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Posts Tagged ‘work in progress’

It’s been so long since I last posted to this blog I’ve forgotten how to begin a new post. I know where I want to end up and part of the journey of getting there, but how to start is turning out trickier than it seemed.

Art is a bit like that. For me at least it’s largely instinctive. When students or journalists ask ‘where did the idea come from?’ I usually have some kind of answer to keep them happy. But the real answer is usually a lot more complicated and involved than that.

Ideas – inspiration if you like – is an ongoing process and one that probably started at birth. There are things you remember from various parts of your life that you recall or associate with places, sounds, smells, concepts, emotions. Sometimes they may feel quite random or spurious in their association at the time. But that’s just the way your brain works. To the extent that when someone inevitably asks ‘what’s the piece about?’ the answer is rarely straightforward either. In fact Ive recently decided to put a time scale on answering that. Three years minimum. That’s about as long as it takes to absorb the work and start to understand what it was really about.

Of course, art doesn’t have to be about anything at all. Francis Bacon was famously quoted as saying “The purpose of art is to deepen the mystery”.


Presence‘ – an album by Zed Zeppelin, has cover artwork featuring an obsessive hole. The nostalgic images from the 40s and 50s appear to show everyday people obsessed by an ever present mysterious void.

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Art directed by one of my heroes – Storm Thorgesson – the premise was to put an object from the future into the past. In true Thorgesson style rather than use archive images from the 40s and 50s, the cover images were shot for real on the basis that ‘nostalgia isn’t what it used to be’. There’s something unsettling about a familiar setting disrupted by something that is clearly not meant to be there. Yet in these images the ‘thing‘ appears not only to be accepted, but hold a real presence in all the situations. The irony being the ‘thing‘ is not even a ‘thing’ but a hole. The ‘presence’ is actually an ‘absence’. When the concept was first pitched to the band, Robert Plant’s response was “Who the hell needs to understand everything anyway?”.

The mysterious black object motif is also drawn in part to the monoliths in Kubrick’s film  version of ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey‘.

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In the film we see three large, black monoliths  – the first in prehistoric earth that appears to mark a turning point in evolution, the second one on the moon and the third orbiting Jupiter. The monoliths are a key marker in the plot of the movie – in many respects they are what the film is all about, yet they are also a source of endless discussion and conjecture about what they are. In Arthur C Clarke’s original books, the monoliths – and there are more than just those three – have a presence but no substance, only that their shape is in the proportion of 1:4:9 (the first three squared numbers). In the books it is also suggested they have dimensions beyond the physical three with ever increasing proportions (…16:25:36…). Of course their meaning and purpose could be very simple. They just are. What are they? – something else… where did they come from? – somewhere else… when did they appear?… they’ve always been there.

In short, they’re follies. Objects designed to be mostly there to just be there. I’ve written before about the Chinese tradition of placing man made objects in landscapes to make sense of the scale, form and colour of the vastness of their environment. As a kid I was always a little obsessed by the presence of follies. I remember seeing Horton Tower in Dorset and asking my grandparents  what it was for. “It’s just a tower. It’s not for anything” was their reply. Grandparents never lie. So it must have been true. Weird, maybe. But true.

Through my teens I learnt to appreciate the surreal-ness (is that a word?) of follies. The Belvedere Tower at Claremont Gardens was always tantalisingly behind gates, locked out of reach.

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‘Belvedere Tower’, Claremont Gardens, Surrey. A low-resolution scan from an infrared negative, but you get the gist…

There was always something Alice in Wonderland about its inaccessibility. Those clipped hedges framing the view up the lawn. It must have been a great view from the tower across the gardens and lake, only the windows aren’t real. They’re painted on. Part of Capability Brown’s masterpiece in landscape design. The tower was there for its presence. To look over the landscape, and while it obviously couldn’t actually look over the garden, it reinforced the idea that the landscaped garden was designed to be looked over. That looking was fundamental to what the garden was about.

Another favourite was Leith Hill Tower. A wonderful piece of gothic architecture built in 1765 to enhance the countryside. No more, no less. There’s stairs up to the roof which is (at just over 1000ft above sea-level) the highest point in southern England. However, the steps weren’t built until 100 years after the rest of the building. So for a century it was just a tower for tower’s sake.


This summer I built ‘Keep’ – a 10m high folly for the Lake District. OK, so I didn’t actually build it – Debbie in Manchester did the hard work with the sewing machine. Originally it was going to be a bouncy castle inside, but a number of design issues and some disastrous fabrication decisions put pay to that idea, so it was redesigned as just a folly. It was commissioned by the Lake District National Park as part of their Lakes Alive Festival. The original brief was around the theme of Cultural Landscapes to celebrate the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing for the Lake District. The English Lake District has it’s very own and important history in the world of landscape appreciation. Unlike most of the rest of England, Follies are not part of that tradition. However, I wanted to look at the role the Lakes played in the wider English Landscape Tradition and put a folly in that landscape.

keep latrigg2

Original mock-up of ‘Keep’ on Latrigg, above Keswick, Cumbria.

‘Keep’ was designed to be a very light touch in a protected environment. As an inflatable artwork it was easy to get onto site and install. It could be installed and taken down again the same day which meant in theory it could be taken to quite isolated spots and places where a more permanent folly would never be allowed.

However, as mostly made from air, it is very susceptible to weather conditions.  On the location I’d originally intended it to go – being around 2000ft above sea level and very exposed, the weather was prone to sudden changes. On the best day of the pre festival week, the conditions looked like they would be right to get the tower up for a few hours. However, during inflation the wind suddenly picked up to more than twice the safe maximum and the install had to be quickly abandoned.

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

The following weekend was the festival itself. Confined to Kendal, the piece was installed on Castle Howe – the site of the original castle in Kendal, but with a line of sight to the latter and existing castle ruin on the other side of the town. For a day the weather played ball and the piece did its job as being a tower.

Keep 004

For the Kendal installation, I chose Castle Howe partly so that there would be some kind of dialogue between ‘Keep’ in red and the existing castle in white – rather like rooks on a chessboard – maybe another Alice through the Looking-glass reference. It was also partly about the vibrance of the colour with the ‘Auld Grey Town’, as evidenced in Tony’s drone shots.

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Drone view from above Kendal Castle looking back to ‘Keep’ on Castle Howe. Photo © Tony Watson.

The install on a fell in the Lake District will happen at some point. I’ll keep a look out for the right conditions, both in terms of windspeed and in the colour and light quality of the surrounding landscape. When it’s right it’ll be stunning and ‘enhance the landscape’, whatever that means.

Two months on and I’m starting to understand what the piece is about. Having seen the piece working in Kendal, I’m getting a better idea what the piece is and how it works. It’s also something I’m keen to continue in the future. That may be taking ‘Keep’ out on the road for a series of installs, or it may be more involved than that. Who knows, maybe a whole series of follies in different landscapes.

More importantly, I’m happy not really understanding what the project means yet. All good art has at least ten different meanings. I’m quite sure using temporary follies to interrogate the landscape has at least that, but it may take me a while to discover what they all are.

There’s something about follies that seems to fit with the work I’ve been doing for the past few years.  I still don’t know what that something is, except it’s probably something else. But I do know it’s always been there.

 

 

 

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The middle of winter is certainly feeling like it this year. It’s not particularly wintery in the weather, but it certainly feels darker and more gloomy. Anyway, we’ve past the shortest, darkest day, technically. Now the days are getting longer again we can look to the future and think about the year ahead. But it’s also that time of year where we look back at the past year and take stock.

For me 2016 has felt like a particularly busy year. The tail end in particular was a bit hectic at times. But it’s been a productive one. Lots of new things – new people, new works and new places to work with.

‘Lotus Souvenir’ – large origami lotus flower installation at Bicester Village, Oxfordshire. UK. in February.

Lumb Mill Viaduct

Lumb Mill Viaduct

‘The Scenic Route’ was a short research residency walking two former railway lines in Lancashire.

‘PaperBridge’ had a variety of outings over the year – includig being featured on a TV show on the Discovery Channel, being in a book on micro architecture and being presented to the King and Queen of Lesotho. A smaller working model was shown in an exhibition of paper design in Chicago, while drawings and a short documentary was shown in Nova Scotia and Montreal.

September saw the start of a series of back-to-back installations right across the North of England, starting with ‘Tower’ – an architectural intervention at the Festival of Thrift in Kirkleatham.

From September to November I did a series of installations across Lancashire for a commission. ‘When the Red Rose…’ saw temporary interventions in Preston, Blackpool and Lancaster. A fourth on the canal at Blackburn sadly didn’t happen, but I’ll keep that one back for another day.

The major piece of the year however, was just three fields away from where I live.

Three barns were wrapped in slow-motion projections of waterfalls from the nearby River Tees. Over six short nights over 2,000 people ventured to see the work, in the dark in a quiet, remote corner of County Durham. Blessed by a harvest moon the first weekend and by clear skies with resident milky way the second, no number of photos or videos can ever capture the experience those lucky 2000 had.

While it was a good year for interesting and ambitious new works, for me ‘Waterfall’ stood out as probably the best piece I’ve done so far. And to do it on my own doorstep, in front of my own local community was a particularly special thing to do.

Just as good as being able to do all those installations, exhibitions and workshops was all the wonderful people I got to work with. None of these can happen without teams of people dedicated to making them happen – from those commissioning the work and those fabricating some of the pieces to those who work tirelessly to promote the work or organise the epic tasks they can sometime become. So hopefully I haven’t missed anyone off but here goes:

Nancy Kryzanowski, Gemma Jackman, Sally-Anne Blaise, Caroline Ruddick, Paul Gray, Phil Carr and Alan Carr Print & Design, Premier Papers in Gateshead, Nick Hunt, Melanie Diggle, Diana Hamilton, Roy Halliday, Nick Lund, Julie Tomlinson and James Cropper plc, Lexi Gerry, Jon Stynes, David Metcalf and October Films, Aleta Florentin, Vianna Newman, Harvey Lev, Judith Bauer, Diane Spark and all at UTASS, Ian Hunter, Paul Chaney, Alex Murdin, Henk Keiser, Brenda Vrieling, Jan Hartold, Vicky Holbrough, Nicola Golightly, Stella Hall, Trevor at Kirkleatham Old Hall, Christina Hesford, Janet Rogers, Paul Murray, Becky Nicholson, Kirsty Childs, Jill Bennison, Karen Marshall, Kate Percival, Lowri Bond, Sara Cooper,  Jane Shaw, Fiona Goh and Holmfirth Arts Festival, Sarah Branson, Jamie Frost, Thomas Charveriat, Sarah Gent, Sarah Mayhew-Craddock, Lucy Jenkins, Rebecca Turner, Harry and Kate Vane, Ewan Alinson, Jill Cole, Malcolm Walton, William Burton, Chris Woodley-Stewart, Nicki Cullens, Shane Harris, Mark Tyler, Ryan May and Hightlights, DCC events team,  Lyndsey Waters, Tim Joel, Richard Baxter, Rita Whitlock, Ella Byford, Justina Ma, Sally Jastrzebski-Lloyd, Anna Izza, Hannah Leighton-Boyce, Keri Sparkes, Jen Morgan, Catherine Shaw, Philippe Handford, Jamima Latimer, Louise Miller, Mike Neale, Stacey Walker, Julie Brown, Sandra Blue, Brent Lees, Friends of the Storey Garden, Rebecca Johnson, Laurie Peake, Sarah Steele and Preston Methodist Chapel, Alex Rinsler, Mykey Young, Richard and the Lightpool team, Zoe Dawes, Jenny Needham, Flossie Mainwaring-Taylor, Trevor Brookes, Martin Paul, John Gillmore, Heather Fox, Jennie Collingwood, David Turner, Andrew Barton, Paul Kingston…

I hope I haven’t missed too many off. That’s quite a team and a huge thanks to everyone on the list – I seriously could not have done all I have this year without each and everyone of you.

So, that’s it for this year now. Next year is another year. It’s going to be an interesting one for so many reasons, but I hope it’s more in a positive way.

Onwards and upwards…

 

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Monday morning and I find myself sat in a coffee shop easing myself into a new week. It’s not my normal thing. I don’t drink that much coffee and I’m normally miles from anything more metropolitan than a tearoom. But I like change. Change is good.

I live in a beautiful corner of the country. The North Pennines is simply stunning. It’s wild and remote with big skies and very few people. However, I seldom get the chance to create work here, let alone the time to really explore it. So, this year I decided to do something about that. Now the harsh winter is a fading memory I’ve been able to get a out and about and explore the gems on my doorstep.

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rainbow under Summerhill Force, Upper Teesdale

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Shacklesborough above Bowderdale

The most revealing bit about exploring a geopark is how much the landscape becomes as much about what’s underground as the stuff on the top.

Lately I’ve been lucky enough to be working with a bunch of other interesting artists exploring a local geo anomaly known as Gods Bridge. It’s part of a project run by a local arts organisation with mentoring support from Tania Kovats.

Gods Bridge is a natural limestone bridge over the River Greta on the edge of Stainmore Forest and about 2 miles upstream of Bowes. I’ve got a bit of a thing about bridges at the moment and there’s a bunch of projects in development which use some of the engineering forms of bridges.

gods bridge

The project is doubly interesting for me. Not only is it a local thing and a chance to understand the landscape on my doorstep, but the resulting artworks generated by all the participating artists are going to go on a touring gallery show. And that for me is the big challenge. I like challenges. Challenges are good too.

Over the past few years I’ve carved a career based on temporary works which take advantage of the scale of landscape. For me, working outside the gallery environment offers just so many more possibilities than the confines of four gallery walls. For me I’ve come to regard gallery based practice as far too limiting and a compromise for arts true potential.

However, there’s nothing like sleeping with the enemy to keep things exciting, so I’m biting the bullet and going to see if there’s a way my practice can evolve a parallel gallery-based strand. One that won’t compromise my ideas or deviate too far from my true roots, but add a new and valid dimension to it.

What that will be and how that will work, at the moment I have no idea. But that’s exciting.

So back to the river…

bridge with artists

littered with artists

The first site visit was good and it was fun to climb all over it with a bunch of other artists, but it was really too unfocused to get any real insight. So last week I went back for another explore.

I remember when I stayed in Suzhou last year the hotel was next to a 2000 year old bridge. That was mind blowing in itself – we don’t have any bridge in the UK close to that kind of antiquity. Let alone one still in daily use.  Gods Bridge though is millions of years old. Made by the gentle erosion of the limestone over millennia by the slightly acidic river water, the natural fissures in the limestone have maintained its sharp lines.

bridge in suzhou

2,000 year old bridge, Suzhou, China.

It’s not a well-known site in the wider sense of things, but thousands of boots trudge across it as part of the Pennine Way. The route from Tan Hill to Middleton-in-Teesdale is one of the lonelier stretches. The only bit of civilisation you get is crossing the busy A66 just beyond Gods Bridge.

The bridge itself is a protected structure. It was made a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in the late ’80s. The two lime kilns either side of the river are grade 2 listed buildings and have been subject to a preservation order longer than the bridge. Not sure what that says about our attitude to architecture and geology, but still. The SSSI statement covers the bridge and a couple of hundred metres of the river either side. It’s the river course though which is in some respects the most interesting.

Upstream of the bridge, the River Greta is a fairly bog-standard upland river. Just a couple of miles old, it has already got a fair bit of pace in it and a good bit of meandering is going on…

river greta

but then, just before it gets to Gods Bridge, it just disappears. It’s as if all the water has just evaporated. Gone.

empty river bed

It’s a bit like that magic trick where you pour a pint of milk into a newspaper cone, then you open up the newspaper and it’s all gone.

A bit of geological magic.

There’s water under the bridge, and beyond it it’s business as usual.

river greta downstream

The River Greta takes its name from the Viking ‘Griota’ which means a stony stream. It’s clearly been like this for a long time.

On my revisit I went to see where all the water goes. This time around there was a bit more water around and you could easily see where the water was rejoining the riverbed from a large fissure in the bank on the side.

Exploring upstream I managed to find where it mostly disappeared down a parallel subterranean gully.

The SSSI statement explains this a little more. The river has found new routes through fissures in the limestone and is still carving them out. Give it a few more millennia and there’ll be a new and bigger bridge. This is an ongoing geological process with the river and shows how even at the really slow pace of geological change, the landscape is constantly changing.

Over the weekend we had some torrential rain with some of the highest river levels for decades. Unfortunately I couldn’t get back to the site right after the rain, but managed to pop over the next day.

Sure enough, the river bed which on the Friday had been a barren rocky path, was once more a shimmering, flowing river. Unfortunately I had missed it in a raging torrent, but the debris line showed just how high the water had been the day before.

greta after rain

note the debris line on the right.

With more water flowing through the bridge I spent a lovely couple of hours floating sticks and moss down the river with my kids and explaining chaos theory to a four year old while I sketched out the paths the sticks took through the bridge.

I’m still not sure where this project is taking me or what will come of it, but getting to know and understand this little bit of limestone is fascinating. At the moment I’m thinking about how Gods Bridge isn’t really a bridge but a tunnel. It’s the underneath bit that’s the most interesting.

gibsons cave

Summerhill Force flowing in front of Gibson’s Cave, Upper Teesdale.

It’s this subterranean narrative which transforms SummerHill force into Gibsons Cave through the erosion of sandstone underneath the Whin Sill, and Shacklesborough becomes a glacial island (although the presence of giant boulders from the lake district on the top show it wasn’t always an island, but let’s not get picky).

This is going to be an underground journey I think…

gods bridge underground sign

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