Standing on the flat beach, the sea far out at low tide, I could feel the salt suspended in the air, the moist breeze coating my skin, drying my lips. Then suddenly, from the far corner where the coastline curves and disappears behind the headland by the rocks, a glowing mass was picked up by the wind and hovered just above the surface of the beach; it glowed, visible but not solid, almost liquid in appearance. It snaked along the ridged sands towards me at speed, and passed through me, the sharp sand scratching my eyes as I squinted, and grating the delicate skin on my cheeks as I held my breath so not to inhale it. I turned to watch these golden ghostly snakes continue up the beach behind me. The sunlight glistening off their backs, illuminating their curved path. And after that brief moment they were gone, sucked into the dry beige wall of the dunes. I took another breath and continued walking.
My art practice centres on an understanding of landscape based on the Japanese term 'fukei', a word that means 'landscape' but is constructed from two characters which individually translate as 'flow' or 'wind', and 'view': drawing the landscape as a "flowing view" in a constant state of flux. This meaning acts in contrast to the English word 'landscape' which has its origins in the picture of scenery, a static representation that, for me, seems removed from the experience of place.
On one hand, this flowing view comes from the landscape itself; from the natural energies within the environment. This energy takes many forms, both visible and invisible to the eye; the sunlight bringing illumination to make the world visible, whilst also providing nourishment for growth of plants, grasses and trees; the breeze has the power to shake tree branches and build dunes from fine dried sands; the force of the moon pushing and pulling the tide. I am very much interested in how all these different energies communicate and affect our connection and interaction with the land. The other side of this 'flowing view' relates to the physical experience of being in place, in that much of what we experience is when we are moving through places. Even if the land appears still and static, we are not. We pause temporarily, maybe to admire a view; to catch breath after climbing a hill; or to locate the source of a sound heard nearby; but then we must continue and move on.
More recently, the term 'flow' has been used to describe a particular state of being. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of 'flow' takes principles from both phenomenology and information theory to describe how we can attain optimal experience by tuning our attention which in turn tunes our consciousness:
Experience is sensual, physical. It is the taste of salt on lips whilst walking by the sea, it is the distant sounds of waves crashing on rocks, it is the putrid smell of rotting seaweed at low tide that has built up along the sea wall, it is the sensation of uneven ground underfoot, felt through the sole of a boot; it is the subtle changes in light and temperature as the sun passes behind a thin cloud.
These phenomenological experiences of place also affect our internal selves; we remember, we imagine, we feel emotions, we connect; making awareness both and external and physical experience, and internal, emotional matter.
In her autobiographical essay, A Sketch of the Past, Virginia Woolf describes formative experiences throughout her life, with a particular interest in time when 'shocks' or 'moments of being', as she often called them, occurred. These terms describe instances of heightened awareness that she experienced, including her earliest memory:
Sometimes these 'moments of being' come as spectacular and unexpected events, whereas in other instances they can be found through observation, intense observation that brings about this moment of clarity and awareness. Self awareness is a significant factor in recognising these moments, Woolf believed one had to be attuned to these 'moments of being' in order to access them, and that they could be developed through training. Woolf was influenced by Henri Bergson's ideas on experience, placing importance on how we experience. Bergson was interested in how we can deepen and widen our experiences of everyday life. He uses the term 'duration' to describe the authentic means of experiencing time (as opposed to the commonly depended upon 'clock-time').
Although there is no evidence to suggest either Woolf or Bergson were read on Eastern philosophy, their ideas on experience relate strongly to concepts of Zen Buddhism. This teaches that all people are capable of experiencing heightened awareness through practice, meditation for example. The purpose of meditation being to induce a sense of awareness, of a higher consciousness, in the practitioner. This awareness not only relates to the sensations experienced but also the reaction to the sensation.
Walking is one of the most basic forms of meditation and much has been written on this and how it is inducive to creativity. Walking is an important part of my own practice and I would go so far to say that the walk is as important as the process of image making. So as I was walking, I would notice certain movements in the water, the grasses, the trees, the shadows and normally work with these movements in a still image format using extended exposure times. I began to find the still image restrictive in representing all these energies and rhythms within the environment, this led me to start working with moving image.
I approached the process in a similar way to a photograph, in selecting an area of focus and then making a very conscious decision not to pan or zoom whilst filming, thus allowing the energy of the sea, or the wind or the light to create the rhythm within the frame. In doing this, like when I would previously work with extended exposures, I could set the camera to record and then remain present within the environment, I could still experience the space directly rather than through a lens. Setting working processes like these are really important to me as I want my creative process to have as little interruption as possible on my direct experience. As the camera was recording, I was able to engage myself within the space, and it is during these times that I begin to form my responses, not only through the camera, but by writing my thoughts as they come to me, by picking up objects which I later work with in the darkroom, recording sounds and words that I notice myself thinking. As well as building the relationship between myself and the space, I use all these elements when I go back and start to play with all that I have collected and recorded, which all becomes knitted into the work as I develop it. The film works as a way to translate the relationship between myself and the space. I have also found that the films provide a very different form of engagement for the viewer than they would get with a series of still images. The rhythms and changes in pace help form a meditative experience that comes closer to the direct experience of the place.
In Flirting with Space, David Crouch describes landscape as " fleshy, felt, imagined, affected and affects. It is of presence, [it is] bodily..." Crouch describes the transference of energy that occurs between the self and space, and time, as flirting. Flirting suggests an intimacy with place, a sensual connection for which observation and awareness are key. Flirting is closely related to the ideas of flow that I discussed earlier in that it is dependent on the energy both in the environment itself and between the environment and the self. Flirting happens in journeys, and is not an instantaneous act; flirting requires a duration:
Flirting also involves a certain performative quality, it is a creative act which in my case is formed by videos, photographs and writing.
When making the short films, I found myself drawn to how static the path seemed amongst the shifting environment around it, and I thought about myself, my body, on the path within all this external activity. This led me to go back to see how I could respond to these new realisations using still image formats.
I set myself processes that act as a way to limit my control photographically. For example, in photographing along the path, whenever I stop to take a photograph of the path, I also take a photograph to both my right and my left. In all cases the focal distance is preset and remains the same, causing areas, particularly where the grasses and brambles are too close for the lens to focus on are thrown out of focus. I find this way of working allows me to remain present in the moment, in the experience of the walk. It is also important to recognise that the process is also subject to interruption, a sound can distract me, or the need to change the roll of film can cause me to forget to photograph the three positions that I set myself. Although I am working in a process-driven manner, I am still working intuitively with the space.
I chose to work using a vertical panoramic format as a way to directly refer to myself in the place. Proportionally, panoramic format is very human, and with the path I was working with being narrow, as if set for a solitary walker, the narrowness of the image format seemed a natural fit. In his book The Life of Lines, Tim Ingold discusses our relation to paths:
What Ingold describes here relates closely to Crouch's ideas on flirting, in that when the body and the environment interact (and it is a two-way process) each affects and is affected by the other. So, alike the controlled method I set myself, the path itself acts as a parameter. In terms of time, the path determines the duration, is the duration. The rhythm of the walk is affected by the path and the body. The body with its natural rhythm, speed and strength; the path with its inclines, slopes, steps and curves, its variety of surfaces, smooth, soft, hard and uneven ground. All these things determine the rhythm and have the potential to interrupt it, thus the rhythm of the walk becomes naturally embedded within the work.
This essay is based on the paper, Landscape: Flows and Flirtations, presented at Landscape Studies: Place and Photography research dialogue day, hosted by the Photography Research Group at the University of Plymouth on 16th March, 2016.
- Bachelard, G. Dialectics of Duration. Clinamen Press, 2000.
- Crouch, D. Flirting with Space: Journeys and Creativity. London: Routlegde, 2010.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Rider, 2002.
- Foley, M. Life Lessons from Bergson. London: Macmillan, 2013.
- Ingold, T. The Life of Lines. London: Routledge, 2015.
- Vartanian, I. Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers. New York: Aperture, 2006.
- Woolf, V. Moments of Being. London: Grafton, 1989.