Archive for the ‘rant’ Category

Inbetween Everywhere

Just a quick ranting post about the big art news today.

Art is good for you. I know the science is a bit flaky, but on the whole there’s enough evidence to at least make accept this to be true. Certainly there’s no flaky evidence that I know of to suggest it’s bad for you. So Art Everywhere is a great concept and one to be celebrated.

Only, is it really everywhere? or just in urban spaces? You decide:

art everywhere map

There’s some pretty big holes. It seems once again art isn’t for rural communities.

By comparison, here’s the interpretation of ‘everywhere’ in Cumbria according to FRED (2004 – 2008)

FRED everywhere

Or is this just an metro-centric art world trying to catch up with the progressive rural folk 10 years down the line?

rant over.

for now.

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It’s afternoon on the first day of a brand new year. The weather is a touch brighter and calmer than it has been of late adding to that sense of a new start. It’s only a day different from last year, but that idea of starting all over makes all the difference.

A clean slate and all that.

As I sit here with the obligatory cup of Yorkshire tea and listening to Mahler’s first symphony, it seems like a good time to catch up on the past 12 months and put it to bed before moving on with the future.

The Mahler seems appropriate as 2012 was the year I fell in love with playing music all over again. Just 12 months ago I was polishing my old East German Lidl and oiling up the valves before blowing some dusty notes through it.

Since then I’ve joined a couple of orchestras and played with a few others and performed live in front of paying audiences. The repetoire has been almost unbelievably vast – from newly commissioned works through chamber pieces, a wonderfularray of Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven, my beloved Tchaik 5, a whole day of Wagner overtures (to a horn player that’s like dying and going to Valhalla) and two who Mahler symphonies (including the one I’m listening to).

I got to play on a victorian bandstand at Beamish museum, at the Sage in Gateshead and in Bishop Auckland completely intimidated Joe McElderry who was supposed to sing Nessum Dorma with us but as we weren’t a backing track in his earpiece he couldn’t do it and showed himself to be no more than a vertically challenged karaoke singer. Bless.

In June I played in an emsemble at the opening of the new Tees Barrage and was picked out of the hat to meet the ACTUAL Queen. I have to admit she gave me a bit of a disapproving look – dressed as I was in jeans, un-tucked shirt and a waistcoat I bought to wear to an All About Eve gig at the Royal Albert Hall in 1990, and clearly doesn’t fit anymore, and I think she guessed. Still it was good to feel I’d played a part in the whole Diamond Jubilee thing and have my own memory of it.


I finally got back into writing my own music again too. Still a little tentative although the eagle-eared among you may have spotted a couple of pieces slipping out over the year.

The other big thing of the year – if not the biggest for most – was the Olympics in London. I was lucky to get tickets and had an incredible day there with my kids. Words just cannot explain the roar for the home team in the venues. Just hearing it eminating from the main stadium sent inexpicable shivvers up the spine. Remembering it now has the same effect. Truly an unforgettable experience. Even Kapoor’s Orbit was more interesting in real life than I thought it would be.


On the visual art side, it was another busy year. In the current climate this was something I’m particularly fortunate to have had, I know.

In the spring I went back to China to make a new piece for a Cumbrian Paper Mill. It was part of a series of works I’d been doing for a couple of years now exploring the connections between paper, its raw materials of wood and water, and playing with colour and form in the Cumbrian landscape. They even made a gorgeous limited edition calendar of all my paper pieces (there’s a little booklet about them here).


It was a far from smooth process working in China again this year – you can read about it on an earlier bog post here – but the offset was making the piece in Suzhou – home to some of the most important traditional gardens in China. Working there gave me an extra opportunity to get a better understanding of the importance of art and landscape in Chinese culture and helped make some imporatnt links in my own work. There’ll be another blog post about this no doubt.


At the same time. Let me say that again. At the very same time, I was installing and showing a piece back in the UK. It wasn’t really a new piece, but the first time this piece had been seen in the UK since the first version in Shanghai in 2006. ‘Brockhole Souvenir’ was commissioned by Mid Pennine Arts for the ‘Art of Destination’ conference on art and landscape. Through the miracles of technology I also presented at the conference from a slightly seedy hotel room in downtown Shanghai.


Unfortunately some of the good folk of Preston thought differently about the pieces and were badly vandalised within minutes of them going up. This was the first time any of my pieces had been vandalised, let alone damaged while up. Maybe I’d just been lucky up until now. It was sad to hear of their too swift demise and even sadder too for the folk at MPA and the Brockholes people.

Still, the process threw up some interesting ideas which although couldn’t be realised there at that time of year were too good to let go of. Also, Khan’s visitor centre at Brockholes was criminally omitted from the Stirling Prize shortlist in a year when the Stirling prize became far more interesting than the Turner prize (discuss?).


The ‘Fairhaven Bubbles’ which resulted were one of my favourite pieces so far. A combinatio of a good client, the right budget and an enthusiastic team based at the lake ensured that the piece worked the best it could. The initial teething problems were patiently solved and even the unfortunate attacks on the pieces (what was wrong with you Lancashire?) were handled with a determination to keep the piece looking its best. The most flattering bit came when my artist’s talk at the lakeside cafe was not just standing room only but there were people standing outside who couldn’t get in who still enjoyed the sunset cruise around the piece afterwards.


A determination to finish a piece also resulted in ‘Twisted’ at Cromford Mill – a work that this time last year I was disappointed to not have managed to realise. This time I found all the funding and managed the project myself and the final piece was not only as spectuacular as I’d hoped, but its silent majesty and the way it remained in place for over six months and looked just the same on its final day as it did when it was first completed.


I was also fortunate to be invited over to Sweden a couple of times last year to do some talks. On the first trip I also got to have a little play in an ancient forest as part of a project looking at how artists can drive sustainable communities. Sometimes the most interesting work comes without a brief.


There were other projects and pieces. Some big, some tiny, and mostly enjoyable. I did lots of talks – the one in Presteigne is now up on the Culture Colony website (link here) if you want to know what they’re like. Another one on working in isolated rural communities was filmed at Li Yuan Chia’s place on Hadrian’s wall for the Museum of Modern Art in Taipei.

On top of this I’ve had yet another year living in the most amazing part of the world, where everyday the light and landscape never cease to inspire me.



Well, that was last year.

Twenty thirteen, you’ve got a big act to follow.

But somehow I think you’re going to beat it.

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Gosh. It’s been ages since I last sat in the Howgills to write a blog post.

It’s a beautiful day and it looks like we’ve got a little spell of days like this ahead this week. Time to get out and get some images done that I’ve been waiting to do for a while now.

The other week someone asked me what I thought was ugly. That’s an interesting one I thought. I know what I consider to be beautiful and by definition the opposite of beautiful must be ugly. The dictionary defines beauty as “A combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic, intellect or moral senses”. Ugly is similarly defined, but is unpleasant to the senses.

Most of my work on one level is about beauty. I know it’s not fashionable to make art just because it looks nice, but I make no excuses. I’m happy doing that. I’m a bit of a beauty addict. It’s the force which moves me the most emotionally. I’m always looking for it. Hunting it out in all it’s forms. If I’m having a bad day nothing lifts the spirit than finding something beautiful.

It’s not just a visual thing either. It can be a sound, music, a smell, a taste, a touch. It’s there to be found in all the senses.

But what is beauty?

It’s in the eye of the beholder as they say. It’s true that every one of us has our own individual tastes and these too are shaped by our cultural norms. The idea of beauty has changed throughout civilisation too. There’s a wonderful book on the History of Beauty by Umberto Eco (whose writing is a thing of beauty in itself).

It’s all subjective. Aesthetics are subjective and relative too.

Even colour is subjective. There are many cultures in which the concept of green as a colour doesn’t exist. In some cases it’s seen as a shade of blue. In other cultures blue is just a shade of red. Even in Welsh there is no word for brown. In fact, the only universally accepted colours across all cultures and languages are black, white and red.

But back to beauty. What do I love?

Here’s a tiny selection:

starlings over Stainmore. 2012

Hylas and the Nymphs by JWWaterhouse at Manchester Art Gallery

‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ (detail) – J W Waterhouse – Manchester Art Gallery


shanghai view

Lost by Klas Eriksson

‘Lost’ – Klas Eriksson 2012

But what about ugly? I’m not entirely sure it exists. If there’s a common ideal of what is pleasant to look at, then there’s a consensus of what is not so pleasant, or unpleasant. But even that’s not so straightforward.

Joseph Merrick

Joseph Merrick (the ‘Elephant Man’) photographed in 1889

Beauty can be unconventional. Take the work of Diane Arbus.

Twins by Diane Arbus

‘Twins’ – Diane Arbus

Or medical specimens


pickled six-finger infant’s hand – 1999

Or wind turbines

So maybe ugly is just a form of beauty? It’s still about triggering an emotional response.

What then is the opposite of beauty? Maybe it’s mediocrity. Something devoid of emotional stimulation.


Which is why I’m on a grass bank beside a babbling stream in the Howgills in the sunshne and not sat at a desk somewhere.

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A couple of years ago I was asked to run some workshops for the Lake District National Park Authority as part of their ‘Excellence in Design’ programme. It was a bold and fascinating project which sought to explore what is good design, how it works in the context of the Lake District and inform a review of the planning guidelines to see if there was a way to encourage excellent design in the National Park. My own workshops were about colour – an exploration of it within a variety of landscapes. Not to dictate what are good colours and what are bad ones, but simply to give planners, architects and decision makers the experience of colour so they could see for themselves how it works. It was a fun couple of days and we mostly played around with lots of things outdoors.

photo: Andrew Tunnard

For the past seven or eight years I’ve done a big installation somewhere in the lakes every year. I like doing stuff in the Lake District. Although I live over an hour from most of the lakes, I know it well enough to find locations which work well for me.  It’s not as impressive as the Alps, or even the Highlands for that matter, but its compact size makes it easy to get round and from an audience point of view, easy to get to.

The cultural heritage or the Lake District intrigues me too. Not just the romantic poets stuff, but the pull it had for outsiders and radical thinkers of all persuasions. That it still manages to pull 16 million visitors a year is part of it too. The original tourist destination. It may be a man-made landscape ripping off the tourists on every corner, but it’s been like that for a good couple of hundred years now but that’s part of the charm.

I haven’t done a piece in the lakes at all this year. Not for any conscious decision – it’s just turned out that way. However, next year there looks like being at least two new big pieces there, so I guess it’s swings and roundabouts.

Back in August I was asked to write an article for the RIBA magazine in the north west about working in the protected landscapes of the Lakes. I wasn’t sure about what they wanted from me so I wrote a couple of different articles and let the choose the one they wanted. I said I’d probably use the unwanted one as a blog post, but having looked at it, I think they chose the right one (the other one was even more pants). For what it’s worth, here’s the article:

I have been creating works with the Lake District landscape for the best part of 10 years now. I guess I’m lucky in that I’m based not too far away from the Lakes so I know it fairly well.

Most of my work deals with landscape and trying to understand all its detail – from the shape of the skyline to the way the light falls off a leaf at a certain time of year. Landscapes are therefore one of the essential raw materials and there’s plenty of it in the Lakes. But it’s not just the abundance of interesting views, it’s more than that. It’s about the cultural history of the place, the people, the way the land has been used over the centuries and the marks that have been left behind.

The Lake District, as much as most landscapes in England, has been shaped by its use over hundreds of years. There’s always something very man-made about the way it looks today. Iron age settlers used the fells and water for hunting and fishing. The Vikings brought a more formal sense of agriculture and found out about the metals in the hills – copper, iron, lead, silver and gold. The Romans built their walls and towns. The landscape was deforested to build ships and the now barred fields enclosed with miles and miles of neat dry stone walls. Then came the artists and poets and dreamers, and with them a new appreciation of the aesthetics of landscape. But then that visual story creaks to a final stop with the establishment of the National Parks in the 1950‘s. The 20th Century was preoccupied trying to protect and preserve the landscape as is some museum exhibit. The side effect being that in the visual story of the landscape its as if the 20th Century never existed. Both art and architecture in the lakes has retreated to a mostly ineffectual pastiche of the past.

This is  potentially damaging shortsighted effect. In the interests of preserving the heritage and history of the Lakes, we need to be more aware that what we do today will be the heritage of tomorrow. To do that we need to be more confident about the marks we make. Mediocrity and subtlety will do nothing for future generations. All great art was contemporary when it was created. It’s part of what makes them great.

The installations that I create are always temporary – a once-upon-a-time-and-never-again. The legacy of them, however is one of changing the way people view and experience the landscape. One hopeful side effect of these is a growing recognition of the role that ambitious art and design can play in shaping the landscape of the future.

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Nines and Tens

At last the weather decided to play ball with me and it’s a fabulous day up here perched atop Nine Standards Rigg. The rigg itself is named after the nine huge cairns straddling this ridge overlooking, well pretty much overlooking the entire Eden Valley, the Eastern Lake District Fells and on a clearer day, the Solway Firth and Scotland. Behind me, a few yards away is the North Yorkshire border and to my right County Durham and beyond. It’s no wonder then that centuries ago people decided it would be good to mark this point.

One of the reasons for coming up here today was to see if I could see my house from the top. This may sound a silly thing, but the Nine Standards are such a feature on the  skyline around Kirkby Stephen and always wondered why I couldn’t see them from my studio. The cairns are over 20ft high (some are at least) and one theory of their origin is that they were built to scare off invading vikings / scots / romans ( take your pick, they all came ) by appearing as giant soldiers keeping guard.

Yep. Can definitely see my house from here.

The other nice bit about the Standards is their movement. They are of unknown origin and date, but what is clear from the site, and stories, is that there has always been nine of them. If one falls down another is built from its remains next to it. So over time they have moved back and forth across the ridge.

I like this.

A few years ago some of the cairns were in a realy bad state and in real danger of collapse. There was a great deal of local debate as to whether, and how they should be restored. In the end, a small team of champion dry stone wallers did an amazing job of rebuilding four of them and securing the others. Today is the first time I’ve seen them in their new glory.

As I reached the top I had a great chat with a couple from Darlington about the stones. Being on Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk, there’s a lot of traffic up here. The land erosion by millions of booted footsteps is really taking its toll in places. With no more than a mention on the OS map, these walkers – and probably loads more – presumed they were a work of art by some land artist. It’s no wonder they look a bit like an Andy Goldsworthy at the moment. They were rebuilt by some of the same wallers who work with Goldsworthy on his pieces. In fact, the Nine Standards are responsible for much of his work. As a young artist straight out of art school, Goldsworthy worked as a gardener at a local estate. You can just about see their sillhouettes from the house he worked at, and would regularly walk up to them. As part of his sheepfolds project across Cumbria, Goldsworthy paid tribute to his roots with a proposed nine pin-cones within view of the rigg. Sadly only four were finished.

Raisbeck Pin Cone by Andy Goldsworthy. From a photography project I did with Barrow Deaf Club for the Sheepfolds Project. Shot with a disposable camera on Ilford XP2 film. Lith-printed on Kentmere paper and gold-toned.

Today is a beautiful day – clear blue skies and hardly a breeze, even on the top. Definitely spring.

So vey different from when I last came up here 10 years ago. To the very day.

I remember it well. It was freezing cold. there was a thick hoar-frost on the north faces of the cairns, and on the way back down to town it started to snow.

I remember it well. 1st March 2001.

The very next day everything changed.

On 2nd March 2001, the number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease in Cumbria was rising fast and as a precautionary measure to stop the spread, MAFF (now DEFRA) closed the countryside. All footpaths across land where animals were farmed were closed to the public. Thousands – hundreds of thousands, of cows, sheep and more besides would be culled across the region over the next year or so in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. My next door neighbour, who was in his eighties had his entire stock killed for precautionary measures one morning. He was a broken man. Generations of stock breeding wiped out in an hour or two. Too old to start again from scratch he more or less gave up on everything. He didn’t know what else to do with himself. He thought about retraining with computers, but as he struggled to come to terms with phones without cords, it really wasn’t likely. He died within a couple of years.

On the 2nd March 2001, I remember driving towards Penrith and seeing a dotted line of black smoke billows reaching from the direction of Carlisle, spreading down a line which seemed to follow the A6 towards Shap. Thick black smoke. Really black. These were the unforgettable pyres burning the carcasses of culled stock. Piles of old tyres kept the temperature of the fire high enough to incinerate everything. Walking through the streets of Penrith the air was thick with the smell of burnt rubber and meat.

photo by Murdo Macloud

At one stage, at the gallery I ran, we contemplated an installation about the culling. We toyed with one  idea of representing every animal culled with a sheet of toilet paper. Until we realised we didn’t have enough room in the gallery for that many rolls.

It was a dark time. Not just for farmers. It affected every single person in our sheep-farming town. Once I had a chat with friends to see who was the remostest from farming to have their work affected. The water bailff on the River Eden lost his job as there was no access to the river banks, therfore no fishing and no fising permits. Every B&B and hotel in Kirkby Stephen, bar one, is now under different ownership than before foot and mouth. In a town which survives on walking-based tourism and sheep farming, everything was decimated. I lost a lot of the work I had lined up too with everything around me out of bounds.

It was just before my photography went digital, so everything was still on film. With work cut, I had to ration my film use – I was so broke – so sadly I didn’t really document what was going on. I wish I had now. I wish I had photographed the ‘dip and go’ pads outside every shop which not only disinfected your boots but slowly dissolved them. I wish I had photographed the check-points on every road outside every village where your car tyres and chassis was sprayed by people in space-age bio suits. I wish I had photographed the endless lines of brand new red wagons with sealed roofs on the tippers carting away hundreds of carcasses to disposal sites, once they decided that the pyres were just too awful. Busses for the rotting.  I wish too I had photographed the Yorkshire Dales, empty of all animals, and the brightness of the buttercups that took over the landscape – becoming a vibrant yellow instead of the usual lush greens.

For 18 months, the nine standards looked over the town – lonely and unvisited. Kirkby Stephen had the last recorded case of Foot and Mouth in Cumbria and consequently the countryside round the town was the last to re-open to the public.

A great deal of money was invested into rural areas following the outbreak. Regeneration money to get everything back on its feet. 2003 – 2006 was a boom time for rural England. Much went on. Much new stuff started. Tourism took a real boost.

That money is long gone now. Some stuff remains, which is good. Farming has changed – for the better in many respects. DEFRA have completely re-written the procedure for handling any future outbreak of foot and mouth, so that agriculture won’t be as badly affected. That’s good news for farmers if it works. However, the reliance on tourism as the new saviour of upland communities is a fragile one. The fact remains that access restrictions to the countryside would still happen, just as before. My, and many many others besides, fear that should it all happen again, despite all the well intentioned regeneration programmes, we’ll be no better off next time round.

Ten years on, the world has changed. It’s changing lots it seems at the moment. Through all this, the Nine Standards will remain, looking over the valley (and my house too). Maybe moving a bit as the centuries pass, but it’s good to keep moving.

Best get down the hill before sunset.

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I’ve swapped one of my normal hillside blogging spots for a comfy sofa and a cuppa. It’s Heritage Open Weekend so I’ve taken the opportunity to have a nose around Farfield Mill Art and Heritage Centre as it’s free today. There’s normally an entrance fee to see the artists studios, shops, small exhibitions and displays of the weaving heritage of this bit of the dales. Not the best choice of art or the most engaging of displays so the entrance fee is another barrier to me coming more often. But still, these things cost money to run and the cash has to come from somewhere.
It’s a topic I’ve found myself conversing about a lot this week – firstly at a talk I was asked to do about being a professional artist in Cumbria for Littoral Arts in the Lakes. It also dominated chats I had when I visited the lovely folk at the Storey Gallery in Lancaster and meeting the deputy director at the North Pennines AONB in Teesdale. There’s a great deal of concern around at the moment about the state of government funding for the arts and public funding generally. Wobbly times it seems. David Shrigley has even made this video for the cause.

As an individual artist I realised long ago that you couldn’t rely on public money to pay you a living. I’m sure there are artists and even more arts organisations who feel the state owes them a living, but that’s something I feel very uncomfortable about. As Alistair Hudson from Grizedale Arts pointed out in his presentation at Littoral the visual arts are largely dictated by the commercial sector. Artists are only famous and successful if they are selling well. The Turner Prize is never contested by struggling artists. The public face of visual arts is determined by a small group of influential gallerists and collectors. In fact they have it all pretty much sewn up at the top end.
So what chance do artists who don’t want to go that route have of ‘making it’? It’s all a matter of business models. The music industry was once seen as a similar situation with record companies monopolising on what was considered talent. Then came Napster and illegal file sharing and a whole range of internet based ways of discovering more music – beyond just those the record companies wanted to sell you. Then iTunes came along and wanted to sell you that new found music legally. Now places like Bandcamp mean that musicians can make and sell music without record companies. There’s more profit and less interference. Win / win for the artists. While musicians are waking up to the fact they can control their own artistic directon and make a living too, the record labels ate crying foul and blame it on piracy for the wholes in their pockets when it’s just that their business model has just been bettered. Similar things are happening in publishing with a whole bunch of authors taking advantage of the boom in ebooks and loopholes in their publishers contracts which enable them to bypass them and sell more directly to the public.
That’s all great for musicians and writers, but what about visual artists?
In 2008 Damien Hirst pulled a fast one by selling directly through an auction house. The sale room becoming a solo exhibition and the auction house publishing the catalogue. As the buyer pays the sales commission on top of the hammer price hirst pocketed every penny of the £111 million sales.

Christo and the late Jeanne-Claude fund their multimillion dollar temporary installations entirely from their own pocket. They make their money selling drawings, prints and models produced as part of the preparatory process and giving lectures. Not only does it give them a more sustainable business model but crucially it gives them 100% independence from the agendas of cultural institutions funders and curators.

It’s that independence from the source of money that I aim for. While I’m lucky to be in a rare position to make some form of living solely from my art I also realise just how important it is to keep money and art separate. Making art for money generally leads to bad art. It then becomes a manifacturing process Using art to subsequently realise more money is a far more sustainable option as it ensures investment for the future and room for development. How that balance is realised depends on the business model. It’s not arts funding that will see artist through these uncertain times, its a look at the broader business model. Art always fairs well in turbulent times. Maybe the latest financial insecurities will prove to be a good thing for arts – a chance to step back and regroup. A time to reflect on the value of the arts and the affects of art.
In the meantime I’ll reflect with a cup of tea on a comfy sofa. There’s a lot of profit in a cup of tea…

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