It is nearly a year since I filmed the footage of the Spring Bore at the start of the covid19 pandemic. There were no surfers, few other viewers. Just me and the Severn. It was very poignant, a privilege. Next week I shall film again, haunted by the memory of that unique moment in time. And look forward to seeing people surfing the wave again.
Since then the film has been selected for EarthPhoto2020 (Royal Geographic Society & Forestry Commission) from over 3k submissions. It was also selected for RWA Open 2020. Sadly, the pandemic has prevented it from being seen in gallery contexts.
I watch it again now and it is mournful and thoughtful. Ahead lay a year that would witness the NHS’s unerring ability to answer our calls when we needed them. Despite government cuts and chaotic advisories/rules. At the time of filming it was unimaginable that the pandemic would still be rife. We have come along way and time has disappeared.
The hope is that those beautiful dawn choruses we heard, unimpeded by traffic sounds, will be remembered when we discuss climate change and environments. And that our nurses and hospital staff receive a fair wage for their invaluable part of helping us through which, for many, will possibly have been the worst year of their life.
Meanwhile, have a watch and enjoy the voice of singer Eva Rune as she calls in the bore.
staring into white space waiting i see a circle in the sky start to emerge then fade away i’m watching slow breathing the whiteness blocking my ability to think the tide coming in and going out things float across my vision my eye keeps returning to the white and the yellow oh so slightly yellow circle that i keep thinking i can see but then can’t birds call in the dawn getting louder with hope for a new day then dip into silence muttering at its absence the future in a whiteout is clouded the past a smudge on a surface drawing on water the sun doesn’t rise the river flows both ways waiting just waiting for something to change
During lockdown I, like many others, have been doing more thinking than usual. I’ve read new books, experimented with different cooking, making art, trying out new apps and podcasts, basically allowing myself to explore things I was not looking at before. That includes ways to distract myself from feeling anxious.
Today, before I got out of bed, I dipped into a meditation app to find something new to start the day. I found ‘Connecting To The Soul Within’ by Saqib Rizvi. I gave it a go and the introduction resonated with me greatly, not in relation to my soul, but about ownership of ideas and places, due to my thoughts on going to sleep last night following reading a book. More about that later. What I took away from this, the thing that lodged in my mind, was the introduction. Rizvi described the stages of transgression that are needed to connect with one’s soul:
My mind momentarily wandered off on a tangent, thinking about the journey from the individual to the universal in landscape ownership terms. I did manage to bring it back in line and listen to the rest of the session. Am afraid I failed to locate my soul and must try harder next time. But I did feed my brain. I went downstairs with that fluttering around in my head.
Can land rightfully belong to anyone? I’m also reading ‘The Story of Trespass’ by Nick Hayes. The National Trust is stuck between two banks/walls/places, but surely their role is to tell the true story of history, not the white-washed, economy-engineered version? Land has always been contested and actions of enclosure, trespass, racism and trade have shaped and framed the landscape, creating territories, borders and countries. All in the name of power.
I spotted another dialogue on FB between creative practitioners, which revolved around finding soothing things to do/read/listen to, during lockdown. In that conversation, someone recommended a podcast I haven’t heard of before – ‘Aphids Listens’– which hosts discussions between Lara Thoms and artists. As someone who is interested in art in public spaces, I went straight to episode 7, with Amy Spiers. The podcast begins with a statement:
Aphids acknowledges the wurundjeri and boon wurrung peoples on whose lands we live and work. Sovereignty was never ceded and we pay our respect to past, present, and future aboriginal elders and community, and to their long and rich history of artmaking on this country.
Obviously, there’s a connection between the NT document, Nick Hayes’ book, and this podcast. The first specific artwork that was discussed was ‘Dancing In Peckham’ by Gillian Wearing – an old favourite of mine. I wrote about it many years ago, when I was awarded a Creative Writing Bursary from Arts Council England, around the time that the work was new, in the 1990’s. Wearing dances wildly in a shopping centre, no headphones, just dancing to a song in her head in a public place, with abandon. When they spoke of Wearing’s work, they referred to her “losing it, losing oneself, losing inhibition”. And how some may have thought this was a little worrying, a bit weird.
Wearing danced in public, that was a transgression, a private act seen by strangers.
And here we all are, during a pandemic, trying not to lose it, but making every effort to lose ourselves. Dancing in our kitchens, rolling around on the living room floor for zoom yoga, or doing life drawing from the sofa while watching TV.
As the saying goes – everything is connected.
So on to how this connects with my current studio practice and thinking about land ownership, or even possession, and/or losing it. Many people know I commission art for public places, so understanding differences between space and place is embedded in my thinking, as is land ownership.
When it comes to my own art practice, I have mostly made work relating to landscape, though sometimes that landscape was of the body, as in my MA video work. I have recently returned to lens-based practice, and the power of the gaze has arisen again, especially when working in 360 degrees.
What unites all my recent work is the River Severn. The title of my book “Severnside – An Artist’s View Of The Severn” sums it up really. It has been about my particular take on the Severn, the book is autobiographical in many ways. Not any-river, or any-person, but me, writing about it. But in recent works, that has started to shift.
I am reconsidering my relationship with the river as a place, its history and the other living things that inhabit it. That includes other artists working with it, of which there are, and always have been, many. In terms of possession, maybe I have become possessed by the Severn, rather than me thinking I possess it. Maybe I am losing my ‘self’?
The Severn belongs to no-one, no-where, no-time.
In my recent works, I have sought to relinquish my gaze, to consider others’ relationships with this river. That is why these new works are called ‘the seen and the unseen’ series. It first happened in April, when I made ‘When You Call I Shall Come’. This was made possible because the bore surfers stood down, no-one else was competing for ownership, or rights-of-use, of the river, only me, and it. And I knew, as soon as I began to edit it, that this moment was as special for the river as it was for me. I filmed as an observer, then, during editing, the river became the storyteller. It wasn’t about my relationship with it, but the opposite. The river is the narrator.
In the ‘seen and unseen’ series, I’m playing with ideas about locating myself, losing my inhibitions, finding my place in the world through vision and sound. In film no.3 I speak of what is in front of the camera (not me), whilst showing the viewer what is behind. I talk about myself as an actor in the scene, in the 3rd person. I am seeking to separate myself from owning the gaze by employing a form of audio-describing. I narrate the action as if it were a play. Most of my work these days is a meta-narrative, a story about itself.
Then there is the thinking about ownership of land, in terms of creative interpretations. Locating the self, whilst not claiming ownership of land. I want to relinquish my one-to-one relationship with the Severn, to reflect that the land itself has a form of agency, has cycles, behaviours. It’s not easy, it feels slightly like a divorce. I know it is good for both of us, but it is hard to let go.
I have collaborated with two other artists in recent years, on works about the banks of the river. Suze Adams and I took photos of each other across the river for our Walking The Land project. More recently, Carol Laidler and I worked together on a Liquidscapes project and presented it as a performance lecture at a Dartington conference. Both were about me – here, the others – over there. We called out to each other across the void, by doing so we connected both sides.
Maybe the next project needs to involve meeting others in the middle, or swapping sides, putting our feet in each other’s shoes? Dichotomies are destined to divide people further. Hayes suggests that words create walls, I think he is right.
Covid19 transgresses all of those things. It is affecting everyone, everywhere in every time zone.
I’m on the banks of the Severn, just before sunrise. I know it’s coming very soon, as above the Cotswold skyline there is a small row of eight or nine clouds just above the horizon. They look like fragments of torn paper, maybe from a to-do list, all of similar width and height, separated by tiny bits of sky. They are up-lit by the sun below and as it rises it frames them with a subtle, red, glowing edge. Each piece becomes more vividly defined before the power of the sun overcomes my retina’s and the tiny clouds fade away in the glare.
I’m standing precisely opposite this imminent sunrise and the wildlife around the river is responding to it’s arrival too. Crows and gulls spiral above my head, calling, whilst on the watery stage characters enter from both left and right. On my left, a sole duck floats silently towards the centre of the stage, anticipating the arrival of it’s spotlight. It is a little early really, but that’s fine, it will learn.
On my right three ducks slip out from behind the cliff, chattering together.
Above my head, the world of business is approaching another Monday morning. Transatlantic planes fly toward the sun, European ones too, but lower in the sky. None of them are much more than tiny white arrows high above, leaving chalky tails in the pale blue sky. I wonder, when we have gone through Brexit, will this lessen? Will the sky become hauntingly quiet, as it did in 2010 when the volcanic Icelandic dust forced the closure of the UK airspace?
I think about M.C. Escher’s patterns of black and white birds. Today the sky is like that, the white ‘birds’ are planes, the black one’s are crows and gulls. The scale changes, as it does in his drawings, those flying lowest are closer, more vivid, those in the distance more abstract and vague. I recall Norman Ackroyd and Robert McFarlane discussing the white birds in Ackroyd’s paintings, on Radio 4 last week. How the little egret is now the whitest bird we see on our rivers. There are none here today, sadly. They will have flown off with the herons earlier, before the tide rolled in.
As I absorb all these activities, a circle of ripples appears in the water. A number of other concentric rings roll up out of the water, then disappear. They are moving closer to centre stage, they know that, very soon, the sun will rise in full glory. The lone duck is now joined by two other pairs, all moving determinedly towards the golden rippled area that is appearing on the surface of the water. The fish underwater do the same.
The shimmering lines of light come closer to me, creeping over the lapping tidal waves as the sea flows upriver, as it always does, on the Severn.
We reach the crescendo, the great ball of fire rises up and the ducks are silhouetted by its brightness, bobbing about on the highlights of the folds in the water. I stare in wonder at this red mass and take a deep breath – the day has begun. I turn away to walk home and see vibrant acid green sunspots peppering the ground. I watch them as I move back up to the path. As I walk up the street I notice they are now red blurs.
Eyes are amazing, complimentary colours vying for attention, just as the skyborn objects were, the fish in the water, the ducks on the waves.
During the past year I have drawn around fifteen large (approx. 1 metre wide), landscapes of the River Severn. All done using charcoal on paper, most recently, using locally sourced charcoal made from coppiced wood by Resilient Woodlands.
Only the last drawing I did in the set featured a human figure in it, gazing at the river. It was a decision that has affected the way I have approached a new body of works, using a 360 degree camera (still and video) to continue exploring the Severn. I’m now intrigued to see where it might take me, because it is a huge turning point that has sent me back to consider early paintings of figures in landscapes. Constable, Friedrich, Gainsborough – they all investigated human presence in sublime vistas. Until it went out of fashion.
Landscape has always fascinated me and featured in many artworks over several years. For the last eighteen years I have been commissioning artists to work in ‘unusual places’, which has included woodlands, headlands, beaches and barns, so it is no surprise to find that I immediately immersed myself in landscapes again when I returned to practice last year.
All those years of reading, thinking and understanding how artists respond to landscape have come together and are, finally, very useful. Good to know that all that energy has not been wasted.
The introduction of ‘contemplative watchers’ was, and still is, an effective device for showing how aesthetic experience can be focused on the observing subject. My enquiry really began when I moved to the Forest of Dean, after leaving a very familiar landscape I’d known for twenty-five years, on the other bank of the Severn. I took many photographs of trees that were struggling to retain their vertical, growing on hillsides. They were very personal symbols of how hard it is, sometimes, to survive in a new landscape and find one’s roots. I was not in the images, but the trees represented me and my instability. I reframed them, making them stand up, whilst all around them looked squiffy, horizons tipped, pylon leaning. I survived and gradually learnt to live in this new place.
A photographic project done through a collaboration with Dr. Suze Adams in 2009 again involved framing the figure in the landscape, but this time it was done by photographing each other. So, I continued to be absent in my own photographs, yet appeared in her pictures. We time synchronised the images and compared them. This was the first work that looked at the river from the other side.
Seven years later, the new drawings have evolved. As a body of work, they show numerous pinch-points in the river, opposite each other. There’s a set of poems and narratives that work with them. All in progress.
Most recently, I’ve been learning how to use a 360 degree camera. Between the late 1990’s and around 2005 I was making large video installations – moving image was my favoured medium, as was digital media. Using this new camera for both stills and videos has re-nurtured my love of how technology can offer new ways of understanding. The last drawing, with the figure in it (not of me, but an old friend who was with me), has lingered in my mind and manifested itself in a recent set of images.
Memory of the other side of the river also plays a part in this. The friend that was in the drawing was someone I spent many hours walking our dogs on the riverbank at Shepperdine, when our children were small. Much of the drawing project has been about coming to terms with moving from the east bank to the west. It is all very autobiographical.
When using a 360 camera, the first thing one has to get ones head around is the fact that, when shooting, where you, the operator stands, is key. Because it will catch you and you will appear in every image, unless you hide. Consequently, I’ve bene hiding behind cars, bushes and huts. If I don’t I am clumsily in the ‘tiny planet’. So, one foggy morning, I decided to work with this. In a fundraising film I made, I found being filmed gazing at the river was more comfortable for me than talking directly to camera. I began to pose with my back to the camera, allowing me to control the camera remotely but hiding it from the lens. The fog helped, and took me back to some early films I made in Iceland at thermal pools, and another done in a steam room in a hotel in Birmingham. I immediately recalled the famous painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), by Caspar David Friedrich
This thinking process has made me reconsider Friedrich and wonder what this means now, in the 21st Century, when technology is said to be rapidly replacing humans in the workforce and the economic structure of capitalism is facing challenges to its viability. Those who wish to conserve landscape find themselves battling against technology, yet are also learning far more about it too, by using scanning processes that were unimaginable in the 19th Century. Both we, and our rapid technological developments, might be threatening the landscape we inhabit.
Is my gazing into the river my time-machine, allowing me to long for the past, which can never be revived? Or is it letting me reflect and meditate on the future of place, the river in particular? Is the very landscape that we have traditionally painted, now little more than a romantic notion? Are we too late?
Several of the images I have taken depict large Georgian Mansions – representing landownership. My daughter is currently making films about food sovereignty, the urgent need to care for the land, and what we produce on it. Maybe her work has leached into my thinking too?
I need to look back at theory, reconsider the sublime, and its place in today’s thinking. I shall continue to do this visually, using the tools I have to hand. It’s important we all remember that we are in the landscape at all times and it is integral to our existence. And we are to it, too.
I’m trying to get my head around this wonderful camera and what it can do. This is my first footage, made this morning in the snow. I did a lot of stills, which are wonderful, but this is the only video I did. Would love feedback – it’s raw, unedited footage, and clunky….but rather beautiful.
thank you too Google Street View for the loan of the camera.
NEWNHAM CHURCH TO ARLINGHAM – DOES THIS LOOK FAMILIAR TO YOU?
Maybe it’s because you’ve seen the original photo on the Bells Appeal Website. I took it for the appeal a year or so ago. This year, as part of a wider project, I decided to do a 2-metre wide drawing, inspired by the photo, which I am now donating to the appeal for auction. We’re not sure how or when yet, any suggestions are welcome. Maybe we could do an auction of artworks by other Newnham artists? Or an auction of promises?
Limited edition (25) prints are available – 30% of all print sales will also go to the appeal. Talk to me if you have any ideas about how to proceed with the auction, or want to make an offer we can’t refuse – all money raised from the drawing goes to the appeal.
I love Newnham – the River Severn and the Church Bells are integral to life in the village.