Art and Agriculture

10 Mar 2007 in Orkney, Visual Arts & Crafts

Winking Farmers and Hen Houses

REBECCA MARR reports on progress in an unusual artist-in-residence project in Orkney

WINKING farmers, storm-tossed seaweed, marked beasts, wind-sculpted clouds, modified hen houses and noble turnips – these are a few of my favourite things.

This year I have the privilege of working to what must be the wildest and widest of briefs. ‘Art & Agriculture’, a collaboration between two organisations who feed the county, whether it be filling bellies or firing imaginations – the Pier Arts Centre and Orkney Auction Mart makes for an interesting partnership.

Here in Orkney every life is surely touched by the farming community –the influence of agriculture shapes the landscape and narrates the history of the place. Two months into the year-long project, the conversations I’ve had, the books I’ve read and the places I’ve been to have all filtered in to a crop of ideas, and I now need to see which ones are worth harvesting.

First the winking farmers. This is part of an ongoing series of portraits of farmers displaying to camera their individual ‘bidding gestures’. One of the first things I noticed at the Mart was what I couldn’t see. The hidden, covert language of bidding was at first lost on me. I wanted to record these small, personal movements and moments.

The portraits are taken on a medium format camera on black & white film. The backgrounds of the prints are painted out in white acrylic to further the isolation and stillness of the gesture, usually made in the busy, stimulating environment of the mart mid -auction.

The main challenge is to make work that is relevant and engaging, but my immediate challenge is to make like a clucksmith (brooding hen), and sit on a clutch of the ideas to hatch them out

It became apparent (and should have been obvious) that some farmers wish their gestures to remain discreet, their bidding anonymous. So, a further series of portraits is planned, this time with the translators of the gestures – the auctioneers – showing the various nods, flicks and winks they interpret from the box.

The camera will take up their usual position looking out to the ring, and the auctioneers will occupy the farmers’ place, around the ring, making gestures to me. I can imagine what some of them might be, too.

Farmers taking part have been given single use cameras, also with black & white film, so that they can record the pride or concerns of their lives. I’m looking forward to collecting the cameras back and pulling together a show of the images at the Mart.

Learning new languages extends to the cloud portraits and skyscapes I have been obsessively collecting. Drawing on the farming knowledge of sky reading, weather predictions and folklore to provide layers of meaning will, I hope, make my cloud appreciation a wider pursuit. Working with farming families to explore Orkney words for clouds and weather and perhaps creating some new ones, this project will acknowledge the inextricable link between weather and agriculture.

Continuing this elemental journey, another project idea involves looking down, not up, and combing the beaches. Linking the 1840’s later kelp boom (for which the farmers abandoned the fields) with the invention of photography this idea explores early photographic techniques to make images of seaweed. I also hope to use iodine (the gold that was harvested from the kelp) to make some images.

Seaweed is the munch of choice for the North Ronaldsay sheep, some Shetland ponies, and is still very much used in farming today as fertiliser and feed. I’ve been eating the stuff too, and literally immersing myself in the subject. Word to the wise – if bathing in seaweed and you want to avoid boiled shrimp and crunchy snail soup, give your weed a wash before you steep it.

This project also refers to Anna Atkins’ early cyanotypes of seaweeds in the 1843 ‘Photographs of British Algae’, believed to be the first photographic book. Anna herself was believed to be the first woman photographer, although apparently Mrs Fox Talbot took a keen interest in the pioneering work of her man. I’ve been enjoying the darkroom and making tangled photograms of wracks and kelps.

Hen houses & the egg boom provide another agricultural avenue to get lost in. A trip to the musuem revealed that Orkney was the biggest egg-producing county in the UK for over fifty years. Examining the boom and the factors leading to its demise (including the devastating storm of 1952) through a photographic study of henhouses is next on my project plan.

I aim to contrast the earlier economically rewarding, large-scale industry with current smallholdings and free-range poultry keepers, possibly with audio recording of people recalling the boom.

And then there are the buses. Everywhere a bus. The pragmatic Orcadians, natural recyclers, find farmyard uses for a bus I never imagined – greenhouses, grain stores, sheds, hen houses. I fancy making a gallery full of photographs of them.
I haven’t begun to tell you of the beasts, rare breeds, native breeds, favoured breeds, reared on the sweet Orkney grass. I look forward to working with farmers to identify the specific characteristics that encourage them to maintain their breed for economic or aesthetic reasons.

One farmer talked about liking black cows in his field when discussing his breeding strategy at a recent seminar. This struck me as a peculiarly visual motivation that calls for a photograph.

There are rich pickings in the fantastic farm museums (one dedicated to early and one to later 19th century) and the superb photographic archive, especially Tom Kent’s beautiful images. If I sound giddy, I think I am.

Whether looking to the skies, looking into henhouses or looking up old Norse weather words, every day reveals something more.

The main challenge is to make work that is relevant and engaging, but my immediate challenge is to make like a clucksmith (brooding hen), and sit on a clutch of the ideas to hatch them out.

Rebecca Marr is artist in residence with Pier Arts Centre and Orkney Auction Mart

© Rebecca Marr, 2007