Art & Nature

Alec Finlay’s gathering

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.

Alec Finlay ,  Coyles of Muick: gathering , commissioned by Hauser & Wirth, photograph by Hannah Devereux, 2015

Alec Finlay, Coyles of Muick: gathering, commissioned by Hauser & Wirth, photograph by Hannah Devereux, 2015

“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.”

Alec Finlay ,  place-aware map of Dundreggan estate , English versions of Gaelic place-names, along with local toponyms collected from the community commissioned for Trees for Life Dundreggan Estate.

Alec Finlay, place-aware map of Dundreggan estate, English versions of Gaelic place-names, along with local toponyms collected from the community commissioned for Trees for Life Dundreggan Estate.

“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.”

Alec Finlay ,  Glen Derry: gathering , commissioned by Hauser & Wirth, photograph by Hannah Devereux, 2015

Alec Finlay, Glen Derry: gathering, commissioned by Hauser & Wirth, photograph by Hannah Devereux, 2015

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.” 

Alec Finlay ,  The Road North,  print, 2011, sizes: 59.4 x 84.1 cm (A1), 29.7 x 42cm (A3)

Alec Finlay, The Road North, print, 2011, sizes: 59.4 x 84.1 cm (A1), 29.7 x 42cm (A3)

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.”

1.1. AF Our totem pine-6x6.jpeg
1.2 AF IM1.2.jpeg

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.”

Alec Finlay ,  humandwolf manifesto , risograph print, 2017 suite of 12 different prints prints available 42 x 29.7 cm limited edition

Alec Finlay, humandwolf manifesto, risograph print, 2017 suite of 12 different prints prints available 42 x 29.7 cm limited edition

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.

Alec Finlay ,  A Wolf Among Wolves , a manifesto for humandwolves, 2017  Project Wolf, pioneered by Trees for Life, Dundreggan Estate, and National Trust, Mar Lodge. photograph: Mhairi Law

Alec Finlay, A Wolf Among Wolves, a manifesto for humandwolves, 2017
Project Wolf, pioneered by Trees for Life, Dundreggan Estate, and National Trust, Mar Lodge. photograph: Mhairi Law

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.


Alec Finlay ,  gathering  Published by Hauser & Wirth 2018, colour, 284pp £40 + p&p

Alec Finlay, gathering
Published by Hauser & Wirth
2018, colour, 284pp
£40 + p&p

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.

Creative Carbon Scotland Declares Global Emergency

Today’s monthly newsletter from Creative Carbon Scotland poses some interesting questions. “We are facing an unprecedented global emergency: the planet is in crisis and we are in the midst of a mass extinction event,” the organisation writes. Creative Carbon Scotland is set to join more than 60 organisations and practitioners from the cultural sector in declaring a climate and ecological emergency under the Culture Declares Emergency umbrella tag. But wait! Let’s think about this for a second.

As stated on their website, Creative Carbon Scotland started a journey in 2011 to embed environmental sustainability within the arts and cultural sector in Scotland: “From aiming to help arts organisations to report their carbon emissions – no small task in itself but one which is well under way,” they are now focusing on “exploring the sector’s role in transforming our society to address climate change.” And yet… How is this information delivered and what are the implications of our online interactions concerning climate change / catastrophe in relation to this? Can the global impact of online communication in the cultural sector really be quantified? and, in Creative Carbon Scotland’s case, Has this been considered as part of the charitable organisation’s own online activities?

culture-declares-emergency.jpg

If you are reading this blog post now, you are – I’m guessing – doing so on either a mobile device, a laptop, or a desktop computer, but the information supply chain that brings it to you, much like Creative Carbon Scotland’s information supply chain, is actually quite complex, and is rarely considered – Perhaps I should explain.

For those who have the impression that much of what Art North magazine does in terms of our technology and hardware use is much like any other climate-change-aware organisation, the truth might actually be quite different in our case. We have attempted to quantify what our impact is in terms of our carbon footprint. The complexity of the many ways we seek to get our message out to you is something that I don’t think we've actually said much about however, and I’ll be the first to hold my hands up and say that it is a tricky thing to do.

As an Internet user who reads a lot of blog, news, and online magazine articles about sustainability and ethical energy usage (as well as arts and culture information), I find myself frequently curious about the amount of energy we each use in producing and consuming what we do online. I often wonder about the sustainability of online projects that promote low-fi, low-energy, low emission information exchange in particular, however. Are they really practising what they preach? Is Art North? Is Creative Carbon Scotland, even? and How ethical are any of us in this regard? Rarely are end users told about the ‘back end’ of an organisation’s efforts to spread the word online with regard climate change.

In the North West Highlands of Scotland, I have been investigating for some time whether or not it is possible to produce a near-100% clean-energy, renewables-powered website? In other locations, I have done that, researching and implementing a near-100% renewables-powered site, hosted by a service that also uses an incredibly low-impact server setup to reduce their emissions – Have you ever considered how much energy web-servers use and how much heat they produce? Believe me… They produce a lot!

Typical data hosting centre set up (public domain).

Typical data hosting centre set up (public domain).

That is why, for the Art North website and our online activities currently, we chose a hosting provider that runs on 100% 'clean-energy' off-site. To do that (and I have researched many providers to find one) Art North’s website is hosted in New York City by a web host that serves our web pages to you the reader (and yes, I really did have to go that far afield to find a hosting service operating an ethical energy policy, or even one that was aware of how such a policy might be formulated with regard the impact of its servers).

Previously, online projects that I have developed have been powered in the UK by an electricity company actively building renewable energy sources, so every time I switched on the hardware, or flicked a switch in the office, the money that we spent on the energy we consumed was invested, I was assured, in renewable energy. That may seem pretty cool if you believe the claims made by the utility provider, I guess, but it comes with a downside too. Unlike the message delivered by Creative Carbon Scotland today, nothing is ever quite that simple. There is a lot that is beyond our control, and particularly when it comes to third party and ‘information bridging services’ that are important for the dissemination of information – social media providers being an obvious example.

With regard our chosen web host at Art North magazine, by comparison other web/domain hosts that I looked at were over 20 times less efficient than the hosting provider we currently use, and none in our locality even knew the size of their carbon footprint. Our current hosting provider, conversely, purchases clean energy in two different ways: to power their offices in the USA they use ConEdison's 100% clean energy option, but they also buy RECs to cover the complex power needs of their data-centre (slightly more complex but a move in the right direction, albeit a topic around which there remains some debate). Nonetheless, I have previously aimed to get as close to a near-100% Green-e certified online setup as is practicable.

The reason I raise this now is that Creative Carbon Scotland has put it at the front of my mind again with today’s newsletter, but I also think it is important that you, our readers, are aware that you are looking at a website now that is using as much clean energy as is possible for our location, as well as being served from New York City using 100% renewable energy, too. Of course, I’m not pretending that we’re getting it all right, or even able to given the choices available, and there are domain providers and other third parties that Art North does business with, over whom we have little influence, as stated, but where we can, we think we are heading in the right direction.

I’m deeply concerned about the message coming from Creative Carbon Scotland, however. This morning I was minded to look into this a little deeper, therefore. Firstly, I notice that the link I provide above was served to me from Creative Carbon Scotland (i.e. to the Culture Declares Emergency website) and points to a ‘Google Sites’ presence that carries the tagline: “Made with the new Google Sites, an effortless way to create beautiful sites.”

The Estonian artist Ivar Veermäe has created a substantial body of work with regard Google’s data centres, server estates, and energy consumption, though. While Veermäe’s work concentrates primarily on data collection, rather than serving, and his primary concern relates to ‘Big Data’ collection, the substantial impact that sever centres such as Google’s have on the environment cannot be ignored when viewing his installation works. In his installations ‘Centre of Doubt #1’ (Kasseler Kunstverein, Kassel, Germany, 2015), and ‘Centre of Doubt #2’ (an Artistic Research Project carried out between 2013 - 2018), the climate impact of Google’s data centres is clearly visible.

Ivar Veermäe ,  Centre of Doubt #1 , at Monitoring, Kasseler Kunstverein, Kassel, Germany, 2015

Ivar Veermäe, Centre of Doubt #1, at Monitoring, Kasseler Kunstverein, Kassel, Germany, 2015

Veermäe seeks to “provide insight into the complicated and somehow opaque nature of the topic of data centres and telecommunication technologies,” he says. On the one hand, he investigates “the materiality and the local circumstances of the infrastructure,” while, on the other, he seeks to “offer an alternative visual representation on the issues connected to information technology, which are mainly presented as ‘cloudy’ rhetoric and visuals found in advertisements; science-fiction-like images; or overdriven military language.”

In Veermäe’s video installation ‘Crystal Computing (Google Inc., St. Ghislain)’ (Full HD video, 09:19 min, 2014 – see above), his installation took the form of an investigation into Google's data centre in Saint-Ghislain, Belgium – the largest Google data centre in Europe and the second largest in the world. “According to the latest official information from Google Inc., it currently houses 296,960 servers,” which, you’ve probably guessed already, means a lot of energy consumption and a high output of emissions. For most of us in Europe, this murky world remains hidden in rural Belgium while we interact online, and Google is simply part of the terrain we navigate our digital landscape with.

But why would Creative Carbon Scotland choose to promote Culture Declares Emergency, a web presence that is likely served to its European audience from the very data centre in Saint-Ghislain that, as Ivar Veermäe highlights, is as a prime offender, not just in terms of data monopoly, but in terms of carbon emissions and global pollution, also?

Indeed, has Creative Carbon Scotland calculated its own impact in terms of the emissions that their own web/domain host publishes? I am guessing not, although I could be wrong. I guess not, though, because today I spent some time discussing the availability of such data on carbon emissions with Creative Carbon Scotland’s web host myself. I first asked for information that does not appear on their ‘About us’ pages: “Can you direct me to a policy statement or something similar that outlines your commitment to energy efficiency as a provider of domain hosting services?” The recipient of my enquiry seemed bemused and then confused. Why would I need that information?

Posing as a potential customer, I added: “It is important that I choose a hosting company with a commitment to energy-efficiency. Is this information something that you can provide to customers?” The answer I received was that they (i.e. Creative Carbon Scotland’s web host and domain provider) cannot provide that information because; “We do not have such information about energy-efficiency.” I was then directed to their Terms & Conditions for customers, which nowhere addressed my query, and the representative ended the conversation.

All I really want to know here, and what I want to ask Creative Carbon Scotland, is; Have they calculated and quantified the data server energy usage of their web host, and the carbon emission impact that this represents? I would also like to know why they are using a web/domain host that appears not to have any freely available information on the energy efficiency of its servers and whether they are powered by renewables, or not. While I cannot pretend for a moment that I have investigated this in depth, or made an exhaustive search for the information referred to hear, I would like to know whether Creative Carbon Scotland has.

Creative Carbon Scotland’s newsletter today states (under the headline Declaring Emergency):

School children are striking at the state of their future, people all over the world are rebelling to avoid extinction and councils are declaring emergency. We must act fast. Humans are capable of responding in a remarkable variety of ways to accelerate climate solutions and adaptations, and at Creative Carbon Scotland we have experienced through our work how culture can help stir up human response, create new stories and visions for our world, bring people together and offer new ways of working to make them a reality.

Let’s hope they are correct, but let’s also hope that in the interest of transparency Creative Carbon Scotland respond to the challenge of providing clear information on their own server-side emissions. Otherwise there is a risk of seeing their efforts as pretty empty, rather than a proactive call to arms going out to everyone in the cultural sector who is concerned about climate change and the real effects of our online communications.

Note: I have now attempted to contact Creative Carbon Scotland on five separate occasions, but nobody was available to take my call. I will update this post should I be able to make contact with somebody at Creative Carbon Scotland who can answer the questions I have posed above. In the meantime, those questions remain pressing as the organisation continues its online campaign to raise awareness of climate change and the role that the cultural sector can play.

Jane Rushton's Breathing Spaces

News from Resipole Studios today is that “the Spring Equinox is here and there is a warmth in the air.” Further north, there is still a sharp bite to the wind here, and although the daffodils are already flowering, the wind chill tells me that they may be getting ahead of themselves a little. Having launched ART NORTH magazine with a distinctly Arctic theme at the end of February, I was always a little curious about what readers would be making of it as we neared our upcoming Summer Issue (due 1 June); given that we are a quarterly magazine, what seems apt and timely for late February may well be less so for early-summer. Would the Arctic theme of issue 1 seem out of place in the warmer days of late May? We shall see.

Jane Rushton ,  sastrugi, towards the light , 100 x 100 cm

Jane Rushton, sastrugi, towards the light, 100 x 100 cm

For now, the Arctic theme of our debut issue is not yet an ‘incongruity too far’, I think, and that is underlined by the fact that Jane Rushton will be giving an artist’s talk tonight at Resipole Studios on the theme of ‘Arctic Artists’. It was Jane who authored the four-page feature titled The Draw of the Arctic in our current issue; a text that highlighted the appeal of landscape beyond the Arctic Circle for Scottish artists in particular. As the team at Resipole, which is currently hosting an exhibition of Rushton’s works, state: “writing in response to her piece Sastrugi: Into the Light (pictured above), Jane Rushton beautifully paints in words the first shifts towards Spring in the Arctic.

“Ice, not water, though the surface patterns appear the same. Svalbard at the beginning of March, just as the sun starts to appear after four months of the Polar Twilight, where the sun stays below the horizon. In an almost monochrome landscape, where distance is impossible to judge, leads to a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity. Spindrift shifting across wind and ice-scoured surfaces and the layers of protective clothing heighten the sense of isolation – but the hint of light from the slowly returning sun offers comfort and hope.”

Rushton’s talk, which takes place tonight (Thursday 21 March from 6-7pm), will surely be well worth venturing out to Resipole Studios, whatever the weather, and I wish her all the best with it and hope she has an attentive audience. For those not able to make it, you can read an edited transcript of a previous talk that she gave, which appears in the current issue of the magazineor why not combine the two? Resipole Studios is now one of our stockists for the magazine, after all, so maybe pick up a copy of the magazine while you are there.

Jane Rushton ,  snowstorm over sleat , 30 x 30 cm

Jane Rushton, snowstorm over sleat, 30 x 30 cm


Jane Rushton | Breathing Spaces

Until 5 April, 2019

Artist’s Talk: Thursday 21 March, 6-7pm

Resipole Studios
Acharacle
Argyll
PH36 4HX


ABOUT THE ARTIST:

Jane Rushton was born in Lancaster in 1955. She studied, as a mature student, at Lancaster University graduating with a First in Visual Culture, and an M.Phil. in Art: Practice and Theory. She subsequently worked for many years as a lecturer in 20th Century Art History, and as Studio Practice tutor in the disciplines of Painting and Drawing. Her art has always been rooted in landscape and expresses something of the experience of being within the northern environments to which she is drawn, rather than depicting them directly. She is based in Mallaig in the West Highlands.

ABOUT THE EXHIBITION:

The work on show in Rushton’s Breathing Spaces is drawn from a variety of northern environments; from Britain, Iceland, Greenland and Svalbard, and reflects upon what she refers to as her “personal relationship with landscape, and the natural processes that make our world.” As she continues, “Integral to the way I work is walking through and becoming immersed in landscape with the aim of becoming part of it. I don’t just want to be an observer of nature, but to recognise and explore my place within it through all of the senses. The smell of the earth, salt on the wind, or the call of a Northern Diver is as important to the making of the work as the sight before my eyes. I am attracted to edges and boundaries where relationships occur – where lichens create a rich palimpsest on rocks, plant communities vie for position, cloud, sea and land merge imperceptibly, and where ice margins shift on both the short and the long term. Whether working with paint on canvas or mixed media on paper I am looking to connect with the timelessness of the experience by bringing these subtle details and relationships to light, and offering them as sites of meditation, reverie and resonance.”

François Lelong in Iceland

Iceland’s Skriðuklaustur cultural and historic centre (the former home of renowned Icelandic author Gunnar Gunnarsson, with a remit to offer residencies to artists) includes Gallery Klaustur for exhibiting artwork. French artist François Lelong – known for making sculpture and site-specific installations from materials extracted from the landscape – will be exhibiting in what is usually the main permanent exhibit room of the centre this April, 2019. Many will already be aware of Lelong for his striking work with the remains of animals and plants that are closely linked in their biotope and ‘interwoven’ or ‘hybridized’ by the artist to take on new forms.

François Lelong , site-specific work (Reindeer antlers, oak, beech, cement, vegetal fibres, resins, organic material) - 2.4 m high, 2018. © 2019 François Lelong

François Lelong, site-specific work (Reindeer antlers, oak, beech, cement, vegetal fibres, resins, organic material) - 2.4 m high, 2018. © 2019 François Lelong

As Lelong has told ART NORTH, “In northern Iceland reindeer have disappeared, but in the east, where my exhibition will be staged in April, the animal is still much in evidence. My work there will be very much a work in progress as, during my residency, I will be working with Icelandic reindeer specialists, Unnur Birna Karlsdóttir, a historian, and Skarphéðinn Guðmundur Þórisson, a zoologist. I’ll be there to work on the residency, but I will also be bringing my art works down from Husavik Museum in the north for the exhibition.” Husavik Museum is celebrated for its collaboration between artists and writers whose curatorial displays have won national awards.

Notes For a Future Essay on Scale

In Issue 1 of Art North, Alex Boyd (whose work explores the remoteness of Northern landscapes) has a review on a new volume of photographs by Swedish photographer Håkan Strand, but my thoughts here are not about Strand’s work but that of Boyd; and in particular his image of Stac Lee, located in the North Atlantic and forming part of the St Kilda archipelago of the Outer Hebrides. As Alex tells me, the image was shot on a medium format camera some seven or eight years ago, at a time when he was "photographing sea stacks looming out of the mist" (a subject which still fascinates him, and to which he may return in the future).

Alex Boyd ,  Stac Lee  (Image: courtesy of the artist)

Alex Boyd, Stac Lee (Image: courtesy of the artist)

What interests me about Boyd’s image here is not the technical process by which the image came into being, but my initial reaction to it. To say that I was and am profoundly affected by it is, I think, an understatement. On first seeing it in reproduction online, It immediately drew me in, yet it also left me with a deep sense of foreboding or, to put it another way, I found the photograph simultaneously beautiful, beguiling and menacing in equal measure.

It is not the first time I have had such a response to a photograph, however. In 2007, I remember having a similar reaction to an image when preparing to write a catalogue essay for a publication to accompany an exhibition of work by the collaborative duo Boyd & Evans. Among the many works included in their exhibition at that time was Driftwood (2006) – seen below – which similarly featured the ocean, although photographed from the shore at a point where it meets with the debris thrown up by the waves and strewn upon the sand at the high water mark.

In the case of the Boyd & Evans photograph, I still recall myself thinking at the time, here is an image that unsettling dreams are made of. I won't call them ‘nightmares’ because that would be overcooking it somewhat, and that is certainly not what I allude to. What I refer to here are the kind of dreams that one feels compelled to recall, yet when one does they bring an unsettling feeling into the waking world, too. Like Alex Boyd's image above, there was an ambiguity with regard scale in the Boyd & Evans image, but also a sense of much lying hidden as well, out there in the mist. It was not so much about what was seen but what was not seen.

Boyd & Evans ,  Driftwood  (2007)   (Image: courtesy of Flowers Gallery)

Boyd & Evans, Driftwood (2007) (Image: courtesy of Flowers Gallery)

Referring back to my essay for the Boyd & Evans exhibition in preparation for writing this brief text here, today, I see that back in 2007 I had quoted from the writings of the the nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who once expressed the belief that "inorganic nature, provided it does not consist of water, produces a very melancholy, indeed oppressive impression upon us.” And yet, I'm now considering how relevant that reference really was. What Schopenhauer had in mind  was the long valley of rock near Toulon on the road to Marseilles, or the desert landscapes of North Africa, his thinking pretty much hinging on the opposition of the “inorganic mass” of desert landscapes and the "immediate pleasure" to be derived from the sight of vegetation, which directly proclaims “the phenomenon of life as a new and higher order of things.”

Even the casual reader will straight away note that there is an abundance of water in both Boyd's photograph of Stac Lee, and Boyd & Evans' photograph of the Pacific coastline, yet it is maybe in the absence of any immediate indication of life, too, that both images seem to fit with what Schopenhauer was getting at (if they do at all). I don't doubt that there would be a myriad of lifeforms apparent to anyone in the immediate vicinity of the locations where these photographs were taken but, for me, the viewer, any sense of that life is not revealed in a way that can reduce the sense of foreboding that I feel. Whether a photograph of a large sea stack in the North Atlantic, or of the silvered timbers thrown up onto the shore by the crashing waves of the Pacific, both images touch upon the sense we may often have of our smallness when measured against the natural world. Is that not, maybe, closer to what Schopenhauer was alluding to, I wonder.

Maybe it also has something to do with the absence of human scale or subject in these images that causes me to feel the way I do, but there is more going on here than just that, surely? If the issue was just about lack of human scale, then why would my mind connect Boyd & Evans' Driftwood and Alex Boyd's photograph of Stac Lee with what I associate, somewhat irreverently, with the generic term 'Nordic Noir' (a categorisation in my mind that is set aside for the cataloguing of a great many stills from Ingmar Bergman's arthouse classic The Seventh Seal of 1957, for example, or several paintings of our most northerly coastlines by Caspar David Friedrich, too)? 

The Seventh Seal  ( Det sjunde inseglet ) A still from the film by Ingmar Bergman (1957) (Svensk Filmindustri/Janus Films)

The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet) A still from the film by Ingmar Bergman (1957) (Svensk Filmindustri/Janus Films)

Lately, I've been looking at the work of Paul Nash again, also. Nash was a painter (and photographer) whose work I've never felt fully comfortable with, yet it occurs to me that there are similarities in his work that might merit me developing my thoughts on this just little bit further still. Nash, after all, developed a whole body of work around what he referred to as megaliths and monoliths (from sea stacks to standing stones). He also developed a book on the English southern county of Dorset that featured one of his photographs of the sea stacks on the south coast as part of the Shell Guide series.

Paul Nash ,  Black and white negative, Avebury stone (double exposure)  (1933) ©  Tate  {CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)]

Paul Nash, Black and white negative, Avebury stone (double exposure) (1933) © Tate {CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)]

As a war artist, Nash painted one of his most celebrated and iconic images: a 'graveyard' of downed Luftwaffe aircraft titled Totes Meer (Dead Sea, 1940) that, for me, appears to possess some relationship with the Boyd & Evans image as well, albeit of quite a different nature. Additionally, there are crossovers between Nash's Totes Meer and Caspar David Friedrich's Wreck of Hope – sometimes alternatively titled The Sea of Ice (1823–1824): a painting that shows a wrecked sail ship, the HMS Griper, that took part in William Edward Parry's expeditions to the North Pole. In Friedrich's painting we see the ship crushed by colossal shards of arctic pack ice, and again there appears an ambiguity of scale that can seem unsettling (menacing even). As Andrew Causey has written, Friedrich's painting had a direct influence on Nash in his development of Totes Meer.

Paul Nash   Totes Meer (Dead Sea)  (1940–1) ©  Tate  {CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)] – said to be based upon the image, right.

Paul Nash Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940–1) © Tate {CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)] – said to be based upon the image, right.

Caspar David Friedrich   The Sea of Ice  (also known as  The Wreck of Hope ) (1823-4) © Kunsthalle Hamburg.

Caspar David Friedrich The Sea of Ice (also known as The Wreck of Hope) (1823-4) © Kunsthalle Hamburg.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this yet, but it's a topic that I'm sure I will return to. Certainly the sense of foreboding that I feel when studying all of the works mentioned here (most of all those by both Alex Boyd and Boyd & Evans) might justly merit some more detailed discussion in the future; I haven’t decided yet. None of the artworks that I refer to include human subjects, clearly (although Bergman's film represents the obvious passing exception), but it is in the apparent 'bigness' of nature in most of these images that my interest really lies (even if, in the case of Nash's Totes Meer, the artist represented his 'dead sea' in the form of the carcasses of twisted aircraft parts). Casting Schopenhauer's reference to water aside, then, what these images have in common is something of the 'inorganic' about them, and it is this that I'm now thinking about; that is, what they have to say (maybe) about what is often referred to as 'the human condition', and then that in relation to what was once thought of as the call of the Sublime.