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.