Ocean debris is the focus of this touring exhibition organised by the Anchorage Museum and currently on show at USC Fisher Museum of Art in Los Angeles, USA.
I am using a Mac to write, there is an iPhone on my desk, a Samsung screen looms above my head – a familiar scene to most of us.
As I witnessed first hand during a research visit, China is an incredible country, this extraordinary article highlights our combined responsibility for the impact on the earth that our lust for technology engenders. Its insightful and non-judgemental and therefore worth taking five minutes between texting to read.
I am a voracious consumer.
I hanker after knowledge that will provide insight into the way we live, so my consumption habit is not for material things, but rather for information. The New Scientist is a favourite read so when it featured a nine-page special on The Meaning of Stuff (29.3.14) I was captivated.
My viewpoint on consumption is skewed by science – the questions why and how occur frequently – only ever partially answered in my research as theories become disputed and overturned by specialists.
“The rise of a biographical approach to things has documented the myriad of taxonomies, uses and valuing regimes that objects can move through before they reach the end of their lives, if they ever do. Framing things as rubbish doesn’t just help us eliminate things from our lives, it also helps us experience the fantasy of self sovereignty and ontological separateness”.
Gay Hawkins, The Ethics of Waste (Rowman & Littlefield 2006).
Anthropologists suggest that our historical nomadic lifestyle prevented a great accumulation of possessions. The first hunter-gatherers slowly evolved to carry fire, tools and clothing, starting to mark themselves out as individuals by garnering objects that reflected status and skills, as they travelled. This “extended phenotype” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Extended_Phenotype) proposed by the eminent scientist Richard Dawkins, adds weight to those archaeologists who argue that our sense of self was established early and its sophistication distinguishes us from other animal species. As a sedentary lifestyle developed it allowed the accumulation of possessions and defined hierarchies within communities. This form of society nurtured a material culture where the display of tokens of grandeur and power reinforced respect and authority – evidenced in the wearing of fine clothes and jewellery. The level of sedentariness drove settlers to accumulate more goods and more livestock to insure against disasters, which entailed acquiring containers for hoarding and buildings and pens for housing the animals. The gradual sprawl of settlements can easily be linked to the history of food, as discussed by Carolyn Steel in Hungry City (Chatto & Windus 2008), whilst embryonic politics and economies emerged with goods being bartered to oil the wheels of peaceful relationships with neighbouring communities.
“The consumer age is predicated on the idea that we no longer consume to live, but live to consume. This ideology of consumption determines how individuals perceive and interpret the world around them; making consumption the dominant social paradigm.”
Hidden Mountain: The Social Avoidance of Waste , Edd de Coverly, University of Nottingham, Pierre McDonagh, Dublin City University Business School, Lisa O’Malley & Maurice Patterson, University of Limerick
Today, we clearly recognise that the possessions we buy tell others about our extended selves. It is not simply about owning things but which things – the right things – this of course changes depending on who you are. Objects reveal “Who we are, where we have been and perhaps where we are going” states Russell Belk, York University in Toronto, Canada whilst Catherine Roster at University of New Mexico, Albuquerque suggests that they are “repositories of ourselves”. She believes that the value can vary significantly from each individual and that its material value does not always influence the actual value to the owner. Here an emotional underpinning is prevalent, starting very early in babies as revealed in their relationships to basic things such as a favourite blanket or toy.
Humans get emotionally attached to certain possessions – usually those that hold sentimental memories. Scientists have found that triggering an emotional response to an object will lead to greater sales of goods. The current innovative project Shelflife, run through Oxfam charity shops, is cleverly tapping into this theory by enriching an object’s narrative through the potential purchaser being able to digitally read the story behind it on an Oxfam app. http://shelflife.oxfam.org.uk/how_it_works/
Andy Hudson-Smith in the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London originally devised the project in 2012. Hudson-Smith reasoned that a digital society could connect with the story buried in the physicality of an object and thereby tap into an emotive thread, but through electronic means. The idea has led to an increase in sales for Oxfam and a widening of the project’s scope to include more retail outlets.
So how does this information inform and guide my art practice?
My own struggle against the fabrication of ‘stuff’ is well documented, made particularly difficult as a sculptor driven to create yet not wanting to contribute to an already ‘over-stuffed’ world. Consequently, my practice ethos is to work with existing objects whenever possible so not to contribute to the mountain of possessions but instead to seconder and reinvent. The conceptual underpinning is vital leading an approach that demands the innovative use of found objects and a considerable amount of searching for that particular metaphorical ‘thing’. Cognitive battles ensue with a rewriting of the discarded and their repositories of memories redefined.
“We are embedded in our trash – there is no way to leap beyond it and build a utopia without garbage, to address the contradiction between the world’s limited resources and our seemingly unlimited ability to manufacture trash. Its production is rooted in survival, represented in every culture, and magnified by economic success. To purge the earth of garbage would be to destroy our own reflection.”
John Knechtel, Trash (Alphabet City Media Inc 2007)
My passion for the tactile and the eroded emerges in sculpture that in its corporeality reveals brooding degradation: the peeling layers inviting a meditation on the narrative exposed. The work appears in distress – juxtaposing incongruous matter to create visual poetry is precarious. Balancing a metaphysical perspective to harmonise or argue with scientific evidence is challenging. This disputed landscape is inhabited with vigour until I retreat leaving the work to command its own domain.
“Artists don’t aim for a reductive simplicity but they, too, have an encompassing sense of what Coleridge called ‘cohaerence’ – ‘the clinging together’ of all the elements in a work to make some kind of whole which is psychically satisfying. This is not to suggest that there is an ultimate fixed reality to be found but the artist’s personal vision will re-inform and reinvent a view of it, sometimes honing in on things that are apparently redundant and inconsequential and paradoxically presenting us with a coherent reflection of a corner of reality that we perhaps should not overlook.”
Siân Ede, Art and Science (Taurius & Co ltd 2005)
Beautiful Dystopias Collection
Wall based sculpture – part of the Book of Revelations Series (see below).
Materials: old gilt frame, found feathers, resin
Tension between our greed for oil and the impact this has on wildlife is evoked in Obsession. Fauna is metaphorically represented through the reference to seabirds dying from oil slicks, abstracted by submerging found feathers in black resin, captured within an old gilt frame. The black resin forms pools of glistening liquid mimicking oil.
This new work has been revealed at Mill Yard Studios ‘Small’ exhibition – on till 22 December. Find the gallery in Staveley, Cumbria, UK. Open Thursday to Sunday 11- 4
Developments of this work can be found on blog posts 14 August and 6 September.
Book of Revelations Series 2012-13
A series of wall based sculptures.
The work silently contemplates a fractured reality: the relationship between contaminated environs and the anthropocentric compass – a dishevelled mourning. The peeling layers invite a meditation on the narrative exposed, whilst the found objects transpose and complicate the space from painting towards sculpture – settling in neither. The brooding degradation is juxtaposed against the unsettling extravagance of the golden frame.
Our view is framed. The duality of being is that we seek the security of frameworks in our lives whilst remaining curious about the wider world. Science and art informs and nurtures our quest for expansion to the physical and metaphysical worlds we inhabit. The magnitude and monumental narrative of the planet ignite wonder yet conversely endow a sense of insignificance to mortal man.
Harnessing the redundant golden frame as a symbolic border, one that demarcates the contents as worthy of being luxuriously wrapped, the sculptures present artefacts dislodged from our focus of possession. The discarded, retrieved and redefined objects are imbued with metaphor and meaning.
The damaged frame, holding fragmented spaces whilst clinging to the precious cargo, defies the loss and reveres its ostentatious past. Metaphorically, the frame highlights the paradoxical interconnectedness between destruction and renewal, past and present, consumption and disposal. The fractured structure signals the frailty of the framework as an illusion of security.
“It’s less about the numbers – it’s more about the way we live’. Stephen Emmett 2013
Hear scientist Stephen Emmett, Microsoft Lab, Cambridge, discuss the critical factors in our self-destruction with other notables on this BBC Radio 4 programme. We are the drivers of climate change, water stress, land degradation, lack of biodiversity and food shortages. Despite birth rates falling globally in the last forty years there are more people alive – ten billion predicted for the turn of the century. How will we live?
This old photo from the Humboldt State University Library Special Collections 1915 era captures lumberjacks working among the redwoods in California. Photographed by Swedish photographer A.W. Ericson at the time when tree logging was at its peak – to exploit the natural resources for a rapidly developing nation. The image calls to mind not only the monumental presence of these magnificent trees but also the sheer determination and hard manual labour required to extract them. In contrast to today with machinery not only enabling felling to be significantly more productive, it also distances us from the act and does that matter. Presuming that the machines have also engendered higher safety measures and therefore fewer accidents, have they also brought avarice and plunder of our forests?
What are we doing still using drinking-quality water to flush our toilets?
As the powerful water masters meet in Bonn, Germany this week we hope water conservation and sensible usage gets an airing on the agenda. Only 2.5% is freshwater on our planet so its a precious resource we should protect. Scaremongering of water-wars in the future is not so stupid when you study the facts. This article makes interesting reading.
Photograph – I took this shot of Lake Windermere in March 2013. Windermere is the largest natural lake in England. I am currently working on a commission from Friends of the Lake District with the theme of water pollution. http://www.lakedistrict.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/170623/windermere_catchment_restoration_programme_leaflet.pdf
A small collection of sculptures will be created from the salvaged debris collected on a mass dive to the Lake depths.
Digital photomontage created from a photograph of flotex carpet magnified 100 times using a scanning electron microscope at uclan, images of real bees and actual gas masks.
The work above was created this winter in response to the research I have been doing over the last few years investigating the decline in bee population and its possible causes. The alarming news that bee decline has reached 30% in the western world has made the issue become mainstream news. The value of this insect to us is difficult to estimate, in 2005 the figure £130 billion was made, as it is vital for pollinating our crops. 90% of the world’s food focuses on a hundred crop species and over 70 of these rely on bees to pollinate them.
Scientists have shown that the grave reduction in bee numbers is due to air pollution, intensive farming, over-cropping, loss of flowering plants, decline in beekeepers, a lethal pinhead-sized parasite that has been wiping out colonies in the last 30 years (Varroa destructor) and most importantly the increased use of pesticides and herbicides.
The insecticide neonicotinoid has negative affects on the bee colonies – it has been shown to scramble their navigation systems so they get lost. Sold since 1994 the insecticide forms a coat on the seeds which is then absorbed into the growing plant where some is ingested by the bees. The latest thinking is to ban these chemicals but some scientists and bee keepers are still unconvinced that the replacements will fair better with the insect.
I can not be alone in thinking that the problems endless artificial fertilisers cause should make us re-evaluate our farming methods and return to safer and more sustainable production. We can all aim to value food more, eat less, expect less, share more and generally take better care of the creatures who buzzzzz past us.