ART AS METAPHOR
Ice Melting, Ocean Rising
In March 1985, I was struggling to write about my final degree show in a Project Report for a master’s degree in Art and Design. It had to introduce and explain what the series of work was about, show the exploration and research that informed decisions, while also including references to the Postmodern theories.
Looking back, my original idea for the MA theme was ludicrous and far too simplistic. I planned to base work on a specific area of rock pools in Scarborough’s South Bay.. One of my preparatory photographs resembled a blood capillary. It seemed I had exchanged an image through a microscope, for rock through the lens of water. It was exciting, a recognition that similarities are repeated endlessly on different scales, within the boundaries of our natural world. I recalled words T.S. Elliot wrote in Burnt Norton:
The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the dance of stars…
I had never considered this repetition of forms and interconnectivity before. Similar yet different in size and material. I rediscovered a delight in mark making, celebrating the joy of seeing and being. Joy that things live and exist, wonder because rock, sand, sea, sky have the appearances of eternity and yet are constantly mutating, shifting, and transforming.
The criticism that I was not addressing darker problems, the black destroying side of this landscape, stopped me in my tracks. It suggested I was only concerned with the decorative, sensual side to the detriment of content. I was making illustrations of appearances and of only one aspect. “What do you see when you look into a rock pool?” I was asked. Obediently, when next on the beach, I stared into one and saw the sky reflected in the water. To see into the actual pool below the surface, required a change focus by narrowing my eyes into a squint. Which was the true image? Layers of meaning, layers of seeing, but how to make images reflecting this? The practical work needed to explore dissolving boundaries, mutability, fragility and uncertainty.
Then my husband suddenly died. It was this personal bereavement, beyond all else that made me widen my ideas, look at my experience in a broader context. Rock pools were no longer enough. My theme became larger, to consider the rapid erosion of the Yorkshire coast, how it was formed, how it was changing. It was a personal journey to come to terms with loss by studying the natural cycle of life and death.
I didn’t have the courage to return to the MA straight away and this proved beneficial. The interval allowed me to find some solutions. Baudrillard wrote that a work of art should address “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half of art is the eternal and immutable.” Back in the 1990s I had to break away from the traditional way of painting land and seascapes. To manage this, the choice of using the right material became important. I tried as Hockney wrote to use “whatever technique I thought best for a situation…” It is thanks to my mentor’s suggestion, to glue layers of corrugated card together, that I began to see a path. It immediately made the surface three dimensional. I recycled sections of the initial large drawings, to make surfaces to draw on and carved out channels to embed objects like shells and pebbles. The corrugated card equated to the strata of cliffs that enclose fossils, to layers of experience. These images became The Song Line Series.
It still wasn’t enough. My final solution became the Memory, Transformation and Metamorphosis Series. I used papier mâché from all the paper that came into the house over a couple of months, like envelopes, wrapping paper etc, the ephemera of daily life. The shredding required to make paper pulp, satisfied a need to ritualise and the raw material incorporated both past and present, also an acknowledgement of the millions of dead sea creatures that had formed the sand and rock in the first place. It seemed a satisfactory metaphorical solution, it was light and could be made rocklike. Scraps of glossy magazines in the mix, left traces of colour like fragments of shells, wisps of memory. I built cairns for the dead from towers of pebbles and the dried seaweed became twisted into beautiful shapes echoing bone. I photocopied actual shells, crabs, sea urchins on film, to resemble water. Finally, I displayed these objects within plastic boxes so everything was visible. These were suspended by rope and fishhooks space so both sides could be seen but only one side at once – high and low tide.
I decided the last thing I wanted, was to present the notes as a normal A4 document, but rather make it an art object. A tutor helpfully suggested I read Italo Calvino’s Six Memos Towards the New Millennium as a possible way to organise the Project Notes. The essays were about Literature but easily applied to visual art. My chapters looked at the qualities of rock, water, colour, scientifically, in religion and myth, prose and poetry. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, divided sections of narrative, between straight and italic prose. It influenced my use of semi-transparent tracing paper for the fictional writing, while allowing glimpses of the illustrations beneath. All paper had torn edges like strata in a cover made of Japanese paper, bound with string. The writing gave me a voice to disagree with some of the views put forward on the course and not only explain the thinking behind the artwork but also what had influenced me through my life. It’s a chance few artists are given. Usually art work has to stand alone, open to viewer interpretation with perhaps some help from the title. It was both an enjoyable and educational experience. My fears about writing it were needless, I had so much material I could have written a book. The difficulty was to edit it down to the 8000-word count specified!