By IAN McKAY
Mara Marxt Lewis and Tyler Lewis, originally from Austria and the United States respectively, today refer to Scotland as their home. Having stationed themselves around the globe in a variety of locations, they chose Scotland, they say, when Tyler began working on his PhD in sonic art at the University of Aberdeen. “We both fell in love with the people and places that Scotland has to offer, and we hope to contribute to the landscape as well. We’ve collaborated artistically since 2013, when we decided to combine our backgrounds of visual art and music/sound and experiment in these fields. From our first exhibition at the Banff Centre in Canada, we’ve made many immersive installations, all with the aim of engaging not only the eyes, but the ears as well.”
Tyler Lewis has a background is in music and electroacoustic composition, so the sonic component of their work is “rich and layered, using multi-channel formats to create visceral encounters with sound worlds.” As artists they seem drawn to new localities too. “It’s a driving force in our works and has sparked in us a curiosity about the evolving character of landscapes. We are interested in plastic pollution in ‘off the map’ locations such as the isle of Scarp, water scarcity in the bone-dry agricultural region of Murcia, Spain, vanishing animal species, the wild soundscapes of remote places, and so on.”
Currently they are creating artworks that are part of a series called Mountains Underwater; a project that is comprised of six Scottish islands that are currently uninhabited.
“We’ve visited the island of Stroma and Eilean nan Ron in the north and Scarp, Mingulay, the Monach Isles, and the Shiants in the Outer Hebrides. Our approach was to spend time in each of these places, sometimes camping overnight, but always walking the islands to make field recordings of their unique soundscapes and take photographs, make notes, and get a first-hand experience of the islands’ physical presence. With the Mountains Underwater project, we want to explore the value of remote island landscapes in the context of today’s general tumult, fast-paced urbanised life, and environmental issues affecting every corner of the planet.”
The objective, they tell me, is to “complete a multi-sensory installation for each island we visited, using re-purposed or organic materials, and multi-channel sound compositions.” To date, they have exhibited Mingulay at Edinburgh’s Hidden Door Festival in 2018, Scarp at the Tent Gallery in Edinburgh, and now Stroma at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. Stroma is also going to be at the Lyth Arts Centre (LAC) in July of this year, where they will also show a work about Eilean nan Ron. The show at LAC opens on July 5th.
For those intrigued by what form their collaborative work takes, you can view and listen to their Mountains Underwater: Stroma at the Inverness Museum & Art Gallery, until 4 May, 2019. To whet the appetite for such an experience, maybe, as the artists state; “the island in the stream, as its Old Norse name Straumøy indicates, lies motionless in the sea off the north coast of Scotland and looks out over the fierce waters of the Pentland Firth, watching the strong currents flow in and out as the turbulent events in our wider world also continue to ebb and flow.”
The same statement appears in their text accompanying the current exhibition which includes the following:
“As the silent observer to the everchanging landscape/seascape around it, Stroma has had its share of inhabitants from prehistory up until its abandonment in 1962. Although the island no longer supports a human population that made a living from fishing and the kelp industry, the surrounding waters of the Pentland Firth have become a valuable resource of renewable energy. The largest tidal energy project in the world (MeyGen) has plans to expand their array of four underwater turbines to hundreds by 2021. While the growing use of renewable technologies is exciting, the long-term implications on the local environment are quite mysterious.”
“The sound you hear in our installation is an imagined, abstracted journey from Stroma to the sea floor of the Pentland Firth where the tidal turbine array is growing – it’s a sonic world that marine life could possibly experience as the grid of turbines gets larger. The kelp rising up from the floor is pulled by the currents and also reminds us of the changing role of Stroma; from fortress to fishing, crofting to kelping, and now the silent observer. In Mountains Underwater: Stroma the endurance of the island is put into the context of our collective ambition for renewable energy technology. Stroma, the island in the stream, is a place where the serene meets the dangerous and the ancient meets the future.”
To this, they add: “If a turbine spins under the sea and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
…and then I am away, my mind wandering. It’s an interesting twist on the well-known forest/tree falling query, but it reminds me of something else: I once lived in a large coastal city, close to a Siemens-built gas turbine (the largest gas turbine on the planet at the time). Being built on the edge of one of the busiest shipping ports in the UK, the problem was that there was a need to divert fish away from the inlet pipes that took in water at 15 tonnes per second to cool the facility. Fences and netting did not prove successful, but underwater speakers, playing loud music and strategically placed at some distance for the turbine site were eventually found to be the most effective way of luring salmon and smolt towards the less dangerous water.
An intelligent solution? Some might say so – the music found to work best was that written by J.S. Bach, although I never came across anybody who could tell me why. True enough that my anecdotal reference here has absolutely nothing to do with Mara Marxt Lewis and Tyler Lewis’s installation, but I like to think it might one day be thought to connect in some way with their underlying fascination.
Mountains Underwater: Stroma
By Mara Marxt Lewis and Tyler Lewis
Inverness Museum & Art Gallery
Until 4 May 2019