The following text is an edited transcript of an artist’s talk given by Paul Evans at Bloc Projects, Sheffield, on Thursday 25 October 2012 (as part of the ‘Scale’ programme).
Soon after we were invited to exhibit at Bloc by the artist and curator Becky Bowley, we had a meeting to discuss content for the exhibition, possible themes, and to talk about a title for the project. It was at this meeting that Brian Lewis, publisher for Longbarrow Press – and the driving force behind this project – suggested the word scale.
To be honest, I wasn’t at all sure about the title at the time – it seemed like such a small word, scale – just five letters to encompass the variety and range of content that we were discussing and, like many words, it seemed a little bit slippery in terms of meaning. To cite just three examples, the word scale might refer to a rigid plate that grows out of the skin of certain animals; a musical scale; or, as the poet Matthew Clegg points out, it might be used to refer to the act of climbing: to scale a cliff face – to measure yourself, your human scale, against the layers of time in rock strata …
Although we make reference to skin in this exhibition (not to the skin of those ‘certain animals’ that grow scales, but to vulnerable, naked, human skin), the principal use of this word scale – the idea of scale that connects with and is conveyed through the works on display – is really the ‘scale’ of proportion; and, in particular, our human proportion – or proportions – in relation to the landscape… and perhaps by extension our relationship to deep time and to the forces at play in the universe.
Even within this use of the word, the idea of scale as proportion remains slippery and our concepts of scale continue to slide – sometimes out of control…
Here’s a quote from Sir Arthur Eddington, a British early 20th Century astrophysicist. It states an idea that I’m rather fond of:
A human is halfway in size between an atom and the known universe.
And here’s another quote from the philosopher Holmes Rolston. Rolston, if you haven’t heard of him, is best known for his contributions to environmental ethics and to the relationship between science and religion (I doubt he’s very popular on the European philosophy circuit, but I happen to have a soft spot for unfashionable philosophers…)
The human world stands about midway between the infinitesimal and the immense. The size of our planet is near the geometric mean of the size of the known universe and the size of the atom. The mass of a human being is the geometric mean of the mass of the earth and the mass of a proton. A person contains about 1028 atoms, more atoms than there are stars in the universe. Such considerations yield perhaps only a relative location. Still, questions of place and proportion arise.
You can argue with this idea (and many people have done – check out the internet forums for some really difficult maths…)
You can argue on the grounds that human knowledge is limited, contingent and that we don’t really know the full extent of the universe. But I would still say that it’s a very interesting idea and – given the extent of our current knowledge – this idea of the ‘view from the centre of the universe’ certainly seems to hold water at this point in time.
It is also – possibly – a humbling idea, but that might depend on your take on religion.
What interests me most about all of this is that human beings might have a unique, perhaps privileged, viewpoint on the universe and as a visual artist, as someone who really gets off on what comes in through my retina(s) and out through my hand(s), that’s got to be interesting …
OK – that’s the cosmic bit over and done with. Now I want to get back to everybody’s favourite drunken philosopher and (arguably) the first great natural scientist – Aristotle – and another concept of scale that deals with complexity. Aristotle believed that creatures were arranged in a graded scale of perfection from plants to man, the scala naturae or Great Chain of Being.
Essentially, this is an extension of the idea that all matter is graded from the simple to the complex.
The difference in effect, however, between the idea of a central place in the cosmos for ourselves and our place at the top of it all might not seem so great – and personally I am very worried about anthropocentric (human-centred) concepts dictating any such sense of positioning; whether we are at the centre or at the apex of nature… but I do think that a sense of proportion – and some kind of understanding, however contingent, of our place in the universe – is important. Acquiring this sense of proportion might actually leave us feeling frighteningly small (which might not be such a bad thing).
I think that this is where the environmental ethics creeps into all of this…
I am not particularly religious, but I am very interested in the Christian concept of witness (which is deeply associated with the legal term meaning ‘to provide knowledgeable testimony or evidence’) and the possibility that this concept might provide us with a sense of humility – and perhaps even with a notion of purpose. As visual artists, what can we do to enhance our view of life – in a secular sense – in order to bear witness to what Richard Dawkins describes as the poetic magic of nature?
We’re going to look at three works that deal with slightly more grounded issues of scale: simplicity, complexity and relative scale. The first is a collaboration between the poet Chris Jones and myself that dates back some years now. It is titled Cells and it evolves in form each time that it is exhibited: i.e. the number of paintings and poems varies and the combination of paintings with poems also varies. In this case Brian Lewis has made a choice of 6 from 12 existing poems and paintings. Brian also put together the film that you’re about to see.
This was a collaboration that began with another slippery word: the word cell can refer to the basic organised unit of the human body or to a monastic cell – a place for retreat and contemplation. The word might also refer to a terrorist cell. The collaboration took the form of a simple and direct email exchange between Chris Jones and myself. I sent Chris some images of these abstract paintings – paintings that I happened to think look a bit like cells and he wrote haiku poems about what he saw in them.
The idea was that these delicate yet powerful haiku would be the titles for the paintings.
There is a technique in biology called the Golgi method (or sometimes Golgi’s method) where cells – most of which are pretty much colourless and transparent in nature – are stained to reveal the structures within. In this case Chris’ words have been used to stain these abstract paintings (or drawings – or they could be drawings with paint) with meaning. These are, after all, really just a few spidery marks with some abrupt, violent collisions of colour.
It was interesting how a kind of proto-narrative – a sort of apocalyptic environmental disaster – emerged out of the proto-imagery – because neither of us were expecting that…
This is an entirely different kind of collaboration. Some time ago I met up again with Chris Jones and the poet and photographer Karl Hurst. We discussed a few ideas about tissues – the next scale up in the Aristotelian organisation of the body and organs, if you wish.
I also showed them some Leonardo da Vinci drawings of organs. These included drawings of a heart, a liver, and a brain. Karl took some amazing photographs – which you can see on his flickr site.
Among those images are some photos of close-ups of two different faces. And Chris wrote a poem, which – in effect – refers to an organ: the skin. The result of this collaboration was utterly unexpected. Here’s the film:
So what was the nature of the collaboration here? I should mention that I see this as an ongoing project. We have a lot of organs and tissues to explore – and we still need to get back to those drawings by Leonardo. In this case my role was effectively curatorial – I put the images and poem together in my mind and spotted a visceral connection – and, again, it was Brian who put the film together. I am deeply impressed by the poetic connection – the connecting tissue if you like – between the recollections from youth, the memories of young skin and the skin of the older men that we see in the film. Skin weathers most – it is the most vulnerable organ of the body. You might also like to think about vellum, tanned skin, as a material that was once used to write upon…
The Seven Wonders
And so to landscape… but a response to landscape that is still laden with biological references. The following selection is a sampler from The Seven Wonders, an ongoing project that is now in its second phase. It consists of a series of pairings between landscape paintings and poems.
The Seven Wonders of the Peak were first described by the Tudor poet Michael Drayton in 1622. Then, in 1636, Thomas Hobbes wrote the poem De Mirabilibus Pecci: Being the Wonders of the Peak in Darbyshire. Hobbes’ list comprised the following: Chatsworth House, Peak Cavern, Mam Tor, Eldon Hole, St. Anne’s Well, Poole’s Cavern, The Ebbing & Flowing Well, Peveril Castle and Thimble Hall.
Apart from Peak Cavern and Mam Tor, our list differs from that of Hobbes in a way that we hope reflects the sense of wonder and sensibilities of today’s viewer or reader. Our list includes nothing man-made, only the natural wonders of Peak Cavern, Mam Tor, Kinder Downfall, Thor’s Cave, Hen Cloud, Stanage Edge and Chee Dale. It is, of course, a subjective choice.
It is well worth considering that the Derbyshire Peak District is the second most popular National Park in the world – second only, in fact, to Mount Fuji. I’m very keen on the Japanese painter/draughtsman Hokusai who made a series of images titled 36 views of Mount Fuji between 1826 and 1833. You could also see The Seven Wonders as a contemporary take on that project.
National Parks have been described as the ‘lungs of the city’, a phrase that has some specific poignancy – as you will soon hear.
This poem by James Caruth – which does refer to one of Hobbes’ 7 – is a poem about hubris. I tend not to include human features in my landscapes – I like the idea of places that are untamed. The strata that we see in this image are the relicts of a road that attempted to master this hill but failed owing to a landslip – a faultline in the hillside above. I like the fact that they look like strata, although they will be nowhere near as enduring.
Ekphrasis or ecphrasis is the graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art. In ancient times it referred to a description of any thing, person, or experience. The word comes from the Greek ek and phrasis, ‘out’ and ‘speak’ respectively. This is a concept that was unfamiliar to me until I met Angelina Ayers earlier this year.
In her poem (Peak Cavern), Ayers is describing her experiences of encountering the surface of this painting. The language has an amazing physicality: she refers to ‘milky rock’, ‘tumour limestone’ and – affectively – ‘like a perished tooth rinsed out with rain’
What is sometimes intriguing about a painting is the way that meaning and association can accrue to it – paintings can be sticky things. I’m now making a link – for example – between the cavernous eye sockets in Karl Hurst’s photos for Skin and the yawning mouth of the cave – which, by the way, has been cleansed of the tourist paraphernalia that now clutters the opening of the Devil’s Arse.
I also recently watched the Lars Von Trier film Melancholia and was struck by the similarity between the surface of this painting and the surface of the planet that collides with the earth.
In a way this is another ekphrastic encounter – Fay (in her poem ‘Phlegmatic’) is responding to the painting more than to the landform. In fact Fay did not actually visit Kinder Scout. Again, there is a visceral physicality here – something that relates to bodily processes: she refers to the internal and the external, to ‘out of control’ bodily fluids, to the ‘wet-lashed gape of this caged lung’…
The other thing about this poem is that it brings us right back to a geographical proximity with place – here and now. The moor referred to in the poem is not the ancient peat bog that covers the Kinder Plateau, it is The Moor – a pedestrianised shopping area just a few hundred metres away from where we’re sitting.
We can try to escape the man-made world in philosophical speculations that spread out into the far reaches of the universe, but in the end we must always return to human culture and – away from considerations of the sublime, because as you’ve probably guessed by now I have a deep interest in this old-fashioned notion – the human animal is very grateful for the comfort blanket that culture provides.
Paul Evans 2012
Many thanks to Bloc Projects for hosting this event – and for their support of the Scale programme.