Contextual Research

Next time you walk through a forest, look down. A city lies under your feet. If you were somehow to descend into the earth, you would find yourself surrounded by the city’s architecture of webs and filaments.

Anna Tsing




My research in recent months has focused on ways I might find a language for the landscape of the present moment and of the future: what Robert Macfarlane calls ‘becoming better ancestors.’ I’m trying to find ways to depict landscape which don’t rely on either the lexicon of catastrophe or of mournful nostalgia. Norman Ackroyd’s etchings, while exquisite, have always struck me as exuding a longing for the past. Before lockdown, I requested to see Cartmel Fell in the Prints and Drawings Room at Tate Britain to see if I could identify what it is about his visual language which is so expressive of a stasis from the past.

Norman Ackroyd, Cartmel Fell 1996. Etching and watercolour on paper, 628 x 440 mm.
© Norman Ackroyd

Looking at his etching, I was struck by an air of quiet albeit picturesque dejection. The tiny dwelling on the shore, hidden by the trees, hints at a human presence but not a dynamic one, or even one from the present moment. The water, painted in slightly literal water-colour, doesn’t appear to move and we don’t imagine ourselves as actually being there. I’ve kept this image in mind as I’ve focused more and more on trying to find a more dynamic engagement with the landscape of the now and yet to come.

Bill Brandt, East Durham gelatin silver prints, 1937

I’ve visited and revisited the Bill Brandt exhibition at The Hepworth, Wakefield, trying to define what it is about his photographs of mining villages that I find so mesmerising. Although the images are sixty years older than Norman Ackroyd’s etching, there’s a powerful dynamism to them. In part, I think it’s the combination of the grittiness of the environment yet set into the most sublime natural landscape; those who worked and lived there were literally excavating the substance of the land that lay beneath their feet and although we can’t see them they have a powerful presence. There’s a sense of striking beauty in Brandt’s images combined with a visceral power, aspects I’m trying to reinforce in my own photography. I hope that my image of wild barley, captured on one of my walks, has some of those qualities: strong geometric shapes, high contrast, monochrome, all combined with a sense of the power of landscape and even its potential danger. The pastoral doesn’t interest me in the way that the rawness of nature and our encounter with it does.

Brandt’s attention to texture and surface is mesmerising: the gleaming, round-edged stones still wet with rain on that ferocious climb uphill; the grime clinging to the brick of the windowless terraced houses, and the desiccated, skittering rubble of the slag heaps that glower over the village. My fascination with the surface of the ground and what lies beneath it, the subject of my research question, stems from my Grandpa’s stories about working in a colliery outside Manchester. I grew up listening to his stories of the pits, of never being able to get clean, of the sheer depth of the darkness underground. That sense of the power of landscape – both above and below the surface – is something which I continue to develop in my work. My videos, in particular, try to capture the world from ground level both to jolt the viewer’s perspective and to defamiliarise the familiar.

There’s a third aspect to Brandt’s work which always ripples beneath my work: the sounds and echoes which seem to emanate from his photographs. The image of the cobbled street evokes strong memories of my Grandpa describing the sounds that he would wake to every morning as a child: scores and scores of pairs of wooden clogs clattering along the cobbles to the pits. When I think of fotminne or foot memory, I think of those clogs and their visceral connection to the ground. I think, too, of Flann O’Brien’s words in The Third Policeman: ‘When you walk, the continual cracking of your feet on the road makes a certain quantity of the road come up into you.’ My first job as a BBC reporter was at Radio Manchester during the miners’ strike in the mid 1980s. I lived with my Grandpa who was deeply pro-strike, yet I had to report the dispute from both sides as a BBC journalist. The passionate views I encountered, along with the impossible tension between coal mining and corrosive fossil fuels, between the natural landscape and the way we encroach upon it, fuels my work to this day. The work I did over many years as a radio reporter, mixing evocative sound to tell stories, is flowing back into my practice in ways which I’ve found so rewarding this year.

There’s been another legacy from my encounter with Bill Brandt’s images of the pits: I chose to learn how to create ambrotypes and tintypes because I wanted to experiment with some of the early photographic methods that he was so celebrated for. The slow intensity of creating a single ambrotype or tintype was an important step for me as my sense of the haptic becomes increasingly important.

I’ve worked, revised and reworked my shadow paintings in recent months, becoming more ambitious in terms of scale and in their display. In a tutorial with Dan, he encouraged me to think about shadows as having a fugitive quality. As he put it, ‘Shadows have a modesty, a quietness, they’re fugitive and they show the very real consequence of being in a certain place, facing a certain direction.’ He also likened shadows to a form of text which I found very powerful: ‘There is something about semiotic theory, about how language functions, that relates to shadows. A word is a shadow. We can read a word without saying it aloud, whilst knowing what that word would sound like. In the same way, the viewer can have that same unspoken connection with landscape.’ My most recent shadow painting on taffeta (1,300 x 150 cm) is designed to evoke a sense of both sky and land, the breeze and sunshine, but without saying what it is or even why it is. Jo and Leo have encouraged me to allow my practice to speak for itself and my shadow paintings have played an important part in that process.

A shadow as a fleeting, unspoken word is an important concept for me as I continue to work on my ink paintings en plein air. The paper clothes I made from shadow paintings, documented in Tests, Sketches & Process, allowed me to think about the landscape as embodied territory. But when it came to finding a way to exhibiting them, I had a dilemma. There are twenty works in the series, but I was worried that stringing them from a clothes line would have a sentimental, bucolic, retrospective sense which is definitely not my intention: comforting pastoralism doesn’t motivate me. The idea behind the work is to reference the generations of walkers, explorers and custodians of the landscape who are yet to come. For this latest phase in my work, I wanted to include the human form as a kind of embodied archive of future memory and fotminne. (I include fleeting, fragmentary images of my daughter walking through rock pools in my video Undergoing, the first time I’ve included the human form.) Researching the use of the clothes line in visual imagery, I found the work of Polly Nor. Her latex casts of the body remove the washing line from the cosier, rural aesthetic I was trying to avoid. While her work differs entirely from mine in its focus and intention, it encouraged me to think again about the visual possibilities of the washing line.

Polly Nor, Airing My Dirty Laundry in Public, © Polly Nor

Sewing my collection of twenty items of clothing stemmed from another visceral childhood memory. The soundtrack of my childhood was marked by the sound of my Great Aunt making clothes on her ancient Singer sewing machine. She operated it with a foot plate pedalled at ferocious speeds; get your timing wrong and the plate would snap its jaws around your ankle. I equate that sound with my Grandpa’s stories of wooden clogs clattering on cobble stones. My Great Aunt taught me how to sew on that machine and my feet now have their own imprinted fotminne memory of how to use it. I could operate it with my eyes shut.

Listening to artist Simon Callery talk about his use of a sewing machine to construct his paintings which he presses into the surface of the ground to pick up their archaeological memories, was important for me. Like Polly Nor’s assemblage, Callery’s use of needlework liberated any worries I may have harboured that sewing can be associated with the domestic or the quaint (not that there was anything quaint about my Great Aunt.) Callery’s use of sewing to create folds, overlaps, excavations and layers has been a vital inspiration in recent months.

During a tutorial with Paul, he recommended that I look at the work of Tony Cragg and Ian McKeever, in particular McKeever’s works painted beneath the surface of the ground. Like McKeever, I have a background in English Literature and my work springs from an interest in landscape, photography and painting, as well as overpainted photographs. I find the scale of his work thrilling, along with his focus on the powerful interface between land and canvas. I love the fact that his canvases picks up the dust, grime, soil and organic material from the ground in which it’s been laid. In that respect they chime powerfully with Simon Callery’s archaeological paintings.

Ian McKeever, Painting for a Hole in the Ground, Chobham Common Surrey, 1976-1977

That visceral, haptic sense of artwork breathing in its own location is something I’ve been mindful of in the construction of my porcelain elm beetle pieces. In the past I’ve made them with a particular plaster called CrystalCal, noted for its gleaming whiteness. However, I now value the way that porcelain picks up fragments of bark, specks of residue and the way in which it looks dirty and therefore more organic.

One of my 300 porcelain elm beetle pieces, 4 x 2 cm.

Paul noted what he called the ‘strange quality, like Japanese netsuke’ of my porcelain elm beetle pieces. He liked the fact that I had ‘allowed the material to have its say and was working with its character.’ Since we’d been talking about netsuke, our conversation inevitably turned to Edmund de Waal. While researching a location for my exhibition proposal, I visited the New Arts Centre at Roche Court to see Edmund de Waal’s porcelain installations. There is a perfection to them, a hyper-clean, gleaming quality which I admire but which also disturbs me. As Paul put it, Edmund de Waal ‘has exquisite taste. I like more collision with reality.’

Edmund de Waal, quick, now, here, now, always, 2019, porcelain, gold, alabaster, marble, steel, aluminium and plexiglass 66 x 140 x 30 cm (photos CL-P)

De Waal uses the overlapped, heaped-up ceramic fragment or shard to express both surface and depth, past and present, the damaged and the whole, all aspects of contemporary art practice which motivate me. But having researched his work both in the UK and in New York, I’ve come to the conclusion that, like Paul, I find it just too exquisite. However, the modesty of a small, broken, reclaimed shard still resonates with me. It brings back to my mind the important conversation with Dan in which we discussed the shadow as having a ‘fugitive quietness’. There’s a fragility and quietness to de Waal’s broken pieces of porcelain which I respect. His assemblages also clarified my sense of purpose in moulding 300 small pieces for my fotminne installation – porcelain imprints of the tracks made my elm beetles hidden behind the bark of dead elm trees. Having researched Mark Dion’s Thames Dig assemblages (documented in my dissertation), I felt the need to question my purpose in constructing such a huge installation. Was there genuine merit or was I merely engaging in spectacle, as I would argue Dion does? Looking and looking again at de Waal’s fragments I felt that I had opted for ‘fugitive quietness’ rather than showiness with my fotminne porcelain pieces.

Ian McKeever, Painting for a Hole in the Ground, Chobham Common, 1976-77 ©Ian McKeever
Tony Cragg, Tateshots, 13 April 2018 © Tate

Paul talked about Tony Cragg and his interest in fossils and geology in the context of my porcelain fotminne. Cragg’s love for the organic shapes of nature resonated with me, as did his stricture to ‘be there, see it, respond to it.’ That mantra is something I’m continuing to try to channel my practice through: allow the work not the words to do the explaining. Cragg’s work Stack, which references geological strata, layers, and sediment is particularly powerful for me. It’s both surface and sous-face acting as temporal and spatial agents, but it doesn’t feel the need to tell us so.

Tony Cragg, Stack, 1975. © Tate

One of the key texts for me in researching the surface of the ground, and what lies beneath, has been Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. As beautifully written as it is erudite, it features a fascinating section on the power of mycorrhizal fungi or the ‘wood wide web’ as it’s known: ‘The fungal network […] allows plants to distribute resources between one another. Sugars, nitrogen and phosphorus can be shared between trees in a forest: a dying tree might divest its resources into the network to the benefit of the community, for example, or a struggling tree might be supported with extra resources by its neighbours.’ It’s a powerful mantra for my practice: how can we hand on a better environment? Somerset House’s current exhibition, Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, generated some powerful future ideas for me too, including ways in which I might cultivate my own substrate from mycelium. In finding ways to document the Anthropocene, it seems vital to consider our own materials, including ideas such as growing one’s own paper.

Kristel Peters, Mycoshoen, Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi © Kristel Peters
Jason Evans, Out Beyond the Kingdom, foraging underground, part of Mushroom: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, Somerset House. Curated by Francesca Gavin

During lockdown, and after recovering from the virus, I resumed my daily walks and, as usual, continued to collect odd fragments that I found. Picking up sticks on daily walks is something artist John Newling has been experimenting with during lockdown too. When researching possible locations for my imagined exhibition, I visited Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft to see his latest work. I decided against the museum ultimately, mainly because the permanent collection blocks the flow of space around the main gallery; it would be impossible to stage my floor-based exhibition there because viewers would be constantly bumping into display cases. But while the location wasn’t what I needed, Newling’s modest collations of nests, leaves, mud, twigs and sticks helped me focus on ways I might work with the sticks I too had collected. His yellow-painted stack of twigs has a comforting heft to it – like a bundle of sticks collected for firewood in a fairy tale.

  1. John Newling, Yellow Sticks: 105 Lockdown Walks (2020)
  2. My own Mycelium Walking Sticks, painted hazel and white graphite. 60 sticks, each approximately 45 cm in length.

But once I’d looked and looked again, I realised that Newling’s sticks are just too perfect for me. Their neatly trimmed ends and perky colour are too sanitised. I wanted my sticks to be rougher, grubbier, ‘more themselves’ as Paul might have put it. I decided to combine their rugged nature with the most exquisite botanical drawings of mycelium I could manage, inspired by my research into the wood wide web.

The nursery rhyme aesthetic of John Newling’s sticks has an echo in Richard Long’s use of them: his 44 lines of fragmentary text, Five, Six, Pick Up Sticks, reference the children’s game. There, however, the similarity ends. His poetic treatise (or manifesto posing as verse) ends with the lines ‘My work is not urban, nor is it romantic./ It is the laying down of modern ideas/ in the only practical place to take them.’

I like to use the symmetry of patterns between time,

places and time, between distance and time,

between stones and distance, between time and stones.

I choose lines and circles because they do the job.

Richard Long, Five, six, pick up sticks (1980)

Re-reading those lines again, and doing some more research, I found an essay written about Long by Robert Macfarlane for Tate Etc. In it, he distinguishes between what he sees as the British and American walking customs. The British tradition, he says, is ‘filled with pedestrians (William Hazlitt, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Thomas) who wish to stride back into a true sense of themselves. They foot forwards into the metaphysical wind of the world, letting it scour away the sour accretions of life – and they end their walks stripped back to their ideal natures. By contrast, American romantic roadsters (Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir) are more anticipatory: they imagine the walk as a way to find a new self, rather than to retrieve a lost one. British walkers recover, American walkers discover – and both traditions celebrate a self-consciousness on the part of the walker. They cherish the walker as thinker, and the walker as talker.’ 

Macfarlane makes the case persuasively that Richard Long follows neither of these two traditions: he’s a walker rather than a thinker. But it made me reflect more on my own practice. I will never be able to leave the thinking out, even while I try to let the work do the talking, and I am most definitely a walker of the anticipatory kind. The form of anticipation I envisage is of working out, via my practice, how we might inhabit a less corrosive future, how we might be better ancestors, as I document in my essay.

Attending an online RCA lecture by artist Helen Cammock about the archive, I was reminded yet again that my focus is in the present and the future, rather than the past. She described the archive as ‘providing a way for us to touch something which has come before. In the touching of what has come before, we are roaming.’ It reinforced for me that my sense of archive, whether via my shadow paintings, my large-scale folded books, and even my fotminne porcelain installation, is a library of the present and what’s to come, not a mournful ‘roam’ into the past. Both Victoria Ahrens’ and Catriona Leahy’s lectures at Camberwell about their interest in the idea of folds and pleats holding a form of the past and present within them helped clarify my own sense of what overlapped and folded layers bring to my work. Like them, I share a focus on the temporal, but mine includes a proleptic, time-bending sense of somehow ‘remembering the future’.

Tim Ingold’s revelatory lecture at CSM, What on Earth is the Ground had a powerful effect on my thinking. As I explain in my essay, it is his counterintuitive arguments about what constitute surface, time and future memory which have guided me. How might we examine surface and what I call sous-face to rethink the archive and our own role in its future? As Ingold puts it, ‘the oldest marks have risen up to the surface, the newest marks have gone down. So with the palimpsest, far from putting one thing on top of the other like acetate sheets and you could somehow see through, what’s happening is that the past is rising up even as the present sinks down. […] It’s not stratigraphic at all, it’s just the opposite. It rests on a principle I call anti-stratigraphic.’

I’m continuing to develop my videos and soundscapes. Interviewing the video artist Yulia Mahr, who collaborates with composer Max Richter, produced some insights about the ways image and sound can be intertwined. I was particularly interested in her idea of using found footage. She described it as both more environmentally ethical, as well as democratic. It resonated with me as an idea, in the same way that the idea of constructing substrates from mycelium does. These are definitely questions that I need to consider as my practice develops. It was the subject of another discussion I had with Dan: ‘how might we think about eco-responsibility’, as he put it.

Image taken from Yulia Mahr’s video for Max Richter’s composition Mercy, 2020

Thinking about ways to intensify the viewer’s gaze to make them look more closely at my work and for longer, I researched Brook and Black’s Loco Solis. I was immediately drawn to the soundscape, with its verse, music and atmospheric effects since, as I’ve explained, sound, to me, is as important as imagery in the creation of video art. What clarified my mind about how I would invite viewers in to my imagine exhibition were the large brass rings holding circles of glass which was part iris, part astrolabe, part geometrical form. Before entering the space of my proposed exhibition, viewers must first intensify their gaze by peering through small ambrotypes.

Brook and Black, Loco Solis, 2005 © Brook and Black

Much of my work in recent months has moved away from wall display, instead inhabiting the ground. It’s true to my research interest in fotminne as well as to my guiding ethos of being an artist who walks the land’s surface. I was encouraged in this by Jo’s installation in which she eschewed the walls of her exhibition space and allowed her prints to settle onto the gallery’s floor. It would have been easy, possibly even tempting, to use the acres of white wall space in her main exhibition area to show some additional work. I found the clarity of the vision and the integrity of the arrangement very powerful and it focused my ideas about how I would arrange my own work in my exhibition proposal. Just as Jo’s dust naturally settles into the floor, so my long ridge and furrow artist’s book, my fotminne porcelain path and my botanical drawings of fungi on hazel sticks must be seen where they lie – on the ground.

Johanna Love, Der Engel Schwieg, installation, laser etching with graphite and ink on paper, individual paper sheets 120cm x 80cm © Johanna Love

As part of my exhibition proposal, I’ve planned night-time, outdoor screenings of my videos. Researching the work of landscape artists who’ve stage projections outside, I found a collaboration between Julie Leach and New Wave Art Exhibitions in which the artist’s work was projected onto White Ladies Priory for an Instagram Live event. Julie Leach works outside, as I like to do, and she allows the marks on the paper to be dictated by the power of the wind and the elements. Some works entail being out in the elements for more than eight hours at a time and she’s insistent that the works not be adjusted or ‘neatened up’ afterwards. This has become my own focus with my shadow paintings. Leach’s sense of nature’s own dictates has helped me surrender control to the demands of the sun’s path when I’m painting.

Details from my work Shadowline. Ink on taffeta, 1,300 x 150 cm

Julie Leach in collaboration with New Wave Art Exhibitions © Julie Leach

Ralph Overill, in a Camberwell lecture, discussed his use of outside projections too. His use of battery-powered projectors brings new possibilities and it’s something I’m experimenting with. In my exhibition proposal I’ve located projections of my videos on the inside wall of an old stone summer house set into the landscape at Roche Court. Thinking more broadly, outside projections would be a powerful way of combining video and sound with the landscape that is their focus.

Work which I haven’t created to rest on the floor has been, in the main, designed to float in the sky. I wanted to introduce a kinetic energy to my shadow paintings on both paper and taffeta. The installation Yet To Come is painted on the Japanese paper I love to work with, while the largest piece is painted on fine, almost translucent taffeta. However, I’m also planning future shadow works on even thinner substrates than I’ve used so far. Printmaker Jenny Robinson’s new work, A Quiet Space, captures this idea for me. It’s a drypoint of the Palm House in Barcelona, printed onto three overlapping sheets of gampi tissue. The image here is one I’ve taken from her video on Instagram of the work being installed for Edition/Basel’s Dasein exhibition in July this year; the beauty of the work is enhanced even more as the three gampi sheets move. Viewers’ own disturbance of the air as they walk past the installation makes the work almost appear to breathe. The delicacy of the paper and yet the rich, powerful monochromatic lines combine to make this work captivating. The viewer can’t help but lean in, to look longer and more enquiringly – something I’m constantly trying to achieve. The added fact that the work’s own movement is caused by viewers’ engagement with it adds a magical additional quality. My Japanese paper shadow painting clothes took on kinetic energy from the summer breeze, but I’m now planning to experiment with further paintings on 12 gsm gampi tissue to test how they will move, summer breeze or not. One of the many things I’ve learned in recent months is that there’s always a new question to answer, another idea to research, an alternative method to try.

Jenny Robinson, A Quiet Space, drypoint installation on gampi, © Jenny Robinson

NB: All sources cited here are included in the bibliography appended to my essay.