Behind the scenes, Environment, Inspiration, Landscape, Stories

Pits (dis)

Pits. Everywhere, pits.

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©Crown Copyright 2015

The dimpled remains of an agricultural past litter the landscape. Farm labourers gathered its chalky alkaline nutrients, then applied it back to the topsoil as fertilizer around a hundred years ago. Then, fields were smaller and could be re-energized more easily with modest machines and brute strength. Pastures were dotted with people, talking, shouting, singing even.

Go to a ‘less advanced’ nation, Morocco say, and listen to the sounds the land encourages people to make. Whooping in the cold morning light. Toiling ‘till the sweat appears. I’ve been there and heard it. I’ve camped out under the stars on a rocky hill by the side of the road: pitched up by bicycle the day before, thinking I was the only one for miles. As dawn broke, a work party lying low nearby filled the air with the clatter of their pick-axes, which reverberated round the valley walls. These were the sounds that once resonated in the spaces carved out between these woods, in these pits. Now this clamour of voices is consigned to the past.

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Al Haouz, Morocco ©djnorwood 2015

Of course, this is not the whole story. There is quiet – in between the gunfire from pheasant and partridge shooting, when their less appetising cousins can be heard. Coppices are festooned with plastic feeders and barrels that could grace a gallery space, as Duchamp-esque ready-mades, such is their utilitarian sculpted form. The only way to negotiate these places, without straying across the sight lines of twin barrels, is with the help of a map. Maps help keep us safe.

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Untitled #1 ©djnorwood 2016

Maps also spur our curiosity, if we let them. At the risk of stating the obvious, the ordnance survey map aims to graphically represent three dimensional reality on a two dimensional plane, with all the necessary information needed for safe passage in the outdoors – the location of the nearest pub, for example, being of particular significance. But it also harbours information about physical features deemed necessary for safe passage through space. Pits are a fine example. Each one is marked as if it were a key feature to notice or negotiate – the map yielding these features – pit (dis) – as if they were waypoints on a quest. Yet in reality they are hard to find and usually disguised by mature trees, making full use of the fertile soil beneath.

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An open chalk pit ©djnorwood 2016

We are aware of the significance of local actions on the global whole, and this is the starting point for my curiosity. This was reinforced recently by reading the fascinating and far reaching biography of Alexander von Humboldt, ‘The Invention of Nature’ by Andrea Wulf. Humboldt recognised the connectedness of the natural world back in the early part of the 19th century, and although much has changed in the way that we interconnect with each other, our interdependence with the land remains the same. Humboldt recognised both the significance of humans impact on ecosystems and the details of flora and fauna that gave flesh to his ideas. In the absence of so little of each, were he alive today, I’m convinced he would have searched out clues such as these.

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Humboldt in South America: Versuch über die gereizte Muskel-und Nervenfaser (1797)

These particular ones aren’t heroic monuments like the usual totems of our recent industrial past – in Cornwall for example – where the chimneystacks of abandoned tin mines break the horizon like spires. These are intimate , hidden depressions, surrounded by trees, and this is the M3 corridor of rural Hampshire – a heavily industrialized zone of mono-cultural farms and fields.

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A disused chalk pit, ©djnorwood 2016

Perhaps lingering significance lies with the map makers themselves, who have carefully documented their pock marked presence, laying cartographical bread-crumbs on the surface of paper, and leaving it up to the curious minded to discover and create their own narrative. Perhaps it lies in the simple notion that something insignificant marked on a map can arouse interest and curiosity, and this in itself should be a cause for hope and optimism.

Anyone with a (healthy) map obsession can scratch the itch at the British Library. The fascinating  Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line is open until 1st March 2017.

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Exhibitions, Inspiration, Landscape, Photojournalism

Beyond the Devil’s Rope

A review of the new work ‘Mountains of Majeed’ by photographer Edmund Clark

Edmund Clark has been photographing behind the scenes of the West’s ‘War on Terror’ since the late 2000’s. His breakthrough investigation of Guantanamo Bay ‘If the Light Goes Out’ drew attention to the plight of detainees and the daily routine of unconvicted terrorist suspects. With his new project, Clark continues to mine this rich seem, highlighting the discrepancies which exist between two polarized ideologies. ‘Mountains of Majeed’, is very clearly grounded in space and time – in Bagram Air Base in northern Afghanistan – but on closer consideration becomes a subtle allegory on the nature of experience.

© Edmund Clark

The photographs draw attention to the incidental spaces created between the buildings, boundaries and machines of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, creating a link between these highly ordered features and those which exist beyond the confines of the perimeter walls. The eponymous mountains of the title appear in each photograph like a vague recollection, their ethereal existence acting like a theatrical backdrop and counterpoint to the tangible solidity of the centre stage. The nature of warfare, analogous to rehearsed performance, is further enhanced by other details – a huge stars and stripes flag draped across the roof of a car port evokes the exuberant patriotism of a stage-show and a painting, intricately rendered, could be the set piece from a blockbuster movie.

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© Edmund Clark

Reality is further questioned by the use of other, more formal representations – this time of the landscape surrounding the Camp found as a mural in the military canteen. These idyllic paintings of the Hindu Kush by an anonymous artist known only as Majeed, contrast cleverly with their surroundings. The appropriation of this artist’s work acts as a cipher between diametrically opposed states. On the one hand is the geographical space between the soldiers inside the camp and the mountains receding into ultra violet light, and on the other the technological and existential distance between the two sides of the conflict.

© Majeed

This disparity is further enhanced with the knowledge that Clark used a state of the art high-resolution digital camera – further accentuating the difference between his Hasselblad and Majeed’s hog hair brush. The mechanism used to capture the image is sometimes a moot point, yet in this context it seems to reinforce the concept, providing a further critique on the gulf between ‘friend’ and ‘foe’. By adopting the technology of the foreign power, Clark acknowledges his place as an artist embedded within the machine of war.

Throughout the mountains remain alluring and intangible. Despite the project’s title, the clearest representation of this place is mediated through Majeed’s hand. This then becomes the most powerful narrative force within the work. The mountains become an enigmatic ‘terra incognita’ rich in human history and geological time but remain tantalizingly, for western eyes at least, beyond the devil’s rope.

The ‘devil’s rope’ is a term first used by native American Indians to describe the barbed wire ranchers used to enclose their newly acquired land. A BBC R4 program on the subject can be found here.

‘The Mountains of Majeed’ by Edmund Clark is on show at Flowers Gallery until 4th April 2015.

See more of Clark’s compelling work here.

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Exhibitions, Inspiration, Landscape

Objects in the Field

©Sophy Rickett 2013

©Sophy Rickett 2013

The field to which the title refers in Sophy Rickett’s new work relates not to earthly subjects, but instead to constellations and the cosmos. However, this is only the starting point, launch pad perhaps, of a journey of appropriation leading to a body of work forged from the remains of one man’s quest for celestial knowledge.

Dr. Roderick Willestrop, a retired research fellow at the University of Cambridge, is the invisible subject of Rickett’s new work, whom she met while on an artist’s residency at the institution. During her search for inspiration and a visual aesthetic to ‘key into’, Rickett began a series of encounters with the man, the results of which can be seen as a terrestrial collision between the two worlds of art and science.

©Sophy Rickett 2013

©Sophy Rickett 2013

In short but intense interviews, Rickett became interested in the academic’s life beyond the rigorous confines of his work. Anecdotes would slip around the edges of sentences describing highly specific technical processes. It was these ‘slippages’, we learn, away from formal narratives, to which the artist was drawn, and wanted to draw out somehow. A potentially rather dry conversation about optics brought back memories of a childhood experience at the opticians, which Rickett has reproduced in a booklet to accompany the exhibition. For the viewer, this booklet places the work within the context of encounters which bridge two worlds.

These personal interactions create an intriguing back story as the artist, acting as investigator, becomes locked in a tussle for the deaccessioning of the scientist’s negatives. Rickett is entranced by the now obsolete processes of recording the night sky through exposures on sheets of black and white film, sometimes with durations of 30 minutes or more, using a special rotating telescope pioneered by Willestrop. These negatives – glimpsed over his shoulder – are, it transpires, deemed useless due to the constant realignment of the planets. However, the act of ‘liberating’ the negatives becomes a delicate process, and forms the framework of an interaction around which the work is made.

©Sophy Rickett 2013

©Sophy Rickett 2013

Willestrop expressed his regret, we are told, not only at the obsolescence of his work, but also in technical inconsistencies, including fingerprints and dust, which had invaded an otherwise faultless astronomical record. Yet these very human traits are referenced, albeit obliquely, in the prints, and speak of the intimacy of both Rickett and Willestrop’s relationship and the scientist’s solitary communion – he made his observations alone throughout his career – with his subject.

This feeling of melancholia is further enhanced with the piece entitled ‘Another idea that came to nothing’. It comprises of very small contact prints of objects used in a ‘Test for a guiding probe.’ As with all the work on show at Camilla Grimaldi, this is titled both by the scientist and the artist, and speaks of a collaboration of sorts.

One left with a much deeper understanding of the process behind the making of a body of work which on the face of it seems as impenetrable as the night sky. The poignancy of this project comes not from looking out into the heavens, into the undisputed aesthetic qualities of the images themselves – but on looking in, through the back of the telescope to the retired scientist and his obsolete archive, who in deference to planetary rhythms, still returns to the University to make his weekly observations.

A monograph of Sophy Rickett’s earlier work can be bought from Photoworks here. The show at Camilla Grimaldi is on until 21st March 2013.

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Environment, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism

A frictionless future

“Bill Gates has recently promoted the notion of a ‘frictionless capitalism.’ But even if it were other than a myth, it would not be a good idea because it would mark the end of innovation. Friction can be productive when it helps us to be reflective about what we have taken for granted. Innovation occurs when generative friction stimulates reflexivity to recognize new recombinations.”
– David Stark, Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, Columbia University
51 40'35.38 N, 0 38'22.78 W

51 40’35.38 N, 0 38’22.78 W ©djnorwood2012

The HS2 rail project is an eye-wateringly expensive proposition. Understandably it has provoked consternation among residents along the length of the route and it inspired me to go out and see for myself the threat posed to parts of the landscape. Angry signs along hedgerows and bordering beech woods were an obvious – perhaps too obvious – motif around which I formed a series which featured in the Politics of Land magazine FOV (Field of View) in April 2012.

The resulting images were as much about our ideals of nature and ‘the natural’ as they were about the inevitable tide of progress. I concentrated my gaze on the Chilterns – a so called ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’ – walking paths that will, for many years during construction, be blocked with aggregates. Yet the landscape here is far from natural, being as it is, littered with pylons and the detritus of intensive agriculture.

Nevertheless there is an indefinable need in all of us to hold onto an idealized concept of ‘nature’ rather than the more brutal reality – something that has been articulated in one word – biophilia. Literally translated this means a ‘love of life and of living systems’. You won’t hear the term in village hall meetings up and down the length of the line, but it is implied; and it is there in the carefully tendered lawns and herbaceous boarders of the houses threatened with demolition.

I was recently contacted by Dr. Jos Smith of Exeter University, who walked the length of the proposed route from London to Birmingham and writes eloquently about the disparity and disconnect between this project and the communities through which the rails will run. As well as further points about ‘frictionless capitalism’, he also includes a picture of a ‘yarn bomb’, a beautifully light and poignant way of drawing attention to a weighty and somewhat prosaic subject. I encourage you to read it here.

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