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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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…