Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Battlemallet Planet

We’ve not finished moving house and this last weekend called for a trip to the Midlands to collect things. You can do this all on the M1, but I decided that was for wusses who are also wimps, so I took the A1, got lost and ended up in Nottingham. No big pain – I went to Warhammer World. Think of it as a tiny museum that is 90% gift-shop, 100% Warhammer.

There’s an exhibition. £7.50 for five rooms. For a lifer like me – nose pressed against the Games Workshop window in Colchester aged six – that’s incredible value for money. It’s a mixture of miniatures and dioramas. Big dioramas.

I’ve not taken photographs. Partly my temperament, partly because other people have done it, partly because it’s like dancing about architecture. The point of a diorama – of any sculpture – is its three-dimensional solidness and the implication of frozen time and intercepted movement. Photographs are cool – sometimes really cool – but the real things are sublime. I was reeling, howling, giggling. Literally dumbfounded. The largest diorama is 20’ x 10’ and two storeys tall, made with easily £50,000 of toy soldiers. Patrick Stuart's articles on the aesthetics of toy mans are top reading – treat them as a lecture series, take a trip to the Warhammer World exhibition space as primary reading for your end of term essay.

The macro diorama is viewed from a balcony stairway that goes around the outside of the exhibition space. You enter on the higher storey to divinely survey a battlefield of immense proportions. This is the right place to start you – that cinematic, scenic vastness can only be experienced once and any prior exposure to the diorama would diminish the impact. But this confounds the dramatic tempo of the piece, because you then encounter the most significant conflict – between this guy and this thing – at the very highest spire of the diorama, very early into your exploration. Atop the highest spire is the dramatically correct place for their conflict to take place, but as you descend and circle the piece you are guaranteed not to encounter any single event as dramatically significant again.

With that said, the macro-diorama (and others, one depicting an underground conflict between ratmen and dwarfs, another a mountaintop battle between space Vikings and bugs) makes excellent use of verticality and terrain features that obscure sight-lines to create sub-scenes: what is the background to one area becomes the foreground in another. It invites a three-dimensional exploration, revealing an extended moment. The simple semiotics of warfare makes the interrelatedness of these scenes and the possible consequences of different moments immediately apparent (a Genestealer crawling from a vent while the ground-crew of a Thunderhawk make final flight preparations: dwarf miners with candle-topped hats emerge into a chamber filled with Skaven broodmothers.) Inevitably this puts me in mind of the sublime level design of Dark Souls, multi-tiered, infolding, nautilus-like, secretive, though some older games – Shadow of the Colossus, Prince of Persia– have the same tease and reveal visual journey, the same solid understanding of 3d space. Or Romantic landscape architecture, where gentle undulations of the land would reveal and obscure different features of the grounds as visitors 
walked towards a country manor.

Before the first exhibition room proper are a few cases of history. The first models cast by Citadel, the first Warhammer rules set. Ancient dioramas that were used in White Dwarfs of old, a time when entire universes were defined by the whims of hairy Midlanders. They are miniscule in comparison, expressionistic – a single scene, the moment of crisis. Undead breach the dwarf fortress gates. Elves ride forth from the woods to slay the lichmaster. Sanguinius lies broken, the Warmaster leers, the Emperor ascends to destroy him. That scene is less than a cubic foot. The seed within a crystal forest.

Aged seven, I press my nose up against the window of Games Workshop. There are two dragons, one white, ridden by an Elf lord, another Green, ridden by a goblin shaman. The goblin dragon has purple warts.

Aged eight, my birthday, a card from my parents. The illustration is the box art from Titan Legions: an Emperor Titan makes war against an Ork Mega Gargant while armies of millions clash in the ruins of a city larger than is possible. Inside is a gift voucher for Games Workshop – just enough for a box set. I buy the Warhammer 40,000 2nd edition box set. The cover art is by John Blanche – a red and yellow armoured Blood Angel brandishes a primary blue power fist and a boltgun against hordes of onrushing Orks. He doesn’t meet our gaze – he’s looking for things to kill. Inside are twenty Space Marines, twenty Orks, forty Gretchin, a cardboard Ork dreadnaught. I grasp the rules, though I hardly play with them. The books, referencing twelve sided dice and Electoo monks and John Blanche Gothicism are portals.

Aged eleven my mother dies and, without understanding that I’m doing it, I focus myself on things that I can control – homework, computer games, learning a future history that has never existed. There’s no internet yet, really. There’s White Dwarf and conversations with friends, and over-excitement in the store with the elder-statesmen employees, venerable at the age of eighteen.

Recently my father returned a selection of my possessions long since forgotten in his house. This included that eighth birthday card. Now I can see how crude and ridiculous the fighting machines are: the phallic plasma cannon of the Emperor Titan, the distorted perspective that means the warring armies are discharging their weapons over the viewer’s left and right shoulder rather than at each other. I’ve framed it, and it will go up somewhere in the new house.

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