Walk / Don’t Walk

 

It has been a while since the last post—blame it on the lengthening days, the pull of the green world over the white screen come evening—but in it I want to talk about a couple of the walks I’ve taken over the Spring and early Summer, in which I have been seeking something particular. What I’ve been homing in on are works of art in the landscape: textured, and textual creations, repositories of meaning and touchstones for new experiences. This piece is a way of thinking through some of the ideas which have arisen.

Encountering an artwork in a landscape, particularly a relatively remote one, is an estranging experience. One expects overgrown sheep fanks, leaning dykes, the traces of former habitation. This is literally part of the territory, especially where I live in Dumfries and Galloway. What one does not expect (even when one is seeking it—I’ll explain later) is a work of art which suddenly arrests one, precisely by being where it is not expected. In remote landscapes we expect the past.  The unimaginable deep time of geological formation is a given. The ruined, the former, the poignancy of every ex-parrot of existence, is expected.  Novelty, artistic engagement, however, is not what the walker customarily seeks unless willingly visiting a sculpture park (a sort of art reserve). In a place that seems extremely wild (even if it is very much the product of human action), we do not expect the deeply civilised.

In Galloway, however, a small group of innovative artists has spent more than a decade thinking about the landscape, and producing work in it or commissioning others to do so. I went seeking two different sculptures (discovered a third by accident), and walked, and didn’t walk, around them.

I was struck recently by a statement from Donna Landry in her book The Invention of the Countryside: ‘Walkers, like hunters, experience the displacement of the ordinary and habitual… A concentrated focus upon the now, the immediate present, unbinds the subject from everyday concerns.’[1] Landry seems to assert that walkers expect estrangement. Their journey is partly informed by precisely the experience of ‘displacement ‘ of the quotidian, striking out instead for a present whose potency is owing to its strangeness.

The pairing of walkers with hunters is also, at first, an odd one.  What she argues, though, is that from the mid nineteenth-century:

long-distance walking in pursuit of picturesque views, climbing in search of sublime experiences, and scouring the countryside for botanical specimens, became alternative forms of hunting.  Once hunting had been displaced by these alternatives, it could be dispensed with, and forgotten.  The alternative game bag was a rich aesthetic repository of overlaid images absorbed at ground level (Landry, p. 218)

With this idea turning over in my mind, I went off to hunt for Matt Baker’s sculpture ‘Quorum’ (1997) in Galloway Forest Park. What I liked even before I set off was that exact co-ordinates are not easy to find, even on the internet. The location is near the Grey Mare’s Tail off the A712 (‘The Queen’s Way’), close to Murray’s Monument.

The monument  has a fascinating story in itself: it commemorates Alexander Murray, Professor of Oriental Languages at the University of Edinburgh, who died at just 37 years old, and who was born nearby.  It is rumoured at three thousand people attended the laying of the foundation stone for the monument in 1834—21 years after his death.[2] I did not go to hunt Murray, but I found him all the same, unexpectedly.

To find Matt Baker’s ‘Quorum’, first climb. Up from a small parking area. Do not look for signposts or interpretation panels. Walk upwards steeply, the waterfall itself to your left. You will rise much more slowly than it falls. At the top, get lost. Keep going. Follow the barely marked fall of others’ footsteps that have formed a narrow, wavering, line in the grass that is intermittent as new growth comes in. Go until you’re close to giving up. The clincher for me was a recently deforested plantation, all stumpage and ragged ground. This was industrial, not aesthetic, not the route to something beautiful. I paused for as long as it took the clegs to find me, went on anyway, and found the expected. It was a dry stone dyke, clearly some sort of former sheep gathering pen, something else in the rural landscape lost to decades of neverending ending.

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During the obligatory pause for poignancy, I found the place inhabited.  Quorate.  There was a face. And another. And another. Placid, calm, but fully present and articulate.

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Moss and lichen had grown into features of one face, marking time, marking absence and presence at once. It was more powerful still when I recalled that Matt had used photographs from Newton Stewart museum to create the faces. Each one is based on a specific individual from the area, dead and gone for a century and more. Each face enacts a haunting presence. The fact that some had fallen from the wall seemed to accentuate their power. One stricken face looked as though its death shroud was gathered around it, cold stone, but its features fine, the face not slack in death but relieved at release from work.[3]

 

 

IMG_0671There was something fitting in a face that, despite displacement, had not given up.  And it was fitting, too, that time had continued to act on the sculpture.  This was not a monument to former ways of life which had remained static.  Life had crept back in—moss, lichen—and the wall itself had given way at some point, the faces continuing to alter, to shift,  to be a part of world and its movement. ‘Quorum’ is a sort of living monument, commemorative but still participating fully in time and change, bringing along reminders of former ways of life that are not monolithic or static, but arresting for their profound and continuing inhabitation of the landscape.

 

 

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I wandered on, deciding to look at The Black Loch—who could resist a name like that—I found it lived up to its name and did have something sinister in its vicinity. Colin Rose’s Eye (1999) was unexpected, arresting, initially inspiring of a vague sort of fear.

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It looks like it awaits the Eye of Sauron, as if it might turn malignant on you, pointing up definitively, to no discernable viewpoint, but close inspection reveals an eye-level core bored right through, but with no sublime landscape at the other end, a monument that defies the norms of looking in the rural landscape, which evades interpretation, explanation, reduction. It is where you do not expect. It is what you imagine it to show. It requires that you focus.

* * *

 At the Environmental Art Festival Scotland, which took place across Dumfries and Galloway in late summer last year, designs were unveiled for new pieces of landscape art by Dalziel and Scullion, to be sited across the UNESCO Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere and the Dark Sky Park within it. Unusually for pieces of sculpture, these were not to see completely about the sculpture itself, but about the opportunities it would offer. An early description stated that the Rosnes Benches, as they were to be called, would be specifically designed to

reconnect people to the environment and to the ecology of place. Rather than propose an artwork that is designed to be iconic in scale and be about the physicality of the artwork itself, the philosophy of this project dictates that the artworks focuses attention on the landscape that hosts the work. The artists want to make a series of works that assist people to slow down and tune into their surroundings.

The benches have now been installed, and are to be found scattered across a wide area of Galloway (in a constellation which, it seems to me, vaguely resembles the constellation of Cassiopeia: fitting for a Dark Sky Park).

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The benches themselves are hard to describe. One can see in them cup and ring marks, which speak of earlier habitation and, potentially, early understandings of the universe. The concentric rings are like the orbiting spheres of planets. On a trip to one site with a group of students, ideas such as ‘mummy sleeping bag’ and ‘surf board’ came out. And these are all apt. The bench seems to float above the forest floor in each case. It is man-made, cites earlier cultural influences, and playful contemporary ones. Crucially, it is not initially clear what one is looking at. On the other hand, what one does is instinctive. There is a place for one’s head at one end.  One lies down, looks up. Sees differently.

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In finding one group of benches, I knew I was walking to a destination where the objective would be to not walk. Undertaking an activity which traditionally demands the vertical perspective, I was going to hunt down an installation which would force me to be horizontal. It was breaking rules, breaking with acceptable ways of hunting down and consuming the view, the prospect, claiming the high ground and occupying it, faithful to the OS Map’s indication of cairn and trig point: being able to claim a job done.

But this is what makes hunting down the benches so intriguing. They are not in obvious places. There are no signposts. The website tells you where they are, but expect no help along the way. It is a kind of test, because they are not on a beaten track. You have to re-negotiate some of your walkers’ habits. Paths might take you close, it is true, but you need to be alert. At the site I wanted to visit, I was convinced I was lost. I weaved through coniferous plantation, tight bends, no real view of anything, until it felt almost claustrophobic.  Just at a stage when I began to get bored, the woods suddenly changed. I was in broadleaf forest, just a short stretch. As the light began to penetrate again, as mood began to improve, I became more alert, entirely unconsciously.  And then there they were, off the track to the left.

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The benches invite sensory immersion. Each site has been chosen, it seems to me, with meticulous care. Each site has its own ‘reward’, as someone put it to me, some feature—a specific tree, waterfall, species of bird in different seasons—which means that the experience is never the same, never uniform. You have to go, though, not knowing quite when you will come upon a bench. You have to be willing to find out what the place has to offer, to slow down, to not walk, to not be able to take the experience with you when you go in any other form than the memory of the experience.

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This fascinates me, as I’m reminded of Aldo Leopold’s objection to some kinds of recreational activity in his A Sand County Almanac (1949). Leopold was himself a forester (a fitting analogy, then, given the Rosnes Benches are often on Forestry Commission land). While he extolled the virtues of knowing one’s surroundings and how to move through them, of building knowledge of their ecological makeup, he was critical of what he called ‘trophy hunters.’ These are the unskilled leisure hunters of deer and fowl, whose expensive equipment often compensates for a lack of skill, and who wish to obtain a prize which, in Leopold’s words

attests that its owner has been somewhere and done something—that he has exercised skill, persistence, or discrimination in the age-old feat of overcoming, outwitting, or reducing-to-possession.  These connotations which attach to the trophy usually far exceed its physical value.[4]

It strikes me that the two walks I describe above were, to a point, about hunting. Perhaps the photographs here are a form of trophy, reducing these works to a commodity. On the other hand, my finding them, and my enjoyment of them, is not something transmitted in the photographs themselves. The sculptures may have been about the hunt, but it was the profoundly estranging experience of being in their company which was what made me the richer. This cannot be reduced to possession. In no sense were the sculptures something to be conquered. And so their existence, and their pull, also evades Landry’s description of hunting down views. There was no sublime prospect. Instead, each sculpture was a challenge to conventional experiences of the contested category we talk about when we mention ‘landscape.’ These were texts in the land which required work to engage with, and which were about challenging—maybe even altering— rather than confirming, the walker’s experiences.

 

[1] Donna Landry, The Invention of the Countryside: Hunting, Walking and Ecology in English Literature 1671–1831 (Houndmills, Baskingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), p. 211.

[2] See Alan Temperley, Tales of Galloway (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1979), pp. 113–124.

[3] The fallen stones were the result of vandalism, and the stricken heads have since been re-placed in the wall.

[4] Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 169.

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