Research proposal

The peregrini: a wanderer, an exile. ‘in early Celtic Christian tradition, monks who left religious centres to worship in wild and remote places. For the peregrini, attention was a form of devotion; solitude, an approach to the sacred.’

Robert Macfarlane

Sediment and the Secular Pilgrimage

I started this project, sure that the abandoned coastal village of Tyneham in Dorset would spark the inspiration I needed. It’s a place I’ve known most of my life, so it can’t help but be layered with memory. I was adamant that my work shouldn’t be a catalogue of Tyneham’s mournful past; that would be a sentimental way of looking at things. But I did think that it would spark a series of ethical and practical questions which might lead to work which is experimental and inventive.

Tyneham

As the weeks have gone by, Tyneham has become more diffuse in my mind. Like grit in an oyster, it’s now an agent provocateur to my work rather than a specific place. As I planned, I’ve focused on printmaking as a way of exploring the ethical tension between preserving our wild landscapes and the sometimes authoritarian methods used to do so. The idea of stopping time and of preserving nature has led to the creation of printed images from objects I’ve frozen in ice. And, in addition to asking ethical questions about the preservation of the wild, my project focuses on the idea of the secular pilgrimage: the special places we visit in a transactional way (in order to say that we’ve been there, done that), or those places we go to and on which we impose a false narrative when we arrive. Tyneham can be a victim of both instincts and since it can only be accessed on foot, it’s a form of pilgrimage to get there. The idea of walking the landscape is, in itself, printmaking – the imprint of the foot. Once I started looking at the land as a printable surface, or even the foot as the receiver of the land’s imprint, I began to experiment with ideas of sediment as measurements of time. The more images I made of sedimentary deposits, the more I began to think about the land itself moving, as well as the walker.  

Tied to the idea of the walker or explorer is the old idea of the Medieval pilgrim badge. Pilgrims paid for them to prove they’d completed their journey, so in some ways they can be seen as early religious prototypes of the souvenir or bought memory. My own version of the pilgrim badge emerged when I found my great-aunt’s old ticket machine from the time she worked as a clippie on the buses. Her machine, which is, after all, a portable printing press, validated travellers’ journeys, just as a pilgrim badge might. Using one of her old ticket rolls for paper, I’ve typed the account of a conceptual journey I made around the city of Edinburgh. Using my childhood tartan scarf as a map, I walked the city following the coloured lines the scarf dictated. The story of my walk, written on my mother’s old typewriter, spills out from the ticket machine in a spiral of past and present memory. The childhood scarf, inscribed with my history (as well as a few moth holes), became the conductor of a present-day journey.

The old-fashioned postcard – inscribed with memories and, after all, another form of pilgrim badge – is a powerful summoner of journeys undertaken in the past. My great-aunt, owner of the bus-ticket machine, was born in 1900. She saved all the postcards her brothers and sisters sent over her life. Having been left her collection, and haunted by the fragmentary messages they hold, I’m continuing to explore the idea of postcards as a form of sedimentary history. I’ve made a series of hand-rolled porcelain postcards, blind-embossed with lines from the Victorian homework I discovered padding out the roof space in the dilapidated schoolhouse where I live.

The sheets include authoritarian lines such as ‘Nominate the Just’, ‘Venerate Sacred Institutions’ and ‘Caution is the only Protection Against Imposing’. Having transferred these prescriptive aphorisms to porcelain, I arranged the cards in a spiral at Worbarrow Bay, Tyneham’s beach, to take the form of what’s known as a virtual pilgrimage. Women in particular were forced to complete virtual pilgrimages, since they were often disbarred from travelling far or exploring the world freely. The spiral of postcards on the beach acts as a reminder of the constraints placed upon generations of women who wished to walk the landscape as men did. The postcards are arranged a footstep apart, and the walker must lean-in to read the lines they hold.

VIRTUAL PILGRIMAGE, blind-embossed porcelain postcards, 15cm x 10cm

As my research continues, I intend to develop my idea that journeys on foot can be governed by objects other than maps (as in the case of my tartan scarf) and to combine my work as a writer with my practice.