Contextual research

A dandelion clock, so evocative of the Covid-19 virus, outside my house

Robert Storrie, Keeper of Anthropology at the Horniman Museum, offered a chilling counsel of despair in his powerful Camberwell lecture in February 2020: environmental catastrophe can no longer be avoided, just ameliorated. So much has shifted globally since then, but it’s hard to know if viral disaster and lockdown will provide some protections to the planet. It’s clear, though, that Covid-19 has consequences for art: how can the artist respond to a global disaster? How swiftly can it be done? Might any attempt seem inadequate to the task? If we’re to follow the lead of Hannah Arendt, we might argue that, far from inspiring (or provoking) the artist to a form of creative rage, a global pandemic could result in a more muted, passive response:

Rage is by no means an automatic reaction to misery and suffering as such; no one reacts with rage to an incurable disease, to an earthquake or, for that matter, to social conditions that seem to be unchangeable. Only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not does rage arise (Arendt, p. 160).

I’m more inclined to follow Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s view. Akhmatova’s son was arrested by the Soviet secret police and over a period of seventeen months she waited outside Leningrad Prison to find out what had happened to him. Whilst queuing in the snow, someone recognised her as the celebrated poet:

[A] woman with bluish lips standing behind me […] woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):

“Can you describe this?”

And I answered: “Yes, I can.”

Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.

The “yes, I can” isn’t necessarily an assertive insistence that art can transmute or at least transact catastrophe; it feels more fragmentary and unsure than that. But in the face of a disastrous global pandemic it seems worth trying. At the start of 2020, when Covid-19 was a terrifying yet very distant phenomenon, my research focused on ways we can reflect on the dangers facing our planet as a result of global warming. I researched the work of Christiane Baumgartner with its meticulous marks yet vast scale, as well as the epic images of Emma Stibbon. I started to develop larger images myself, in particular lithographs, photopolymers and screen-printing on glass. (I can’t show them all here because some of my work and notebooks are in the Camberwell studio.)

Unfinished litho with photographic and hand-drawn layers. 84cm x 118cm
Three-layered lithograph, 40cm x 50cm

I’d intended to group my work on landscape and the environment into three methodological categories: 1: printmaking; 2: plaster prints, casts and sculpture; 3: art using the written word. My research still focuses on walking and landscape, but the focus has shifted since then, or at least the scope of my focus has. The size of my landscape has effectively shrunk and the three original categories now have their own subsections: before covid and after.

In January I settled on the motif of rust as a powerful metaphor for the industrial revolution which has had such disastrous consequences for the temperature of the planet. The rusting in botanical hot houses is an emblem of the ways we try to manipulate our own microclimate to appropriate and propagate exotic plants – as the artificially-heated air rises upwards from the grates we feel masters of our environment. I visited botanical gardens to collect photographs of doors and floor grilles rusted by the heat and damp of the hot house.

A rusted fragment on a column in thePalm House, Kew Gardens
I made my image of this door in Kew Gardens into a photopolymer etching. The smeared, cracked glass and rusted door looking out onto a manicured lawn is a great symbol of the way we’ve tried to manage landscape.
Frontier, photopolymer etching on Somerset paper. 33cm x 41cm
Below: my images from Kew and Chelsea Physic Garden

I researched the seminal essay by John Ruskin in which he argued that rust is a sign of metal’s vitality:

[T]he supporting element of the breath, without which the blood, and therefore the life, cannot be nourished, is […] oxygen. Now it is this very same air which the iron breathes when it gets rusty. It takes the oxygen from the atmosphere as eagerly as we do, though it uses it differently. The iron keeps all that it gets; we, and other animals, part with it again; but the metal absolutely keeps what it has once received of this aerial gift; and the ochreous dust which we so much despise is, in fact, just so much nobler than pure iron, in so far as it is iron and the air.

Ruskin went on to describe rusted items such as knives or scissors as ‘metals with breath put into them.’ It’s such a vivid idea, animating the insensate object, that it led me to research how I might rust my own prints or create rust on glass substrates to be printed on. The final ‘recipe’ I settled on was a mixture of iron powder, white vinegar, table salt and 3% hydrogen peroxide. Referencing the scientific principles which so absorbed Ruskin and the empirical research which defines so clearly the fragility of the planet, I rusted a series of microscope slides to make a library of microscopic books with rusty covers. I’d intended to use letterpress to fill the books with passages from Ruskin’s essay. However, once Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic, I started to adjust that plan, without realising how close the virus would come to my own home.

Hand-rusted microscope slides

In March I caught the virus. As my condition worsened, my field of vision became ever smaller. The vast seascapes and coastal landscapes I had focused on in my work started to shrink. The white room in which I isolated myself became a universe and, in any case, even the thought of going for a walk was exhausting. Day was indistinguishable from night and the only landscape was a virtual, timeless one. Later, when I thought about the rusty books I’d made, it seemed they shouldn’t contain Ruskin’s words but my own, in the shape of fixed verse. The sheer rigidity and rhythmical and rhyming constraints of sonnets, villanelles and paradelles seemed appropriate for someone trapped within the confines of a white room. I’ve written a Shakespearian sonnet reflecting on a landscape corrupted by Dutch elm disease, with a rhyming scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

I intend to write thirteen more fixed verse books, to make fourteen – the number of lines in a sonnet and the number of days of acute illness. It’s to be an imprisoned library in which the canvas is tiny and the rules confining, but which is, hopefully, deeply expressive of a particular time and place. Visiting the Hereford Mappa Mundi just before the virus arrived, I was struck by the imprisoned books in the seventeenth-century Chained Library.

Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral

Some of the books date back to the eighth-century and, whilst chaining them to the shelves was designed as a security system against theft, it’s hard not to read into their entrapment the sense that books are subversive objects which some try to control. My rust books are meant to be subversive in the sense that they’re expressive of a form of escape from entrapment whilst mourning the damage done to landscape and environment. I initially planned to make concertina books with the text composed of fragments of text stuck to the pages, in reference to the telegram bearing urgent news. But it looked so messy that, in the end, I typed directly onto the pages which I then constructed as a concertina.

Typing the lines of my sonnet in a form which would allow the paper to be folded into a miniature concertina book. The plaster casts are of the inside of the bark of elm trees, drilled into lacy patterns by the threatening elm beetle larvae

Other book-art plans include using pieces of bark collected on my walks which just invite themselves to be made into the cover of books. Talking to book artist Clare Bryan about how I could construct them, she suggested using the natural grain in paper to make it bend to the curved shape of the bark’s interior.

The curving silver birch bark has an additional peeling surface reminiscent of a turning page

As I lay in my white room I could see shadows from the trees playing in the sunlight. The trees are elms, killed by larvae from the elm beetle. The two ideas conflated in my mind: invasion by the virus and invasion by the larvae. The combined attacks became the substance of my sonnet, which references both the beetle galleries which the larvae drill into the elm’s bark and the vicious headaches which the virus cause.

Fragment of bark drilled into by elm beetle larvae


Spiked metal crowns the skull and fleshy thieves

pierce skin to bury clues and pilfer taste.

Searing white of sheets and ceiling weaves

the hours together. Sodium lichen bastes

the elm in liverish dye. Beneath the bark

larvae strut their etched galleries,

drilling drypoint and vying for the dark

prize while dropped fungus chokes capillaries.

The drowned elm thirsts. Dandelion-clocks

count one, nine, any-time. With every gust

spores drift towards the mill, to mock

the flour no-longer-ground and choking dust

coats the counting house. A beetle calls

to summon plump allies in protein shawls.

Ultimately, that conflation of larvae and virus inspired a series of maquettes in white plaster. I initially started to make them in standard plaster of Paris but it wasn’t sufficiently white to capture the dazzling shade which had so dominated my weeks of illness. After researching the work of sculptor Jayne Walker, I found that she uses a plaster called CrystalCal which is both bright white and very hard. In making the objects to represent the stages of my illness, I threw two of them out of my bedroom window onto the ground below, to deliberately damage and scratch them. Others, I cast deliberately as the smoothest of objects to represent the entrapment of being ill with the virus. I applied aluminium leaf to one onto which I had carved tracings to replicate the beetle galleries. (Another consequence of the virus are compressing headaches and damage to the sense of taste so that everything tastes simply of metal.) On the largest white object I hand-wrote the sonnet and on another I constructed a nightmare forest from branches of the dead elms.

Cast, carved and deliberately damaged maquettes
Plaster cast from the inside of Dutch elm tree bark

Dulwich Picture Gallery’s postponed exhibition British Surrealism features a sculpture titled Spanish Head by F E McWilliam. He created it in 1936, the same year as the first International Surrealist Exhibition and the start of the Spanish Civil War. Its grotesque form and threatening teeth have a savage beauty that marks an era of terrifying violence. I had this in mind when I started work on my white plaster maquettes.

F. E. McWilliam, Spanish Head, The Sherwin Collection

It is often the case that the intensely beautiful can have its roots in the macabre or the frightening. I find the intricate, delicate tracings of the elm beetle larvae captivating, but I have an overwhelming fear of insects. In making plaster casts of the inside of pieces of the dead elm’s bark I was simultaneously leaning in to admire, whilst recoiling in disgust. The dandelion clocks which surround the dead trees took on the uncanny look of the virus itself. The uncanny quality of the dandelion head was explored by Helen Chadwick in Nebula (1996) in which she drew connections between the dandelion heads and human embryos. Her powerful work 2006 Viral Landscapes combined seascapes with her own cellular tissue. The combined disgust and fascination they provoke, like my sense of revulsion when looking at the beetle galleries, is an aesthetic quality which artist and photographer Finlay Taylor celebrates and welcomes in his work. His images of butterflies sipping from human tongues, or of books part-eaten by snails, both invite and repel.

Finlay Taylor, Trail
flat back binding, screen print and snail eaten areas
18.5 x 27.5cm
2002 ©Finlay Taylor

But that simultaneous disgust and fascination is the point, as he told me:

I am intrigued and fascinated by those things, events and happenings that I either set up to happen or observe and capture in some way. But I understand others have different reactions and I like that response. I want a gut reaction, a reflex if possible in the viewer, some sensation beyond the retinal.

That ‘gut reaction’ he speaks of is something we may have to reassess as more and more of our work is presented online. As photographer and printmaker Victoria Ahrens explained when talking about her work, the beauty of printmaking is the effect it has on the viewer. In making the observer lean in to work out methodology and stand back to examine scale, the artist demands a physical engagement which is infinitely more difficult to achieve in a virtual environment.  That sense of the physical, of materiality, is something I engage with in my own work. It’s important to me that my prints and casts should be of the environment  – not just visually but materially. My embossed, relief and etched casts of ground over which I have walked use iron oxide pigments from the ground to colour them. I grind and mix my paints, pigmented with iron oxide, using honey from my neighbour’s bees. (Again, my fear of insects makes me recoil from bees but the visceral, gleaming quality which the honey brings to the paint is important as I attempt to document place.)

My pigments made from different iron oxides, gum arabic and honey
My neighbour’s beehives, source of honey for my pigment
Iron-oxide pigmented plaster drying in its mould. The final image will be an embossed, scored relief print.

As I started to recover, I began to assess the ways in which my field of vision had shrunk. The metal grates on the floors of Victorian botanical hothouses, whilst still rich in potential, no longer feel so relevant to the present moment. The close-up look, however, of cracks in the ground underfoot, the single footstep, or of the smallest fragment of lichen, seem to hold a new fascination as a metaphor for the damaged earth. Patrick Keiller’s 2010 film Robinson in Ruins has been illuminating, referencing as it does Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe with its startling single footprint pressed into the sand of Crusoe’s island. Its fixation, too, on ever more tightly framed close-ups of a fragment of yellow lichen (the same colour lichen that coats the dead elm trees around my home) clinging to the letter u of Newbury on a motorway road sign is compelling. As the Tate puts it, ‘The camera tarries with fields of oil seed rape, nodding foxgloves and shivering primroses until they start to look monstrous, every bit as alien as the relics of nineteenth century architecture and décor that so exercised the surrealists.’

Allied to the idea of the ever more tightly focused close-up is the idea of looking into rather than simply at. I have made a series of linocuts on the cracks in the mud beneath my feet, trying to get the observer to look in and, potentially, down into them. Writer Nan Shepherd once said of her beloved Cairngorms that ‘a mountain has an inside.’ As Robert Macfarlane puts it, ‘it is a superbly counter-intuitive proposition, for we tend to think of mountains in terms of their exteriors – peaks, shoulders, cliffs. But Shepherd is always looking into the Cairngorm landscape. […] Again and again her eyes pry through surfaces: into cracks in rocks, into the luminous interior of clear-watered lochs or rivers. She dips her hand into Loch Coire an Laochaine, she walks naked into the shallows of Coch Avon, she pokes fingers down mouse holes and into the snowpack. ‘Into’, in The Living Mountain, is a preposition that gains – by means of repeated use – the power of a verb.’

Conversely, in exploring ways of going ‘into the mountain’ more minutely, looking more closely at the miniature, I’ve also produced a series of huge paintings of the shadows of trees as they play on grass. The purpose here is to deploy a form of mindfulness (as opposed to mindlessness) and to allow the landscape and weather to dictate the work.

Shadow painting in Sumi ink and salt
Detail of Shadow painting
Double banner of shadow painting on Japanese paper

I’ve been influenced in this by the founder of the Dansaekhwa movement, Korean artist Park Seo Bo. Whilst I don’t share his aesthetic, I’m drawn to his sense of allowing the pencil or the brush to dictate its own path.

Ecriture No. 37 – 73 Pencil and oil on canvas (100cm x 81.3cm) ©White Cube

In an interview I conducted with him for the Spring 2020 volume of Cereal, he explained not only the spiritual state of mind in which he paints and draws, but also made a connection between his repetitive pencil or brush stroke and calligraphy, thereby combining my interest in his technique and the written word:

The power of calligraphy has a deep connection with the calligraphy brush and the nature of the ink. When the calligrapher holds the tip of the brush upright and perfectly focuses on the very tip of the brush, the long and soft hairs that form the calligraphy pen reveals the mind of the calligrapher. The sensitive brush reveals the slightest of wander of the mind. Just as a calligrapher focuses his mind on tip of the calligraphy brush, I also completely focus my whole mind at the end of my pencil for the Myǒbop technique. But my mind is not focused on drawing something or achieving something in particular, rather it concentrates on forgetting oneself through the focus. In that sense, both calligraphy and my Myǒbop technique share a similarity of entering a state of spirituality.

When I thought about Park Seo Bo’s attempts to not achieve ‘something in particular’, I considered too the risks of creating art which is comforting, soothing or consoling. This is expressly what I don’t want to do, and it runs counter to what Park Seo Bo does. Yet this is a time of crisis and a nihilistic response seems futile. Svetlana Boym in her work The Future of Nostalgia seems to come close to reconciling the two instincts of despair at the geopolitical landscape, and attempts at reconciliation with the immediate, small landscape:

This is no longer nostalgia for one’s local home but for being at home in the world, yearning for a “transcendental topography of the mind” that characterized presumably “integrated” civilization. The object of nostalgia in Lukacs is a totality of existence hopelessly fragmented in the modern age.’

That ‘totality of existence’, the idea of being ‘at home in the world’ is perfectly represented in ceramicist and writer Edmund de Waal’s Library of Exile at the British Museum. Housing 2,000 books in translation by exiled authors, it examines ‘what it means to have to move to another country, to speak another language.’ Again, the power of the written word is what gives this exhibition its heft, as well as the physical, visceral expression of materiality. Each book in the exhibition has an ex libris label at the front, inviting the spectator to write their own name. Just as affecting, is the liquid porcelain into which de Waal has written the names of lost libraries.

Edmund de Waal, Library of Exile: The names of lost libraries inscribed into wet porcelain ©Edmund de Waal

I found the fragments of writing and the contributions by exhibition-goers more affecting than his recent, lavish exhibition at the Frick Gallery in New York. There, his familiar vitrines held exquisitely-executed shards of porcelain, yet their placement in the rooms of the Frick seemed to diminish them to tableaux and mise-en-scene for an interior designer.

In part, it was the exquisite precision and apparent permanence of the Frick exhibition which I recoiled from. The impermanence of artist Tracy Hill’s drawings is what lends them some of their power. Her series of deciduous drawings, whilst relying on the principle of haecceity or specific this-ness (as opposed to a more  generalised sense of quiddity), remind the viewer that they will not be here for long, a metaphor which is powerful in itself. So much about the art world is predicated on the idea of preservation and conservation – in other words, making a work of art immutable. But Hill’s charcoal drawings are deliberately fragile and transient. As she told me, their deliberate impermanence threatens some viewers:

Their pending disappearance often creates an anxiety for some visitors who needed to believe that what was before them could be controlled and preserved.

Conversations during the installing of Haecceity resulted in members of the public assuming it was the gallery who had determined that the panels would be destroyed at the end of the exhibition. They offered opinions that it was a waste of time me drawing if the work could not be shown again.  Their lack of control or ability to control the destination or fate of the work caused an inability to engage fully with the work, or me, and some individuals then became reluctant to invest time in something they perceived to be impermanent and therefore of little value or use to them. 

For others, the transient drawings were embraced, conversations were animated and dynamic and the work was carried away as a memory or an encounter and enjoyed for the experience of the temporary performance. Some visitors made multiple visits as the work developed and their stories became part of the work.

TH interviewed by CL-P

This offers a fascinating insight into a potential way forward. The catastrophic could perhaps be confronted by work which is impermanent, mutable, evolving, fragmentary, interdisciplinary and  participative. This may be one way of addressing the BC/PC conundrum I cited at the start of these reflections. I intend to experiment with conductive ink, soundscapes, work which may be destroyed or transmuted either by climate or its location. Jim Denevan’s land art, formed from sand, ice and snow, designed to last only a few hours seems resonant here. So too does Richard Long’s work such as the ephemeral poured pigment of White Water Line (1989). As Antony Gormley put it, ‘I think our attitude to time in objects has changed radically, so that we can now appreciate things in terms of fragility and temporality and their relationship to an event as much as their sense of permanence and monumentality.’