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An Archipeligo is Like a Fold in Time

An archipelago is like a fold in time document, by Phil Owen, 2017, produced with the artists.

Interview with Phil Owen, November 2017 for somethingother.blog

What are you responding to in this piece of writing?

An exhibition that will take place at Hestercombe, an historic country house and estate near Taunton, Somerset, in the autumn/winter of 2017. It is an exhibition of the work of a group of artists who undertook simultaneous residencies on the Scottish islands of Orkney in 2015, each of them staying on (or trying to get to) a different island. I wanted to write about what they told me, and to contextualise this against reflections on a potential relationship between Hestercombe and Orkney: I ended up thinking specifically about the historic formal gardens at Hestercombe, and of Orkney as an archipelago, and how these different terrains dictate very particular sorts of physical exploration, ways of getting around or through.

What drew you to Hestercombe, and how have you been spending your time there?

I remember visiting Hestercombe as a teenager. The gardens had recently been opened to the public, having gone through a process of restoration, while the house was still being used as a call centre by the local emergency services. Today the house hosts a developing centre for contemporary art and the landscape, under the direction of curator Tim Martin. It’s an incredibly beautiful place, but the people running it seem to be committed to using it as a place for new ideas (there is a plan for a large-scale 21st century garden, with a focus on environmental sustainability) rather than a romanticising of the past.

I have persuaded them to let me be writer-in-residence there for about 6 months. There isn’t much money available, but I wanted a long period to have the chance to properly form responses. I visit about once a month, often meeting with other artists who are working there on upcoming exhibition projects. Sadly, I haven’t been given a wing or a turret to occupy.

How do you want the reader to feel, when she reads this text?

I hope the piece is a bit like a map. I spend a lot of time looking at maps. A selection of interconnected possibilities, rather than a linear explication.

How is writing like (or unlike) travelling?

I’ve been trying to think of an equivalent to the experience of being lost when writing, which is as liberating as being lost when travelling can be. I don’t think I ever sit down to write with no idea of where I am going to go. Instead, my writing process is usually one of spending a long time allowing ideas to coalesce and develop, away from the page and then, once the first draft is down, of a similarly long process of editing. Maybe this is a bit like a process of finding, finding something you feel you can share with a reader?

Can the writer and the reader get lost together in a way that’s not just irritating?

I’d like to just mention here too my relationship to reading about places unfamiliar to me. I find it difficult to find writers whose sensibility doesn’t get in the way of my being able to enjoy thinking about the place they’re describing. But glorious exceptions to this would include Tim Robinson on the west of Ireland, and Andrzej Stasiuk on central Europe.

Where do you write, and what is the view?

Much as I would have liked to have been given use of a wing at Hestercombe, I mostly write sat at a work surface in my kitchen, facing a tiled wall (pale minty green, with pink and grey flowers on some of them, inherited from the previous occupant). That said, I do tend to write notes when I visit the place, mostly in the garden. I like being outdoors, though I’m not sure whether it makes much difference to my writing, really. I also like working in the upstairs reference section of Bristol’s Central Library. Its pure 19th century civic architecture: gothic arches and galleries with wrought iron spiral staircases – and no plug sockets to recharge a laptop.

What is the difference between a fold and a line?

A fold is more resilient.


Odyssean: Topograpies Review.

By Selina Oakes, February 2018 for thisistomorrow.info

Beginning high up in the Orkney Isles and journeying to the South West of England, ‘Odyssean: Topographies’ is a cognitive, visual and, at times, physical expedition into hidden and imagined spaces. The culmination of four artists’ Orkney-based residencies, the exhibition throws into question the ways in which humans formulate perceptions of nature and place in an era rife with technology. Whether through physicality, history, geology, virtuality or a combination of all five, the ‘Odyssean’ practitioners – Natasha Rosling, Alexander Stevenson, Alistair Grant and Simon Lee Dicker – mine the anatomies and psychologies of human, land and ocean alike.

It’s a peculiar match: Orkney is fervently wild and unruly, while its counterpart, Hestercombe, is a managed estate on the rural outskirts of Taunton, Somerset. The notion of distance provides reasoning for the project’s southerly migration: it distills assets bound up in the remote archipelago’s heritage and provides space for new narratives. In speaking at the symposim ‘Space, Place and Sensations’, Professor John Wylie quoted Robin Kelsey’s ‘Landscape Theory’ (2008), “landscape is a space to define humanity as a species that does not belong,” to illustrate our separation from nature and to propose the necessity of distance in the fabrication of experiential and imaginary spaces.

The ‘Odyssean’ artists exploit their own – as well as the audience’s – distance from Orkney. Rosling engineers imagined journeys from the physical, inside-out. Spurred by a fixation with digestion, she builds sensory connections between human and land-bound anatomies. ‘Gut Beneath the Shore’ (2016-17) transports audio recordings of groaning geology into an elegant, cavernous Orangery. Though the link between Papa Westray’s creaking sedimentary rock and Hestercombe’s spritely orange trees appears tenuous, together, they challenge the cyclical, digestive spaces of both human and earth – a concept that flows into Rosling and collaborator Vilma Luostarinen’s participatory land degustation; an earth-inspired feast with which to reimagine nature traveling inside our grotto-esque bodies.

Stevenson’s ‘All At Sea’ (2017) uses storytelling to address the notion of not-belonging. Here, he reflects on his genealogy as a ‘Stevenson’ and assumes the identity of a lighthouse keeper. Frustrated by his distance from ‘lost’ ancestry, he maps out a fictional journey across an archipelago and transforms himself, both physically and psychologically, into the very object that determines his voyage – a lighthouse. Painted, head to toe, and sporting a crown of headtorches, the artist casts off in a human-sized buoy in search of another narrative, albeit remaining incased in his own, personal perception of the world.

Grant expands on humankind’s solitary existence in landscape by questioning the distance and closeness afforded by virtual spaces. In ‘Moving Swiftly Onwards’ (2017), he fabricates two models of a futuristic being: one physical, one virtual. While the former lays limp on the floor – much like the relics from an archaeological dig – the latter moves energetically on the screen. This comparison augments the reductive characteristics of both the physical and virtual, and asks whether technology’s ingenuity provides a viable space in which to garner new experience and meaning. As with ‘All At Sea’, the self-referential presence of a physical sculpture provides a stepping stone into the screen.

Returning to elemental matters, Dicker’s ‘Passing Place’ – a collection of drawing, sculpture and writing – observes a different mode of landscape experience. In ‘Red Hot Haystacks’ (2017) a blistering-blue mound of meadow grass appears futuristic, otherworldly and near-magical, until our imagination is shunted by R. N. Aitkens’ 1969 Scottish radiometric survey in ‘Hoy Hill Screen’ (2016/17). The viewer’s wonder is replaced by the revelation of nuclear testing’s ‘unseen’ impacts: humanity’s discordant relationship with nature floods back into consciousness. Again, tactility is as vital as technology: here, contextual data is supported by the tangible strands of hay which radiate with a tart, earthy smell.

From Orkney to Hestercombe, ‘Odyssean: Topographies’ dismantles traditional definitions of ‘place’ by exposing the abstract, interconnectable qualities of the factual and the imaginary in the portrayal of topographic experience. Orkney’s remoteness affords separation from the mainland’s digital saturation, which in turn highlights humanity’s day-to-day distance from nature. The artists exploit this incongruent relationship and expand upon our contemporary, human-centric perspectives of the land through storytelling, history, virtuality and physicality. Rather than recite reality, ‘Odyssean’ entwines tactility with technology to reveal hidden experiential spaces and engineer new imaginary ones, thus building an alternative kinship with the land.


Response: Edible Coastlines by Natasha Rosling & Vilma Luostarinen

By Selina Oakes, February 2018 on www.selinaoakes.com

In an era where technology rules the day, every day, when does humanity observe, experience and exist through physicality? As I'm writing this post, I'm glued to my computer screen; recollecting a physical encounter between my body and nature by lending my words to an intangible coding system. Last week, I had the pleasure of attending Space, Place and Sensations, a seminar attached to Odyssean: Topographies at Hestercombe, Taunton - the culmination of four artists' residences undertaken in the Orkney Isles.

Following a morning of lectures delivered by Harriet Hawkins and John Wylie on land experience, Natasha Rosling (one of the four Odyssean: Topographies artists) and collaborator Vilma Luostarinen reinvigorated our physical selves through a feast of earth- and ocean-inspired food. Titled Edible Coastlines, the lunch entwined the physical and the cognitive; encouraging our minds to forge new, imaginary spaces within the caverns of our bodies through the tactile sensations of touch, texture and taste, and the optics of colour and form.

Poetic and ritualistic in its delivery, Edible Coastlines is a veritable odyssey: its menu, which reads like stanzas in a poem, provides a lyrical migration along an imagined shoreline where land, sea, body and mind all meet. There's also a personification of both nature and alimentation which sparks a meditative journey in the mind: dumplings are described by the artists as 'body cakes', laid down to rest on an ocean floor of kelp. Even the seaweed platter mimics a form other than itself: dense and moist, it resembles the rich and nutritious soil that exists beneath our feet.

"The Isle of Body,
Dumpling, potato, soy mince, mushroom, leek,
Resting on a Bed of Delicate Greens,
Land purslane and tatsoi with sea sprigs and sea spirals,

A Sip of Ocean,
Dashi, British kombu kelp, mushrooms and mineral water.."

"Layers in the Cliff Face,
Strata Crackers, raw buckwheat, sunflower seeds, shony seaweed, sea salt flakes,
Time has Been Folded into it,
Carbon Buns, charcoal, fresh yeast, sea salt, honey, and air worked into organic flour"

These playful linguistics - onomatopoeic and at times alliterative - tell a story of the land, ahead of its proposed wanderings through our bodies.  The imagery of layered sedimentary rock and compression of fallen trees ignites a new consciousness and respect for the ingredients both in the meal and in the land. It takes time: time to prepare, process, cook, serve, eat and digest; time to seed, grow, decay, fall, compound and recreate. Time: an element rarely afforded to us by modern living.

The audience, who are guests at the Edible Coastlines table, become participators and creators: each viewer scoops celeriac-spinach dip and tumeric-infused cabbage onto a strata cracker, and slowly ingests it into their own body. The transferal of energy, from land to body, and artist to participator, is rarely the centrepiece of an artwork. This physically and psychologically intimate connection introduces a part fictional, part factual narrative. It's an immersive storytelling activity: one which entangles us in a ritualistic act of eating.
Attention to detail such as the casting of rocks to form bowls and a predefined order of service (a bed of seaweed and kelp waited patiently in our plates for a dumpling followed by a wave of dashi served by the two artists) generates a refuge of stillness. Mirroring Harriet Hawkins' morning lecture on subterranean spaces, Edible Coastlines, much like the sport of caving, separates us from everyday modernity and reconnects with a bygone natural history. There's also a tinge of nostalgia for the lack of nature in our lives: each place setting has an individual message reminding the audience of childhood curiosity - mine read "a nose nestled between the shrubs."

Through the ingestion of earth- and sea-based assets such as charcoal bread and seaweed, the viewer and the land are brought into closer proximity: something that ultimately couldn't happen without a pre-established distance from it (distance between humans and nature is a theme which flows through the exhibition and a concept highlighted in John Wylie's talk.) Though consumed, the food is presented with a refined, dining etiquette to foster a new found respect for the land, our own bodies and fellow humans at a collective, non-hierarchical table. 

And yet, distance lingers: the experience remains human-centric and throws into question whether nature is being brought towards us, or us towards nature? The audience is being healed by the land: when is the land to be healed by the audience?


Simon Lee Dicker Interview

Decembe 2017 on www.artdotearth.com

What are you currently working on?

Passing Place is a collection of work made in response to a series of visits I have made to the Orkney Islands since September 2015 and is part of the Odyssean: Topographies exhibition taking place at Hestercombe Gallery in Somerset until 25 February 2018. My contribution includes drawing, sculpture and writing that has been made over the past two years including a major new work entitled Red Hot Haystacks developed through conversations with geologist Ross Aitken.

High levels of radiation were reported on the coasts each side of the Pentland Firth that separate mainland Scotland from the Orkney Archipelago. Believing a valuable uranium deposit may have been discovered a boat, kitted out with state of the art radiation detection equipment, was commissioned to investigate. Being one of the most treacherous areas of sea in the world the Pentland Firth proved to be too much of a challenge for the Geologist working for the Radiogeology and Rare Minerals Unit of the Institute of Geological Science who spent all his time below deck being sick. All the equipment recorded was the motion of the waves going up and down. The survey was never completed.

It was later discovered that particles produced by air borne nuclear testing in the early 1960’s had found its way into the soil, only becoming apparent when the grass grew and hay was cut and gathered into stacks, described by the geologist as Red Hot. I have used a combination black light and wild meadow grass from the Hestercombe estate to explore ideas around this story and the unseen environmental impact of this human activity.

What would you say are the primary motivations for your work?

My work explores a discordant relationship with landscape and the natural world. From intimate drawings and transient installations to event based social activities, each work is the start of a conversation often evoking ritual activity and personal narratives that involve other people in the production and presentation of work.

My time is split between making work as either a primary or secondary producer. I’m either making art or supporting other artists to make art through OSR Projects, an artist-led organization I helped set up in 2011.

The work we do from the OSR Project Space in West Coker, Somerset, and further afield, is a conversation starter; it engages people through its processes of thinking and making, as well as seeking out new and unexpected ways to have impact. Public involvement, conversation and the sharing of ideas are part of our natural vocabulary; placing people at the centre of artistic activity through creative partnerships, collaboration, and different forms of participation.

Any particular artists / others who have had a profound effect on you?

Artists are continuously having a profound effect on my work. I am always looking at, reading about and talking to other artists. Through my recent obsession with haystacks I have learned to cut grass using traditional scything techniques and have studied painters of haystacks to learn how to form them sculpturally.  This research has ignited a passion for Van Gogh’s drawings, in particular Haystacks in Provence (1888) that was made after the painting of the same name. Dead artist are fine, but since setting up OSR Projects I have been lucky enough to work closely with some incredible live artists that challenge me to constantly look at the world with new eyes.