There Is An Equilibrium Here… ?

Five days and fifty miles I traveled by foot.

Narrating the journey, as a linear movement would be possible, but my experiences were more complex, more entangled, with a range of eruptions and encounters in the changing landscapes which continue to resonate.

Some sense of the journey may be gained, however, through the images below, some of which were incorporated in a joint exhibition held in Caithness, Scotland, in 2016.  Each image, a compound of particular serendipitous conditions, mediated by subsequent selective sensibilities, represents moments of revelation.  Brief entanglements, enchanted, with the rich flows of time and the dynamic inter-relationships between people, other species and landscapes.

The Flow Country, a patch work of Lochs and Lochans, stitched by burns and rivers, often offered views to the distinctive peaks to the south of Morvern, Maidens Pap and Smean.  These peaks guided my journey, topographic beacons, which drew me onward and inwards.

birdland

Bird-land encounters were prevalent, when I couldn’t see birds their song was ever present, even at night my sleep was disturbed by their ghostly clicks and calls.  Only once did bird-land go silent, during my last morning heavy rain confined me to the tent, but it was the energetic call of song birds which told me it was time to depart.

Before my journey commenced, I encountered the realities of the avian beach, where angels wings littered the foreshore : stripped of flesh, divorced pairs of wings, perhaps the work of skuas.  Five peewits mobbed a buzzard ; a heron leaving the Strath, frantically avoids being pulled down by gulls, its elongated body bending unnaturally in utter terror desperately dodging the beaks of kindred.

beach-dream

Stooping for water at Allt nam Beist (Burn of the Beast) there is a huge splash nearby.  I quickly turn to see an Osprey breaking from the water, a fish hanging from its feet, it ascends and turns to the south : I did not exist.

The loch is fringed with deposits of sand, beneath which is sealed peat, erosion reveals the stumps of ancient trees.  No arboreal fantasy but revelations of possibilities.  Moments later, fragments of flint, reveal themselves from where these deposits are being gradually worn by the gently lapping waters.  The forms of the worked flints suggest they were left by hunter-gatherers who also rested at this location, perhaps 7000 years ago.  We probably drank from the same burn, in which small fishes still leap to catch flies, and rested at the shores of the same loch : I almost heard the whisper of their voices.

Abandoned farmsteads in the uplands were prevalent, part of a  widely known story of the depopulation (the deliberate removal of people and change of landscapes) of Caithness and Sutherland, and much of Scotland.  Sheep played their unwitting role in this story, introduced by landowners, with landscapes and communities being re-organised in part to accommodate them on the land in the 19th century.  It seemed appropriate to sleep where the sheep had been penned, so for one night my tent nestled within a small sheep fold.

cotton-grass

The low red sandstone walls gave some shelter to the wind which whipped along the Lochside.  Then I wondered, it was a very small pen, perhaps too small for sheep.  Earlier inhabitations are also found in the uplands, hut circles perhaps four thousand years old, within which I think I slept.   I wanted to mark my brief dwelling at this spot, cotton grass, evocative of fleece, nestled in the cracks of the walls.

aumbry

Many of the longhouses (and shielings) have stone boxes built into the walls.  Aumbries perhaps for cool storage of foodstuffs, or safe display of treasured items.  Years later the soil reveals, the signs of former fertility, a flush of nitrogen, often ring such settlements, a sharp reminder of our loss : stinging nettles (Urtica dioica).

Those rich deposits can also be found in buildings which have been abandoned as sheep shelters – hard won ground, hard won places, lives and loves no more… !

hearth

Deer-land, dear-land, our-land.  For much of my journey I traveled through deer-land.  At first it was their multiple footprints, along shared tracks, least resistance across ground that you would sink deep in peat and water, still used by estates.  Then I encountered the herd, aggregations of stags and larger groups of does.  They watched, with flick of ear and rise of nose, my every move.  Brief silhouette on skyline, flash of white tail, gone.  A few watched longer, the last small groups of does and hinds, tenderness grazed patiently if I kept a respectful distance.  I continued to follow the deer paths, a different form of route along edge of river and burn, their path cutting more directly across loop and meander, a quicker more confident travel which I learned to trust.   One night I was woken by the grumph and roar of stags, so close it seemed they were next to the tent.

iron

Shelter can be found in these lands, a range of corrugated iron bothies, huts and boat houses.  Often a focus for hunting or fishing they are open to all who respects the spaces provided.  In some cases, a chronology of rubbish suggests it has been 20 years since properly used.  Brown rusted skeletal beds, and broken seats greened with age, a reminder of comfort and company long afforded by such places to those who make the journey.

bothy

A tradition of visitation was marked upon the wall of the few I visited, written in pencil, etched in pen and scratched with pen knives, a stratigraphy of dates and names going back to at least the 1930’s.

marks

R Hendry 11th May 1931 Killed Fox Last Night – there is a reality to this landscape, foraged, browsed, managed and changed with time.

My preconceptions of the Flow Country as empty lands was being challenged by the encounters, with the liquid landscape, I could only readily traverse where others had created track and bridge.  Many of the burns were wide and deep enough that a bridge was needed to cross, and if not maintained routes will shut and landscapes become less accessible.  In one case, I balanced precariously, with a full pack, on old railway sleepers which were the only remains of the long gone timber bridge.  Upon which I couldn’t turn back and if I continued was likely to take an early bath.  They bounced and swayed as I slowly edged over, not believing I actually made it to the other side.

bridge

Lichen colonises wood-land above peat quenched waters. They lead us to places of contemplation.  The aggregation of the fishers bothy, the curation and discard of meaningful journeys.

assemblages

Around the huts, slowly sinking into the peat, clinker hulks rotting on the shores of distant lochs.  Small rowing boats, in the main, but evocative of the sea and a wider tradition of boat building.  Rose headed copper rivets, copper nails, plank and cauking, paddles and playful catch.

clinker

For a moment, upland water, settles on the hull of the boat.  I drift, carried on the thermals, dip and rise like the cycle of the swifts, and soar in the gyre.

copper-nails

Woodland disappears beneath peat and the hooves of herbivores. I flow, return to the source.

clinker-beach

We are riveted to the changes of the foreshore, inescapably we are bound to the cycle.

sand

Imagine if we should be able to see worlds in grains of sand…

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In July 2016 I walked solo from Thurso on the north coast of Caitness south, through farmlands and into the watery interior of the Flow Country. Camping for four nights I arrived five days later in Dunbeath. The walk was my approach to developing content for a joint exhibition, with Ian Giles and Andy Heald, at North Lands.  It resulted in a series of photographic prints, texts and sculptures by me which responded to the encounters.

installations

Thanks to Dunbeath Preservation Trust for kindly providing accommodation at the Old School House in the days before and after the journey.  Many thanks to North Lands for their support and to Andy and Ian for the collaboration and companionship to produce the exhibition There Is An Equilibrium Here…

Contemporary Prehistories – the Santiago Pilgrimage

Inexorably, flowing lines led me to the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea (CGAC).

As I explored the CGAC collection, synapses sensitized to entanglements with a deeper past, I encountered a few pieces by artists who are clearly informed by their relationship to the ‘archaeological’ which I hope you may find of interest:

Paisaxe con ósoPaisaxe con óso by Galician photographer Manuel Vilariño

In the tryptich by Manuel Vilariño, the landscape with bones is a series of pipe joints and a human femur.  Understated tone and texture make it at first difficult to immediately distinguish the artefactual from the skeletal. Yet the unique qualities of bone, emphasized by the composition, evoke a subconscious understanding that something is wrong in the landscape : fragmentary and disjointed  : something of our humanity is present amongst the detritus of industry which we bear witness to.

Atrabilarios I, II, IIIAtrabilarios IIAtrabilarios I, II, III by Columbian sculptor Doris Salcedo

Doris Salcedo’s powerfully haunting piece presences a series of ghost like shoes.  A vellum is stitched, in an operation to seal women’s shoes : captured in an organic vitrine.  A state of being, leaving them out of focus, unresolved, trapped in the timelessness of the gallery.

Estudio para De CapoEstudio para Da Capo

by Francesc Torres

Power Contested

 Power Contested (Three Graces In Unstable Equilibrium)

by Francesc Torres

The pieces by Francesc Torres have incorporated a Venus figurine (a c 25 – 30 thousand years old ‘art’ form).  Not just any Venus figurine, however, as it would appear to be (so distinctive as many are) representations of the Willendorf figurine from Austria.  In one piece, Estudio para Da Capo, the image is drawn on text printed : text printed twice so one set is partially superimposed over the other (palimpsest like !) but having rotated the paper first, one set of text appears upside down and running right to left (confounding our attempts to read meanings).  In the other piece, Power Contested (Three Graces In Unstable Equilibrium), three Bronze replicas cluster together (evoking Neoclassical summonings of the daughters of gods) upon a racing tyre.  Ancient forms, seemingly stable, a deep rooted source of inspiration and appropriation of the female form.  Yet resting on high speed modernity, vulnerable to falling…

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The pieces I have highlighted in the CGAC collection variously engaged with the archaeological (the human bone within Vilariño’s piece, the shoes within the pieces by Salcedo) or explicitly evoked prehistoric remains in their work (the Venus Figurines appropriated by Torres).

But the expression, contemporary prehistories, could as much relate a particular kind of experience of visiting a gallery space (when undertaken without referring to catalogues or labels).  The mediation of meanings (either intended or unintended) through these materialisations has much in kind with (as a prehistorian) the first encounter with an object from the distant past.  There is no other voice of testimony, no text to read, it is a raw, exposed state of response ‘to the things themselves’.  We then reflect from other frames of reference, from our experience, from our knowledge, and develop a sense of, an understanding, an interpretation of…. …. …. …. …. …. …..?

What such gallery pieces express is an ongoing dialogue which partially reveals, not a text which delivers authoritative meaning.

Perhaps contemporary prehistories are practices by which we remember the forgotten, by presencing in ways which do not privilege text, and are contingent and open to dialogue and reflection.

Such pieces perhaps challenge the authority of those who would choose we forget.

The conversation with the past should not be forgotten.

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I have highlighted the pieces by Manuel Vilariño, Doris Salcedo and Francesc Torres but there were also several other works by artists in CGAC whose relationship to the ‘archaeological’ is perhaps better known, this included an aerial photographic piece by Andreas Gursky ‘Thebes, West’ and an installation by Mark Dion ‘Boxes of the Paleontologist’. 
Only when I returned from the Santiago Pilgrimage did I try and find out more about Doris Salcedo’s sculpture and was not surprised to learn that there is a powerful ‘back story‘ to the piece and of the practices of Salcedo more broadly.  In Andreas Huyssen’s excellent essay on Doris Salcedo’s piece ‘Unland: The Orphan’s Tunic’ he evocatively describes her works as Memory Sculpture. To be found in ‘Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory’.
Equally the work of  Francesc Torres, from Barcelona, has a deeply political dimension around memory and forgetting.  Another project he was involved in comprised a photographic piece responding to the exhumation of a mass grave with a forensic anthropology team at Villamayor de los Montes and was entitled ‘Dark Is the Room Where We Sleep‘. 
A good account of the changing inter-relationships between artists and the prehistoric can be found in ‘Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory’ by Lucy R Lippard
 

Archaeoprint : a hidden landscape

ArchaeoprintARCHAEOPRINT a hidden landscape by Paul Musgrove will be showing at Gallery Ten in Edinburgh next month:

Utilising complex archaeological and mapping data to create images of the hidden landscape this presentation forms a creative view of both archaeological data and ancient artefact in a contemporary artistic context. The data is combined using studio applications and traditional print techniques to create a visual response to the material, resulting in a unique set of prints.

 

Objective: conversation on sculpture

Objective, A Citywide Conversation on Sculpture, is taking place in Glasgow with 16 venues across the city exhibiting sculpture, events and performances in March and April.

Having seen the map showing the locations of the venues, one lunchtime I had a quick conversation with sculpture.  First I visited the Patricia Fleming Projects Art in the Public Realm exhibition at South Block which detailed the development of two projects.

Patricia Flemining exhibitionI then dashed through the streets of Glasgow to the excellent Gallery of Modern Art  (GOMA).  As a bonus I stumbled across a piece of public art I had never spotted before (too many lunches in front of the computer !).  Built into the wall of a restored B-listed building (named The Subirachs Building) is a carved sandstone Bust:

‘The Client’s love of the City of Barcelona was expressed by the insertion of an inverse Bust in the Main facade sculpted by the Catalan artist Josep Maria Subirachs who is responsible for work on Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.’

Subirachs SculptureSlightly out of breath, I arrived at GOMA and passed the Statue of Wellington resplendently adorned with his usual modern hat !

GOMA wellingtonInside GOMA I had time for a brief exploration of the exhibition ‘Every Day’. It comprises sculptures from six Glasgow artists which explore familiar objects, juxtaposing, and reworking them in different media.  A glimpse of these is provided through Tim Steads wooden viewing room ‘The Peephole’.

Peephole views ObjectiveI will not reveal anymore, other than to say that there are some striking and thought provoking individual pieces, together which are well worth a journey to GOMA to explore further.  Further details of Objective can be found at the GOMA wordpress website or downloaded on pdf map.

And if you cant come to Glasgow,

go explore your city, your neighborhood, for sculpture and take part in the conversation….

Above Scotland’s Landscapes

Our perception of the world was radically altered when the first images of the green and blue planet were received from space.  Similarly, when we fly (if we are lucky enough to get a window seat !) the views of towns, fields, woodlands, coastlines and mountains reveal patterns we can never see with our feet on the ground.

A fantastic new exhibition Above Scotland has just started at The Lighthouse.  It has been produced jointly between The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and Architecture and Design Scotland and explores Scotland’s cultural landscapes from aerial photographic evidence.

The exhibition comprises a wide number of high quality aerial images which show the remarkable diversity and richness of Scotland’s landscapes.  The provision of large interactive magnifiers at each display panel not only gives a sense of viewing the landscape through a plane window but also allows you to explore in more detail the complexity of the landforms, monuments and vegetation from above.

As well as the panels, there are several engaging, and fun short films, produced as part of the project.  These show the responses of local school children to local places as captured through their own aerial photography.  The exhibition is also complemented by the publication of a new book Scotland’s Landscapes.

It runs from 26th October 2012 to 23 January 2013, so plenty of time to go and get a different perspective on Scotland’s Landscapes…!