Top Shed residency blog 5 (Tuesday)

Today I went to Blakeney Point, on the north Norfolk coast. Blakeney point is a shingle spit several miles long extending into the sea, but parallel with the land. Between the point and the land is the river Glaven. The site includes salt marshes, sand dunes and sandy beaches, as well as the shingle. It is known as a breeding site for seals and terns. I walked up the spit from Cley beach, at the point where the spit breaks away from the land.

I end up wondering why places like this appeal so much. Places that are austere and stripped back. It’s like a kind of obsession, that probably says something about us. Part of the draw is the wildlife – grey and common seals frolicking a few metres off the shore; sandwich terns dive bombing for fish – but part of it is also a fascination with death, like the fascination we feel when we encounter a human skeleton in a museum. It is us, but at the same time radically not us. Bones are hard and cold, we are soft and warm. Bones speak of absence; of flesh and life. Hard landscapes are the same. They are natural, like us, and sustain life. On the other hand, you face something elemental that has nothing to do with human life. The forces that sifted and piled up millions of tons of shingle and that made a series of beautifully sculpted hollows and channels in the sand (caused by receding tide water) are not human forces. Shingle spits, like deserts, do not readily support human life. All comfort is stripped away in a place like this. What frightens us in small doses is enjoyable. To be stuck in a landscape like this which stretched away ad infinitum would be horrifying – would be death. Billions of stones, smooth and hard as carpal bones, all of them sculpted by inhuman forces, are horrifying. Luckily the car park is only a couple of miles trudge away.

It began to rain horizontally from the west as I made my way up the spit. It’s hard work walking on the shingle, so you have to walk right beside the surf, as close as you can without getting your feet wet, where there is some sand which is wet and firm enough to walk on. (There are also patches of really fine shingle, like potting grit. When this is wet it seems like you sink into it even more. So walking on the spit means a constant adjustment higher or lower up the slope in order to find the firmest ground and avoid incoming waves). Out to sea, two enormous wind farms are visible. Turbines stand in grid formation and turn in unison, like some sort of mad mass gymnastics exercise, such as those filmed by Leni Riefenstahl for the National Socialists in Germany. Sometimes the sun catches one farm but the other is in the cloud shadow, so you get a kind of strange dualism: white turbines versus grey ones. Behind them, rain showers trundle across the horizon like pieces of massive, unwieldy stage scenery. Curtains of rain like baleen. Before them the sky above the horizon is inky green; behind them everything is smudged into a grey oblivion.

When the rain shower was overhead I had the feeling of walking underneath a vast motorway flyover. A roaring sound, which turned out to be the wind in my raincoat hood, echoed like the hollow muffled noise of traffic you get under motorway bridges. A band of dark cloud arched above me and the shingle sank into the dead greyness of concrete. My shorts were soaked on the front, but more or less dry behind, like the way tree trunks get moss on one side only. The raindrops stung like small rods of ice. A family of four who were walking ahead of me turned back, presumably disturbed that their clothes were only wet on one side and desiring to get their backsides wet as well. Distance plays tricks with you in places like this. Once the family had gone, I kept thinking the thistles growing at the edge of the dunes were people. Looking back, it seemed I had walked no distance at all. (Later on in the day, I’m pretty sure I saw a middle aged lady in the nud, getting changed without bothering to wrap herself in a towel and relying on sheer distance to hide her. I was forced to pee likewise with no cover and hope that nobody could tell what I was doing because of the distance, so I can’t criticise. It is impossible to know what people far away can see: things seem either closer or further away than they really are).

At the end of the headland the shingle gives way to sand. Fewer people make it to the far end, so I was granted a brief period of that solitude you get on remote Hebridean beaches. Flocks of terns were engaged in a noisy feeding frenzy just beside a sand bar which extended from the beach. Sandwich terns in late summer lose the front part of their black caps, making them look like they are wearing some sort of weird tonsure, like they are all in some cult, or organised crime gang. I gave a baby seal a wide berth. I cut inland into the centre of the headland. A surreal hobbit landscape of grassy dunes and small wooden research huts. Purple carpets of sea rock-lavender. By now, the late afternoon sun was out, bathing everything in its uncanny light. Someone had collected dozens of washed up and abandoned shoes, of all kinds and in all states of decay, and arranged them on a couple of pallets in one of the dune hollows. A surprising number of them were in pairs. Even before I came across this sight, with its eerie resonances, I started to feel a sinister side to the place. Perhaps my failed attempt to reach Orford Ness, with its abandoned military installations, was influencing me. The flat bottomed hollows in the dunes would be excellent places to hide out, or hide something. The sandy, desert-like landscape reminded me of the Jordan valley just north of the Dead Sea. Perhaps the rough hardcore road leads to some secret military site. Better watch your step for mines.

Surreal places require surreal plants. You can’t get much more peculiar than yellow horned poppy, with its oversized finger-like seed pods. Various fleshy-leaved or prickly plants I don’t know how to identify. Sea holly is from another planet.

Walking back down the spit, I was able to take my shoes off and paddle, because the tide was further out and revealed more of the sand. I gradually descended back into the world of the living.

Top Shed residency blog 4 (Saturday)

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I have spent the past few days at Top Shed. I tired myself out with my trip to Suffolk, so it took me a couple of days to recover. I have made a number of woodcuts using MDF and a Dremel to cut them. Some of them reproduce my handwriting and texts from the cards I brought. Others reproduce sketches I took from train windows. I have hundreds of these and always struggled to do anything with them, but I discovered they transfer well to woodcut. Most of the woodcuts are of the very simplest kind, where the lines are carved out of the board and are left white in the print. I did one ‘proper’ print (with the lines in relief), but nearly choked on all the MDF dust.

Today I started on some photographs in the landscape, of me walking away from the camera. I just set up the camera and set the self-timer and walked away from the camera. I don’t know if they are an interesting idea. I see them as anti-selfies (in that it is my back I have photographed), and as a kind of refusal (walking away). Ideas of pilgrimage and ‘being in the world’ in a Heideggarean sense might come into it. I could see them working as a series with the right setting.

Top Shed residency blog 3 (Wednesday)

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I took a trip down into Suffolk today. I wanted to visit Aldeburgh, because of the Benjamin Britten connection – I expected it to be a bit poshified, because of the festival and all that, but I was quite taken aback at how poshified it was. It’s a bit like a cross between Chiswick and Portmeirion. I expect the inhabitants are being raised for meat in some bizarre sinister project based in Snape Maltings (what does go on in there, it’s far too big to be a concert hall?) I sat in a cafe with early renaissance paintings on the walls, opposite a guy with Benjamin Britten-style wavy hair and a highly refined manner (was he a clone of Benjamin Britten, or just a Radio 3 presenter?) and munched on Aldeburgh’s answer to a bacon sandwich (think: sculptural arrangement of something crispy and honeycombed and too thick to eat properly, with something that looked suspiciously like ordinary bacon). I bought a large book about Jeff Wall in a second-hand bookshop, the only shop apart from Co-op that didn’t look like it was flown in specially from some eye-wateringly expensive part of London. Or that wasn’t an art gallery. Wandering round the place, I tried not to see any more clones of Benjamin Britten. Then I went to Orford and failed to get on one of the boat trips to Orford Ness.

I headed to Staverton Park, a short distance from Orford. I read about this place in Oliver Rackham’s book Woodlands. It is an area of ancient woodland (previously wood pasture) with many large ancient pollarded oak trees, in various states of life and decomposition. For some unknown reason, hollies have grown up in rings around the oaks, not in the open spaces between them, but in their shade. In part of the wood, known as the Thicks, the hollies have taken over entirely, shading and killing many of the oaks. According to Rackham, they are some of the largest holly trees in the UK. Rackham records several of his students’ theories to explain the odd association of holly and oak, including that the hollies are actually older than the oaks and existed originally as shrubs which protected the oak seedlings from browsing, allowing them to grow to full size before being overtaken and killed by the hollies when a lull in browsing removed the check on the size of the hollies. Rackham estimates that it took a hundred years for the hollies to outgrow the oaks and a further hundred for the dead oaks to rot to their current state, so the browsing lull must date from the eighteenth century.

Whatever the reasons, it is certainly a strange place. The oaks resemble stout bottles, or barrels and are fantastically gnarled. Some of the dead ones are reduced to shells that are almost paper thin. The hollies, much thinner and with smooth silvery bark, cling to and writhe around the oaks in what seem like macabre couplings which are in part sexual, in part protective and in part predatory. Where the two types of wood touch, the hollies have formed large round tumorous growths, as if the trees’ own wood, appalled at the unnatural coupling being attempted, has recoiled and grown outwards. Alternatively, the growths resemble the mouth parts of gigantic caterpillars, or mantises, as if the hollies are devouring the oaks. From another point of view, the hollies resemble nurses encircling and protecting dying patients, propping up wizened and atrophied limbs with supple young strength. (I was reminded of scenes from Derek Jarman’s film of Britten’s War Requiem, with the old disabled soldier being wheeled about by a young nurse – I had War Requiem on loop in the car, which probably didn’t improve my state of mind). It’s a fascinating notion that the hollies might be older than the gnarly oaks, like they are some sort of ageless vampiric creatures. The smooth silver bark of the hollies resembles skin covering taught muscles. (Maybe Tilda Swinton was infecting my mind – without checking, I think she was the nurse in Derek Jarman’s film and starred in Orlando, which is about a character who outlives several generations of people without ageing). I took a lot of photos of the trees and made a few sketches in my sketchbook.

In the evening, I went to Thorpeness and walked along the shingle beach as far as the nuclear power station at Sizewell. It was a beautiful evening, the low sun catching the white foam of the breaking waves.

Top Shed residency blog 2 (Tuesday)

Mostly just settling in and exploring. The first thing I did was to lay out on the floor a set of cards I brought with me, and on which I wrote words and short phrases from my notebooks and which I’m playing with. I hope to use them as the basis of some of the text paintings I’m doing. Their origins are in notes taken from bus and train windows of landscape. Some of them are succinct haiku-like observations, but stupider than haiku – I kind of want them to be like clods of earth on your boots. They are just notes of ‘things’, the more banal and lumpen the better. Words as lumps of clay.

Top Shed residency blog 1 (Monday)

 

I am doing a two-week residency at Top Shed, Pockthorpe, Norfolk. Basically, I get a studio for two weeks and hopefully a bit of head-space to let something happen in it. My intention is to try not to approach it with too many ideas, but to let things come out of having a bit of mental space. Because I’ve never visited Norfolk or Suffolk before and there are a few places I want to visit, I will make some trips around, but I also want to spend time in the studio to think/work/rest.

Yesterday, I took the day to drive down through Lincolnshire, stopping off where the fancy took me. I did a bit of a windmill odyssey. When my brother and I were young, we both got interested in windmills and Lincolnshire is the windmill county par excellence; many of the places became more mythical, hallowed and distant to us than Old Trafford or Elland Road were to my sporty peers. So yesterday I stopped off at Wrawby, Alford and Boston (and passed through Sibsey). Alford and Boston mills were both working (Alford was idling, but Boston was, I guess, actually milling, because it was both turning and closed to the public). As children, my brother and I were taken by train to Heckington and Boston to see the windmills. The mill at Heckington was meant to be working, but the miller didn’t turn up (Boston was fairly dilapidated and lacked shutters in the sails, in those days). Seeing two windmills turning on the same day would have seemed an extraordinary thing to us then.

I also stopped by the mouth of the River Nene on the Wash. The military were dropping bombs or firing artillery way over to my left – I could see the spouts of water through my binoculars. A company called Dong Energy were installing cables out across the salt marshes to some off-shore wind turbines, using two giant caterpillar-tracked machines with the bizarre names of Moonfish and Sunfish (so a board said). A little way up the Nene are two lighthouses across the river from one another. One flew the flag of the European Union and the other the Union Jack. I imagine the occupants shaking their fists at each other across the Nene, and hurling barely audible insults.

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Notes written while sat by the River Humber at Hull, 21 May 2016

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[The following notes are fairly unedited from my notebook.]

 

Why do people stare into water? Watching families coming in and out of The Deep (an aquarium), they nearly all take a short detour to look over the railings into the churning grey-brown Humber. Surely, they’ve seen enough water in the aquarium, and now it’s time to go home, or to lunch, or on to the next attraction? Some take photos of themselves with the estuary behind. Excited children in pink cardigans and neat blue jeans; mothers in saris carrying bags and pushing pushchairs; couples in dry, clean clothes  all take a moment to cast a votive eye into the water. Next to their neatness and comfort, the water represents an obscene chaos. Bodies cosseted in comfortable, well-made clothes move from a warm, safe building across a safe car park and into comfortable, upholstered and enclosed auto-mobiles without a thought, save a few seconds’ glance into the water. A man-made world channels bodies comfortably about from one safety to another. It is strange to think how thin the barrier is between this human-friendly tunnel and a completely hostile other: just railings. The waters of the river would not respect the boundary of woven fabric with which we separate our inner from our outer, or public, selves: the turbulent waters would defile cotton and acrylic textiles alike and deposit silt from fields miles upriver into the wove.

 

The families peering over the railings into the river are a bit like the crowd at a Roman circus, watching gladiators slaying each other. A thin partition separates them from violence. On the one side comfort, ease, safety. On the other turbulence, chaos, strife, death. A thin barrier decides whether they are fighting for their lives or merely looking on. The choppy, boiling waves do look like battling souls, mired in their own gore. Endless, senseless war from some grim, apocalyptic fantasy computer game world.

 

People who you don’t necessarily think of as reflective – thoughtful – stare into water. Does water give permission to reflect/think/forget? Is staring at water like reflecting – staring into yourself? You are water, so staring into water is staring into yourself. Or is staring into water a surrogate for reflection; an avoidance? A mere resting of the eyes? Permission for the brain to rest a short while? (People will stare at a TV, if there is one switched on in the room, no matter what crap is on it. But TV is also a flow). A yearning for formlessness?

 

Why do we talk about a ‘body’ of water? Body-as-mass; body-as-extent; body-as-expanse. A body has form (read ‘limits’). A body of water has limits and form: a lake, a sea, etc. Mass without limits wouldn’t be a body. Infinite water wouldn’t be a body – it needs limits. But water’s principle is limitlessness. We stare into water because it could be limitless; it represents limitlessness. Water is limitless, because water usually flows into other water; into all water. Your brain is water. Thought is water. Clogged, dead thoughts are ‘Lehm’ (earth, loam) in a quote I like from All Quiet on the Western Front. Thought is fluid. What does it feel like to think? Isn’t it like a kind of flow, like water flowing over/through you?

 

Water and air are both elements that we can’t enter without some special contrivance or effort. We can’t go into the air without some kind of aircraft, and we can’t go over water without a boat, or by swimming (most of us can’t swim very far). So staring into air or water represents a yearning for where we can’t go. When we stand on the edge of the land we have reached the limit of where we can go. So water reminds us of our limits. It is infinite, we are not. We long to enter its eternal flow.

 

Estuary water is thick like blood. Impure. Something between earth and water. Staring out across the estuary is like staring across a rolling, moving field; like geology speeded up. Estuary water has taken up earth and also taken on some of its sluggishness. The estuary is like a field you can’t walk across. Distances and scale are deceptive. A small boat is lost amongst the choppy brown waves; waves which look like furrows. Words flow like estuary water, sluggish with the silt of meanings. The estuary resembles drying concrete.

 

Silver reflections are deceptive. Knife-like shards of silver rake like stilettos over the water. (Light hitting parts of the river where the current has surfaced to render the water flat, I suppose). Shadows, of clouds obviously, move like shadows of bears’ claws. Where the sun really catches the water and is reflected back through some depth, the water glows gold like tea. Reflective water pretends that it isn’t there, or that it is something else: light, silver, concrete, steel, mercury, flesh, whatever. Solid or immaterial, its mood changes. But the mood-changes are those of the sky. The water itself is dead. The light playing on the surface of the water is like a living face projected onto the dead face of a corpse, animating it deceptively. The light dances over it, seeming to change it, but the water is unchanged, travelling in the same headlong direction like the combined souls of the dead sleepwalking to Hades. (The waves do indeed look like individual souls rushing along, at the double. Thousands of grey heads bobbing and ducking). The point about water is that it is always the same.

 

The oil refineries around Immingham, on the other side of the estuary, look like a child has been sticking canes into the sand dunes, all at different heights and spaced in clusters and individually. The chimneys, I mean. They look like pea sticks in an allotment. Another simile that comes into my mind is that of strange fungal structures – fruiting bodies firing spores into the atmosphere, polluting the air with life. Refining oil is all about taking something from the ground which is the product of decay and transmuting it into a multitude of products, from plastics to spirits and gases. Some of the products of that process are vented into the sky as waste.

Walk along the river Aire (Airmyn to Rawcliffe) 27 August 2015

DSC_0080A landscape picture is composed on the vertical. The view is through a vertical ‘window’. From top to bottom it consists of foreground, middleground, background and sky, all stacked on top of one another. In reality, the clouds which are ‘above’ the hills in background of your picture are miles beyond them, and the hills are beyond the lower hills in the middleground. Look at them on a map to see how skewed your picture is. A good landscape picture gives you some indication of landscape as horizontal extension and as temporal extension; it leads your eye into the distance, and into the past or future. However, it also compresses distance and time, bringing the distant and the past/future closer to the plane of the picture. (In paintings made before photography led to the triumph of the idea of the picture as instantaneous – as temporally ‘thin’ – scenes separated in space have less the impression of taking place simultaneously. Look at the approaching guards in the backgrounds of Bellini’s and Mantegna’s related paintings of the Agony in the Garden in the National Gallery. The events could be simultaneous – Jesus praying as the guards approach – but it is hard to read it that way and the approaching guards point anyway towards the future arrest of Jesus).

You can rarely imagine walking very far in landscape paintings, even when the background is distant, though there are exceptions, such as Ruben’s painting of his home Het Steen, also in the National Gallery. This might be because background, middleground and foreground are presented as discrete ‘things’ juxtaposed in space (like objects in a still-life), rather than as parts of a single extension (unlike in Rubens’ Het Steen painting). Distant mountains are imagined as like scenery at the back of a stage, and the receding space behind the picture-plane as possessing the same sort of depth and proportion as a stage. The horizontal is what is denied by the vertical picture, what is squeezed and squashed out by this foreshortening. Looking at maps and going on a walk bring back the horizontal, which is the real essence of landscape, and time.

Maps are pictures of landscape that stress the horizontal. Maps are pictures of landscapes you could walk across. Maps express height as contour lines and hachures, but it is essentially landscape as surface. Maps bring time into landscape, because they depict land as you would cross it. A walk is an experience that unfolds over time. It is about the horizontal landscape; about land. The experience of walking is quintessentially the experience of covering distance. Views come and go. Exceptional views you might stop to take in, but the walk’s content is as much the boring stretches as the interesting. The unfolding experience is one of distance and time, but the attitude of walking for the sake of views tempers your memory of a walk. Covering distance is hard work, which wearies the feet and dulls the mind, but this aspect is the quickest to be forgotten. A walk is taken as much in the feet and the mind, but memory selects the views, or certain views, and files them away as indicative of the walk. Memory turns the walk into pictures, as it does with life and time in general. Recovering the walk as it unfolds is possible through a different attitude to walking and a different kind of recollection.

Certain walks are boring, and these boring walks can approach the condition of the ‘pure’ walk, devoid of any content except walking and distance themselves. The pleasure in these sorts of walks is that of experiencing with the feet a distance that would otherwise be an abstract quantity viewed on a map. Instead of looking back at the outstanding views of the walk, you look back at the distance covered, as anticipated and recollected via the map. From this point on the map to this point. These walks make sense only with maps. Their drama and incidence are only visible on maps. The appeal of a walk from the mouth of the Aire, where it joins the Ouse, upriver is the dramatic shapes made by that river as it snakes and hooks. It is also somewhat arbitrary and somewhat symbolic. On the ground the drama is often disappointing: invisible. Even the dramatic meeting of the two rivers – the promise of being able to stand on the very tip of the cusp of land created by the acute angle of the rivers and look across to the opposite cusp created by the sharp bend in the Ouse at Asselby Island – is denied, because the river bank at this useless point, beyond the flood banks, is an impenetrable thicket of willows, policeman’s helmets, nettles and rubbish. But this is as it should be, because this is a perverse walk and the land itself, open and intelligible on the map, is allowed to be perverse. It is allowed to hide in the bushes and stick its arse out at you. On the ground are the real facts.

(A footprint in the mud at the start of a barely visible path led me to venture into the thicket, but I couldn’t get ‘the view’ and I got lost trying to retrace my way. I had to stamp down policeman’s helmets stems and walk over nettles and dead branches, uncertain where the wildly uneven ground was below my feet; a feeling like walking on water, or air. I worried that I was going to come across a corpse decomposing forgotten in its rotten clothes in one of the hollows).

I wanted to walk up the river Aire from Airmyn (where it joins the Ouse) back up towards where it is crossed by the East Coast Main Line, from where I have seen it from the train. From the train it zig zags nicely between flood banks (a picture!) I didn’t get anywhere near that far, because I didn’t bother to measure on the map how far it was with all the meanderings and because I lost my glasses and decided to turn back for them. I was also defeated by the boringness of pure distance; by the lack of a sense of progression. The defeat felt as ignominious as the loss of my glasses, which I didn’t find.

I got some way past Rawcliffe (which was once bigger than Goole, so a sign said). I didn’t have the will to go as far as Eskamhorn (site of the second ferry in the Rawcliffe area), even though its name appealed to me. Boring land, but the trick is to unpick it. The land has the same non-quality as a supermarket car park: the same drive of absolute utilitarianism in agriculture as in retail spaces obliterating any trace of the particular as irrelevant. The most charismatic features are all engineered ones: motorway viaducts, wind turbines, power stations, swing-bridges. The land itself is a blank; a car park for crops. Only the river itself has retained some of its archaic and forgotten horror, but you have to stand on the very edge to appreciate it.

The river is the most striking feature on the map, a serpent coiling across the land. From the ground, anywhere except close up, it disappears into its own hollow and becomes yet another evacuated feature in a utilitarian landscape, unremarkable and overlooked. Close up you appreciate the brute, obscene physical force of the thing: the coils on the map suggest not lazy meanders but writhing body, and the fast-flowing dense brown water surges with the power of viscous life blood forced along by a beating heart – the life blood of time and history. There is something breathtakingly brutal about the sheer efficiency and austerity of the river as machine, or as body. The ten feet or so of featureless muddy bank, presumably marking the normal range of its tidal flood (it must be impressive when in flood), are as ruthlessly purged as the cylinders of an engine, or a motorway hard-shoulder. The river permits no pity or special-pleading. The mud is like lubricant, or a mucus lining, speeding the flow and at the same time forming itself from the river’s substance. In the same way that an engine abrades itself and accumulates as tiny fragments of metal in its own lubricating oil, so the river carries and reforms its own gut: hardness yields to softness and brute force. Standing on the edge it is hard not to imagine slipping down into the water. You would never stop yourself from slithering down the muddy bank, a dead-weight of body with nothing to grasp but ooze, and no chance of getting back out as the current sucked you under. It makes you feel like a body, a weight; the weight that would pull you down if your foot slipped. The eye and mind can skip free of gravity, but the body is dead weight at the end of the day.

I ended my walk underneath the M62 bridge over the Ouse. Walking under the carriageway between the vast concrete pillars is like walking up the nave of some strange temple: York Minster, Stonehenge and an Egyptian temple all rolled into one, but with sides open to the light and views across golden wheat fields. The quality of sound – the muffled and distorted sound of the traffic above – is also the disorientating acoustic of a sacred space. The sense of space is exhilarating. At the end of the profane concrete sacred grove is a scummy polluted stream full of rubbish and beyond it a concrete slope covered in graffiti resembling the sacred rock paintings of some aboriginal tribe. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see bones placed in crevices where the slope meets the underside of the carriageway, or to find the remains of a sacrifice. It was a space for reverie after the dullness of the river; mineral lightness and loftiness to counter liquid heaviness.