Everyone, everywhere, every-time – on the ownership of creative work, land and river

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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:

  1. Being someone/somewhere/sometime
  2. Being no-one/nowhere/no-time
  3. Being everyone/everywhere/every-time

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.

Once armed with a cup of tea, I popped onto Facebook for further distraction. I read some interesting conversations, after which I downloaded the National Trust Research document,  ‘Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust’ to read later.

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 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 haven 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 myself?

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’. The river was the narrator. 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.

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 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.

VIEW: When You Call I Shall Come

‘between’ a new film on a day of conflicts and tensions

Today is an in-between day

In the USA the left and the right fight it out (literally it appears); in the UK we await our 2nd lockdown tomorrow; autumn sunshine – winter chill

Neither here nor there

The River Severn continues to flow

Soon what is in front of us, will be behind us

It’s just a matter of time

https://vimeo.com/475429289

THE ACT OF TAKING A PHOTOGRAPH IS AN ACT OF LOVE

In 2005 the artist Phil Collins spoke at a conference at Bristol Zoo, run by Claire Doherty of Situations. He said that historically some believed a camera could take the steal of a person, but he, personally, felt the act of taking a photograph is an act of love.

That comment is core to this enquiry about my practice.

Reel back in time to October 1997 when I began my MA in Fine Art at Cardiff UWIC. My mother died on 1st September that year. The first works I did were using photography and slide-dissolve images of my naked body, photographed from behind, with shed snake skins pressed between glass projector-slides that transferred their amazing charcoal-like patterns onto my body. I cast my head in red jelly and filmed it, slowly melting then reverse played, it in a loop. Forming and dissolving. I cast it in plaster too. Fixed and solid.

It was one year after Dolly The Sheep had been cloned. I now understand that I was exploring my identity, as a clone of my mother. The possibility of becoming another. No longer a daughter, but a matriarch. One particular work was inscribed by hand with the phrase “I shed my skin, I regenerate”.

Reflecting now, maybe, because I had a difficult relationship with my mother, I needed to do this, to value myself. Deaths of people close to us can have very profound affects that are not always obvious at the time. My mother would have been horrified, she always wished I would paint pictures of puppies and kittens, things people could understand and buy. Just as she said my sister would be better off writing bodice-busters instead of science fiction.

I have always disliked being photographed, and it shows in photos of me. No surprise then, that the images were mostly of my back. It was a refusal to be seen by my own gaze. My final MA work was about close examination of the body, in particular looking into the flesh body, the corporeal, compared to the virtual, digital body. It was the early days of the internet and a whole new world opened up to me. That world was text-based, so the physical body was not required to be visible, it was an anonymous space.

In 2002 I spend two months in Java, Indonesia, on a UNESCO funded residence at Selasar Sunaryo Gallery near Bandung. While there I confronted myself and my past, my father having been posted there in 1949. I made objects and films about identity, the fragility of both the digital and place.

When I returned home to the UK I did another one-week residency in Birmingham, as part of LabCulture run by PVA Labs. There I presented a number of video works called ‘Letting Go’. I made each film by animating an object – a coin, a cup rocking on a hook, a rotary washing line – then filming it until it stopped. All domestic objects. Sadly, my marriage was failing by then – each tiny film reflected that, moment by moment, frame by frame, slowing down then finally drawing to a halt. Another film was made with opaque mist from a steam room focussing in and out of net curtains. I was nowhere to be seen in any of these works. I guess I temporarily left my body and was deeply inside my head and my heart. A point of change.

By 2005 my practice was subsumed by the need to earn a living, so I did more and more producing and curating and my practice gradually slipped away.

In 2006, I moved to the Forest of Dean. A big change after twenty-five years of living near the east bank of the Severn. I relocated, not only to a new home, but to a new landscape, on the west bank of the river. I walked regularly locating myself into a new place, taking photos of trees leaning to stay upright, rooted on the side of the hills, adapting to counter the sloping ground below them. I was aware at the time that that was how I felt too and empathised with their stoic behaviour.

I worked as a producer and curator for the following ten years, not exhibiting work, not making much either. At one point, I explored the possibility of creating films by embedding cameras in the gorilla compound at Bristol Zoo, to film the visitors from the gorilla’s perspective. We didn’t get it off the ground, but the very thought of that is pertinent as I write this piece.

In 2017, in November, my brother died after a long slow illness. I had a cancer scare myself and, like the films of things in the letting go series, I ground to a halt.

In January 2018 I began to draw again, spurred on by the fact that my brother had often chastised me for no longer making art. I took my series of panoramic photos of the Severn, shot on my phone therefore not good enough for quality prints – and I modified them and drew them as large, one-metre wide panoramic works. I took more photos, creating pairs of opposite sides of the Severn, gathering memories, facts and fictions as I travelled from bank to bank. The book evolved in parallel to the drawings.

Once the drawing series was complete and the book published, I paused for a while. I regathered and gained momentum in Producer work, which involves supporting other artists to create work for landscapes in response to places.

Late 2018 I got my hands on a 360 camera and began to make films again. Exploring the moving image felt good, as I had previously made video installations. But it also brought with it the issue of the gaze, and my being present in the imagery. By their nature, the dual-lenses capture everything, including the operator. Me. I hid behind cars and bushes, trying to find a way out of the frame. As I understood the capacity of the camera and its ability to capture its surrounds, I found the optimum distance I could perform to it without obvious facial recognition. The film 12 circular walks came out of that and, just as I did with the trees, the riverbanks, I collected a number of works together – this time not for a book, but for a film. As I walked in circles I held a stick, in homage to Caspar David Friedrich and his depiction of a gentleman purveying a sublime view of nature. My circular meanderings we very different to that.

There followed a period of my returning to the river with video and 360, getting closer to it psychologically, understanding it better. And it was a relief to take me out of the equation, not to do battle with removing myself from the scene. I combined drawing with video, with animation, I played and played, in the day by the river, in the night in my studio, with charcoal, projectors and tripods.

Come the 2020 Covid19 pandemic all these elements of my practice were ripe for picking. Having time to walk daily to the river, I began to find new ways to revisit it, both literally, by walking a new route, and metaphorically, as in finding visual ways to present not a view of the river, but my experience of it. To develop a 1:1 relationship with it, on equal terms. In April, when the bore surfers stood down out of respect for Sabrina and each other, I filmed the high spring tide for three days and used the footage to make When You Call, I Will Come. The words relayed a message from the voice of the tide itself. A kulning song, performed by Eva Rune and others, pulled the film together, enabling viewers to be drawn into the yearning, for the need to find comfort somewhere, somehow. In a matter of two weeks it had 500+ views which was overwhelming for me. It appears to have a power that goes above being a documentary of the Severn Bore.

When You Call, I Will Come and was selected for EarthPhoto2020, a Royal Geographical Society project in collaboration with Forestry Commission. It has also resulted in an experimental collaboration with the singer/composer Eva Rune, who lives in Sweden.

The next film I made was like taking my winter studio out into the light. I dragged 3 cameras and tripods; 1 iPad and a myriad of drawing materials, to my favourite place, next to a swing on the riverbank. I did many films of the swing, empty, released and allowed to move until it stopped. Letting go. I sat under the huge oak tree that supported the swing and I filmed myself drawing there. I was back in the frame again. Albeit at a distance.

The resulting film is called As Above, So Below and was selected for the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize Show. Composer Andrew Heath provided the soundtrack.

Jump to 4th October 2020.

Both of the above films were selected for exhibitions and I had a period of self-doubt, imposter syndrome, call it what you like. Not having shown work beyond the Forest of Dean for many years, it felt huge. I have just listened to Charlie Mackesy speaking for the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Online, of course. I saw his drawings on Instagram when he first began, and ordered his book prior to publication, which was autumn 2019. He spoke eloquently about his work, about being vulnerable, about recognising that his art is a way to process deep anxieties. I guess that is what has happened for me with my films, they touch people. I didn’t set out to make them do that, they reflect my own inner state, my personal way of coping with the pandemic.

I started writing this article yesterday, after planning it in my head. Today, hearing Mackesy talk, feels like synchronicity. I’m a pretty pragmatic person, few would think me romantic, but there is something about time and place that always matters. And sometimes amazing collisions and collusions begin.

I am now back in my body and planning new work. Uber-conscious that I have been reflecting on my own presence, and absence, in my work, I am now going to explore the presence of other living things in this landscape that we share. Try and see their perspective, like looking from the other riverbank. When I sat up in bed this morning I watched the dove that sits on a TV aerial outside my window, every morning, every day. And I thought “what does the bird think? Does it see me? What is going through its mind?”.

It is time to go beyond myself and walk in my collaborator’s shoes. My encounters in the world mean far more than I do, my work needs to reflect that. My daughter and I had a discussion about these things, her perspective informed by training to be a puppeteer and the role of the operator, along with her experience of making documentary films, about sustainable farming and food provenance. Ironically, I am now wishing we had taken a photo of us together that day, while we were talking. It was the launch of my film at the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize Show.

My arts producer work is becoming increasingly concerned with climate change and environmental issues. The Severn is, of course, at risk, as is the wider natural world. Watch out for new work. It probably won’t be right first time, but I am trying.

Going full circle back to the start of this writing, if taking a photograph is an act of love, then that is what I need to do. I feel it is the only thing to do.

Swings and Films – exhibitions

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Recently I have spotted swings being hung from trees around the local area, the Forest of Dean. They have signs near them encouraging users to enjoy themselves, it appears to be a guerrilla-style action with no name. I love it.

Prior to their arrival, I too had developed a relationship with a swing next to the Severn, a few miles walk from home. As an artist and film-maker, I did more than swing on it. It became a place for a daily retreat from Covid19 – a bolthole. I wrote about it as being my new ‘crying place’, having witnessed the removal of my old one. That was a huge tree stump at the top of a hill which looked down over the bend in the Severn near Newnham. But that is no more.

The riverbank swing doesn’t provide big sky views and open vistas, it is very close to the water and offers a wonderful view of Garden Cliff and to see the sunset there at the end of a Covid-day is an indescribable delight to witness.

Over several weeks I visited and made films of the swing swinging, and from the swing swinging. With me, without me. I leant against the trunk of the oak tree it hung from and drew in its shade, often distracted by the dancing shadows of the branches above, and the bugs that came to check on the progress of the marks on my paper. I filmed the silhouettes of the leaves, then filmed myself drawing.

One day I went on a major mission to capture this unusual experience. Gathering all my ideas together, alongside a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree camera; a video recorder; an iPad with an animation app; a phone camera and three tripods; sketch pad and charcoals with a putty rubber and a heap of determination, I made a film.

Several days of editing, collaging and shaping ensued until I had a finished film. “As Above So Below” was the result.

It was the second significant film I’d made since the pandemic began – the other one “When You Call, I Will Come” documented the spring-tide Severn bore without any surfers.

I submitted them, somewhat nervously, to share them more widely. With galleries and venues closed I had to find a way to get them seen because they are so pandemic-influenced they are a record of this strange time.

I am still thrilled by the way people responded to them. Before “When You Call” was accepted for the EarthPhoto2020 exhibition, from over 3,000 applicants, it was viewed by  500+ YouTube viewers. EarthPhoto2020 is run by Royal Geographic Society and Forestry Commission and will tour to various venues.

This boosted my confidence, so I submitted “As Above, So Below” to Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize – a fantastic annual event that had over 4,000 applicants – and it was selected.

“When You Call” can be viewed online on the EarthPhoto2020 website and the exhibition for the drawing prize opens at Drawing Projects UK in Trowbridge, Wiltshire: 2 to 31 October 2020, then tours to Cooper Gallery at the University of Dundee, Trinity Buoy Wharf in London and The Gallery at Arts University Bournemouth.

Links:

Trinity Buoy Wharf Prize

EarthPhoto2020

The Severn Bore on Christmas Day, Rudolph, Santa and Brexit too!

On the morning of Christmas Eve, she wandered down to the bank of the Severn to watch the bore as it formed on the bend between Awre and Arlingham. A fire was burning in the centre of the river, nearby a row of surfers stood to attention, clasping their boards, like herons waiting for their supper.

She had seen this sight many times before, but today was special, as she had the bank to herself. Most people only turn out to see four-star waves, the timetable for Christmas Eve was a humble two-star. As she so often did, she filmed the event on her mobile phone and posted it onto YouTube.

When the wave arrived there were eight or nine surfers riding it, by the time it had passed all but one had fallen off, whooping and yelping as they did so. One man left standing, silhouetted against a soft dawn sky as this busy day began.

Maybe it was one-star after all.

Christmas Eve is family time, with visitors, friends and lovers. By bedtime she went off to sleep quite quickly, but later was woken by a strange dream. One of those dreams that plays on one’s fears, when current affairs and children’s stories become peppered with time and space, creating strange collisions and collusions. In her dream, there were drones flying in the sky, trying to attack Santa and the reindeer. The reindeer fled and a woman tried to call them back, singing kulning songs. But they didn’t respond to her yearning call and Santa fell from the sky with a bump. He tried to get a back-up team of helpers, but because of Brexit, none could get their visa’s in time. Many had passport problems too, because travelling around had been pretty easy prior to the UK splitting from the EU. It was chaos and no-one seemed to be able to help.

She woke with a start, feeling very disturbed. She looked at her clock, it was 3.a.m. Children all over the country would wake up soon and find nothing. She turned to Twitter to see if there were any reports about drones. There’d been a few sightings, of both drones and Santa, but it’s hard to believe social media. Yet only days ago Gatwick Airport had been grounded and lots of travel disrupted because they thought drones were there. Which means even if the drone part about Santa’s story was only a dream, it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t cause chaos. Fake news can gain as much attention as real news these days.

Comforted by the fact that it was unlikely to be true, she rolled over and went back to sleep.

Christmas morning! She raced down the stairs, put the kettle on, grabbed boots, scarf, coat and gloves, made tea and rushed out the door. Another two-star bore predicted but she needed to be reassured that the world had not gone badly wrong. She was early, and she stood in the wonderful silence of the dawn, a still, dull day. The ducks flew over her head, reminding her of the drone. She recalled that when she edited her video yesterday, she saw there was a drone in the footage, one she had not spotted in her viewfinder while filming. She shuddered as she recalled her dream of drones and Brexit.

With no-one to watch her, she decided to try kulning. She had often thought of doing this to call the bore in, but that seemed a bit silly. But here, now, she could try and call the reindeer in. She found a firm area of mud, one the surfers used to climb in and out of the riverbed, and waded and squelched to centre-river. There she stood, facing south. She took a deep breath and called…..ah ho kee, keee-oh-hoo-hoo, ah ho hee hoo, hee-oooooo-he-hoo….

Nothing happened. The riverbed remained dry in the centre, the waters flowed gently in both directions. Her heart sank, as did her feet, no reindeer, no bore.  She was covered in mud.

As she climbed out onto the bank she felt very sad. Maybe she got the time wrong? She checked her watch and yes, she had! It wasn’t due for another half hour! Typical! She decided to nip home and refresh her cup of tea and change her boots, as they were very sticky with river silt.

By the time she returned there were flames again on the sand spit and about five or six surfers. One was dressed as Santa, which always made her smile. As she set up her camera, she spotted lots of debris trapped around the timber frame of the old ferry crossing. Old pallets bobbed about, bumping into each other. Could they be the very same pallets from the sleigh that carried the presents? It was a brown grey day with very little colour, so the splash of red bobbing in the water caught her eye as she zoomed in. A big red plastic bucket, the kind that would hold reindeer food! She was back in her dream and anxiously looked up into the sky. No drones today. Phew.

She heard the bore approaching and wondered, with a wry smile, whether it had heard her singing. She turned her video on and tracked the wave as it passed, dropping off surfers as it did so – no good rides today. As she filmed, she captured the pallets and the buckets, hoping to seem them washed away. Large branches rushed past on the ride, not unlike antlers. She shuddered again. She decided that when she got home to edit, she would examine the footage for drones.

She attached all the cables and went to export the footage. Oh no! She had one still picture, that was all. She had not worn her glasses and had pressed the wrong button. She had no evidence to her story, no Santa, no bucket or pallets.

So she wrote this story instead, to record just how much life can get in the way of imagination, but can also add to it too. Did she really sing in the river?  Was there really a red bucket belonging to Rudolph in the river? Were those actually broken bits of Santa’s sleigh?

Who knows, but what we can be reassured of, is children everywhere today will enjoy their presents and hopefully, if the nightmare was not true, then Brexit won’t happen either. Ever.

Happy New Year!

(with homage to “T’was the night before Christmas” By Clement Clarke Moore)

IMG_0541 2

 

 

 

12 days of Severnside – a song for Christmas, an anti-plastic festive song

As I peeped out to make sure the Severn was flowing by as it should be today, as it does every day, I considered how much time I spend down on its banks. Counting days. Taking photos, writing, dreaming, watching the bore. And what I had seen come in on the tide as I watch it.

I was also considering how every public space is filling up with Christmas festivity and songs. The hard sell is arriving as sharply as the freezing frosts. And how I am selling my new book Severnside: An Artist’s View Of The River Severn as Christmas presents, taking me a bit out of my comfort zone.

The Severn has always provided a place for me to retreat to, to avoid the everyday hustle and bustle and looking at screens. I’m in a local choir (but having a break now while sorting out the book) and love singing songs about the River Severn. I am also acutely aware that in my book there is only ONE word that raised questions from proof readers. An angry word, a foul word, used to refer to the plastic that is constantly washed in on the tide. And, in my usual playful way, I began to write a song in my head. In all fairness, not writing a song, but changing the words of a familiar one we all know. So here it is:

The 12 Days of Severnside Song

On the 1st day at Severnside
The tide brought in for me
A branch from a very small tree

On the 2nd day at Severnside
The tide brought in for me
Two bouncy balls
And a branch from a very small tree

On the 3rd day at Severnside
The tide brought in for me
Three crab claws
Two bouncy balls
And a branch from a very small tree

On the 4th day at Severnside
The tide brought in for me
Four diving ducks
Three crab claws
Two bouncy balls
And a branch from a very small tree

On the 5th day at Severnside
The tide brought in for me
Five plastic bags!
Four diving ducks
Three crab claws
Two bouncy balls
And a branch from a very small tree

On the 6th day at Severnside
The tide brought in for me
Six surfers surfing
Five plastic bags
Four diving ducks
Three crab claws
Two bouncy balls
And a branch from a very small tree

On the 7th day at Severnside
The tide brought in for me
Seven dogs a-swimming
Six surfers surfing
Five plastic bags!
Four diving ducks
Three crab claws
Two bouncy balls
And a branch from a very small tree

On the 8th day at Severnside
The tide brought in for me
Eight sailors sailing
Seven dogs a swimming
Six surfers surfing
Five plastic bags!
Four diving ducks
Three crab claws
Two bouncy balls
And a branch from a very small tree

On the 9th day at Severnside
The tide brought in for me
Nine bottles bobbing
Eight sailors sailing
Seven dogs a swimming
Six surfers surfing
Five plastic bags!
Four diving ducks
Three crab claws
Two bouncy balls
And a branch from a very small tree

On the 10th day at Severnside
The tide brought in for me
Ten herons standing
Nine bottles bobbing
Eight sailors sailing
Seven dogs a swimming
Six surfers surfing
Five plastic bags!
Four diving ducks
Three crab claws
Two bouncy balls
And a branch from a very small tree

On the 11th day at Severnside
The tide brought in for me
Eleven elvers swimming
Ten herons standing
Nine bottles bobbing
Eight sailors sailing
Seven dogs a swimming
Six surfers surfing
Five plastic bags!
Four diving ducks
Three crab claws
Two bouncy balls
And a branch from a very small tree

On the 12th day at Severnside
The tide brought in for me
Twelve months of wonder
Eleven elvers swimming
Ten herons standing
Nine bottles bobbing
Eight sailors sailing
Seven dogs a swimming
Six surfers surfing
Five plastic bags!
Four diving ducks
Three crab claws
Two bouncy balls
And a branch from a very small tree

 

sunspots in my eyes, sunrise over the Severn

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.

All mere sunspots in my eyes.

 

 

 

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The Solitary Figure in the Landscape – a contemporary approach to purveying the sublime – in 360 degrees.

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.

fullsizeoutput_86bLandscape 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

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

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?

Screenshot 2018-01-13 11.40.50Several 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.

brightlands fog me

 

 

 

exploring 360 filming with Theta 6, all about the river

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.

WINTER WALK BY THE SEVERN VIDEO

view a 360degree version of one of these here

and here are some stills, (c) carolyn black