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Twelve years is a long time. Twelve years ago was a very different place for most people. Twelve years ago, on a whim, I did something I’d never done before and it’s shaped my life ever since.

March 5th 2005. I don’t normally remember dates of things, but I seem to remember this one. It was a calm, sunny day and we were rowing giant red balls across Grasmere in the heart of the Lake District.

The year before I’d helped create a new festival of art in the landscapes of Cumbria and the Lake District in the North of England. Off the back of that, the local tourist board wanted to know if I could do something to get a bit of media attention for the Lakes out of season. Maybe something big? I think their original idea was something along the lines of a big red nose for Comic Relief. The normal PR stunt thing. But while they were thinking of something 12ft tall, I was thinking something over a mile long.

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The original idea was a dotted line weaving the length of Grasmere – north to south. Needless to say the budget didn’t run to that, so a much smaller version was devised whereby the balls would rush towards the southern shore beneath Loughrigg with the balls getting progressively larger to accentuate the perspective.

The piece I believe was to be installed for a week or two. The balls were PVC and commissioned from a fabricator based on a farm in Devon and arrived in three large boxes that fitted in the boot of my Renault Clio. Lengths of sinking line were bought from the Ropemakers in Hawes, Yorkshire and concrete breeze blocks were bought from my local builders merchant in Kirkby Stephen for anchorage.

Grasmere was chosen as it was both a relatively small lake (one mile by half a mile, approx.) and conveniently placed at the edge of two local TV regions in the hope that both would show up and double the coverage. However, Grasmere has a little-known by-law prohibiting the use of powered vessels on it. The only way to get the balls in position was towing them in rowing boats.

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The largest ball at 4m diameter. Photo © Tony West

Luckily, the Faeryland Tearooms at the top of the lake had a small fleet of boats to hire and kindly stepped in to help, along with a bunch of artists volunteering for the cause. The prevailing winds off the Helvellyn range blew north to south in the mornings and with a relatively still day the elements were on our side. That’s not to say there’s anything even vaguely easy about towing big inflatable balls the size of a small house 3/4 mile across a lake. There was a small window in mobile phone coverage so the fine-tuning of the installation was done with me halfway up Loughrigg with binoculars and a cell-phone calling the people in what from there looked like very small boats.

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Starting to tow out the balls. Photo © Tony West

From the clients’ perspective it worked well. We had TV and radio coverage across the whole of the North of England, some cracking photos and a good news story of artists doing things with the iconic landscapes of the Lake District National Park.

For me it was a very steep learning curve and baptism of fire into doing things of that scale. Among the things I learnt were practical things like the importance of calculating wind drag on large objects on water (they drifted lots), and the general volume of logistics to do something that looks quite simple.

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Installing the balls. Photo © Tony West

But I also learnt lots more fundamental things about work of significant scale – the way light and weather affects and adds to the piece; the way colour works in landscapes; the interaction of people in appreciation of scale; what it feels like to experince work of that scale.

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The ‘final’ installation

The public were similarly receptive too. We were a little apprehensive as to how people would react to such a bold statement, but the fact that it was temporary, had a very light touch and used the surrounding landscape to become part of the work rather than challenging it drew visitors in their hundreds. We have no idea just how many people came to see it – we weren’t even thinking about that – but the local National Trust Estates Manager reckoned it was thousands based on the carpark use alone.

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Me 12 years younger!

We had no idea what the longer term effect would be. Nothing like this had ever been attempted in the Lake District. There was a perception of overprotection from major stakeholders like the National Trust and the Lake District National Park Authority. However, that the piece was successful and very positively received made it so much easier to do similar works in the landscape in the future. Certainly from where I stood it was the piece that created a significant mind change in those organisations.

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The following morning the balls had drifted a little. Photo © Tony West

As landscape works go, this was very simple. It was made with very little thought to a wider context or depth of meaning. In the wider scheme of things it’s not a great piece of art. This wasn’t the first piece I’d done outdoors or using the landscape, but in terms of scale it was a new benchmark. I was hooked and almost every piece I’ve created since has a direct link back to that piece.

And it was 12 years ago today.

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Success. It’s a great concept, but what do you mean by success? Sure fast cars, big houses and pots of cash can be a fair indicator, but success can exist at all levels – like when your Yorkshire puddings rise evenly or when you put a piece of IKEA furniture together and you don’t have any pieces left over.

But what about art? When would you consider yourself a successful artist, or even how do you measure the success in an artwork? These are the kind of things you have to evaluate for funding reports and consultations. Stuff I don’t like doing and generally try to avoid, mostly because it’s full of questions like this.

Sure, last year’s PaperBridge in the Lake District seemed to be a success. It went up and stayed up. It even went down well with visitors attracting nearly 10 times what I’d anticipated. Pictures of it went around the world and it appeared on TV on four continents. That’s pretty successful isn’t it?

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‘PaperBridge’ in BBC Focus magazine

Well, if being popular with the general public is the measure of success then yes. But as a work of art, how do we measure success for that? Did it do all the things art needs to do? I’m not sure how we work that out. I’m quite sure it didn’t fail though. That’s a different thing.

One recent TV interview asked me about risks involved in putting up a bridge made of paper. In particular they wanted to know how sure I was that the one in China would take a car going over it. The honest answer to that was I wasn’t sure. It had never been done before at that scale so how would anyone know? In fact there was a very real risk that it wouldn’t work. It could so easily have failed and collapsed and trashed a £100k car. Sure we  took lots of precautions and did lots of complicated calculations. We even enrolled a world leading structural engineers to check it all over with the latest hi-tech computer modelling. But at the end of the day they had to admit there were too many unknowns involved in building big structures out of sheets of paper – a material not made for building bridges out of – to sign it off as safe. In short – no one knew for sure it was going to work.

On one level the risk-taking was part of the deal. That element of peril was part of the narrative. If it was easy it wouldn’t have been as big a deal. If it was easy someone else would have done it before, I’m sure.  Actually, as I’d built a bridge before I kind of knew how they behaved and was sure it’d be fine, so I probably over did the risk bit for dramatic effect – but I certainly didn’t tell the client.

What was important was that everyone involved was aware of the risk and was happy to take that risk with me.

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RangeRover on ‘PaperBridgeChina’. Suzhou, November 2015

There’s a real element of risk in all my projects. Someone once said to me – if you have a 100% success rate, you’re not taking enough risks. When you’re pushing at the boundaries of things, that’s where the excitement comes in and if you manage to pull it off then that’s where great things can happen.

In that respect, the opposite to risk and success is mediocrity. There’s nothing more dangerous than playing it safe. Taking the easy road. That’s where things get stuck or become so half baked they start to deteriorate into something much much worse.

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Mediocrity in all its splendour. This ad screen in Newcastle is sturdy, health and safety compliant, practical and meets all the planning regulations. What’s not to like? errr…. (image © James Perry via twitter)

Failure on the other hand isn’t so bad. Every now and then I have a project fail in me. More often then not it’s at such an early stage no one ever knows. I’ve lost track of the number of times projects I’ve been asked to get involved with have failed at the proposal stage. Some don’t even get that far. Mostly these are because the client doesn’t want to take a chance. Play it safe maybe. In which case, they’re just not the people I want to work with. Occasionally a project will get all the way to the final piece and then fail in spectacular style. That’s a different issue. I once had a high profile piece that was supposed to be up for 5 months, however it blew away after 5 days. Still, it went in if only for a short while, and even led to a chapter in a large international publication about just why it failed – the reasons were really interesting. I’m not sure the client saw it that way mind.

And then there’s the times that failures aren’t really failures. ‘Metropolis’ – the fritz Lang cinematic masterpiece. The first film with a final budget in the millions. It was only ever shown at one cinema before being deemed a flop by the studio. It was subsequently re-edited to a shorter story in an attempt to reclaim the costs.

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photo: Alex Stocker (1896 – 1962) – Ufa-Pavilion, Berlin. 1927

 

Schubert never heard any of his symphonies performed. Very little of his orchestral music was performed at all during his lifetime, yet his ‘Unfinished’ symphony is now regarded as one of the greats of its time.

More recently, Anish Kapoor’s ‘Orbit’ became the victim of a playing it safe mentality with the producers and suffered from an incursion of mediocrity that has now extended to installing a helterskelter slide down it. I think time is yet to decide on that piece.

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‘Orbit’ by Anish Kapoor at the Olympic Park, London. 2012

If I’m being brutally honest, I think there are problems with most of my pieces. There’s always something that doesn’t go to plan or work out quite how I wanted it. However, in most cases these are things other people generally don’t notice. Or I make a feature of them. That line between success and failure is so fine. So delicate in fact it’s barely there. Or at least not so you’d notice.

 

post script.

Since writing this bog post (sitting outside in the sun with a cup of tea) I’ve just stumbled across this wonderful book on failure by Erik Kessels. He does it so much better than me. Not sure why I bother sometimes…

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Good things come to those who wait. Patience is a virtue. Cliché cliché maybe.

I’ve had my fair share of mad, short timescale projects. Some so short they almost felt like instant pop-ups. ‘Level’ in Peterborough earlier this year was devised and realised in 30 days.

Level in Peterborough

The ‘Paviljong’ in Sweden was a 14 day project, while ‘Souvenir’ in Shanghai in 2006 was less than 10 days from concept to finished pieces. Pieces like this are born and raised on adrenalin. It’s the only way.

My latest project, on the other hand comes from the opposite end of the timescale spectrum. ‘PaperBridge’ has been hanging around my life on and off for nearly five years, but a couple of weeks ago it finally became a reality.

PaperBridge

Around 22,000 pieces of paper arch over a beck at the foot of the Helvellyn range in the English Lake District. The bridge weighed over 4 tonnes and could support the weight of 60 sheep (if you could fit that many on it), yet it didn’t use any glue, nuts, bolt, screws or any other fixings. It was just pure paper wedged between two cages of stone.

Despite the long gestation period, it’s still felt a bit of a whirlwind project and the last two weeks of my life have been some of the craziest in a long while.

The bridge is in a fairly remote valley in the Lake District. The nearest village is Patterdale at the south end of Ullswater. Getting to the village from anywhere else requires either a long winding journey down the length of the second longest lake in England, or up and over the Kirkstone Pass – one of the steepest mountain passes in the country. From Patterdale (population 400) the bridge is a good two mile walk up the Grisedale Valley. A mass-tourist destination it isn’t. Because it’s a bridge made only of paper I wasn’t sure how well it would take to thousands of people crossing it, so I put it in a place where I thought not so many people would venture. It’s on the main Coast to Coast long distance path and there’s a nice 5 mile circular from the Ullswater villages, so it would get passing visitors OK and maybe the odd person venturing out just to see it.

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I’d allowed four days for the install incase of bad weather and to have some breathing space. I’d got a good team to hep build – Phil had helped build an earlier test piece, Ewan and Michael built drystone walls in Teesdale together (Ewan was also part of the God’s Bridge project a couple of years back), and there was Li – a second year architecture student from Newcastle. It was a pretty simple build once we got started so it should all be straight forward.

Michael and Phil had built the gabion abutments the week before to give them time to settle. There was a fresh fall of snow on the fell tops that day. Walking up the track towards the valley head those rocky peaks looked the daunting mountains they really are. This was the wild Lakeland landscape I was after. Not the bit most of the 16-million tourists who visit the Lakes each year see. The shocking statistic is that around 95% of visitors to the Lakes don’t travel further than 80m from their cars. I’ve seen them down at Bowness on Windermere cooing over the water and boats, eating ice cream and happy to be in ‘The Lakes’. Chiang Yee had seen the same thing back in the 1930’s. It hasn’t changed. But for me, those mountains. Those scary crags are what have really shaped the western idea of landscape. Writers, thinkers, poets and artists have been inspired by these distant, towering rocks over the past 200 years. Their names as old and layered with hinted stories as the art they inspire – Dollywagon Pike, St. Sunday Crag, Pinnacle, Striding Edge. The stream the bridge crosses – Nethermost Cove Beck – its name littered with the remnants of a Viking past.

installing the gabions

It had been a glorious April on the whole and every site visit I’d made this year had been still and sunny. It lulled me into a false sense of security. The Cumbrian weather had other ideas come May.

The first day was due to be just getting materials onto site. I’d arranged for all the paper and the wooden formers to be delivered on the same wagon so that everything could be carted up the track by tractor in one go. By the time the delivery wagon arrived it had been raining for over 12 hours non-stop. We knew this was no longer going to be as simple as we wanted. I followed the wagon up the narrow and steep track to the farm in the pouring rain, grateful that finally things were arriving. Only to discover that instead of 7 pallets with 4 tonnes of paper, there was only two pallets to unload. With no mobile phone signal in the valley I left the the farmer to cart what was there up as near to the bridge site as he could get and the team to move it the last bit by hand while I went off to sort the case of the missing consignments.

delivery wagon

By the time the rest of the materials were delivered the next day so much rain had fallen in the valley that the farmer couldn’t get a tractor anywhere near the bridge site. A frustrating 24 hours where we could do no more than check into the cottage I’d rented for the team and twiddle our thumbs.

By 7am on day three the sun was out and the wind had dropped. After fuelling on breakfast butties and tea we got an early start on things.

First task was putting together the flat-packed plywood former that the bridge was to be built over. The form was designed with Peter Foskett who’d previously worked on the ‘Seven Spires’ piece back in 2011. The former was designed in two halves and precision cut by CNC machine in Carlisle. The form was held together by pegs cut from the same sheets so the whole thing could be assembled without tools. The form was then supported on screw jacks and acrow-props between the abutments. One of the key secrets in the formwork design was the way the two halves could be jacked-up in the middle to help get the final pieces of paper in and keep the compression high across the arch.

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Once the former was in, it should then be a simple process of stacking the paper over the top. Two packs of paper followed by a wedge made of smaller sheets – the size and quantity having been predetermined in the design process. Nice and simple.

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Only the paper was in packs of 100 sheets – each sheet measuring 900mm x 700mm. Each pack weighing 17kg. And ALL the packs were on pallets over 500m the other side of a bog. The only way to get the paper onto the site was to carry them by hand. All 168 of them.

This wasn’t going to be a quick process.

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possibly the most remote pallet of paper ever

Paper that size and in those quantities isn’t an easy thing to handle. Once out of their protective wrapping the packs quickly lose their shape and rigidity. What started out as a one person job to stack the paper became a five person task by the end of the day.

As the day progressed we got slicker at building and got into a rhythm. The weather continued to improve so we kept going while things were in our favour. But by 8pm we were exhausted. Twelve solid hours hefting large packs of paper around was enough.

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Elm How was a great base for the install team. A huge traditional farmhouse with amazing original flagstone spiral staircase, it was large and comfortable and quiet. And only 15 minute walk up to the bridge site. Surrounded by fields of pedigree swaledale yows with their newborn lambs and shorthorn cattle calving in the barn next door, by night it was all stars, hooting owls and wandering badgers. Its isolation came with disconnection from the rest of the world – no mobile signal, no internet. On a morning when the rest of the country was waking to the aftermath of the general election, we were blisfully unaware of any of it. And it was lovely.

My original plans had been to build the bridge mid-week and if we got ahead of ourselves we’d just wrap it up in tarpaulins until the Friday morning. There had been a fair bit of media interest in the bridge over the previous week or so and I’d booked a minibus to bring people halfway up the track for the press launch. The 16-seater bus had already been over booked with photographers and at least two different TV crews. However, on the Thursday night I’d driven down into the village to pick up some leaky wifi to send some emails and discovered that every single press photographer and TV crew had cancelled at the last minute to do vote counts.

So press launch was to be a no press launch.

At least the pressure was off. We just had to get the bridge built by late morning in time for whoever decided to still come on the bus.

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As the final pieces were being hammered into place as small crowd was gathering on a rocky outcrop on the other side of the bog. The couple staying in the cottage behind Elm How had also come down to lend a hand. The plan to raise the centre sections up to get the last pieces of paper in didn’t quite work to plan as the acrow-props were being jacked further into the river bed rather than lifting, so the final pieces were done more with brute force and heavy whacking.

By the time the wooden formers were lowered and slid out there was a fair crowd gathered along both sides of the beck. a loud cheer as the final piece was removed and the pure red arch remained leaping over the water. I had expected the arch to sink a little at the top as the formers were lowered, but all that hammering and wedging the final pieces paid off and it didn’t move a jot as one side then the other was gradually lowered and I could see daylight between the paper and the plywood.

Despite the nearly five years of development, the many scale models, the months of testing in all weathers, and the long hours designing every last millimetre – that sense of relief when finally those thousands of sheets of bright red paper finally stood there on their own was immense.

While I tried to comprehend the wave of emotions sweeping through me as I stood next to that newly-born artwork, I had no idea this pile of paper was going to run my life for the next two weeks…

‘PaperBridge’ was commissioned by Lakes Culture with support from Arts Council England

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There’s a TV station dedicated to weather. You can have weather on your TV 24 hours a day. Imagine that! 24 hours of non-stop weather…

Alternatively you can live in the North Pennines – there’s more weather here than you can shake a stick at. Why anyone would want to shake a stick at the weather and what they thought it would achieve is beyond me.

As an artist working predominantly outdoors all year, the weather is a pretty major thing for me. Besides knowing if I’m going to get frozen or soaked all day, there’s the practical challenges of making sure the weather doesn’t prematurely destroy what I create, or make them dangerously unstable for visitors.

There’s been a fair bit of stormy weather here n the UK over the past month. It seems that there’s an unusually large number of these storms heading off the Atlantic for the time of year. Last week, as my house was being battered by winds in excess of 80mph the weather station on Great Dun Fell recorded gusts of over 120mph.

wind speed graph

The weather was calmer yesterday as I set off up to explore Great Dun Fell for myself. Despite living overlooking the Eden Valley I’d never walked up any of the North Pennine Fells on that side so this was a first for me. Great Dun Fell, at 849m (over 2,700 feet) is the second highest peak on the Pennines after Cross Fell and are the largest mountains in England outside the Lake District.

It was a reasonable day in the Eden Valley as I set off from the village of Knock, skirting around the back of Dufton Pike. Walking these fells is much easier than the Breadalbane hills I’d been doing in the Highlands lately. The footpaths are well marked and the main Pennine Way itself is well trodden and maintained. However, by the time I reached Knock Old Man (2,0o0ft) there was a good smattering of snow on the ground and some beautiful rime on the cairn.

rime on old man knock

From there it’s a straight line over the top to Great Dun Fell and with the cloud cover lifted it’s easy to see where you’re heading.

There are dozens of weather stations across the UK and you can track their readings live online at any number of sites. However, Great Dun Fell is a bit special. The readings now come from the radar station – the giant white golfball on the fells that’s a bit f a landmark from both the Eden Valley and Upper Teesdale. Back in 1937 George Manley set up the first mountain meteorological record station in a small wooden hut on Great Dun Fell. That spot of the North Pennines was chosen as this tract of Pennine hills has the most variation of weather in England. When he started his collection of weather data in 1932 he noted:

“I was attracted by the Northern Pennines, in particular around Cross Fell, as the most extensive area of bleak uncompromising upland that England possesses”

Manley's Hut

For ten years Manley’s weather station recorded sun, rain, wind and temperature data every three hours, 24hours a day – at the time the longest continuous weather record ever made. As well as a substantial record of mountain weather data, his station also led to the understanding of the ‘Helm Wind’ – a wind phenomena that only occurs around Cross Fell where violent, roaring winds appear to come from nowhere, even on otherwise fair days. In his research into historical records of the Helm wind there are some great accounts of sheep being tossed around like balls of cotton wool, and brussels sprouts blown off the stalks and ricocheting around the gardens.

The legacy of Manley’s work 849m up Great Dun Fell was the CET (Central England Temperature) – a record of mean temperatures going back to 1649 – the longest weather record in the world. So when the weathermen say it’s the coldest March on record – that’s Manley’s record, started on the North Pennines in the 1930’s.

More importantly the length and depth of the weather record is at the centre of ongoing research into climate change – the Moor House National Nature Reserve, in which Great Dun Fell lies, plays a crucial role in that research today.

gt Dun Fell radar

Nothing remains of Manley’s wooden hut now. It’s all long gone when the radar station was built in the ’80’s. What does remain though is the access road to the radar station. Once a track for the myriad of mineral mines on the high fells, it’s now a tarmac’d road and officially the highest road in the UK. It’s also the only road in the UK that goes up a mountain and stops at the top. Unfortunately it’s a private access road so you can’t really drive it. The height of the snow poles show just how deep the snow gets up here anyway.

highest road

……..

This past year has definitely been a year of walking for me. I’ve always enjoyed walking but never considered myself a serious walker. I still don’t, but this year walking the landscape has been pretty central to my work.

Back in January I started a research residency on the West Pennine Moors. The first day’s walk caught the tail end of the January snowfall up on Darwen Moor with snow up to my knees.

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Deserted farm on West Pennine Moors

February was a fantastic lull in the weather with some great long spells of clear, dry and often sunny weather and I got some great walks in over those moors and rediscovered my love of wandering with a camera.

The project finished at the end of March just as the worst of the winter weather hit and I was cut off for days behind 12ft drifts.

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dragging coal to my house over a 12ft drift. Photo by Paul Kingston © North News 2013

However, by April the weather turned again and started a period of dry, hot and sunny days that seemed to last for most of the rest of the year. The end of April was the start of a joint project around ‘God’s Bridge’ on Bowes Moor. Besides being a great project for meeting other artists, it really got me out exploring my home turf – the North Pennines. The result of this project will be an indoor sound installation at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle in the spring.

mountain pansy on Bowes Moor

Mountain Pansy on Bowes Moor

By June, summer was in full flow and positively roasting when the sun got going. I’d anticipated a wet week installing the 20,000 jars of ink on Lindisfarne and the workstation was all set up under cover for the purpose. Although it rained only on the day the TV came day the rest of the show was glorious sunshine with sunburn and heat stroke the major hazards when it came to take the piece down.

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I spent the end of September on Öland in the Baltic sea creating a piece for an ancient forest. Once again the weather gods were on my side and gave me a fortnight of glorious late summer sunshine. The weather was turning however and by the second week the temperature had dropped significantly. The Pavilion for Listening to the Forest was the first piece I’ve made specifically to survive significant snowfall. The fabric is waterproof and under enough tension that rain or snow won’t pool on the surface. It should also have enough tensile strength to withstand a large amount of snow if any manages to settle on it. December had a brief snowfall in Southern Sweden so I know it’s still looking good, but can’t wait to see how it looks when the real stuff arrives.

Pavilion in the first snow. Photo ©Helle Kvamme

The last part of the year has been spent in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland where I’ve been artist in residence since October. Once again it’s been great to get to know and understand the landscape on foot – walking along lochs and old railway lines as well as up some of the bigger hills.  In November I had a weather window of bright and clear conditions and managed to get up some of the less visited Corbetts (between 750 and 900m). The frosty air on the tops made for some cracking views of the surrounding mountains with the bigger ones getting their first real coats of snow.

view NW from Meall an t-Seillaidh

In early December the first of the storms to hit the UK came racing across Scotland. Glen Ogle – where I was staying, recorded gusts of 106mph, ripping down power-lines and felling hundreds if not thousands of trees which disrupted the area for days. Yet, less than 12 hours after those huge gusts, there was a gentle covering of snow on Glen Ogle and a clear,starry sky. With no power for miles and a dark cottage for the evening, I ventured out into the forests to play with some lights in the snow for my Christmas card.

red snow

In between all these projects I also created the ultimate version of the ‘Souvenir’ umbrella structures in Oxfordshire, built an installation from 4,000 remembrance poppies for a royal visit and worked on four other pieces that in the end never happened. It’s also been a year of research and development, not only for new work but professionally too.

souvenir in oxfordshire

It’s not been my busiest year and at times things have been very difficult. However, the time I’ve been able to give to each of the projects I’ve worked on I think shows in the final work and has made a year of good solid pieces. A lot of work has already been done for next years projects and hopefully sets a trend towards a more considered approach to my work.

I’ve got a good feeling about next year. It’s already looking busy – possibly the busiest its been for years. It’s going to be full on and really hard work. There’s some great stuff coming up – all will be revealed over the coming few weeks – and it’s all really exciting, but the proof will be if this time next year I can look back and be as proud of what I’ve achieved as have have been of this past year.

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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

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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.

queen

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.

orbit1

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).

cortexspare

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.

chinese-shadow

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.

orange

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?).

brockholebubbles

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.

bubble

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.

twistedwithkids

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.

red

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.

landscape2

….

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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The tree is up in the living room, there’s a fire roaring in the grate and strictly come dancing is on the telly. It must be that time of year again. There’s something reasurring about a big holiday festival this time of year. There’s nothing like it for slowing down and taking stock of the past year (more of that next time). It’s also the time of year I like to give a big thankyou to all those people who have supported me in their various ways throughout the past year, and look forward to forging new partnerships in the coming year.

Every year I do a crimbo card for the select few just for this purpose. Each year I try to do something while not blatantly Christmassy but seasonal, and frequently echoes something I particularly enjoyed doing over the past year. Back in 1997 the Independent ran a 3/4 page article on some of my cards (I remember underneath was a preview of a show by an up-coming artist called Martin Creed – I wonder what became of him?…).

It’s not a new idea and certainly not an original one. I’m not sure where I first got the idea from to do an annual piece, but plenty of artists and designers do their own every year. There was a section in Thomas Heatherwick’s V&A show this year all about his own cards – each a thing of beauty.

Christmas Card by Thomas Heatherwick

Christmas Card by Thomas Heatherwick

For the first dozen or so years’ my cards were hand-printed in the darkroom and either hand-coloured, chemically toned or printed on liquid photographic emulsion on random paper.

objectweb

this one speaks for itself – again this was done in a wet darkroom and not in photoshop.

More recent images have been more colourful:

red-lantern-2010web

The year before was red too – shot just outside my back door one January.

3-ships2web

It’s not always snow – this one on a frosty sunbiggin tarn in the Eden Valley

sproutsweb

This one a montage in the Yorkshire Dales (again, done the hard way without photoshop).

This year I had been looking forward to doing something large and spectacular for the cards, however as the year moved on I still hadn’t got the technology working how I wanted it to, so that idea will have to wait another year. So at the last minute, after doing some frantic head scratching I figured I could do something white.

We’d had a bit of snow early on in December, but that had largely caught me out and I spent most of it working out how best to get up my track and get work done, than thinking creatively with it. With a change n the weather, there was forecast a couple of freezing nights with some early mist or fog. What I was hoping for was that wonderful thing when the overnight moisture freezes on every surface turning the landscape a cryslaine white. I would then create a piece made from hundreds of white balloons – much like the red piece I’d done earlier in Sweden, and shoot it low with a disappearing perspective in the background – maybe a track or even a sheep path. Something quite still and quiet. Maybe a little surreal, like a Storm Thorgerson album cover type thing.

A quick trip over to Darlington netted a hundred or so balloons – I’m sorry if you were after any that day, but I bought the last from every shop and market stall that had any. As the planned shot would be done at first light, and I’d have to move fast as the frost can melt quickly if the sun comes out, I spent the night before blowing up all the balloons. It wasn’t until the morning that I realised I couldn’t fit them all in the car, so had to make do with a much smaller piece.

testwhite

However, despite all my planning and preparation, the weather didn’t do what I’d hoped it would, instead there was a light frost up i the hills above an inversion cloud just below. Ordinarily this would be quite stunning, but the cloud was rising fast and the inversion wasn’t stable enough.

My only hope was to get a nice bit of atmospheric moorland disappearing into the murk and cloud so I headed up to the Cumbria / Durham border in Teesdale.

The North Pennines are a severe border. The western side influenced by the wet Atlantic weather fronts, to the east the much drier but colder north sea systems. And so right on top of the border on the Teesdale side, the snow was still lying thick and white over large swathes of wilderness landscape. Where the rain had thawed and washed the snow away in Cumbria days before, the eastern side had remained dry and cold, the snow now frozen solid and the sky as clear as a bell and bright blue.

xmaspreview

I must have spent a good couple of hours walking across that frozen wasteland shooting hundreds of pictures. The snow was so solid in parts I could position everything with ease as I left no footprints.

And so, here it is.

A study in white.

xmas2012web

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