|On site-specificity and storytelling
My gaze alternates between the Arcadian sample of artists' books and the view from the window of my study. Similarities come to mind between the activities of book-making and the gardening of the allotments that stretch across the extensive swathe of hillside above the house. Within this urban landscape, nature is ordered into the patchwork of productive greenery that flourishes inside the high walls of the peripheral hedgerow. At each entrance, weathered lettering on the 1920s enamelled signboard reveals the words “land”, “cultivated” and “crops”, which metaphorically transform these “Allotment Gardens” into an agricultural landscape. Yet these vegetable plots, bordered with flowers and punctuated by fruit trees, also represent a community of endeavour. Each one is small in scale, lovingly crafted and redolent of narratives that speak of vision and pleasure, practical expertise, thrift and graft, self-sufficiency and personal identity – virtues shared by the community represented by this exhibition, and the signboard's rural metaphor recollects the citation that one of the exhibitors had selected from Ruskin's Modern Painters.
Ruskin had proposed that the minutiae of natural form could evoke the sublimities of vaster landscapes. Just as fertile countryside can be symbolised by the allotments, Ruskin considered that forests could be seen in a patch of moss, crags in grains of crystal, and that the surface of a stone could hold more interest than the slopes of a hill. Ruskin's perception usefully illuminates the expansive potential of the associations compressed within these books. Their content becomes revealed through the ways that the design of their form, materiality, typographies and printing synthesise image and text – to unveil the diversity of narratives created through the metaphoric function of each book, and that stem from the similar starting point of a relationship to a specific place. Indeed, the concept of a sense of 'place' is familiarly embedded in the fabric of British landscape art. Collectively, they invite engagement with contemporary concerns in ways that eschew the familiar escapist romance of 'nature' and 'landscape'. Just as there are stories about community and individuals to be read within these allotment gardens, so too my informed subjectivity reads stories prompted by these books that, perhaps, were even intended by the artists. Although space prevents discussion of all the exhibits, it is Ruskin's awareness that the microcosm can serve as a metaphor of the macrocosm that is the touchstone for these thoughts on site-specificity and storytelling.
The extract from Modern Painters was chosen by Stuart Mugridge to introduce his Seven Short Walks (2002). These were undertaken in the Grizedale Forest of England's Lake District, which has become renowned over the past thirty years for commissioning the works that adorn its sculpture trails. The forest's western moorland was formerly part of Ruskin's Brantwood estate that rose uphill from the eastern shore of Coniston Water. At first glance, each sheet of this pocket-size folio bears all the hallmarks of a conventional, site-specific walking guide: map signage, grid references, orientation to north, viewing points and descriptions of incidents to enjoy en route. It begins with a warning that evokes both the Country Code and the arduous terrain to be traversed, and it is contained in a transparent plastic wallet reminiscent of a waterproof map case. However, the scale remains ambiguously undefined. It is the magnifying glass that emphasises how 'short' these walks actually are. They are so diminutive that our 'views' scrutinise the surfaces of mosses and lichens, tree-bark, a quarry face, boulders, and stones in a hand-built wall. With Ruskin in mind, we can imagine the visions signified by this selection of miniscule natural phenomena. Although small in size, the scale revealed by John McDowall's Triptych (1998) is monumental. Through the site-specific intersection of an autobiographical anecdote with the massive geography of the Rocky Mountains, McDowall illuminates the Continental Divide as the watershed from which streams flow to eastern and western oceans, and thus encompasses the landmass of the United States framed by the Atlantic and Pacific. These two books exemplify the metaphoric use of site-specificity to enlarge the minute into the spectacular, through their respective focus on the minutiae of natural form and personal narrative
In North Uist, Laurie Clark also invokes a specific 'place'. Each one of the days between the 2nd and 15th September 2000 is marked by a botanical drawing. However, as these flowers are commonplace throughout the British Isles, site-specificity becomes ambiguous. Nonetheless the form of this miniature compendium – a slipcase containing fifteen hand-sewn booklets – invites contemplation of the pleasurable experiences of making, of 'being there' and of seeking out this floral burgeoning within austere terrain. Visualisation of 'place' and invocation of natural history is also employed to unify the content of the diverse practices of Peter Foolen, Kees Verbeek and Hans Waanders. The image derives from a photograph of an old style signpost on a country road that points to Nailsworth in Gloucestershire – the site of their 1996 exhibition at the Cairn Gallery, which was commemorated by the set of prints in this envelope folio, entitled Historia Naturalis. The commentary by Tjeu Teeuwen reflects upon the way that these artists focus on the detail of 'natural history' to invoke the pleasures of solitariness in remote landscapes of wood and water.
Natural history is the focus of Hamish Fulton's Song of the Skylark (1982), and site-specificity is generalised to a country – to England. In fact, this text appears to be a celebration of what was once a quintessentially English phenomenon – the seasons. Composed with characteristically sparse typographic design, the contemporary motif that springs from the pages is unexpected. It is the runner. Fulton has consistently placed the act of walking at the heart of his practice, as exemplified by his mantra: 'No Walk, No Work'. Yet here the activity of most pages is defined as a two mile circular run, through unidentified terrain. The natural phenomena recorded as memorable incidents are common to urban and rural landscapes: the colours of the sky and the presence of flowers, as well as the sound of birdsong and wind sough. The activity is fraught with occasional dangers – ouch! – the runner's slip, the cracked finger (in December snow). But the passage of the seasons during 1979-1982 also revealed anomalies: daisies in the fields through winter, buttercups in December. In retrospect, it is tempting to read this as a lament for England's seasons which appear to be on the brink of erosion by global warming.
For Tracey Bush, site-specificity is also generalised. It is British, rather than a particular place. She presents her British Butterflies as cut-out papershapes in a stamp album. Cut in different sizes from various types of maps, these outlines reveal a diversity of landscapes that evoke the philatelic pleasure of collecting different places. The colourways and text fragments correspond with each 'butterfly's' name, which is handwritten onto the protective tissue paper of every page. Although some are literal ('Orange-Tip'), the correspondence of name and colourway sometimes introduce contradictions that confound allusions to natural history – as in 'High Brown Fritillary', wherein the brown hues that signify mountainous terrain illustrate the butterfly's name but not the topography of its habitat. We encounter the intrusive fragment of a French map – to represent a 'Painted Lady', apparently an 'Occasional Migrant from Europe'. John Dilnot also makes use of ready-made sources and, similarly, the 'place' is generalised. It is the idyllic type of rural landscape familiar in the stylised motifs that garland the packaging of dairy products, in order to emphasise the 'naturalness' of their contents. In To the Country and Fifteen English Homes (both 1995), Dilnot creates pastiches of the romantic stereotype that has been appropriated in the interests of consumerism.
Clearly, the notion of site-specificity fluctuates. In some cases this relationship is generated by experience of a landscape; in others, by the associations of a 'place' whose scale is variously defined by the artist – as a continent, a country, a locality, or shores united by a common sea. In each case we see an imaginative translation of 'place' rather than a literal replication. In Flowers of the North Sea (1999), Alec Finlay's chosen form reminds me of the cigarette card book, but the more up-to-date reference must be those sticker books in which football junkies eagerly fix the players of international tournaments, such as the recent Euro 2004, in the flawed hope of collecting every member of each team. By inviting us to collect these tiny forms of natural history, Finlay draws our attention to the floral names of the fishing boats that were once registered at ports of the North Sea littoral, in Norway, Denmark, Germany, Holland, and Scotland. We affix our cards by matching the port registration letters to those in the book's display spaces, for example: the book's 'PD' could be matched with the card 'Speedwell / Veronica Officinalis. Trawler / PD 345. Peterhead'. As our floral collecting blossoms, we become aware that the North Sea was once a busy workplace. The funereal blackness of the book (each 'flower' resembles an 'in memoriam' card) becomes evocative of the depletion of fish stocks, redundancy of men and boats and the erosion of communities. Nowadays, solitary and rare examples of these romantic 'flowers' are transplanted from their natural habitat, the North Sea, for preservation in the heritage museum.
In a different form but a similar vein, Thomas A. Clark invokes another mythic world in One Hundred Scottish Places (1999). The text extols the pleasures of excavation from readymade sources. Each word or phrase is placed on a single page to create a resonance of the archaic, which is suffused with the ambiguity of a place out of time. Through invoking the romance of maps, the poet presents a land as distant as the fishing communities commemorated by Flowers of the North Sea, or as close as the Scotland constructed by the language of the tourist industry. The site-specificity of Sarah Bodman's Beyond the Forest (2001) is similarly generalised. While it is composed of a concertina sequence of prints derived from photographs of an actual (though unidentified) forest, her concern is to visualise a walk through and beyond a 'place' redolent with mythic associations – of the sinister otherworldliness of the fairytale, wherein 'the forest' becomes the 'other' of cultured life. The strangeness of this darkly enclosed world is amplified by the bleakness of winter, by the use of negatives and monochrome and by the resonance of the single word in Latin on each page. However, inclusion of the watchtower adds a frisson of contemporary menace – of holocaust and frontiers, of secrecy, concealment, exclusion and retribution.
While most works are produced by individuals, collaboration is frequently chosen as an integral part of the process, for example: the Historia Naturalis, Flowers of the North Sea and Song of the Skylark represent collaborations between presses and galleries. Through Water on the Border (1994) Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes encapsulate a cross-cultural, cross-border collaboration between poets, artists, teachers and primary school children in Scotland and China. Flowing through the publication are motifs of water articulated through text and image in a variety of media that interweave the site-specificities of Scotland's border country and the regional landscapes of their Chinese hosts.
Collaboration between artists and writers enables the annual New Arcadian Journal to excavate the archaeology of 'place'. The two exhibited explore the conceptual and physical imprint of Georgian cultural innovators on particular landscapes, and so reveal the NAJ as a hybrid of artistic, poetic and scholarly responses to the site under scrutiny. The most unexpected outcome of these collaborations is that the NAJ has been the catalyst to the conservation of some of the landscapes explored since 1981.
Arcadian Greens Rural (2002) is a mighty synthesis of work by thirteen participants (commemorating the twenty-first birthday). It reviews the poetics of William Shenstone's landscape gardening at The Leasowes, Hagley and Enville – as well as the way that the contemporary poet, Ian Hamilton Finlay, has applied Shenstone's thoughts at his Little Sparta garden in the Scottish lowlands. The litany of collaborators embraces the artists – Catherine Aldred, Janet Boulton, Chris Broughton, Ron Costley, Howard Eaglestone, Gary Hincks and Andrew Naylor – and the writers – Stephen Bending, Michael Cousins, Patrick Eyres, Harry Gilonis, Sandy Haynes and Robert Williams.
The Invisible Pantheon (2003) is a fusion of texts by Patrick Eyres and Dilys Hobson with images by Chris Broughton and Howard Eaglestone that re-discovers the political manifesto created by Thomas Hollis. Extraordinarily, Hollis had collaborated with artists, craftsmen and printers on 'liberty' books, prints and medals to promote the English heritage of civil and religious liberty at home and abroad, especially in the pre-revolution North American colonies. By re-naming his farms, copses and fields, he also transplanted over two hundred of his libertarian heroes into the Dorset landscape to nurture his agricultural estate as a conceptual temple of liberty. Hollis's invisible pantheon is so strikingly 'avant-garde' that it could be hailed as a fine example of Land Art! Indeed, the estate survey that records his ideological vision is an autographic folio of text and imagery that would sit quite happily in this exhibition.
Patrick Eyres directs the New Arcadian Press, edits the New Arcadian Journal and is Senior Lecturer in Theoretical Studies at the Bradford School of Art.