The Liveliest of Elements, an Ordinary Extraordinary Material

Laura Harrington (a Leverhulme Trust funded artist in residence in Geography at Durham in 2014-15) is exhibiting the outcomes of her collaboration with Geomorphologist Jeff Warburton in a book ‘Haggs and High Places’ as part of Durham book festival and in an exhibition:

The Liveliest of Elements, an Ordinary Extraordinary Material

at the Norman Chapel, Durham Castle Saturday 10-Saturday 17 October and then Woodhorn Museum, Northumberland, from 17 October-1 November – supported by Arts Council England, The Leverhulme Trust, Durham University, The North Pennines AONB Partnership and developed in collaboration with Invisible Dust.

Laura Harrington 4

This is a shortened version of CVAC member Mike Crang’s exhibition essay.

The upland bogs and mires are aesthetically difficult places. As Emily Brady observed of the Icelandic landscape the classic categories of the agreeably beautiful, the challenging sublime or the recuperation of disorder into the picturesque say little about landscapes that might be deemed ugly.[i] The upland peatbogs of England seem as equally semiotically unstable as they are physically. The words for them though come down the ages, from the Old Norse of mȳrr to the Middle English of mēos from thence to moss and mire. These are terms that suck in sets of negative connotations – cropping up in myth and literature as the beyond of civilisation, the wild and the dangerous. In Treviso’s Middle English translation of The Properties of Things, the mires figure as a mingling of ‘water and slyme’ comprising ‘moche superfluyte of slyme and of wose’ –a language that seems fit for the oozing and unstable. [ii] The lack of stability is there in the Devon term for the boglands of Dartmoor as a ‘feather bed’ landscape due to wobble of coherent vegetation overlaying saturated peat [iii]

Laura Harrington’s Haggas and High Places section on Landscape Language asks how to approach this world where ‘every inert object, every living thing as well, sleeps under the cover of signs.. multiply wrapped under writings, folded under printed matter, gagged under images, hidden under sounds, choked under language, lost under a hundred screens?’[iv] The uplands she addresses are so clearly alive and yet so clearly denuded. A focus on the wet, the labile and vegetative is part of the problem of art for haggs and high places. They resist the easy appropriation of the lithic and stony. These have ‘proved themselves appealing to twentieth- and twenty first-century authors concerned with place-writing and the development of place consciousness more widely… [since t]he austere presence of materials which have emerged from a scale of time difficult to relate to our own has offered a humbling corrective to our modern experience.[v] As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has so ably shown stone has often functioned as the solid ground on which philosophy can rise – its unchanging obdurate other – that invokes a romantic sense of expansive time extending into the geologic past and forwards.[vi] But in a timescale of eons the appeal of rock is that it perdures, that it appears adamantine and resistant, as obdurate and unyielding.

But the high places here are not rocky mountains, but muddy ones. How then to speak of such a different more viscous materiality. In this then perhaps we see the promise for non-anthropocentric art held out by Elizabeth Grosz. For her the excess of material properties and qualities, of possible uses, enabling things to be more than self-evident creates a start for an art born out of ‘chaos’.

‘the whirling, unpredictable movement of forces, vibratory oscillations that constitute the universe. Chaos here may be understood not as absolute disorder but rather as a plethora of orders, forms, wills—forces that cannot be distinguished or differentiated from each other, both matter and its conditions for being otherwise’ [vii]

For her then science and as she terms it ‘Geography’ is the space of the map, which is regulated by measurable abstract coordinates, that is abstracted from its lived qualities. By contrast she points to a version of landscape that is a place revealed by sensation, which has no fixed coordinates but transforms and moves as a body passes through it[viii] Art then in this vision should not depict matter but enable it to resonate, intensify and become more than itself.

One can find others looking to peat landscapes in this light. Rachel Giese’s The Donegal Pictures tries to both revision bogs as a sensory experience and use their dynamic texturing and depth, their apparent (entropic) disorganisation alongside striations from turf cutting them to evoke a haptic visuality where the visual can also become tactile (subjective and close) instead of remaining solely optical (objective and distant).[ix] Alternatively performance art with water by Minty Donald looked to engage the fluidity of matter. Taking samples from rivers, but also the everyday landscape of puddles and drips and dribbles, the best term to sum up their practice was through the Scottish colloquial phrase ‘guddling about’ for giving voice to nature, and evoking play through onomatopoeia. [x]

There is as Jeffrey Cohen notes ‘the inherent metaphoricity of the material as well as the sheer materiality of metaphor’ [xi] The earth here is also a recording device for the seasons and climates past – though one that it takes science to read. The beautiful section drawings of haggs sit then alongside sparse scientific photography. It is a landscape at once bare and barren – without the fecundity in which so much ‘nature writing’ luxuriates. These denuded landscapes though call forth a sense of being an unfinished world:

a composition – a poesis – and one that literally can’t be seen as a simple repository of systemic effects imposed on an innocent world but has to be traced through the generative modalities of impulses, daydreams, ways of relating, distractions, strategies, failures, encounters, and worldings of all kinds.[xii]

The peat landscape here acts. We might ask it what has it known? The earth here is both a wandering and a grounding, a name and a substance .[xiii] Moss Flats speaks of the wild places, and the high places, yet its curiously alien and bare surface renders the matter of the earth apparent.

[i] Brady, E. (2010). The Sublime, Ugliness and “Terrible Beauty” in Icelandic Landscapes. Conversations with Landscape. K. Benediktsson and K. A. Lund. Farnham, Ashgate: 125-136.

[ii] On the Properties of Things, John Trevisa’s Translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum, a Critical Text, eds. M. C. Seymour, et al., vols. 1 and 2 (1975); vol. 3 (1988).

[iii] Tyler, D. (2015). Uncommon Ground: A word-lover’s guide to the British landscape London, faber anf faber.

[iv] pages 38-9, Serres, M. (2010). Biogea. Minneapolis, Univocal.

[v] Page 62, Smith, J. (2015). “‘Lithogenesis’: Towards a (Geo) Poetics of Place.” Literary Geographies 1(1): 62-78.

[vi] Cohen, J.J., 2015. Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

[vii] Page 6 , Grosz, E. A. (2008). Chaos, territory, art: Deleuze and the framing of the earth, Columbia University Press.

[viii] Grosz page 72.

[ix] Gladwin, D. (2013). “Eco-Haptic Photography: Visualizing Irish Bogland in Rachel Giese’s The Donegal Pictures.” Photography and Culture 6(2): 157-174. Crang, M. (2010). Visual Methods and Methodologies. The Handbook of Qualitative Geography. D. Delyser, S. Herbert, S. Aitken, M. Crang and L. McDowell. London Sage: 208-225.

[x] Donald, M. (2014). “Guddling About: Experiments in Vital Materialism with Particular Regard to Water.” The Goose 13(1): Article 35.

[xi] Cohen page 6

[xii] Page 73, Stewart, K. (2008). “Weak Theory in an Unfinished World.” Journal of Folklore Research 45(1): 71-82.

[xiii] Siewers, A. K. (2013). “Earth: A wandering.” Postmedieval 4(1): 6.


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