For our latest post in our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, I’m delighted to welcome this contribution from curator Ruth Garde. For me, Ruth’s fascinating selection of three artworks evokes a sense of past, present and future that highlights how Deep Time and ‘human time’ are implicated in each other, and the imbalances in our relationship with the rest of nature that are produced by our culture of neglecting Deep Time. I’m grateful to have been introduced to these three artists.
As a curator and writer who has had the great good fortune to work on many Wellcome Collection exhibitions, I began with the intention of choosing three objects from amongst their own collections for my “history of the Anthropocene” post. However, it quickly dawned on me that, over the last few years, my increasingly insistent preoccupation and engagement with environmental questions has primarily been inspired by contemporary art. Moreover, since I feel strongly that contemporary art has the power to shine a light on and prompt reflection about such questions, it seemed like the most meaningful choice.
I have therefore chosen to share three artists’ works that have had a particularly powerful impact on me and on my professional preoccupations.
Out of Deep Time …
For the ‘Past Anthropocene’ I would like to introduce a work by Anaïs Tondeur. Anaïs is a French artist, based in Paris, who creates seductive and compelling works that combine fact and fiction in poignant, often unsettling, ways. Her piece I:55, or the girl who swallowed the remnants of a forest, traces the epic, imaginary journey of a specimen in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Pathology collection. The specimen is a calcified bladder stone, which contained the core of a pencil.
Through a series of exquisite impressionistic drawings, also rendered in pencil, Tondeur depicts the journey of this specimen, beginning with the formation of graphite in a carboniferous Alpine forest 320 million years ago, through the vein of graphite formed ca. 100 million years later, which led to the French mine from which it was extracted around 1910. From here the journey continues to the remnants of the Plombagine factory, where graphite was transformed into powder, and thence to the Conté pencil factory. The final stage of the journey is the Sennelier art supply shop in Paris, where according to documents in the shop archive, an English journalist was a customer. And here we come full circle: as Tondeur’s narrative goes, some months later his daughter swallowed a pencil.
I:55 has stayed with me ever since I first saw it. To me, it beautifully captures both the deep time of nature and the relative pinprick of human existence, whilst also tracing how we through history have sought to exploit the natural bounties offered to us by the earth.
Through our sweet overload …
Around the same time that I encountered Anais’s work I also discovered the art of Ken and Julia Yonetani, an Australian artist duo whose work is powerfully engaged with the detrimental impact of human behaviour on our natural environment. Their sculptural work Sweet Barrier Reef alludes to the bleaching of corals, which eventually leads to coral death.
Making their sculpture out of sugar, the Yonetanis highlight the fact that one key cause of the bleaching is the harvesting of sugar cane. However the work is more layered than that: sugar is also used metaphorically to indicate humanity’s insatiable greed for consumption and the destruction that it entails.
Into immense entropies
Finally, for my “Future Anthropocene” object I have chosen a photographic series by the artist Julian Charrière, whose work I sought out last year when he exhibited at Parasol Unit in London. The Blue Fossil Entropic stories documents an artistic intervention that Charrière undertook in 2013, when he stood on an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean armed with a blowtorch, attempting to melt the ice beneath his feet.
For me this absurdist intervention succeeds in summing up the future of our relationship with nature: on the one hand we are but a blip in geological time, destined to be outpowered by nature whose majesty and preeminence we can never subdue; on the other, our assaults on nature will over time cause immense and irreversible destruction that will injure ourselves as much as our habitat.
The impact of these artists’ work prompted me to write three online pieces – linked to below.
Find out more
You can see Anaïs Tondeur’s I:55, or the girl who swallowed the remnants of a forest (2012) and other works at her website – and Ruth’s 2014 article on Anaïs’ work for Apollo Magazine, Lost in Fathoms: Anaïs Tondeur:
‘Anaïs Tondeur is an artist who delights in expeditions. Whether tracing the wildlife burgeoning in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant (Chernobyl’s Herbarium, 2011), or following the migration of a graphite pencil from its geological origins to its unlikely terminus in the bladder of a 17-year-old girl (I.55, 2013), her journeys conjure intriguing narratives that are in turn poetic, poignant, and scientifically compelling. Her installations have delved into history, geography, and an array of scientific disciplines (physics, geology, oceanography), but at the heart of each is a captivating story that engages the most human of emotions.’
‘Maybe a … suitable cultural analogy would be Hansel and Gretel standing before the Gingerbread House. As in the Grimm fairytale, these works are delectably tempting to the senses – sight and touch as well as taste – but they also explore serious subtexts fraught with danger and ultimately, death. The danger explored by these works are environmental, the unhappy consequences of our endlessly insatiate consumption-lead society, so it is therefore utterly appropriate that one’s sense of taste is so aroused.’
The relationship between art and science, ‘The Two Cultures’ once lamented by Charles Percy Snow as mutually uncomprehending fields divided by an unbridgeable gap, seems more robust than ever. Artists’ residencies in scientific institutions, such as those established five years ago at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), are proliferating … That artists engage with scientific themes can be of little surprise at a time when rapidly evolving digital technologies, scientific breakthroughs and the Earth’s ecological fragilities are critical to our lives. Art can be a rich and fertile means for people to engage with such challenging subjects, harnessing emotional sensibilities where explanations on a purely intellectual level may fail.’
You can read other contributions in the series at our page on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Each post in this series earns its author a copy of a book that’s had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. I’ll be revealing which book s heading Ruth’s way when I review it for ClimateCultureslater this month.
Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...
"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post."
At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally.
Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question.
Use the Contact Form to let send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post.
In our latest Members’ Post, film-maker James Murray-White captures the energy and inspiration of a busy summer, with his passion for learning, engaging others, and sharing their stories.
“I pondered all these things, and how people fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other people have to fight for what they meant under another name…..” — William Morris, A Dream of John Ball, 1888
I’m writing after a stimulating Masterclass on Climate Visuals, run at the Thomson Reuters HQ in London by the Oxford-based climate NGO, Climate Outreach.
Visual language & regenerative activism
The event was titled ‘Catalysing a new visual language of climate change’, which is no small task, and by the day’s end the 30 or so participants had run the gamut of emotions examining a wide range of images, discussing them in small group exercises, and hearing from climate photographers and editors about finding and choosing stories and images.
I principally work with moving images these days, though my first creative medium was photography, and this masterclass again brought it home to me the importance of analysing images for human/non-human content, and how a story is told through the visual image.
Telling the story of climate change, with its impact upon the world and its tragic impact upon humans, often the world’s poorest and most vulnerable of society, needs to be done sensitively and with compassion; and the day kept coming back to both the ethics of featuring people caught up in the effects of climate change, and to the importance of understanding how the image and possible caption and accompanying article can find an audience. As journalists and creatives working to create change, we can ofttimes never know how an article, an image, a film or a play will land in the audience’s imagination, or what it may trigger.
Climate Outreach’s Research Director, Adam Corner, opened the day by setting the scene and mapping the landscape, through a diagram of the ecosystem of imagery: its generators and users. The NGO has excelled in its research in this area, outlined in a set of seven principles for climate change communication, from showing ‘real people’, through to ‘understanding your audience’. An ongoing debate, which continued with a colleague on the train home, was the use of polar bears in early and current images to represent the alienating effect through habitat destruction of climate change.
In any day-long course, or masterclass, there is always so much knowledge to share and stories to hear, and this was no exception. Climate Outreach and its dynamic team have been engaging deeply with this medium of knowledge transfer and change and, crucially, are creating the network to shape the future through careful and deliberate image choice and placement to sway opinions and support crucial debate and journalism.
At the other end of a spectrum of group dynamics, I was fortunate to attend a week-long retreat on Dartmoor in July titled ‘Regenerative Activism’, run by a team from the Buddhist Ecodharma centre in Spain.
This was a powerful group-learning experience – we were taken on a deep ride through our experiences as activists of all kinds and given powerful tools to support ourselves, understanding power in our groups and those we may stand against: burnout, privilege, inner criticism and everything that may stand in our way.
The week was at times challenging, but a crucial, urgent, regeneration. I was privileged to be in a group that included climate activists who have risked their lives and gone the extra mile for action and laws on climate change worldwide. Tried and tested exercises gave us all the chance to see and reflect upon our work and the passion that drives activism, testing this from many sides to see and feel both the flaws and the glorious altruism that drive our need for change, whether from hurt, weakness, or something else within. I’d highly recommend the work of the Ecodharma team – they are deeply engaged individuals who use the buddhadharma to enhance and enrich lives where they can.
The retreat was managed and hosted by a wonderful group of skilled meditators who offer retreats ‘freely’ to enable anyone to grow.
Back to my work, motivations and the place I work within, and the City of Cambridge remains a sphere of education, growth, and a catalyst of climate and social justice knowledge.
Pivotal – life in a flat land
It is a place of tradition and growth, but we live on flat land: an entire region of this tiny island that is highly susceptible to floods. The image below is a projected map of East Anglia, with coastal erosion taking away a huge swathe of Fenland from the Wash; cutting through Kings Lynn, Downham Market, Peterborough, the area where poet John Clare explored the treasures of nature, Chatteris, and the prime agricultural lands right up to the gates of the newly-titled ‘Silicon Glen’ that is Cambridgeshire. Only from the Ivory towers of academia will we be able to look out upon this once fertile landscape.
In the city, Pivotal is one initiative trying to bring together town and gown to find solutions and share experiences on climate and social justice, mainly using the prism of the arts. We’ve had lots of successful events and a mini Festival to find ways of engagement.
Pivotal is teaming up with many of the NGOs across the county who also look at issues of environment, community and sustainability, such as Transition Cambridge, Cambridge Carbon Footprint, Fulbourn Forum and other village parish councils and groups, to run a season of films, events and speakers in February 2018: ‘Films for our Future’. Watch this space for a full timetable. We’re finding that teaming up with all the expertise and crossover here, while learning from similar festivals in Totnes and Reading, brings a world of resource and energy into one concentrated space – to make change happen.
On darkness and doing
Over in Reading, I got to see Festival of the Darkness director Jennifer Leach’s performance piece Crow recently: “Whoah”, is all! This is a creation myth that hits you in the stomach; with searing sadness, and an eternity of tension between the figure of Crow and Hollow Man, I felt a personal sense of despair in looking at our humble humanness not felt since seeing a Samuel Beckett play. There are moments of beauty, and real insight: clowning; a chorus that observes, entices and engages. Crow’s mother, who sways through, brought up some grief for the loss of my mother this year, as well as a sadness at the sly dexterity that is at play amongst humans: we can love and laugh, cry and die, and can try to resolve and understand issues, though still we maraud and pillage natural resources as if we own them, and howl at the terrible consequences.
Thinking this thought further, I’m delighted to share that following our highly successful provocation at the life-changing TippingPoint Doing Nothing is Not an Option conference in Warwick last year, where so many of these connections were made and interlink across culture and activism, stage designer Andrea Carr and I have been talking about reprising our Doing Nothing is Sometimes an Option event – giving participants an opportunity to dump all their baggage at the door and enter a space of rest, mindful exploration and tuning in to sensory being. Participants at DNNO might well remember the glorious prism that showed up for us. Watch this space for more!
During a filming project recently, I visited the Norfolk village of Happisburgh, which has suffered the most extreme coastal erosion of our entire island, and successive governments ‘giving up’ on their efforts to protect the land from the violent surges. After an hour of filming in the iconic lighthouse, as the volunteer warden locked the door and I packed up cameras, I asked him “So what’s your take on the erosion here?” He pointed to the field we stood beside, and angrily responded “This was entirely flooded just three years ago. The next time the sea will wash into the Broads and contaminate that. These houses won’t be here. This lighthouse will be beaming its light as an island in the sea.”
This close-up and personal engagement with the reality of change, in the midst of doing other things, reinforces for me the need to keep making connections, writing and filming these issues, finding images and creating footage to highlight all the stories of our time. I went from this conversation to the church, and met a church warden who had moved into the village some seven years ago, in full knowledge and sight of the potent destruction of the sea defences, some of the cliffs and some of the property in the community. For her, faith and church involvement sustains.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light, 1988
In the theme of spiritual inquiry and the buddhist practice of cultivating bodhicitta, I dedicate this writing to all those affected by climate change over the past few months, in the USA, India, and worldwide. May all beings find peace.
Find out more
Climate Outreach provide a ‘Climate Visuals’ portal, and you can read another blog about their Climate Visual masterclass.
Questioning what sustains? Space for creative thinking..."James' post ends with an image of a stranded lighthouse and a note on faith. For you, what sustains your engagement with 'the reality of change, in the midst of doing other things'?"Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form or write a response on your own blog and send a link!
In the first of a series on “anticipatory history”, I review the book of that name. A copy went to Jennifer Leach for her recent contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Produced by an interdisciplinary research network, the book explores some of the thinking and possibilities involved in ‘looking back’ at histories of environmental change in order to help us ‘look forward’ to what futures might be in store, and which we might shape.
This 2011 book grew from the experiences of the Anticipatory History Research Network, a one year project within AHRC’s Landscape and Environment Programme. Led by Caitlin DeSilvey and Simon Naylor at Exeter University, the network brought together fellow scholars in humanities, social, natural and physical sciences, writers and artists, and environmental practitioners in wildlife, coastal, landscape and heritage management. I had the good fortune to be doing my MA Climate Change at Exeter at the time. So, although my involvement was at the latter stages of their research, I was able to contribute some work locally with the National Trust – on ‘storying adaptation’ – to the network’s final symposium. I’ll write more about my own involvement with ‘anticipatory history’ approaches in a later post.
For now, I want to introduce the book – as a process, a product and a provocation. It’s a slim volume but written in many voices, offering rewarding encounters on different levels.
Publication often seems the natural endpoint of research activity, but the group assembled around this network’s central question – what roles do “history and story-telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes, and to changes to the wildlife and plant populations they support?” – found themselves creating this book almost as a byproduct of their discussions. Something that I’ve encountered when researching how large, multi-partner climate change projects successfully incorporate very different academic fields and societal stakeholders is that the new interdisciplinary teams very often spend 18 months – typically up to half the project lifetime – coming to terms with each other’s vocabulary and ways of seeing the world. They have to find ways to achieve that in parallel with ‘doing the job’. Often an ad hoc and iterative process, this frequently catalyses creative approaches to ‘getting to know each other’. One large network developed their own glossary for terms that engineers, sociologists, modellers and planners might have ‘in common’ but which had different meanings and usages for each ‘tribe’.
It seems that Anticipatory history developed in a similar way:
“Over the course of four meetings a number of people participated in an extended discussion about the meaning and efficacy of anticipatory history as a concept and a mode of engagement with the past. As we followed debates we noted down key terms on index cards – words or phrases that have a bearing on aspects of environmental change over time and in place, and our responses to these changes. We then went through a process of culling entries and drafting collective definitions. Lastly, participants were asked to adopt particular key terms and to produce entries. This book is then a work of many hands and can in no way claim to be the product of a single vision. It was never our intention to provide a definitive statement on the means and ends of anticipatory history, even if that was possible to do.”
At what point that exercise crystallised into a book for a wider readership, I don’t know, but it has been offered as a glossary or work of reference for those wanting to know more about … Well, what is “anticipatory history”?
The introductory essay that includes the passage above starts by noting that while reports of climate and environmental change are “the daily fare of a twenty-first century media diet” our ability to take in and respond personally to the implications or lived experiences of change’s impacts often disconnects from scientific data.
“Many of these changes … will register as subtle (or not so subtle) alterations in familiar landscapes: a lost section of coastal path, a favourite flower vanished, dwindling populations of waterbirds in a local saltmarsh, the removal of a customary fishing quay. But the range of available responses to these changes is limited – usually cast in terms of loss and guilt – and we often do not have the cultural resources to respond thoughtfully, to imagine our own futures in a tangibly altered world.”
As a clutch of the book’s entries explain, our personal sense of time and the ‘natural’ state of things is shaped by our generational timeframes: what one entry (Shifting baseline syndrome) calls “’generational amnesia’, due to relatively short life spans and memories” and another (Tempocentrism) describes as “the tendency to take for granted the premises, expectations and values of one’s own timeframe.” We struggle to acknowledge unwelcome changes in our environment (either locally or in places with treasured memories) – or, if acknowledged, to accept what is often the naturalness of processes we cannot halt. A third entry (Presentism) raises the risks of extending these mental frames into how we imagine the past, where we inevitably filter, select and assemble our own data on what that famously ‘foreign country’ was really like; “We make our stories about the past; we don’t find them fully formed … Do we have any chance of transcending our present point of view when we approach the making of history, and should we be pretending to?”
Our relationship with past and future, caught as we always are in the interval of uncertainty between the two, can be emotionally and culturally complex and unsettling. Anticipatory history offers ways to interrogate our uncertainties; the example of Orford Ness lighthouse suggests how impermanent features in our landscape can become stabilised in our imagination, and natural processes then threaten both the physical and cultural permanence which seems so natural to our tempocentric selves. The lighthouse, already at risk of erosion of the Orford Ness shingle bank, was also deemed redundant as coastal wayfinder: a combination which undermines the future of this 220 year-old Suffolk landmark. Indeed, the lighthouse has now been decommissioned and the sea continues its advance on the brick building. What was once an aid to navigation in space might slip into a new, symbolic role as navigational aid between past and future; there was a time with no lighthouse on the shingle, and this seems likely again. ‘Anticipatory history’, as conceptual framework, explores how looking back in a place might help us look ahead to its plausible futures. Highlighting the potential for Palliative curation as one approach to this predicament, Anticipatory history, suggests an end-of-life ethic of care and attention, taking our leave of loved but transient features.
With these subjective, limited perceptions and judgements in mind, it can be tempting to see scientific and technical expertise as the prized location for all useable knowledge about historical and future change, the only reliable base for our policies. That, time and again, it still surprises us when this fails to deliver everything we expected is not an argument against expertise or evidence, but for a broadening of what we mean by these, and what counts. Picking up the book’s introduction again,
“History and storytelling … might seem a surprising place to begin an investigation into the potential consequences of environmental change … However, our argument is that the humanities have much to contribute to these debates. [Some forms of history,] guided by a concern for the future, [look] to the past to find intellectual, emotional, and spiritual resources to help us direct this concern towards sustaining specific communities – both human and ecological.”
‘Anticipatory history’ borrows that future orientation from the notion of ‘anticipatory adaptation’ to prospective changes rather than ‘reactive adaptation’ after the fact. Looking back can inform a more experimental gaze forward, exploring our imaginations and stories of environmental change, our different versions of ‘here and ‘now’ as well as ‘there and then’. The authors quote two historians:
“Our ability to project ourselves into the future, imagining alternative lives that lead us to set new goals and work toward new ends, is merely the forward expression of the experience of change we have learned from reflecting on the past.” – William Cronon
“We study the past not in order to find out what really happened there or to provide a genealogy of and thereby a legitimacy for the present, but to find out what it takes to face a future we should like to inherit rather than one that we have been forced to endure.” – Hayden White
The book’s different authors were therefore engaging with the past(s) not out of nostalgia but out of a desire to see how “the stories we tell about ecological and landscape histories shape our perception of what we might call future ‘plausabilities’”, complementing the scientific study of climate change probabilities. As such, anticipatory approaches to history might “intersect with other areas of concern – including the communication of science, the pragmatics of land management and the practice of art.” Relying solely on any one of these approaches – or even a naïve combination of all three – in situations of contention, controversy and conflict over threats to valued wildlife, landscapes, heritage or livelihoods can be a damaging experience. When a partnership of agencies culled the ‘invasive’ rats on Lundy island in order to restore breeding populations of birds, they acted solely on scientific grounds and without public consultation. Recounting the outcry from animal welfare protestors wanting to “save the Lundy rats” , the book exposes the moral judgements that scientific justifications rested upon: “that introduced species should be removed to support indigenous species; that less charismatic animals should make way for more popular ones; and that people’s emotional responses to the killing of the rats were not relevant to the decision-making process.”
“Terms like ‘slaughter’ were used to describe the cull. The risk to other animals from possible ingestion of the poisons was highlighted. Protesters also noted that the rats had been on the island for over 400 years, and in doing so questioned the implication that the rats were recent interlopers – unwanted immigrants that disrupted a settled indigenous nature on the island.”
How different interests, communities and individuals “know the past in place” is as crucial and meaningful as the professional expertise informing our decisions on how we respond to change.
“Anticipatory history may be capable of tapping into these meanings, in that it does not attempt to construct a singular, authoritative historical narrative. As an approach, it leaves room for expressing the ‘small stories’ and ‘lay knowledges’ that are layered in place, and then linking these to a hoped-for future.”
So, back to the glossary. The 50 terms explored in this book range from the technical-sounding – ‘Acclimatisation’, ‘Coastal squeeze’, ‘Entropy’, ‘Equilibrium’, ‘Managed realignment’, ‘Monitoring’ – to the deceptively simple – ‘Birds’, ‘Ebb and flood’, ‘Living landscapes’, ‘Memory, ‘Museum’, ‘Place’ ‘Rhododendron’, ‘Tides, ‘Woods’ – via the playful or provocative – ‘Besanded’, ‘Dream-map’, ‘Liminal zone’, ‘Palliative curation’, ‘Rewilding’, ‘Story-radar’, ‘Unfarming’, ‘Zone of exclusion.’
You can move between these personal explorations guided simply by your curiosity, the convenience of the alphabetical ordering, the threads of different authors’ reappearances, an index map that ties each entry to a place in the British Isles – or by the handy signposting under each entry, pointing you to: (Erosion) “See: Art, Coastal squeeze, Cycle of erosion”, or (Equilibrium) “Do not see: Entropy. See: Shifting baseline syndrome”; (Entropy) “Do not see: Equilibrium. See: Aspic, Discontinuity”, and so on. It’s a book that calls you to explore, revisit and share.
The variety of voices, styles, genres, directions and intents found even within the confines of an academic and professional network makes for a very partial glossary, whose cumulative effect is to hint at alternative ‘meanings’ that could have found their way into these entries via different authors, and at the ghosts of other terminologies and common words which might just as easily have featured in the discussions sparking this work. Being partial but being open about partiality and to inviting in more seems to me to be one value of an anticipatory learning from our subjective histories and imagined futures.
In the next post in this series, I will look at some of the entries in the book and the themes these explore. Further posts will discuss examples of how the ideas explored by the research network have been trialled and developed, including some of the work I’ve been involved in; and investigate the creative potential that might be developed.
Find out more
Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett, is published by Uniform Books. All the indented passages and unattributed quotations are taken from the book’s Introduction, which you can download as a sample. There is more information on the research network activities that produced the book at the Arts and Humanities Research Network programme pages.
The quotation from William Cronon is taken from his 2000 article Why history matters, (Wisconsin Magazine of History, 84, 2-13) available at his website.
The quotation from Hayden White is taken from E Domanska (2008) A conversation with Hayden White, (Rethinking History, 12, 3-21) and might be found through a web search…
Questioning a word? Space for creative thinking..."One of the entries in Anticipatory history is Enclosure. What does this word mean to you, in the conext of environmental change and how we imagine and discuss pasts, places and futures?" Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.
Our latest Members’ Post sees a return by artist Mary Eighteen, who discusses powerful associations she sees between the 20th century art of Barnet Newman and a 21st century technology in Venice that will protect that city and its Renaissance heritage from some of the impacts of manmade climate change.
In his essay, The Sublime and the Avant Garde, Jean Francois Lyotard refers to the Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman, stating that “In 1959-51, Barnet Newman painted a canvas measuring 2.42 m by 5.42m which he called Vir Heroicus Sublimis. In the early sixties, he entitled his first three sculptures Here 1, Here 11, Here 111. Another painting was called Not Over There, Here, two paintings were called Now, and two others were entitled Be. In December 1948, Newman wrote an essay entitled The Sublime Is Now.
In order to explain a point regarding the physicality of experience in Newman’s painting, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, I want to recall a visual encounter I experienced on a trip to Venice on a cold evening a few years ago.
On this cold and still February night I am with friends, poised on the Canal Grande. There is a feeling of lingering melancholy for which Venice has become legendary. There is a smell of decay generated by the water. The smell is not invasive, more a lingering odour of oldness that infiltrates the senses with eerie persistence. It is an odour that caresses, like a whisper softly spoken, its essence apparent in each wave and ripple that skims the water’s edge. Venice touches my soul like nowhere else on earth, like an inner sanctum of ethereal magic.
Amidst the dark, I see the church of Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori, rising like an apparition against the darkness of the night. The whiteness of the front façade, designed by Palladio, is almost phosphorescent. It looms against the sky as if to affirm a past still deeply rooted within the here and now. It mingles with the ever-pervading odour of oldness, transcending the story of the past into the world of the present with an intoxicating pungency. Looking at the ghostly apparition of Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori at night, I am reminded of the vulnerability of Venice to the sea. Venice has a history of flooding but the idea of the city sinking into the sea is more than most people could tolerate, and much money has been spent to avoid this ever happening. But this is no less a conundrum than climate change, our own vulnerability to rising sea levels and their future effect on humanity.
Newman’s zips and Palladio’s facade
Like my encounter with the melancholy of Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori at night, so Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis was designed to be a physical experience. Palladio’s fine front façade, in raised vertical splendour, emanates a celebration of hope for the future in a city that transcends both past and present in equal measures.
Newman’s paintings do the same. He referred to the stripes that dominated many of his paintings as ‘zips’. I look at a Newman painting and I see the same encounter with hope as I experienced with Chiesa San Maggiori that cold still night in February in Venice. I have spent a lifetime loving Venice and being fascinated by water, but I did not know then as an artist how involved I would become with ocean toxicity and the future of our seas. Within this scenario, Venice resonates a certain fragility in its relationship to the water.
Mose: Venice’s flood barrier inspiring the future
While Newman’s paintings and Palladio’s façade transcend hope within the dark, there is 21st Century hope within the ground-breaking Venice Flood Barrier, known internationally as the Mose Project. Newman and Palladio inspired a future generation of painters and architects; Mose inspires the future in terms of protecting Venice from rising sea levels.
The flood barrier is positioned along three sections of the lagoon: the Lido Inlet, the Malamocco Inlet and the Chioggia Inlet. The barriers form an integrated system of mobile gates that, as it were, step into action in times of rising sea levels that will cause flooding. While there are controversies regarding the Mose Project, it is there to protect. The yellow structure, spread horizontally over the lagoon like a brilliant yellow Barnet Newman Zip, is indicative of not just hope for the future of Venice, but the hope that is represented vertically in Newman’s messianic Zips and Palladio’s facades.
If I were once again standing in Venice on a cold February night looking over the lagoon, I would ponder the yellow Mose Barrier. For within its stretch there lies a paradox. While the barrier protects Venice from the sea for however long that will be, it is also indicative of mankind’s continual disruption of the environment, which is causing the rising levels of the sea, and our need to protect that environment, and in particular our oceans and seas, from us.
Newman’s Zips and the vertical façade of Palladio’s Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori gave hope within the optimism of post war American Abstract Expressionism and the humanism of Renaissance architecture. Similarly, the new Venetian flood barrier straddles the lagoon as a symbol of defence that is a reminder of our duty to defend against rising sea levels by vigilance and human responsibility.
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You can read Jean Francois Lyotard‘s essay The Sublime and the Avant-Garde in The Lyotard Reader, edited by Andrew Benjamin, Blackwell Publishers Ltd 1998
Barnet Newman‘s The Sublime is Now is in Theories of Modern Art, by Herschel B. Chipp, University of California Press.1998
Questioning Symbols? Space for creative thinking...
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This Members’ Post comes from illustrator and writer Mat Osmond, who I met at art.earth’s ‘In Other Tongues’ summit in June. It’s accompanied by powerful paintings by artist Meinrad Craighead, who is the focus of the piece.
Mat says, “This paper, which I delivered at Schumacher College’s ‘Landscape, Language and the Sublime’ summit in June 2016, is the first part of a longer piece about Craighead. Part two will discuss the connections between Craighead’s art and her lifelong devotion to the Black Madonna.”
“Oh what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and equinox. This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a fringing mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table”.
– D. H. Lawrence: Apocalypse, 1929.
Whom do you pray to?
In her 2005 book Findings, the writer Kathleen Jamie muses on the nature of prayer whilst sharing fish and chips with a friend. For Jamie, her friend’s question, ‘Whom do you pray to?’, posed in relation to her partner’s life-threatening illness, elicits an unequivocal response. Jamie prays, she replies, to ‘No-one’: to ‘Absolutely nothing’. But, in place of the appalling ‘crush of hope’, of the futility of ‘haggling with God’, Jamie offers a notion of prayer as, more simply, a ‘paying heed’: as an immediate, moment-to-moment attention to ‘the care and maintenance of the web of our noticing’.
It’s a memorable passage. But it’s Jamie’s friend – specifically, his inarticulate, off-hand retort to his own question, when she turns it back on him, ‘Dunno, Great Mother, or something’, that has acted as the spur for this rumination. Jamie’s pared-back notion of prayer has stayed with me, in part, because it leaves me with a certain residue. I see thatI’m not quite in step with her dismissal of a Who – or perhaps, of a shifting plurality of whos – on the other side, as it were, of prayer. So, in a spirit of ‘neither of the above’ to the options Jamie’s passage seems to imply, I want to look for another understanding of how we might approach art practice, on the one hand, and our apprehension of landscape, on the other, in terms of prayer.
Something in her waters
Before I could read, when words were only sounds, not yet ciphers in a book, when words arrived as melodies to my ears before my eyes could decipher them, I heard a word which forever made of word, water and God one round whole. Lying with my dog beneath blue hydrangeas in my grandmother’s garden, shaded against a hot Arkansas afternoon, what I heard within my little girl body was the sound of rushing water. And in the roar, ebbing and flowing as I listened, a word: Come. And I knew that the watery word was God.
I’m going to talk about Meinrad Craighead, an American painter whose career has included fourteen years living as a Benedictine nun at Stanbrook Abbey, England. I’m going to talk about Craighead’s intense religiosity – her sense of sustained encounter with a feminine presence that first flooded into her child mind during the experience she recounts above.
I’m going to talk about how what happened to Craighead that summer afternoon remained foundational to her understanding of herself as an artist: as she put it,‘It was water that first told me I was an artist, and I believed the water’. I’m going to look at how whatever it was that this experience introduced her to, has run like a central current through her work, a current that’s been closely associated, at all times, with her experiences of landscape as ‘sacred place’.
The readings from Craighead’s memoirs that punctuate this talk span her lifetime: from that abrupt childhood awakening, to a year spent alone, aged 28, at the mountain shrine of the Black Madonna of Montserrat, to her eventual return from England, recalled from monastic life by a recurrent dream to what she considers her spiritual home: the desert landscape of New Mexico, watered by the Rio Grande. There she found, in the face of Crow Mother – a Hopi kachina spirit – that feminine presence who had shadowed her since childhood.
And I’m going to talk, in particular, about how this mingled current of sacred presence and sacred landscapehas presented itself within Craighead’s work as a mutating flux of animal or half-animal figures, shifting personifications of those ‘animal mysteries’ towards which she’s understood herself to be in lifelong pilgrimage.
Angels talking back
If a forest is a metaphor for the unknown, a drawing is the stroke-by-stroke journey through the unknown: a laying this in, a wiping that out, all the time watching for the image to take shape and lead you into its very specific story. The image begins to give itself to you; you follow it, you serve it. Hence the kinship of making and prayer manifests, with each evoking and shaping the other, creating images which walk right out of the emptiness which has contained them.
First, though, a word about angels and creative practice. In his 2011 essay Angels Talking Back and New Organs of Perception, the Dutch anthropologist Jan Van Boekel offers a rough – and clearly,leaky – distinction ‘between two basic orientations in the way the natural environment is approached’by artists working within an ecological paradigm.
On the one hand, Van Boekel observes practices that involve the cultivation of new organs of perception: that approach art as a process which ‘nourishes a state of receptivity’, with artists adopting an ‘observant, minimally interfering, and attentive’ attitudeto their environment.
In bringing Craighead here, it’s the other of Van Boekel’s categories that I want to consider, that frames art practice as‘an active engagement with the circumambient universe’, one that involvesa ‘dynamic, open-endedimmersion in a fundamentally improvisational undertaking’.
An assumption underlying Van Boekel’s distinction is that ‘artistic experiences improve one’s ability to see’: that, in one way or another, art helps us to know the world around us more authentically, more intimately. What I want to look at here, then, is the nature of the intimacy, the kind of seeing, to which Craighead’s figurative improvisations invite us.
But to name the kind of seeing I have in mind, I need to take a step back. Van Boekel’s framing of art as an emergent encounter with images that necessarily come ‘from behind one’s back’, and his labelling of this category of practice asangels talking back, are both informed by the work of the Jungian art therapist, Shaun McNiff, renowned for his clinical innovation of the ‘image dialogue’: literally, inviting patients to talk to, rather than about their images, and inviting their images to talk directly back to them.
Likewise, McNiff’s notion of art as a daemonic, transformative force, one capable of initiating a spontaneous process of recuperation in both maker and participant, flows directly from the work of the archetypal psychologist, James Hillman. So its to Hillman that I’m going to turn, here, for a way to approach the kind of seeing we find in Meinrad Craighead’s work.
The captive heart
It was at Montserrat that I first understood Crow Mother’s fierce presence moving within a Black Madonna.Although I had been in Italy for some years, away from the land of New Mexico, I was never not there, for the spirits of that land clung to me in dreams, in memories, and in the animals sacred to the spirituality of its native peoples.
There in the semi-darkness, I stood before La Moreneta, the Little Black Virgin of Montserrat. This daily rhythm – walking up the mountain, walking down to my bell tower – shaped the solitude of those months, as if I were inhaling the silence and exhaling the potent darkness into the charcoal drawings. The double spiral of beginning-midpoint-ending imprinted each day as the phases of the moon imprinted the nights.
So how might Hillman read Craighead’s assertion of the ‘kinship of making and prayer’, and what connectivity might he observe between her overtly figurative improvisations, and her engagement with landscape? To answer that, I’m going to consider the way that imagination and prayer are approached in his seminal essay The Thought of the Heart, in which he reflects on the classical notion of the heart: of what the heart is,and of what the heart does.
Before he can get to this, Hillman has first to set out ourprevailing stories about the heart:those accretedfantasies which have, he suggests, long ‘held the heart captive’ in Western culture. The most obvious of these stories is also the most recent – what he calls The Heart of Harvey: the heart of post-enlightenment scientism: a circulatory organ, a pump, and as such, an interchangeable spare part within what is, so the story goes, a complex organic machine.
But prior to this, and suffused throughout our everyday use of the word, Hillman observes The Heart of Augustine: a deep-rooted notion of the heart as the seatof our person, and as such, an organ of sentiment, an organ of feeling. In this story, what we know of the ‘secret chamber of the heart’is that this inner core of our person is most authentically revealed through intimate confession, which is, by definition, a confession of personal feeling.
What would it mean, then, if we were to suggest of an artist like Craighead that ‘she works from the heart’? Especially if that phrase came parceled, as it often does, with ideas like ‘following her intuition’, or ‘working from her imagination’, it might invite a certain suspicion: of suggestibility, perhaps, or of sentimentality. A lack of hard-headed conceptual rigour.
If any of that sounds familiar, then I’d suggest that what we find at work here, for all our post-religious, secular criticality, may turn out to include a specifically Augustinian brand of Christianity, alive and well with its persistent interior person – a person who we take to be somehow or other set apart from Van Boekel’s ‘circumambient world’.
And there’s more: within the ‘contemporary cult of feeling’ spawned by this story – not least, within the confessional industries that it fuels – we’re also presented with the self-deceiving, distractive, and – so the story goes – ‘unconscious’ chimera of imagination. As Hillman puts it, ‘we have so long been told that the mind thinks and the heart feels and that imagination leads us astray from both’.
In dreams we go down, as if pushed down into our depths by the hands of God. Pushed down and planted in our own inner land, the roots suck, the bulb swells. In her depths everything grows in silence, grows up, breaking the horizon into light. We rise up as flowers to float on the line between the above and the below, creatures of both places. She who gives the dream ripens the seeds which fly in the air and float in the water.
Prior, then, to scientism’s motor part, prior to Augustine’s organ of sentiment, Hillman steers us back to the classical understanding of the heart, drawing his sources from Ancient Greece, from European Alchemy, and,through the work of the theologian Henry Corbin, from Islamic tradition. The central idea within Hillman’s essay is one that he takes directly from Corbin: what Islamic culture calls himma – a word which translates, roughly, asthe thought of the heart, the intelligence of the heart, the action of the heart.
Here, crucially, the heart is not understood to be an organ of feeling, but an organ of sight. A way of seeing. And the mode of seeing peculiar to this classical notion of the heart, is that which arises through images: through the spontaneous movement of images within the mind. The kind of seeing whicharises, in other words, through imagination. Hillman proposes Corbin’s studies on himma as the foundation stone for a renewed culture of imagination, whose first principles declare‘that the thought of the heart is the thought of images, that the heart is the seat of imagination, that imagination is the authentic voice of the heart, so that if we speak from the heart we must speak imaginatively.’
An animal mode of reflection
The movement towards pilgrimage begins as a hunch, perhaps a vague curiosity. We cannot anticipate these whispers, but we do hear them, and the numen aroused has teeth in it. Thus a quest is initiated, and we are compelled or shoved into the place of possible epiphanies.
Of the many aspects of Hillman’s reading of himma that I find illuminating in respect of Meinrad’s Craighead’s work, perhaps foremost is his take on why this heart of imagination is shown, mythogically, as animal: within European tradition, as le coeur de lion, the lion in the heart. What this image remembers, Hillman muses,is that imaginationconstitutes ‘an animal mode of reflection’, an instinctive faculty prior to the ‘bending back’ of deductive reasoning, which, by contrast, arises after the perceptual event, and moves away from it.
In himma, then, we meet imagination as something continuous with the ‘sheen and lustre’ of the phenomenal world – as its own efflorescence, so to speak. In the self-presenting display of imagination, we see ‘the play of its lights rather than the light of the consciousness that [we] bring to it.’ And just as we might say of the animal heart that it ‘directly intends, senses, and responds as a unitary whole’, so this upwelling of imagination within the human mind presents us with a mode of ‘mental reflection foreshortened to animal reflex’.
And what of intimacy? What of the interiority of the personal, feeling heart? Hillman suggests that in returning the heart to its rightful place as the seat of imagination, we release intimacy ‘from confession into immediacy’. What the animal in the heart brings, he tells us, is‘the courage of immediate intimacy, not merely with ourselves, but with the particular faces of the sensate world with which our heart is in rapport’.
This is the species of imagination that I recognize in Meinread Craighead’s paintings. Not the ‘bending-back’ of ironic, critical reflection,nor any sophisticated interrogation of form and language. What I see in Craighead’s work, as she reaches out towards The Black Madonna, towards Crow Mother, forever stuck on the mutating face of her animal God, is something simpler than that. Its something more urgent – more needy, even – than the self-bracketing conceptual athletics that characterize so much of our visual arts. And to my eye, the gaze that Craighead’s work returns to us offers something altogether more interesting.
In both Craighead’s words and her images, what I read, above all, is a dogged, needfulreturn to the slow work of recuperation – to that ‘recuperation of the lost soul’ which both Hillman and McNiff would propose as the central imperative of both depth psychology, and prayer.
We began with the notion of art as a mode of attention to the self-presenting world. Here in himma, in the heart’s ‘animal awareness to the face of things’, I find the way of seeing that Craighead’s work invites me to. And if her lifelong imaginal recuperation can be seen as a form of prayer, then I think that such prayer is also, like Jamie’s, anattentiveness – a paying heed. As Hillman says of the instinctive ‘decorum’ which himma restores to our wayward human behaviours: ‘in the blood of the animal is an archetypal mind, a mindfulness, a carefulness in regard to each particular thing.’
You can see more of Meinrad Craighead’s art at meinradcraighead.com. The site also lists her out-of-print books – The Litany of the Great River (1991), The Mother’s Songs (1986), The Sign of the Tree (1979) and The Mother’s Birds (1976), but also a current retrospective of her art and essays: Meinrad Craighead:Crow Mother and the Dog God (2003) edited by Katie Burke.
James Hillman’s The Thought of the Heart (1981) and other works are available from Spring Publications.
Kathleen Jamie’s essay, Fever, appears in her prose collection, Findings (2005), published by Sort of Books.
Shaun McNiff’s Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination (1992) is published by Shambhala.
Jan van Boeckel presented his paper, Angels Talking Back and new Organs of Perception: Art Making and Intentionality in nature experience, at the Shoreline International Symposium on Creativity, Place and Wellbeing, in Ayr Scotland in 2011. It is published by Intellect.
Questioning Prayer? Space for creative thinking...
"This post is framed, in part, as a response to Kathleen Jamie's rhetorical question 'Whom do you pray to?'. What notion of prayer, if any, bears on your own approach to the predicament of the Anthropocene, the large-scale changes that human activity has set in motion? Does prayer have a place in articulating a response to anthropogenic calamities? And what bearing, if any, does all this have on your approach to creative practice?"
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