This laser scan of the sea surface off the Isle of Portland came to mind as Neil, the river keeper, was pointing out how the ripples and swellings on the surface of the Test can reveal what’s happening beneath. Variations in flow and depth are exploited by the fish; slow eddies as resting places, fast flows to bring food downstream. Just as the fish play these currents to their advantage, so the angler reads the surface signs to reveal the fish’s likely location. Well, my next task is to understand this fluid lexicon for myself. [This laser scan of The Race off Portland was part of A Natural History of Pseudomorphs.]
It keeps coming up, in the books I am reading (The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent), the films I am watching (Arrival by Denis Villeneuve (dir), above), the same theme in different guises: the language you speak shapes the way you think, the way you see the world: our eyes have mother-tongue filters, our vision is breast-milk clouded. Which begs the question: what chance of glimpsing the world RAW*, no compression, no processing? What chance of removing the chalk-coloured filters over my eyes? What chance of finding a refreshed vision, a post-brexit perspective, one with which I can once again feel grounded?
Where to start? No place like home, the chalklands of the southeast: Surface Tensions. [*In digital photography, the RAW format is that with the least processing, as close to the pure digital data as possible]
A bird just flew in the window. By 1985 I was a PhD student in the Zoology Department of Edinburgh University, studying a small corner of animal behaviour: how games theory might be applied to the feeding and fighting behaviour of the Great Tit. Somewhat esoteric, I admit, but at the time I didn’t realise just how much this was stretching me, beyond my limit. Living in the Edinburgh Colonies, where I rented a room off architect Richard Murphy, and happily spending weekends exploring the Highlands, my working week was dedicated to understanding bird behaviour through pure theory. It required me to exclude all emotion, all intuition, any personal connection with my subjects, to efface all trace of myself – snap.
It was then that I came across a second-hand book on ‘living with birds’ by an eccentric English naturalist. So intimate, so personal, so heartfelt, so antagonistic to the cerebral approach needed for the PhD that it shook me out of my science-trance. Reading that hardback I realised I could no longer complete my three-year research programme and write my thesis without damaging myself. A few months later I bailed out of the PhD and returned south, to London.
Over the intervening years that catalytic tome became an increasingly faint memory, a frail reminder of my u-turn from science towards art (first Camberwell Art Foundation, then Kingston BA, followed by Royal College MA) as I had lost my copy and couldn’t remember the title or author’s name. Until yesterday, that is.
An email arrived from Pushkin Press advertising their latest release, Bird Cottage, about the life and times of Gwendolyn ‘Len’ Howard and her 1950s best seller ‘Birds as Individuals’. To be reconnected with that book, and with it to reinnervate those lost avian pathways – what an unexpected gift. A long-missed bird just flew in the window! [In memory of Pete Marsh, a fellow traveller in Edinburgh]
For a time I shared a flat with the Japanese illustrator, Satoshi Kitamura, above an abandoned shop at the top end of Ladbroke Grove, just across the Regents Canal from Kensal Green. My grandmother is buried there, in the family grave at Kensal Green Cemetery. That was an introverted time; the cemetery came to monopolize my imagination. I ended up making a series of works about it; animated walks through that sepulchral landscape. So here is my sketchbook from then, filled with flip-book maps of the cemetery layout. Later I came across GK Chesterto’s poem, The Rolling English Road, which ends with the line “Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green”. I have never forgotten the feel of that place, or the series of nocturnal Kodachrome images I made of the area, colour saturated, focus blurred. I am still hoping to come across those Rorschach pictures in this studio clearout. Fingers crossed. In the meantime, I have found the illustration that Satoshi drew to go above our dilapidated loo, showing how to flush by pulling a rather grotty piece of cloth tied to the cistern! [Remember Satoshi?]