Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Discoveries Aplenty but Geology Exhibition needs to Dig Deeper!

‘Marking Time: Geology 2’ at Watchet’s Contains Art may have ended but for those of you who missed it, this week’s post aims to unearth and discuss some of its exhibits...
Moments in Time display of research materials at Contains Art
 ‘Marking Time’ continues where it left off in 2015 as the, culmination of a 2-year creative development project in which six local artists [they are; Alison Jacobs, Melanie Deegan, Sue Lowe, Angie Wood, Lucy Lean and Andy Davey] have met regularly, ‘braving the mud and tides to explore the full extent of the beaches and coast around Watchet’...and learning more about the processes such as erosion and weathering that formed the coastline to inform and inspire their work. Looking at fossils, ‘fossil tourism’, geology, mapping and woollen manufacture the exhibition featured an array of practices from print-making, casting, painting and drawing to paper-folding, hand-spun yarn and more.
Alison Jacobs' ammonites made from Geography notes 
The strength of this exhibition was in fact that there were so many different components to look it. The shipping-container space that is Contains Art, became a walk-in cabinet of curiosities with not only the works produced by the artists on display, but arguably in some cases more interestingly, the books, sketches, maps, paraphernalia and fossils themselves collected as part of their research (pictured). I am a firm believer that the ‘research itself’ if done well enough can become the ‘art’ itself and unfortunately there aren’t enough occasions when one actually sees this exhibited in Somerset; I loved looking at the books, fossils, sketchbooks and curiosities displayed on shelves within this exhibition. It said a lot about the interest, passion and depths to which the group of artists had researched geology and the coastline of the surrounding area. In-turn the connection this research had to some of the individual artist’s responses was clear.
Andy Davey
 Angie Wood’s earthy paintings (literally, she uses the local earth she collects) have an authenticity of the weather and elements that shape and age much of the Watchet coastline. Melanie Deegan casts large ammonite fossils and sculpts rock formations out of corrugated-card. Andy Davey (pictured) maps the patterns found in the erosion and texture of coastal formations whilst Sue Lowe (pictured) creates collographs based geological layers and textures. Visually these works are engaging and interesting pieces but I feel the weakness in this exhibition is in that, where some pieces touch upon ideas of erosion, layering and excavation that comes with geology and formations of the coastline,
Sue Lowe
they do so in little depth and so in some ways feel more aesthetically pleasing or obvious rather than really exploring much deeper. Or in some ways they feel so personal to the artists who made them that it is hard for the viewer to get anything else from the work.  Some of the colours, ideas and processes that inform the work could have been developed further to create work that was either more site-specific or referenced ideas of geology, weathering and erosion found in other places.


Lucy Lean
Elsewhere this is more evident, Lucy Lean spins yarn using local rocks as spinning whorls, her work exploring the human-response to the ancient local trade. She is looking at the primordial nature of ancient processes and human connections with the materials found in a place. The pieces made from this yarn are tactile, totemic, of-the-hand; their yarn having symbolic connections to the passing/threads of time. It makes you think about the physical passing of time and I personally like that it is less direct making the viewer relate the concept of time to the human relationship to craft and the land. It’s enjoyably unexpected.
Alison Jacobs
My favourite pieces from this exhibition however being Alison Jacob’s ‘Face’ magazines (pictured) in which she has cut the pages in coastline-like waves to create coloured layers that recede mimicking the geological layers on a map. I like the way these works take a modern and existing object and apply a geological idea to it; the magazine and its cultural history being excavated as stone and soil is -all we see being fragments and glimpses of past histories rather than the 'full-picture'. It brings, like Lucy’s work, a human-element to it that makes it more relatable and suggests the passing of time. Here we have something that was once disposable now being considered as a typological object; it had me thinking of other places we can find other ‘geological’ processes such as layers in billboard, peeling wallpaper, weathered or buried surfaces etc. In another paper-based piece Alison has transformed her Geography degree notes into a sea of origami ammonites (pictured) that neatly line the top shelves of a museum-like display cabinet like precious specimens before spilling out into a disorganised heap on the floor. It’s a thoughtful transgression of our relationship to studying and the paper it accumulates from being highly valued to lining the floors of many a student bedroom. They make you smile and are surprisingly interesting each individually as well as making up the bigger whole.
‘Marking Time’ achieves much and does not disappoint in the breadth of treasures it contained; it is rewarding too, to see the research and passion of the participating artists displayed as part of the exhibition as a whole. How that research has then manifest itself in some of the work is perhaps where I am more critical, some of it feels a little obvious or would, ironically perhaps benefitted from more time in allowing the ideas in this work to develop. Even so there is much delight to take from the skill and visual and aesthetic appeal of all the work. For the serious fossil hunter (as with the art in this exhibition), finds found deeper in the earth, in the tricky places that may be hardest to reach are often greater as they are rare.

‘Marking Time-Geology 2’ has ended but visit for news of more ‘Contains Art’ exhibitions!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Hollow Talk

Pardon the pun but it is hard not to sound sappy when talking about KatiePaterson’s experientially and aesthetically pleasing art work, ‘Hollow’ installed in the grounds of Bristol University. Containing 10,000 tree species formed into a man-made hollow that is encased within a Douglas fir structure; the piece is described as, ‘a miniature forest of the world’s trees’. It’s a macro concept on a relatively micro, or bodily-sized scale. Visitors are invited to enter ‘Hollow’ and contemplate, see, touch and experience the colours, textures and smells of many species of trees, samples of which, we are informed, ‘connect across time and space.’ They certainly do come from all over the world and contain fossilised samples over 390 million years old. It is important that it is bodily sized (the piece comfortably fits 1 to 2 people at the same time) as it allows for a more grotto-like and intimate experience that forces its viewer to get-up-close within the work.
Inside 'Hollow'
The collection is impressive and it certainly is an immersive experience, but for all its initial wonder and difference, these romantic notions are in fact driven by something altogether more scientific. It crosses disciplines, Katie Paterson as an artist working in collaboration with students studying Biological Sciences at Bristol University and architects Zeller and Moye. This is refreshing and I think artists working with scientists and architects generally is a mutually beneficial relationship; here in ‘Hollow’ it becomes as much about archiving tree specimens, designing a ‘space’ and ‘creative responses to illustrate how trees influence our experience of the planet’. I'd previously seen a piece by Katie Paterson in 2014, titled 'A History of Darkness' in a fantastic exhibition 'Curiosity'* in Cornwall; this piece archived 'darkness' in the form of slides of the night sky. Here, Paterson applies that same treatment of uniformity and archiving to tree specimens. 
There is much to marvel, walking into ‘Hollow’ is to discover a cave-like stratum and experience a muted silence, softened light from holes in Hollow’s canopy and smell from the world outside. As a structure it is a quietening, almost cathedral-like space in terms of the reverence the surprise of stepping into it causes.  After this subsides however its lasting resonance or deeper connection with the trees and how they influence our experience of the planet feels somewhat lost. ‘Hollow’ works as a man-made museum or collection of tree species, the samples within it are mostly rectangular or square cuts but formed into something that is mimicking a natural form.
This makes it non-comparable to an actual lived-experience of being in a woodland glade and is therefore hard to relate a machine cut sample of fossilised tree to its history or once living relationship with its environment. We are told some of the trees it contains are of great significance, such as an Indian Banyan tree and a Japanese Gingko from Hiroshima which is a wonderful thought, but these samples have become so detached and altered into their now man-made forms that they become mere building blocks in a larger work. Some may look at this as humbling or a reference to a philosophical concept of all these remarkable trees being altogether a part of one bigger whole that is a statement on ecology and diversity. There is a DNA, building block-like element to ‘Hollow’ which certainly backs this idea up, however for me personally I feel it has less impact now that the characteristics of the original trees has been unified into a form that can be used for construction rather than building something that displayed their more individual and natural forms. Unlike, 'A History of Darkness' the significance and endeavour of collecting these samples is lost with the overall impetuous of the work becoming more about the 'space' and structure rather than the collecting or feat of having 10,000 tree samples -an opinion that I am sure will divide many. The idea of time and age within these samples is hard to gauge and as mentioned previously I struggled, once the initial wow-factor had subsided, to have any lasting thought on the significance or importance of trees from this work.

Outside view of Katie Paterson's 'Hollow' at Royal Fort Gardens, Bristol.
These are dead trees, harvested trees and so do not respond, as you’d expect, like living trees that sway and crack and creak in the breeze. It’s beautiful and disconcerting at the same time and made me ponder the question of whether it is possible to ‘preserve something that’s already dead’? Scientifically perhaps, yes you can, but I am less sure of ‘what’ is actually being preserved in ‘Hollow’ as these are samples of wood and not the seeds or living tree itself. Perhaps like most museum collections ‘the act of preservation’ is not in the artefacts themselves but in the educating through the artefacts that leads to and promotes preservation and ecology of living things. I speculate.
 I enjoyed this piece but feel it lacks permanence, to what I experienced as a more visual and immersive form of organising or sampling tree species rather than an environmental or human connecting to or relationship with/how trees influence our existence. Like being inside an entomology cabinet rather than looking at one, you could not appreciate the true scope of diversity and range of trees when transformed into one large structure.
‘Hollow’ is open at Royal Fort Gardens at Bristol University during daylight hours. For more info visit: