Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for September, 2013

It’s been a crazy week here. A two week residency is hectic enough. To research and build a whole new piece in two weeks is a little scary. To build a pavilion that people can go in and will last ore than my usual two week limit seems more than a little ambitious. To create a piece that responds to over 2,500 years of narrative. Well, that’s just nuts!

Well, sort of. I have to admit it’s not the first time I’ve created a piece from scratch in a matter of days. THere’s nothing like a tight deadline to raise the challenge and push the limits. The ‘Souvenir’ piece in Shanghai I first made back in 2006 was end to end in 10 days and I’m still really proud of that piece.

Souvenir in Shanghai

That first Shanghai piece also introduced me to the world of Chinese gardens. I’d kind of gotten into them through the Balls to Grasmere piece in the Lake District in 2005 and visiting Charles Jencks’ Garden of Cosmic Speculation near Dumfries. There’s a story in that too, but it’ll wait for another day as it’ll take me off this path.

Last year I got to work in Suzhou back in China and took the opportunity to visit some of the most important and oldest surviving Chinese gardens. In a nutshell, Chinese garden design is based on traditional Chinese landscape painting, which in turn is based on poetry and is founded on the human interaction with landscape. It’s both a physical and philosophical relationship and a series of ideas that go back over 2,000 years, yet in a bizarre convergence of thinking almost identical to that of English Romanticism born in the Lake District 200 years ago. In a similar resonance to the picturesque, Chinese gardens are built around a series of constructed views – each view as a framed image of the natural world – or at least conjures that up.

view of pavilions

Chinese gardens typically have a number of structures or pavilions in them. Each with a purpose and often very romantic names. The Master of the Nets Garden (1107 AD) includes a pavilion for looking at the fish, while in the Garden of the Humble Administrator – dating from a mere 1509 – there’s a “Who Shall I Sit With” pavilion and a ‘Pavilion for Listening to the Sound of Rain’. It sounds straight out of Cumbria yet pre-dates Wordsworth by 200 years.

Pavilion for Listening to Rain

There’s something very grounding about standing still and listening to the sound of the landscape. It’s something I’m increasingly drawn to on a few projects at the moment – including the piece I’m making for the God’s Bridge Project exhibition next spring.

A couple of days ago I went for a bike ride around the middle of Öland. Cycling and walking are great for getting to understand landscapes. Despite the apparent flatness of the island, on a bike you certainly feel every slight change in gradient and feel the lie of the land.

Karums Alvar

At Karum – just 6km from where I’m working – there’s a slight ridge in the land. It’s almost imperceptible driving along the road, but over 2,500 years the people who lived here and started farming the island noticed it too and had a reverence for it. The Karum Alvar is a plateau of limestone pavement. It seems strange that a high point of only 35m above sea level can be considered a plateau, but geologically it is very much one. Here the soil is very thin – only a few centimetres at most, and supports a micro ecology separate from most of the island. Like Widdy Bank Fell back in the North Pennines, here the plant life has an alpine feel to it, even though they’re not strictly alpine in nature. The landscape is dotted with yew and juniper trees growing out of what appears to be solid rock.

Noahs Ark

Up along the ridge is an impressive prehistoric graveyard. There are dozens of these stone graves – the bodies having been cremated, were buried under piles of rocks along with their treasured possessions – jewellery, swords, tools and food. Each grave marked with an upright marker stone. A slab of limestone pavement, or occasionally granite which look eerily like modern-day headstones. The most remarkable grave is ‘Noah’s Ark’ – a ship grave dating from around 1100 – 500 BC with stone posts fore and aft and appears to ride along the slight ridge from east to west between the coasts.

This is what Karums Alvar sounded like on Saturday:

It’s subtle (and a bit rough as just recorded on my phone) but none the less, it’s that gentle layer of sound that exists even in the quietest of places. This got me thinking about how I should respond to the forest here. How listening to the ambient sounds of a place can in some way connect you directly into it.

In the inter-war years – the 20’s and 30’s – a great deal of research was carried out around the world into the ability to locate advancing armies by listening to distant sounds. By exploiting the stereo field, left and right as well as up and down, you could get a quite accurate calculation of their position. The technology became RADAR, but for that short decade the ingenuity was amazing:

swedish listening device

Sadly I’ve not had the time to play around and experiment with these methods of listening for my pavilion. Instead I’ve been hacking some old telephones bought at the council clearance depot in Kalmar for  20 SEK a piece. The basics of how telephones work hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years so the circuits are really simple. Not got the sound quite right yet but had a good test of all the parts in the forest earlier.

speaker in the trees

Still to decide on a title for the piece, but it’s a pavilion for being at one with the forest. Somewhere quiet to sit and listen to the sounds and feel the movements of the place. I’m sure the title will come to me soon. It needs to. The invites go out in a bit and the farmer next door is already putting his pumpkins out for Skördefest. The pressure’s on…

pumpkins

Read Full Post »

So, the weather has finally turned. The wind is much colder, central heating boilers all over the country are firing up from their summer hibernation and there’s a real autumnal feeling in the air. Jumpers on. Except I’m in Sweden and sitting out on the veranda under a clear blue sky and it’s just lovely.

I’ over here on a very quick, subordinately hectic ten day residency which will end up with me building a pavilion in the woods. From scratch. I’m not panicking. Honest.

The pavilion is part of a project on the Baltic island of Öland called ‘Mittlandsskogen i min Bakgård’ – or ‘The Forest in my Back Yard’ that is investigating the effect the Mittlandsskogen – the large forest in the middle of the island – has on the communities that exist in and around its edges.

There’s something about forests. On a simple level they are a large swathe of trees. The reality is they are far more complex – an area so rich in its biodiversity that they constitute a biological entity of their own. Like huge living creatures which move and breathe as one. So interdependent are the myriad of vegetation, creatures, mosses, bacteria and internal climate even that it’s hard to distinguish the point at which they start and end. Their borders become fuzzy and bleed into the surrounding land in search of room to grow and assimilate into more forest. For communities around the Mittlandsskogen, they become part of the forest. Living independent of it in that they can physically escape, but bound up as part of its entity. A symbiotic existence. The line between what is their back garden and what is forest is forever blurred.

wild apples

The pavilion will be a structure which encompasses that idea of symbiosis – an interconnectedness between the forest and the pavilion and ultimately the people inside. It’s a tall order, particularly given the timescale and budget restrictions, but that’s all part of the dynamics of the project.

This is my third visit to Öland I even made a small piece in the forest last time so it’s not an entirely new terrain for me. That it’s a limestone landscape has a particular resonance for me. There’s something familiar about the colours and texture of the landscape even though it’s relatively flat and I’m working at a grand altitude of around 8m above sea level. It’s also the geology of this rocky outcrop makes it one of the most bio-diverse ecologies in Sweden.

Back in the bronze age, early settlers realised the potential of the extremely fertile environment and found that instead of hunting for food, they could actually cultivate it. While the rest of mainland Sweden was out hunting boar and deer for their dinner the population of Öland grew as the idea of agriculture took on. Over time more and more of the indigenous forest was cleared to make way for more farming and Öland became know as the bread basket of Sweden.

utmarks on Oland

the division of the land on Öland. Each plot varies in size and shape. The red line is the edge of the forest

In the late 18th century, the royal hunting grounds were dismantled and the land was returned to the people in exchange for land taxes – ‘utmarksdelningen’. Each parish was divided into lots (Utmark) in an effort to make communities self-sufficient. If there was a shortage of land in one parish then a neighbouring parish would offer a parcel of their own land. The division was a little uneven and although everyone had access to land of their own, in practice the wealthy had the biggest and best land, the poorer had small or the not so good stuff. Deforestation of the island had resulted in a shortage of firewood and building materials so a new law was brought in demanding that a portion of each Utmark would be given over to growing trees. As cereal crops couldn’t be grown on most of mainland Sweden, the market value of these grew and consequently the idealised sustainable communities either became wealthy crop farmers or, where the plots were too small and the land no good for growing – destitute and hungry. However, a succession of bad harvests resulted in years of famine by the mid 19th century which in turn led to mass emigration to America. The abandoned Utmarks quickly reverted to natural vegetation and soon the Mittlandsskogen took over.

wild forest

Most of the Utmark parcels of land exist today. Some have been planted with rapid growing conifer plantations for commercial logging. Some have been cleared for cattle and some are manicured lawns around tidy summer houses. In others the native woodland has been allowed to grow in an unmanaged state.

summer house in the forest

The Utmark I’m working in is a classic semi-wet woodland – there are two main wetland areas – still dry at the moment but populated by reeds and irises. The rest of the area is split into three layers – a top canopy layer of birch, elm, ash, lime and oak; a middle canopy of mostly hazel stands and a ground cover. The hazel is so dense in places that the ground cover is hardly there at all and only really exists in the occasional clearings. The whole Utmark is delineated by a low level drystone wall. It’s not high enough to keep anything in or out and the roundness of the field boulders in this part of the island makes them not so good for building with, but it’s a very clear boundary yet so different from the drystone walls back home.

stone wall on Oland

The density of the shrub layer makes getting around the Utmark difficult and even impossible in places – no mater how hard I tried I still haven’t managed to find the back corner of the wall. But where paths have been trodden there’s a real tunnel-like appearance through the woods. It’s even more obvious on the tracks and disused railway line that goes through the forest.

tunnel of trees

I’m still not sure where all this is taking me and how the pavilion will respond to it. There’s so many layers of narrative I’m not sure how many I’ll get to cover, but at least for now there’s plenty to be getting on with.

Read Full Post »