“To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the Palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an Hour”.
William Blake (cited in Punter, 1988, p174).
My inspiration derives from my loss of self within my chosen landscape; a grotty ‘edgeland’ at the top of Langston Harbour near Havant in Hampshire, England, bordered by a motorway and a sewage works. In this landscape I see the “World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower”. I experience the sublime in amongst the rubbish and excrement of the local populace and find communion with nature and the Romantic landscapes of Turner and Martin. It is a liminal space which has had many incarnations throughout time: a flint mine, a dump in the 1960-70s and its current costume, sculpted by man’s hand – the simulated naturalness of a nature reserve. This fantasy landscape forms an insignificant part of an increasingly fake world that we inherit, inhabit and subsequently pass on to future generations. Any landscape can essentially be read as an inescapable narrative of intervention, until we no longer have an understanding of primordial nature. I am beginning to comprehend the complexity of the illusion in which we live today.
Langstone Harbour is the area to which I am continually drawn to undertake research in a traditionally Romantic fashion that, in turn, informs my work. I am deconstructing and exploring my understanding of what landscape art is, or can be, and what the inherent meanings I find embedded in the scene around me might disclose. The landscape has become more than a genre; it has become the medium with which I work and from which I learn (Casid, 2008). I am searching for a reconnection with Nature, an enchanted moment in amongst the disenchanted consumer-driven technology based world of today (Ritzer, 1999). I want to experience those awe-inspiring feelings and moments of fear induced by my natural surroundings; I want my moment of transcendence in the landscape. I want to experience the Romantic sublime rather than the consumer-orientated sublime of today. The word ‘sublime’ in general parlance has come to connote the concept of perfection. The 21st century landscape is no longer flawless; the presence of rubbish for me has come to denote one of the inherent elements of fear found in the sublime of Edmund Burke (1757). We wonder at and are in awe of the sheer abundance of rubbish we produce, while Nature struggles to reintegrate it into the earth. Our detritus has become irreversibly mixed into the strata of the land itself and the air we breathe. I actively search for and collect rubbish as I walk, re-contextualising it through my work and bringing it back into view, resulting in a visual expression of the synergy between nature and mankind today. Gablik argues that art should respond to the ‘feminine values of care and responsiveness, of seeing and responding to need’, (1993, p67) I feel my practice hears and responds to the need of the planet. As Andy Goldsworthy has observed, ‘This is a very exciting time to live in, because we are reassessing our relationship with the land’. (Lane and Kumar, 2003, p63).
At present there are three avenues that I am exploring to research this relationship: mark-making, collection and display and photography. The first way is mark-making which has developed over a few years into a weekly ‘en plein air’ record that explores the potential mark-making abilities of natural forces by staging a creative act; attaching a string with a pen to my apple tree. The pen explores the surface area of the paper made accessible by the string over seven days, investigating time and space; creating a visual narrative of the week. I am facilitating the weather’s ability to make abstract expressionistic marks by allowing the elements a chance to become the author of marks recorded on paper. I have assisted with the making of these marks although they have no indexical link back to my hand. However there is an indexical link back to the tree and the weather; therefore I am offering Nature a chance of authorship by enabling the visible representation of her ‘voice’. Levy suggests that “This is art’s real power – to give new ways of telling the story of nature” (2008, p75). The piece of paper held below, becomes a part of the landscape, a vessel that collects within its fibres and captures on its surface the layers of marks produced by the chance assistance of wind, rain, ice and snow. This includes the serendipitous marks left by falling leaves, passing animals, birds and insects. Each mark produced articulates the ephemeral workings of natural forces in a moment of time, making them visible, bringing hidden Nature into the realm of the world of art. Over a period of years I intend to capture the environmental changes that may occur due to global warming, offering an alternative research method that incorporates new depth into our understanding of incremental changes that otherwise could be overlooked.
The second way in which I am exploring this relationship is through the collection and display of natural and manmade objects, the manmade objects being the rubbish I find delivered and shaped by the sea and the dead plants I find at the harbour’s edge. I am continually amazed by the diversity of objects that the sea produces for me to find and there is the thrill of the mundane becoming extraordinary; equally the search for the illusive found object is an important element of my work. I am harnessing the physical residue of rubbish to explore my feelings when present in the landscape. I felt compelled to turn the rubbish and the teasels I found into perversely beautiful sculptural ‘flower’ arrangements. The sculptures represent the landscape as I find it; a transient moment I have witnessed on the beach becomes a permanent arrangement in the gallery. Drawing on the art of flower arranging I am celebrating life whilst recognizing and acknowledging death. The use of flower arrangements has many connotations: celebration and mourning, for example, weddings and funerals; the church and its religious associations; the Women’s Institute. Within these sculptural arrangements rubbish is re-contextualized as a flower, each piece being carefully placed with consideration to size, colour and position. The colour of the rubbish is an integral part of the sculptures; in some I have used the material untouched, the mixed found colours indicating the diversity of detritus I find. In others I have selected individual colours to signify particular ideas: green for the Earth’s landmass, blue for its oceans and white as an expression of death and mourning. I sprayed some arrangements with white paint, neutralizing the colour, but it took a step away from the truth; it became a veiled ghost of something past rather than of the here and now. The recent addition of found computer parts within the arrangements indicates the current movement of the sublime of today becoming integrated into the digital realms of cyberspace, and the alternative enchantment of the virtual world which is fast becoming our future. Other objects incorporated symbolize the cycle of life; tampon applicators suggest the human life cycle whilst teasels grow, die and rise again next year reflecting “the passion and death of Jesus” (Morgan, 2009, p32). Biles suggests that “A spectre is haunting contemporary art – the spectre is religion” (2009, p187) and he has also noted that Derrida points out “The paradoxical state of the spectre … is neither being nor non-being” (p190). The additional religious thread running through my work, could be seen to be exposing religious ideas that may be circulating in the unconscious. For me this connection to religion opens a path to childhood memories stored within my unconscious.
The third way I am exploring this relationship is through photography. Benjamin suggests when confronted with photographs of such things as rubbish-heaps, the camera transfigures it so we only see beauty (Sontag, 2008, p107). My original series of close-up photographs of rubbish was found in situ on the shoreline and produced perversely beautiful pictures, which transcended the reality of the beach. They have developed into a further series of photographs exploring the landscape taken through plastic bottles, found discarded in the environment. The images they depict are recognisable as landscapes, but are a strange new world where rubbish has become inextricably combined into the very fabric of the Earth. Each photograph represents a view of the landscape that has become overshadowed by consumerism, a simulated landscape that has become our reality. A caught digital instant, immortalising a moment in time within a photograph that viewers must look beyond the surface beauty of and seek the hidden truth held within. Barthes came to the conclusion that there are signs of death held within photographs (Barthes, 2010) and this is a theory that can be applied to my work. Metaphorically speaking, the photographs show something that should be dead and buried; the plastic bottle has served its purpose and should have been recycled; it was present for the photograph but is not there now, yet it survives, as a loved one might, in a photograph.
On first sight my work appears to be beautiful, followed by the viewer’s comprehension that there is rubbish within the work which is recognised, connected to and identified with. The present concerns of consumption and the sustainability of our environment become visible considerations. It also questions whether beauty and the Romantic feeling of the sublime can still be found in the landscape. I have discovered there is a dark side to my work: death. I confront my own mortality, the mortality of life on Earth and the mortality of Earth itself. Through observing the evolving landscape and critically evaluating my work, I have begun to know myself and understand how the landscapes I have grown up in have informed the development of my ‘self’. Initially I was shocked by how many childhood memories could be found visually represented through my work and have since researched this intriguing phenomenon. Both of the following quotes seem to make a connection that is so explicit that we tend not to notice it:
‘The concept of landscape as an active verb and an ongoing process, as the making and remaking of land and human subject, is impossible to avoid.’ (Casid, 2008, p179).
“Give me a child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man.” (Xavier cited in Ingrams, 2012, p100)
Having undertaken the reconsideration of the relationship between the landscape, my ‘self’ and my work, I have found reference to early memories which include; the child who sat at her father’s side, making binary computers and tin flowers, developing her haptic and visual co-ordination whilst producing 2D and 3D objects. I was brought up by religious parents, (my grandmother arranged flowers at my grandfather’s church) who had one foot in the Victorian era whilst being surrounded by the notions of ‘flower power’. I was encouraged to observe and appreciate plants and trees and forage for fossils: I found sharks teeth at West Wittering, jet at Whitby and amber along the Suffolk coast. The excitement of finding natural treasures developed early and has become an innate part of my personality. I grew up with the sea: my childhood was spent playing on the beach at every opportunity, as I was and am, irresistibly drawn there by the sea that saved me from my childhood angst. I was and still am tantalized by the moody atmosphere of dusk dark storm-filled skies illuminated by winter sunlight, the monumental clouds sculpted by light. I am intrigued by the huge open vistas out to sea, storms, mist and the muted colours of the oceanic sublime, becoming lost in the magnitude of my surroundings, the felt insignificance in the presence of omnipotence. Finally I found the child who was introduced to and lived with the transience of life from the age of 15, death became her constant companion for the next 12 years. Therefore we can see that “without relation to things … the self would not be realised” (Marshall, 2008, p199).
I have concluded that my work is the product of a journey informed and guided by numerous influences including emotional stimuli, innate impulses and compulsions, personal contextualizing and the sea: my oceanic muse. I celebrate moments of the enchanted sublime that I experience out in the landscape with my work, whilst questioning the beauty of the landscape in its current manmade costume. In the future I expect this reciprocal relationship with Langstone Harbour and myself to continue to be the inspiration for my work, as this improvisational and collaborative way of working prolongs my journey of self-discovery whilst allowing me to observe and record our assimilation into the digital, spectacular world of cyberspace.
‘Landscapes change and change again, presenting an ever-expanding set of questions for study. We can only know them as specific entities for a short time, but through them – because of them – we can come to know our evolving selves’. (Harris, 2008, p194).
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