other photographic accounts found there.

‘Standing Above Everything’ hides many surprises for its readers: from the risograph poster that acts as a dust jacket, to glow-in-the-dark designs, some lovely postcards and the texts written from the point of view of the specimens collected by Hingston. It also possesses a deep intertextuality that will leave you wanting to read more books about mountains.

The book is published by 100 Years Ago Today in an edition of 200 hardcover copies.

Wayfarer books has interviewed the authors of ‘Standing Above Everything: idle days and major battles‘ to gain insight into this fascinating book.

Read on to learn about mysterious secret cities, black mold and glow-worms.

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WAYFARER BOOKS- Why did you choose Hingston as the protagonist for ‘Standing Above Everything: idle days and major battles? How did you find out about this man’s extraordinary adventures?

NIAMH MORIARTY: Ruth and I were working on a year-long artists’ residency at Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh, Co. Cork when we started working on ideas with Michael Hill for the book. Our research at the time was following Colonel Percy Fawcett, a cartographer and British Army officer, who was briefly stationed near Cobh.

We were interested in Fawcett because he had disappeared under unknown circumstances in 1925 during an expedition to find “Z” (his name for an ancient lost city which he believed to be in the uncharted jungles of Brazil). Over a hundred expeditions attempted to find Fawcett and the lost City of Z until, in 1934, the Brazilian government had to ban Fawcett-specific search parties.

The moment when Fawcett disappeared into the jungle, it seems as though his mission became an endless exploration of endless discovery. Never found, his likeness came to represent, for many of his followers, an enduring state of intrepid journeying (rather than a failed mission to conquer an unknowable place).

Michael found a similar character in Major Richard Hingston, who had lived in the neighbouring town of Passage West. An explorer in his own right, he also had a career as a medical officer and wrote extensively on animal habitats and behaviors.

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His lantern slides of British explorers and their guides in the Pamir and Himalayan mountain ranges, seemingly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the icy landscapes they were navigating, set the scene for our writing in the book.

We started reading Hingston’s publications and diaries in 2017, which revealed an ambivalent attitude towards the wars of the British Empire as well as some unexpectedly romantic meditations on nature.

 

Find out about other archives and museums around the world visited by Wayfarer Books to showcase some of their most treasured books.

 

‘Standing Above Everything’: a work through Trinity College’s archives

 

WF – Could you describe your work at the archives for making ‘Standing Above Everything: idle days and major battles?

NM – We began by sorting through Trinity College Dublin’s digital archive of Hingston’s glass lantern slides and photographic plates. We also had the opportunity to meet with the College’s manuscripts department to view some of the original glass slides as well. These are very delicate, and some have already been permanently damaged by black mold.

We were first drawn to the photographs that Hingston took of the jungles he visited in South America.After considering using these images, we realised that they could only offer a colonial, Western interpretation of the beautiful scenery.

In contrast, we found that the images he took from the Pamir Mountains and Himalayas exposed the hardships faced by the team of explorers in the desolate surroundings.

Although they are some of the first photographs taken of the region, they do not necessarily present the subjects at their most domineering and advanced.

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WF – “The texts, relayed through the voices of insect and arachnid specimens, convey experiences of time, ecology, displacement, conflict, and loss”. Could you elaborate about these texts and their meaning? Who was in charge of them?

NM – There are a number of texts in the book, depending on how you interpret them. Ruth and I wrote from the perspectives of two specimens Hingston collected, creating narratives from the perspectives of a jumping spider (found at 20,000 feet on Mount Everest) and a colony of glow-worms, found in the valleys and marshlands of the Himalayas.

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RUTH CLINTON – In the spider’s text, I used the placing of the words on the page to express the idea that the spider is an architect. Its world is given meaning by the structures it creates. So when those structures fail, i.e. when its web is destroyed, the world doesn’t make sense any more and language breaks down. I picture time for the spider being created as it builds its web. It is a wheel, so once it finishes one particular task (say, laying the radius of the web) that task then both exists in the past and the future because of the regularity of its work.

Everything is written [in the texts] in the present tense until after the spider experiences the trauma of having its work destroyed and its body mutilated by the human. Then, traumatised, it no longer only exists in the present and becomes scattered and confused.

A passage from Hingston’s book ‘A Naturalist in Himalaya’ (1920), describes in enthusiastic detail an experiment with a spider’s web, which is repeatedly damaged by the explorer to test whether the spider knows how to fix it. We decided to work with this key interaction as a metaphor for colonialist destruction in the name of ‘science’. Hingston’s gradual intrusion into the spider’s world results in a violent act that asserts human (or western) power, justified by science. In the end, Hingston is really pleased that, in fact, the spider isn’t, according to him, intelligent – just working off instinct.

NM – While the spider’s perspective takes on the point of view of a mature and resolute architect; the juvenile glow-worms echo the voices of a brigade of younger soldiers.

For this [a part of the text] I took  inspiration from an Eastern myth that describes the souls of departed soldiers reincarnating as fireflies (supernaturally rising up from their low lying habitats in places like battlefields).

The collective creatures wake up inside the shells of freshly laid glow-worm eggs, unaware or unsurprised by their new incarnation: they are civil servants, unencumbered by individual thought.

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They endure whatever situation they find themselves in and abide by the laws of a higher power (be it that of the state or of Nature itself). They use a plural perspective (‘we’) to invoke the hive mind of the animal, as well as the empirical ‘Royal We’ and as the ‘us against nature’ attitude of the human species. This attitude was of course particularly prevalent at Hingston’s time, but continues to endure even in the face of global disaster.

As they go through the boredom and terror of life as nocturnal insects they are visited by memories of their past lives at war (birds-of-prey become air raid bombers, shedding a skin prompts the memory of carrying a fallen compatriot, and they recall a scene where they themselves saw fireflies rise up as the glowing eyes of fallen soldiers across a battlefield).

Eventually the grubs grow lethargic and go through their final transformation into fireflies. Through this they realise that despite whatever trauma the have been through, nature is indifferent to their struggle and will go on with or without them. The fluctuation (that they have been resenting) between night and day must continue eternally. If day or night was to win over the other, all life would perish. The final page has a quote from ‘Hotaru no Hikari’ or ‘Glow of the Fireflies’ (1881) which was a popular song for graduation ceremonies and New Year’s Eve in Japan, sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. After WW2 it was considered too militant and waned in popularity.

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The visual aspects of ‘Standing Above Everything: idle days and major battles

 

WF – The texts interact with the book design and layout (for example, when the text mentions darkness, the page is black). How was the process of picking the visual aspects of ‘Standing Above Everything: idle days and major battles?

MICHAEL HILL – The text on the black pages represents the nocturnal perspective of the glowworms and this is emphasised by incorporating a glow in the dark bookmark which shows a pattern composed of glowworm and firefly signals.
As the glowworm text relates to a band of soldiers, we enjoy that the patterns on the bookmark are also reminiscent of morse code signals.
        The white pages were utilised to highlight the opposing text, writen from the spider’s perspective. In a simple way, this visually symbolises the icy landscape, the fragility of the web and the starkness of the spider’s narrative.
Ruth ended her text by incorporating a section from an Emily Dickinson poem, ‘A spider sewed at night’, in the hexagonal form of a web. She also playfully included some text based on the steps for the tarantella (tarantula) folk dance.
The imagery printed on tracing paper also references the spider text in that the web appears to be very structural but also morphs back into the representation of a mountainous landscape.

NM – The text is written so that it can be read straight through, or, from either perspective on alternating pages. The joining sentences in italics at the beginning and end of each page are juxtaposing fragments taken from Hingstons’ WW1 diaries and his book ‘A Naturalist in Himalaya’ (1920). These verses represent his disembodied voice, inhabiting the text as a ghost.

WAYFARER BOOKS – This is the second time you three collaborate in making a book. How is the process of making a book between three people?

MH: I am consistently intrigued and excited by Ruth and Niamh’s ongoing artistic collaboration with each other. They excavate the most obscure sources of archive material and research from any place they encounter and inhabit and construct partly fictional narratives based on facts. I feel that my role or contribution in the projects we have worked on is to somehow gather these expansive and nebulus ideas into a structure that can communicate many complex threads in a form that can be experienced in a tangible and meaningful way, either as a trail or book etc.
        In terms of working together, we all conduct a lot of research: whether that is visiting archives, studying and reading in libraries, or collecting and analysing existing artist books, printing techniques, or exhibition formats. We work remotely, even in different parts of the country, but come together to discuss our findings and coagulate the ideas into their final forms.

WF – In ‘Wound with a tear’, you explored “the ongoing deterioration and renewal of Trinity College’s archives”. Could you explain the importance of archives in your artistic practice?

NM – In 2014, Michael invited us to devise an offsite exhibition at Trinity College Dublin in association with the Douglas Hyde Gallery that took the form of a trail of interventions around the historic campus. We set about researching the history and current condition of the Old Library, where Ruth had undertaken a body of research on the effects of dust on the archive. This research resulted in a series of fictional interdepartmental memos between the Old Library and the Geology Department housed in the Museum Building next door. In order to write their discussion, we each took a role and correspond via email in character.

We are always interested in the myth of permanency that archives and national collections endeavour to project, which we also saw in Hingston’s compulsive taxonomy; collecting insect specimens for the British Museum even in the most dire circumstances.

WF- I am particularly intrigued by the set of four images in which a lonely figure stands in front of a mountain and, by turning the pages, everything around it disappears. I am guessing this image was edited?

MH – Richard Hingston’s daughter, Sheilagh, very generously gave us permission to use the photographs in the archive however we wanted. We didn’t take many liberties apart from that image, which was used as a metaphor for the immensity of nature in proportion to mankind – despite the cultural attitude of occupation and ownership of land. It also symbolises the singular attitude of Hingston and other men of his era that set out to place their mark at the extreme poles and heights of our planet.

‘Standing Above Everything: idle days and major battles‘ is available through 100yrsagotoday

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