By IAN McKAY
Today sees the opening of artist and poet Alec Finlay’s gathering at WORM, the gallery/project space of Peacock Visual Arts, Aberdeen. The exhibition (which is open to the public from tomorrow 5 April 2019), brings together Finlay’s recent place-aware projects, from gathering; a mapping of the Cairngorms in poems, essays, photographs, and maps, created for The Fife Arms, Braemar (commissioned by Hauser & Wirth); a wolf among men a man among wolves, detailing innovative woodland remediation at Mar lodge and humandwolves at Trees for Life, Dundreggan, commissioned by Common Ground; Wild City, a survey of wild nature and the potential of urban rewilding, in Glasgow; and Hutopianism, celebrating the hut and bothy movement, from an installation at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.
gathering is said to be Finlay’s most ambitious project to date with regard the flourishing interest in reading the Gaelic landscape. Allying this movement to hutopianism, rewilding, stewardship, and the right to care for the environment, engaging in pressing debates that impact on sustainability and climate breakdown, he is also presenting a new screenprint, Rewilding Timeline, which represents the first summary of the movement’s evolution in Scotland, from the 18th century to today. This and other works are accompanied by photographs as part of his collaboration with Hannah Devereux and Mhairi Law, too.
“Installing an exhibition is a time when one sees new connections between works or gains those perspectives from an audience,” says Finlay. “It’s also a time when one’s mind turns to the next project and how it extends a body of work, or even a life view.”
At Peacocks over the past few days of the exhibition install, “while I was pinning the paperworks to a new trellis which surveys what I like to call ‘The Crazes’ (the human desires that are performed in wild landscapes, such as stalking and climbing),” he adds, “I was remembering back thirty years or so, to Communicado’s wonderful dramatisation of The Cone-gatherers which I saw at Tramway. The sets featured pine trunks used as seats and, if one was to consider that the last ten years has seen an incredible movement of innovative artists choosing to work in what I would call place-aware ways in the Highlands, perhaps that performance was one of the original inspirations for that cultural shift in perspective.”
It’s an interesting insight that he offers: “The scene that always stayed with me is the Freudian nightmare of the gamekeeper Duror’s breakdown, which is precipitated by the deer drive,” he says. “In that moment the Presbyterian psyche and culture of violence – conflict, sexual violence, domestic violence – are all laid bare.” During Finlay’s work on stalking, he explains, he has have learnt to recognise that “the manic dance which was performed in the theatre at Tramway refers directly to the traditional lineage of the Gaelic tainchell.”
“I have been exploring these cultural traditions for the past five years as part of what, in deference to John Murray, I would call reading the Gaelic landscape, and I think we do well to remember this ritual and performative aspect goes back thousands of years and connects to cultures across Europe, including the black hunter of ancient Athens. Venison has always been a totemic meat for the aristocracy, and there are Fingalian hunting names scattered throughout the Highlands creating what I refer to in gathering as a Fiannscape, a landscape as poem, rendered through mytho-poetic toponyms.”
In the exhibition that opens today, what Finlay has included are works inspired by his collaboration with Richard Bracken and Trees for Life (Dundreggan). “The role of humans acting as wolves, or occupying the same ecological niche as the wolf, is another reminder of the role that performance can play. What fascinated me about what I call humandwolving is that it combines tracking, orienteering, and night-walks. Whereas most chronological remediation work is slow hard labour, backbreaking, bending to climb trees, and it has to be admitted lacking in thrills, here is a new human activity invented, or, I almost want to say, imagined, by an ecologist, Doug Gilbert, in order to solve the problem of the lack of predators and profusion of deer.”
As well as the common-sense of Gilbert’s solution, what Finlay explains is a desire to draw attention to “the fact that this is an activity that engages human desire, heightens the senses, grows close bonds between people, and transforms human potential.” In seeking to do this he has, he says, “made a study of the dozen individuals who have taken part in that project, and was particularly struck by the pack of three young woman that I met – they appear to me like characters in a contemporary sequel to The Cone-gatherers. It isn’t so often that such new practices are invented.”
Ultimately, what he brings together here is the entire arena of ecology in the Highlands – a political and psychological drama, and, he stresses, “one of the most pressing and engaging theatres of ideas in our culture: it may not have particularly impressed itself on the metropolitan art world but, nevertheless, here one can discover the most intense acts of imagination and problem-solving, as individuals and organisations challenge vested interests and critically engage with blood fantasies and bloodlines.”
Looking back at the recent install of the exhibition, he notes, “I became aware of an arc reaching from the earlier journey projects, such as the road north, which used the poetic tour as a means to survey culture outwith the city, to more engaged works I have been making in recent years; in particular, my place-aware work in the Cairngorms. The road north lasted a year and, during that time I was forced, by my own disability, to devise a whole series of practices which have continued to this day.”
The project has also introduced him to many of the concerns which are evident in gathering, he notes. “The idea of the tour as a survey goes back to Dr Johnson, but, being inspired by Bashō, the tour is also concerned with poetic practices and the use of cultural frames which, in turn, assert the ability of the imagination to transform the world. The forums of transformation that interests me are not personal but politicial, social and ecological.”
Here, then, is an “exhibition that also includes a manifesto for rewilding the urban realm, an attempt to apply some of the thinking I discovered among innovative ecological projects in the Highlands to Glasgow, in wild city, made in collaboration with the Walking Library. My mind, as said, has also naturally turned to future work which considers disability perspectives in relation to rewilding and ecologically remediation, and so this summer I will be presenting our collaborative exhibition in the Travelling Gallery which will tour many venues in the Highlands.”
What form that will take is already coming to light: “There I’ll explore ideas of wounded nature, and also reflect on the issue of limit as a cultural dilemma. No-one understands limitation and constraint better than the disabled and my argument is that by bringing together these disparate issues we can consider how our culture will adapt to the necessary limitations we face as climate breakdown impacts. To complete that arc, this new project will also translate some of the practices I have been using for the past few years into tools that other people, especially those with constrained walking, can adopt, if they wish.”
All of that said, opinion is divided as to what rewinding actually means for the Highlands, and no doubt that debate will occur for some time. Poet and playwright George Gunn, for example, expresses misgivings over the way land use translates as monopoly appropriation. Referring to the landscape of Sutherland, Gunn says:
In the nineteenth century, everything in every direction was owned by the Duke of Sutherland, and while the Sutherland Estates still own great swathes of the great bog there are newcomers such as Andreas Holch Povlson, who owns 222,000 acres of Scotland, including the 24,000-acre Ben Loyal estate, the 18,000-acre Kinloch Lodge and the 18,000-acre Eriboll estate. In total he owns 11 Scottish estates. In fact Mr Povlson [best known in Scotland for his extensive rewilding programme] is the living proof that if you have enough money in Scotland you can buy what you want and do what you want. He cannot do this in Denmark where there are strict laws concerning agricultural ground, residency and land use. Ownership in Scandinavian countries is viewed as a social activity and has to have a societal benefit because good land is so scarce. Also this is a cultural philosophy where under udal law property was shared, not hoarded. Wealth needed to be distributed or the society would fall apart.
And yet is it not a form of societal benefit that underpins Finlay’s work overall and correlates with that of Povlson in some way? Finlay has a different take on the issues addressed by Gunn, it appears, although I haven’t delved deeply into his thinking on this and he may disagree. The specific political nuances relating to land use that Gunn alludes to aside, as Finlay has elsewhere written:
Setting aside the rights and responsibilities of ownership, anyone dedicated to ‘the hill’ enters a complex ecosystem. In the span of mountain-time all is change: we walk upon habitats, but the hill is no static reality. Estates cover vast tracts of land, though in terms of the clans each glen was usually divided-up between septs. Those who would divest sporting interests of their purchased right to leisure must consider what becomes of the land?
For Finlay, Povlsen is thus, as a consequence, defined as one of the ‘progressive lairds’ of the twenty-first century:
Anders Holch Povlsen […] has reduced the deer population on Feshie to 1 per square km, rewilding the glen. When the scale of ‘wild’ land and the population to care for it are out of proportion, and have been for decades, or centuries, then there are no easy answers. The welcome innovation of the community buy-out depends on there being a community present, and their having the confidence – itself a form of access. Ecological solutions tend to be microtonal – community woodlands, islands of Scots pine connecting relic Caledonian Pine-forest, the knowledge shared by a place-aware mountain guide, a bothy with berths for a half dozen, or a new community hydro scheme, such as Corriemulzie, which went online in May.
Opinion is clearly divided on the political aspects of the matter, for sure, but there is also a commonality of interest in some respects, and this is something that Finlay’s works clearly addresses. His output is prolific in this regard, his research thorough and unstinting, and his exhibition certainly worthy of wide coverage and sustained interest, not just in its present form, but in the directions it will take him next. If nothing else, it represents a point of reflection (for ourselves and its maker/collaborators). From that reflection comes knowledge, and from knowledge comes power and the confidence he alludes to with regard the wider community.
gathering | Alec Finlay
WORM, 4th April 2019 at 18:00
Peacock Visual Arts
11 Castle Street, Aberdeen
The exhibition runs from 5th April – 18th May 2019
10am – 5pm, Tuesday – Saturday.
Alec Finlay will read from recent work at the private view, April 4th, and at the artist talk, April 6th, which will include contributions from Nuno Sacramento and Jo Vergunst.