Impress 8 – Art, Space and Nature

20 Mar 2013 in Outer Hebrides, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

An Lanntair, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, until 24 March 2013

AN ANNUAL installation by the students on the Art, Space and Nature masters course at Edinburgh University has now become part of the An Lanntair calendar.

COURSE tutor Donald Urquhart established the Western Isles connection. It is possible this will alternate with course visits to Orkney. The pattern is that a group of students first visits as a field trip. They then have a period to continue their investigations and research.

When they return to the Island, they install a group show, exploring responses to what has struck the individual artists and sparked off further work. The first installation, three years ago, was in the corridor and bar area but the quality of work led to last year’s offer of installing in the main gallery. I felt it was a show brimming with ideas so was not surprised to see the space offered to this year’s students. Sadly it is only on show for a week.

Tanja Geis - Seafoam

It’s fortunate that Northings is still active, just long enough to draw attention to a body of work that might otherwise hardly be noticed. And I’m glad to be able to sign-off from a happy long-term relationship with this excellent forum, on a positive note. But where will we find its like – a skillfully edited and well presented Journal, fairly presenting comment across all the arts, as they relate to the Highlands and Islands?

This is a body of work brimming with a sense of adventure. Pieces vary from provisional expressions of a developing idea to pieces which seem to me to have already found a satisfying form for the ideas behind them. The range of media is wide but all works do home-in to our small geography. But there is an implicit sense of comparison – our context in a wide world.

Take Stephanie Getta’s Dic | Seanphacail | Sayings. It is a work in three languages. A simple but well-designed pamphlet gathers the proverbs of an area in the Dolomites and those of the Isle of Lewis. The work is the gathering and comparison, diligently researched, quietly presented and likely to be ongoing. A small group of plastic cups for the ear are suspended as an offer to listen to the languages of Gaelic and Ladin.

Tanja Geis represents the luxurient sea-foam which has been such a feature of recent storms. The meeting of ocean and shore is recorded in photography but this becomes two large scale long rectangles, inviting comparison. They are like positive and negative images, richness come from sheer energy. She sets this by a “haleidoscope” where salt crystals turn inside a hand-shaped cylinder carved from a piece of discarded shipyard oak. The timber, from a decommissioned fishing vessel, has been giving a new life. Both pieces are beautiful objects but are also part of an exploration.

Sara Ockland - Walk Away

Sara Ockland - Walk Away

In contrast, the exploration of possibility seems more to the fore than a finished presentation in the work shown by Sara Ockland. She continued the group’s relationship with the traditional boat society, Falmadair. The whole group sailed the last of the original north Lewis lugsail boats, sgoth Jubilee, during their field trip. Sara was taken back out into the approaches to Stornoway harbour by skipper Jim McWhir. A series of like discs were painted with a fairly wild shade of red to enter the water, but tethered together so all could be recovered. Although they did not present enough surface area to be affected by wind, the drift induced by tidal current and small waves sent them drifting in divergent lines.

For me, this is an idea that could continue to be explored. The discs themselves looked startling on the grey gallery floor and led you to a small, simple image of their distribution on the sea. But it’s surely part of a Masters Degree course that there is room to set an idea in motion. Perhaps some artists work by forming the idea and thinking out its practical representation in advance and others have to try this and try that till it all seems right. It’s interesting too that some artists on this course come from a background in architecture or in landscape architecture and others from fine-art. For some it may be the first time they have exhibited a made work, outside a formal commission.

Luskentyre beach has proved a draw on all the course field-trips. It’s character is caught by Javier Vidal Aguilera, who exhibits 99 small prints. They are derived from photographs of seaweed traces. It reminded me of Helen Douglas’s work, gathered in one of Alec Finlay’s pocketbook series in the sense that it is a subtle, sustained study of a simple but beautiful found thing. But something mysterious happens here, in the translation from digital photograph to monochrome print on semi-transparent paper. The whole series taken on one day (another number 9 in the date) adds a shamanistic element. The observed natural debris has become a mysterious calligraphy.

Sandra Teixera - 32000 Folds

Sandra Teixera - 32000 Folds

This work naturally chimes with Sandra Teixera’s “32,000 folds”. It is a prayerful commitment – representing 1,000 salmon, in small origami models. These are suspended on monofilament line and allowed to move to any air-currents. They ask more then they tell – perhaps there is a native North American parallel to the Gaelic tradition of the salmon of knowledge. Perhaps there is an implicit comparison with the free-swimming wild fish and its densely-farmed, genetic cousin.

Flavia Salvador has observed what Robert Livingston once called “the zen of passing places” in a Northings blog. You look ahead and show courtesy, guaging your speed so perhaps you might not even need to stop. The idea uses the space offered by the particular gallery to meditate on an observed tradition of passing a waved greeting across the space outside the nearly-meeting cars. One text is carefully painted on one wall and you look twice to see how it corresponds with the answering phrase, opposite. The work is a poem. It is gentle but depends on wit to express the observation.

Flavia Salvador - The Passing Place

Flavia Salvador - The Passing Place

A direct quotation catalogues the work of Zhongying Ren: “Man is ruled by land, land is ruled by heaven, heaven is ruled by Tao, and Tao is ruled by nature.” In one sense this work relates to the seafoam wall, round the corner of the L-shaped space. Crumpled metal foil replicates the strange natural phenomena in a contrasting material. It’s like a metaphysical conceit in poetry – where an extravagant or daring metaphor brings you to study one thing by likening it to another. I had to stoop low to see the foil reflected in a floor-level band of uncrushed foil on the wall. Perhaps this is another work where the present visual form is not the final result of a developing idea.

There is a turning point in any L shape and Jonathan Hemelberg probably unwittingly follows his tutor, Donald Urquhart, in carrying a work around that corner. Urquhart’s last show here, really did play music with the opportunities of the space. Drawing has returned, big time, to the art world. This artist draws a simple, alternative map. Significant features – a lighthouse, a broch, are placed in a landscape of swirls that could be contours. Written diary-like comments note a personal reaction to our landscape. But you could argue that any phrase in common use was someone’s personal reaction once. To quote from the lore of a region in the Dolomites:

“Då lå Madònå dei Chèrmin i òrjes doveså ˘spièr.”

“On the day of our Lady of Carmel the barley should start to spike.”

It’s good to know there’s a summer of some kind coming.

© Ian Stephen, 2013