Seeing is a complex process that embodies more than just sight. How do you begin to translate an experience into a visual language?
As a preamble, this series of blog posts has been derived from a series of paintings in 2015-17, which cumulated in a solo exhibition held in late 2017 early 2018. The intentions of the blog, is selfish in nature, to articulate and explore my creative process, exploring phenomenological experiences in relation to memory and walking, through a range of subjects, of science, psychology, philosophy, geology, mountaineering and of course, the visual arts. This diversification is a common pursuit for artists, gathering, absorbing and drawing out references from other sources as a means to then translate ideas, thoughts and our own understand through an abstract language, in my case, drawing and painting.
My current practice has been engaged in exploring the relationship between physical experiences and creating artworks, but more specifically, how I use my autobiographical memories, those Episodic Memories, that of experiences (over the use of my Semantic Memory; drawing upon remembered facts) and how these can be translated into a visual language, in my case, paintings and drawings, produced back in the studio and physically disconnected in terms of distance, space and at a later place, date and time.
What do we mean by Memory?
To quote Melvin Bragg, as he introduced the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time, about Memory, (Thursday 23rd May 2003) he opens with, "...Marcel Proust said, quote, We are able to find everything in our memory, which is like a dispensary or chemical laboratory in which chance steers our hand sometimes to a soothing drug and sometimes to a dangerous poison. Can memory really be the sum of all of our experience? Is it a repository of the constantly mounting event to be plucked to consciousness or if not what criteria are memories erased?"
The programme unpicks aspects of the memory and explores why we can't remember everything we experience, where do memories go? Why do we have long and short-term memory? and suggests that forgetting is an important aspect in the Memory process. One of the guests, Kim Graham, senior scientist at the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, talks about long and short-term memory and the rationale for forgetting, she states, "We can remember everything we experience, and I think there are very good reasons why we don't want to do that, and the type of forgetting errors we make are byproducts of an adaptive system... an example of that is, if you are walking down a very busy London street, for instance, so much information and contextual detail are you a processing if we actually remembered all the contextual detail with end up filling up our system and it would all get very confusing and so on, so we have systems that want to encode unique events, it's a fast kind of learning system, we want to hold onto those events, the other thing we want to do is be able to acquire jiist information about events, so we want to be able to building up a database of knowledge about the world and one of the ways of doing that across repeated events, pulling apart the things that are common about them and then basically learning information about these circumstances, all the reasons why we may not focus on these contextual details, but instead attempt to pull part commonalities, this so that we can build this of the system. So we have this fast learning system which encodes information very rapidly, we also need a slow learning system, well we build up knowledge about the world where we do that slowly and carefully so that we don't cause interference with concepts that we learn and that may well be why we have forgetting."
I have been travelling to the Alps, on and off for the past 15 years, mainly the French Alps, and a region known as the Queyras, a regional park within the Departement of the Hautes Alpes in the South East corner of France. This part of the Alps is close to the Mediterranean and therefore there is a high chance of good weather during July (in general, the Alps often has better weather in the month preceding or following July).
As I do not live close to the Queyras, this means embarking on a 2000 mile round trip, which has become an annual pilgrimage, drawing inspiration from the location, but in turn, has impacted upon the work which I now find myself reflecting.
Once in the Queyras region, exploring various locations and walking routes, some new and some revisited, I use my experience to derive inspiration back in the studio in Scotland. These experiences are not built on anyone snapshots, single drawings of a single scene, location or observed viewpoint, or formed from a single memory, but a series of experiences, of observations made, locations explored, textures felt, sounds heard and smell to be had, encounters that inform my perceptions which are used to develop a series of artworks at a different point and place in time.
My work has always had some form of connection to the environment the landscape, whether that has been through a minimal process-based and conceptual works to site-specific sculptural installations, to more recently and over the past six years exploring the landscape through drawing and painting.
What do I mean by Landscape?
This is a word I don't often want to use, as its meaning is ambiguous, and can mean different things to different cultures and to each of us, at different times of our lives. The Collins Dictionary states that “The landscape is everything you can see when you look across an area of land, including hills, rivers, buildings, trees, and plants.”
Yet this ubiquitous word encapsulates so much more, yes, it can signify the physical land, but it’s also about the memory of that land, its physical and cultural history, its cultural reading and meaning. It is a personal space, the landscape may be a place that holds memories for us, of loss or pain, a place we may wish to be laid to rest, or the landscape can give us a feeling of belonging. It’s a place we visit to ‘loose ourselves in', a space and atmosphere that may be overwhelmed to us, through its sheer sense of scale, creating a sense of feeling vulnerable, lost and disorientated and insignificance.
Often in western painting, when we talk about and describe landscape painting, we may imaging or convey something with a horizontal line running through it dividing up the section of space, separating a body of water from the sky or defining the outline of a hill. In my own work, I try and shift away from having any formal division or horizon line as such, this is a conscious decision to try and move away from a sense of order and orientation, as you may expect from a single viewpoint, trying to encapsulate the sense of various viewpoints, as you look and move through a space. The work is often square, this gives equal space to all lengths and directions, as a means of disarming the natural reading of the work from any particular linear direction, making the viewer move their gaze around the work, echoing movements I may make myself when hill walking, looking up, down, close-up and squinting into the distance, looking ahead, or behind.
Simon Schama in his book Landscape and Memory tells us, “Landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock” and he goes on to say, “…it is our shaping perceptions that makes the difference between raw matter and landscape” (Ingold 2013: 83 – quoting Schama 1995: 7, 10)
For me, the French Alps, as well as the Highlands of Scotland, through repeated visits have for me, become places of pilgrimages, my sanctuary. Obviously, the first visit to any new location does not hold these emotions, but over time, as you begin to get to ‘know’ a place it may become embedded and engrained with you, so becoming part of you in some way.
Walking in a new location holds its own excitement, the unknowing of what’s around the next bend, but when returning to the same locations, it’s like walking into your own home after having been on a long trip for weeks or months, you notice the nuances of change, the plants or garden, the memories that are stirred within, of ornaments or family pictures.
When walking or at times, when running through the landscape, I am observing constantly, noticing nuances of the space and micro-ecosystems, such as being in a forest watching how the ants march across the path or the change in the types of mushrooms that grow in shady spots to those that grow in open land, to feeling vulnerable and exposed in by the vast grandeur and bleakness of these exposed spaces, devoid of colour and some might say sublime, with subliminal qualities. Of walking into a corrie, the sheer volume of rock above and around me, thinking too about the history of that rock, where it has been and travelled; from its formation and breaking away from Pangaea, moving up through the equator and travelling further north. This physical engagement with the land is the only way to begin to understand it. As Katrin Lund states in her paper on how landscapes are narrated through the activity of walking, "...the materiality of the landscape is shaped through the movement of walking, not prior to it." (Lund: 225-237)
In the book, The Living Mountain by Nan Shepard, a book about the Cairngorms, Nan Shepard talks about Presence, perception, the senses and knowledge through revisiting the same place, she says, “So there I lie on the plateau under me the central core fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, over me blue air, and between the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind rain and snow - the total Mountain. Slowly I have found my way in. If I had other senses, there are other things I should know. It is nonsense to suppose, when I have perceived the exquisite division of running water, or a flower, that my separate senses can make, that there would be nothing more to perceive were we but endowed with other modes of perception. How could we imagine flavour, or perfume, without the senses of taste and smell? They are completely unimaginable. There must be many exciting properties of matter that we cannot know because we have no way to know them. Yet, with what we have, what wealth! I add to it each time I go to the Mountain – the eye sees what it didn’t see before or sees in a new way what it had already seen."
(Shepard: 105, 106)
- Schama. 1995 Landscape and Memory Harper Press.
- Shepherd. 2011. The Living Mountain Canongate Books.
- Lund, K. Landscape Research, Landscapes and Narratives: Compositions and the Walking Body, Vol 37, No.2 225-237, April 2012, Routledge.