Time of Publication: 11/4/23 ; 14:56
Sometimes I feel as if we are just hands in drifts of white powder.
This is at the core of my practice, the notion that we are disconnected from the materials we use in all forms of craft, art and industry, and the land they are extracted from. I attempt to somehow remedy or at least question and explore this in my work. A politically motivated interest in land ownership, access, and the use of land in Britain sits alongside my exploration of the changing status of material and the intangible ties they have to their places of origin and to ourselves. In the past I have focused on the status of material that we create for ourselves, especially in our ceramic world, and how it becomes easier and easier to lose track of the finite, earth bounty, that populates our workshop shelves. I look at the sociological and ecological context of material origin to better value them and their status and role within my work.
I am also interested in the removal or erasure of objects, monuments, and places - intentional and unintentional iconoclasm, especially in the UK. I create relics, characters or symbols in an effort to memorialise these entities, as well as creating an environment for them to exist within with the viewer.
The ploughing over of a henge or earthwork is not just done because it is ideologically opposing to the ploughman, but because it is in his way – farmers ploughed through henges for the same reason they trim hedges to the verge of destruction, because they favour a neat, tidied up version of the countryside, something that is linear and flat sided and utilitarian, like Minecraft.
‘How do I make you feel this place?’ is a researched-led, site-specific project, dissecting and exploring the neolithic monument complex, The Thornborough Henges. The henges are made up of three sets of earthworks in a line, connected by a path that runs through them all. The middle henge is the most well- known and visible, but the northern is widely accepted to be one of the best-preserved henges in Britain. The site is a twenty-minute drive from the house I grew up in, where my parents still live in Markington – a small farming village just north of Harrogate.
I have been exploring and interrogating the social, geological, geographical, historical, cultural, and social context of this area, to make those viewing my work ‘feel this place’. To do this, I have taken a muti- disciplinary, cumulative approach. That means that this project will be a part of amassing in a sort of ‘cabinet of curiosities’, an installation involving sculpture, collage and drawing. I intend to evoke memories, real or invented, of the Thornborough henges.
I began by creating a small collection of figurative sculpture that depicts the historical and modern inhabitants of Thornborough. I have treated the inhabitants of Thornborough like a sort of collection or historical family, while trying to understand and highlight the conflicts that may exist between them. For example, a bronze-age woman who saw the henges erected 5000 years ago, or an employee of Tarmac, who’s probably never been to the Henges. Both will have played some role in the carving up of the landscape, just for different reasons. This investigative process has allowed me to create a symbolic language and modes of making that allow me to develop my practice without the restriction of an end point or boundary of medium.
This project explores the notion that human beings have been carving up the landscape in one way or another, since we had the pleasure of growing thumbs. Changing it, terraforming it, cultivating it, into something that makes sense to us commercially and aesthetically. The monument complex at Thornborough, and the land around it, is a perfect example of this - geological, agricultural and spiritual marks left, all commodifying the landscape in their own way.
Research into The Thornborough Henges
In order to examine Thornborough I have found it helpful to look at the area through three lenses;
Early Bronze-age ritual and spiritual activity. (The Archaeology)
- Mineral extraction
The henges are what initially drew me to the area, dug and built into the landscape around 5000 years ago by neolithic famers, creating centres for religious or ceremonial activity.
They are part of a ritual landscape, now much altered by agriculture, the very thing that allowed people to settle in the valley 6000 years ago, when humans slowly began to become sedentary. The term ritual landscape is used in archaeology to describe an extensive area of land dedicated to ceremonial activity by a ritual authority or group during the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age (around 3500-1800 BCE). Although habitations are not abundant in a ritual landscape, the following are; barrows and burial mounds, henges and stone circles, and cursus. Cursus are monumental ceremonial neolithic structures that would have resembled ditches or trenches, they often predate henges and stone circles.
Like Stone Henge, the Thornborough Henges almost definitely provided a seasonal ceremonial function, deliberately referencing the midwinter sunrise and the formation of Orion’s belt. Dr. Harding suggests that the entrances to the henges may have been formed in alignment with specific celestial bodies, but there is not enough evidence to determine which ones exactly. Unfortunately, thanks to the traditionally southern- centric nature of archaeology in Britain, a lack of interest from local universities, and the presence of mineral extraction, The Thornborough Henges and surrounding prehistoric sites have been absent from the neolithic monument complex hall of fame. The mineral extraction is also what’s to blame for the destruction of the landscape surrounding the henges, its context.
I explored this concept (of context) in an interview discussing The Thornborough Henges, with the archaeologist Dr. Jan Harding, ex-professor of archaeology and prehistory at Newcastle University. Employed by English Heritage to carry out the Archaeological investigation of Thornborough, he explained the importance of context in Archaeology in the following statement;
“When people built these monuments, when they used these monuments, they weren’t just interacting with the built space, they were interacting with the natural spaces around them. Now obviously those natural spaces back then would have looked different to how they do now, but we still have signatures of them in the current landscape. They're not archaeological signatures, they’re just natural signatures – the fall of the land, and so on and so forth. To destroy a part of a landscape that lies so close to one of the most important neolithic monument complexes in Britain is well, it's madness.” (Harding 2022)
Dr. Harding refers to the mineral extraction surrounding the henges, responsible for the destruction of any archaeology that may have existed there. In order to understand a specific place, you need to understand the context that surrounds it, in this case physically. But it’s more nuanced than that, it goes beyond what is deemed useful or archaeologically important. Land, more than anything else is what connects us to our ancestors, especially if they were interacting with it beyond commodification or yield. Interviewing Dr. Harding was very valuable in terms of obtaining first-hand information about Thornborough. However, it was the personal account, which I found very touching at times, by Jan Harding, his hopes for the complex and role in local activism that has helped to form the personality of this project, and represents the multifaceted and multifaced nature of the landscape and context that the henges exist within. By seeking advice and information from a primary source and interacting on a personal level I felt better familiarised with the parochial and human side of the narrative of Thornborough, not just the archaeology and academia of it. During unit 10 I plan to carry out more primary research like this. For example, interviewing people in the local pub and dogwalkers at the site.
The site is bordered by several sand and gravel quarries, owned by various companies including Tarmac, creating a mote of mineral extraction around the henges. Over the last thirty years, wealthy landowners have sold off the mineral rights to the surrounding land and although the henges are protected by law, the important context they once existed in is being carved up year on year. Local members of the landed gentry no longer own the physicality of the land, they own the idea of it.
This idea of the land I mentioned is a commodified version of the idyllic Yorkshire landscape we are so proud of, however to understand the landscape of Yorkshire you must recognise both the agricultural and industrial histories it holds. Both are valuable parts of the culture of the area, historically working hand in hand, to produce cloth from wool and flax. It's not to say they haven't changed and damaged this area beyond repair, prehistoric monuments are not the only thing at the mercy of mineral extraction and intensive agriculture. In 2022 the Environment Agency declared that every river in Britain was polluted.
Curiously the Henges contain the same material being quarried in the surrounding area, sand and gravel, now used as a construction aggregate in concrete and asphalt. Part of the construction of our monuments too now.
Places like Thornborough and The Yorkshire Building Society building act as relics for the materials extracted to create them. My interest in this represents the way my background in archaeology affects my practice, informing my interest in both material culture and earthly materials.
Part of my practice involves the exploration into the treatment of the environment and landscape in an industrial context. This is something we should be keenly aware of as practitioners that use clay and the materials associated with it, all of which are extracted and involved in an industrial process. The association of ceramics with the quaint image of a country potter digging their own clay is a dangerous cliché and removes responsibility from the maker. In reality, everyone working within the ceramic context, be they hobbyists, factory workers or fine art ceramicists, use highly processed, often toxic materials, that have travelled vast distances to get to us. Digging one's own clay has become more popular in the last 10 years, as has focusing more on sustainability within one's practice (recycling clay and reduced firing), however I think knowledge is just as important as action when it comes to sustainability. Within my own practice, understanding the origins of the materials I use, and their roles in other industries has informed the work and projects I choose to create.
The advent of antiquarianism and an interest in archaeology in Victorian Britain was partnered by the rise of a breed of particularly conservative and widespread Christianity. The Victorian era saw the greatest burst of church building since the Middle Ages. I believe the casual iconoclasm performed by the rural population of Britain was down to a combination of ignorance, disapproval (seeing pre-Christian sites as ungodly or heathen) and carelessness.
What is most alarming about the henges is their decline thanks to intensive farming and ploughing.
In order to create the ridges that make up the outer henges, a central circular ditch was created and what was dug out of them used to create the outer ridges. Over time, the inner ditches of the central and southern henges have been filled in by farmers, and their ridges worn down by footfall and agriculture. The entire landscape is now 25 feet lower than the original surface.
For a country that prides itself on its history, considerable time has been spent shamelessly destroying or risking its cultural heritage. Although English Heritage gave the Thornborough henges, the associated cursus and adjoining landscape Scheduled Ancient Monument status in 2004, work to conserve the central henge has only begun 20 years after campaigning to protect the site begun. I believe that the preservation of historic landscape features sits alongside the protection of the environment, as their destruction is often caused by the same problems. In order to do this one must acknowledge the relationship between farming communities and the rural environment they live in. Although I have been largely dismissive of farming practices so far in my Practice Review, I do not disapprove of farming or farmers. The damage done to the environment and historic landscape features by farmers pales in comparison to what major corporations and (corrupt right-wing) ‘successive’ governments have allowed to happen in the last 50 years alone.
Another example of a disregard for the context that surrounds sites of importance is the Stone Henge road tunnel plan, initially proposed in 1995 to “improve the landscape around the world heritage site and to improve road safety “(National Highways 2020). More information about this can be found in my appendix.
While interviewing Dr. Harding I learned that the greatest threats to Thornborough currently, were human footfall and rabbits. An interesting triangle of conundrum exists within the central henge, I have tried to explain it;
Rabbits are at the mercy of farmers, they are a first and foremost a pest (Brought to Britain as early as 1AD by the Roman gentry), like rats and crows. The henges have also been at the mercy of the farmer, Historic England describes them as having been “mutilated by cultivation" (Historic England 2012), ploughed through, filled in. The henges are also at the mercy of nature, especially rabbits who have made their home in the henges, their warrens creating a mass of cavities and tunnels. I have created a diagram to better portray and understand this issue.
I have been exploring this concept through collage, a tool which has allowed me to develop my visual language, made up of adapted symbols and important characters in the tale I wish to tell. I have played with the idea of physical, spiritual, and commercial ownership of the land by merging geographical visuals of the area, my own photos of Thornborough, my own drawings, and familiar characters from popular culture. For example, I have chosen to represent the problem of rabbits by using images from Watership Down and Peter Rabbit, stories that typically show the animal not necessarily as the victim but with an entire culture of its own.
I created a series of figures, tapping into the grand tradition of figure making within ceramics. This came from a desire to be more playful with my ideas, taking inspiration from theatre and film puppets, Victorian porcelain figurines, surrealist painters like Remedios Varo, and iconographic sculpture from the ancient world. I tried to create an atmosphere of ‘other worldliness’ around the figures, making some of their features like eyes and hands out of proportion to the rest of their bodies.
The making of these figures was accompanied by an intensive period of sketching, drawing in my sketchbook and on large pieces of cardboard. Drawing each figure before and after I made them in clay, this allowed me to form and reform their character or personality.
I enjoyed the figurative sculpture I did for the monument project, giving form to characters to tell the story of a place, I felt this was an appropriate way to draw out or give status to the characters who exist or existed within a specific context, whose gravity or effect has been overlooked or diminished. I had already explored the industrial rural landscape of Troller’s Gill, so felt more prepared to ‘unpick the bucolic’.
The content of the clay body used for the early pieces and tests has been informed by the geology of Thornborough. For example, I have added Dolomite, also known as magnesian limestone, which makes up the bedrock of this part of Yorkshire, to several samples and pieces. I have also experimented with sand, part of what makes up what is known as the drift geology of Thornborough, the sand and gravel deposits that are quarried by mineral extractors like Tarmac. (Geology table)
Although I felt the pieces succeeded in acting as relics for Thornborough, they each took at least a week to make and I wanted to work in a more iterative, experimental way. My focus on achieving my goals before enough experimentation was making my practice become stiff and uncompromising. I wasn’t applying the same framework I would apply to making functional ceramics, where I would start small and simple and work my way up. I suppose I felt I had to treat them as finished pieces because they took so much time, but this was an unhelpful barrier to experimentation and creativity. However, it has forced me to create this framework and be aware of it, instead of just doing it intuitively.
This section culminated in three main figures; the Tarmac Man, the Bronze-age Woman, and the Rabbit Trap. All three are part of the installation that imagines The 2022 conference for sand and gravel, its extraction and uses. I chose to create a rabbit trap and not a rabbit because I wanted to create a commentary around the maintenance of the countryside on a wider level, the fact it is a humane trap, where the rabbit wouldn’t die creates the suggestion of a rabbit without having to create one physically.
I wanted to create a parallel between these three forces, they each are, or were responsible in some way for extraction at Thornborough, they exist as physical legacies of human intervention into the landscape.
The Thornborough collection will grow to involve characters like;
The henges possible inspiration, Orion and his belt
- The Archaeologist, loosely based of Dr. Harding, protector of the henges.
- And my most recent creation - The Boy from the Northern Henge.
When I visited the Thornborough henges in November 2022 I collected a series of objects. This collection included two golf balls, the propeller of a remote-control drone, five crinoid stem fossils (Crinoidal limestone), and some red tape being used to deter people from walking on top of the central henge (pictured in appendix). I used these objects to design another echo of Thornborough, this eventually emerged as the amalgamation The Boy from the Northern Henge.
I had visited the central but not the Northern Henge. We climbed through the narrow gap between two beech trees and emerged onto the outer ridge of the henge. The setting very quickly made me feel like a child, while exploring the peaks and troughs inside this secluded woodland, we came across a rope swing, carved with a child’s name “KITJON”, or maybe two children’s names “KIT” and “JON”.
I associate Beech trees with childhood, they remind me of the Beechwood behind my grandparents’ house in Collingham where my sister and I, and our dad before us, once played. Beech trees love a bank too, and the rolling ridges at the northern henge immediately made me think of racing up and down them, making anywhere our playground. So, as well as the rope swing child, or children, I suppose there's a little bit of my dad in this piece, and of me and my sister, it represents childhood curiosity, that’s why I chose to make him a small child.
By using words like topography and stratigraphy in micro rather than in the vastness of the land, I am experimenting with the jargon of archaeology, physically and materially, I called on traditions of extraction and excavation, already connected to Thornborough to create a series of tests, for the surface I wish to achieve for the arms of The Boy from the Northern Henge.
I found the crinoid fossils on top of the central and northern henges, unearthed by rabbits creating their warrens. The fossils have watched the mythology of Thornborough unfold, they might even be older than dinosaurs. However, despite their ancient status they have been jumbled in my sandwich bag of finds, submerged in the detritus of the Anthropocene, even the plastic in the golf balls won’t live to see 3023, but the fossil will.
I am interested in the idea that fossils allow us to recontextualise time, human existence seems like a mere blip when you hold something in your hand that’s been around for up to 490 million years. Yet, they are being held in a human hand, looked at and inspected. In order to absorb the fossil into my symbolic language I carved out the pieces of fossil from a block of plaster, as if they already exist there, waiting to be found, emerging from under my tool. I harnessed the graphic nature of the fossils and focused the colour pallet, making them more linear and uniform, like Thornborough has become.
I chose to work with inlay because I felt it was the most efficient way of achieving a crisp line between black and white. Using slip was the best way to maintain a similar enough temperature between the test tile and the liquid clay, it also meant I could create multiples while I waited for the others to dry and be scraped back. When fossils are formed, they are surrounded by a kind of slip, a geological soup, that preserves them so I felt the process was fitting. Porcelain also shares many properties with stone, its strength, smoothness, I harnessed these qualities to encase the precious replicas. During this part of the project, I have felt more in touch with the ceramic medium, creating tests organically and working with clay intuitively.
In this section I will discuss three artists that occupy a context I want to exist within.
Context of Work
Context of Work
Michael Rakowitz –Iraqi-American artist
Zadie Xa – Korean-Canadian installation and performance artist
Shahpour Pouyan –Iranian ceramicist and artist
Despite working in a broad and multi-disciplinary way, I think these three practitioners sit upon the branches of Environmental Art and (a genre explained in an article called; Telling Stories in Three Dimensions: Installation Art Today by Ann Landy ) Narrative Installation.
Michael Rakowitz is concerned with the status and cycle of materials, he uses middle eastern food packaging, comforting to him but symbolically offensive in the US, “not visible beyond oil and war” (Rakowitz 2021). Rakowitz adorns his recreations of destroyed or missing Iraqi artefacts with packaging as a way of recuperating cultural heritage. Whether it's rejected by a secular state or an Islamic one, I think Rakowitz is trying to address that the theft of history is the theft of culture – to starve a contemporary population of its history is criminal because it perpetrates the idea that ‘it's always been this way so don’t complain’ - an awareness and understanding of eras that are not our own, help us to mould the one we wish to exist within. The date syrup cans that adorned his monumental sculpture of a Lamassu (winged Assyrian deity) on the 4th plinth are labelled as product of Lebanon but are actually processed in Baghdad, Rakowitz proves how symbolically powerful something as seemingly ordinary as packaging can be. A simple can of date syrup can tell the story of relations between the middle east and the US and the hypocrisy surrounding trade.
Rakowitz’s allusion to forgotten or lost histories is something I have tried to achieve in my project; How do I make you feel this place?, by transforming my thoughts and feeling about Thornbrough into characters or a symbolic language, I make them tangible or memorable. I have also been influenced by his use of adornment, theoretically and physically layering concepts and extracts of visual language. For example, I combine human and geological forms and surfaces in The Boy from Northern Henge, by adorning the arms of this character with the aesthetic appearance of a riverbed fossil found at the site of the henges, I hope to remove a sense of hierarchy between the inhabitants of Thornborough. Here, I have tried to reference the terminology Rakowitz uses to describe his contemporary copies of ancient monuments, and their role in ‘haunting’ the institutions (British Museum) that stole them long before they were destroyed by ISIS. “If a ghost is going to properly haunt it has to appear differently than the entity appeared when it was living” (Rakowitz 2021)
The act of creating an environment or immersive experience is key to the success of Rakowitz’s piece; The invisible enemy should not exist (Northwest Palace of Nimrud), a context for the work and viewer to exist within, through learning the viewer is absorbed into the work and given a different perspective. He explains the immersive gallery experience he intends the viewer to have at this exhibition in the video Haunting the West, published by Art21. “The viewer is in the position of an Iraqi, in the palace where the artefacts once stood, the day before ISIS destroyed it. To show how much of their history they didn’t have access to” (Rakowitz 2021)
This feeling of immersion is also achieved by the multi-disciplinary artist Zadie Xa in her installation; House Gods, Animal Guides and Five Ways 2 Forgiveness. I was introduced to Xa’s work at a talk she held at the Whitechapel Gallery in November 2022. She discussed her beginnings as a painting student at art school and development into a fine artist, creating a context for her work so she didn’t become “just another shitty painter” (Xa 2022). Like Rakowitz she understands the valuable role the feeling of immersion can play in an exhibition setting, creating an architecture to surround the viewer.
Of course, the context in which the artwork is exhibited always impacts the work itself, even if it does have its own walls. This concept is explored in the paper Context effects on emotional and aesthetic evaluations of artworks and IAPS pictures by Gernot Gerger (et al). They explain how an art context provides cues to our cognitive system of how to deal with and how to respond to objects defined as art, giving rise to certain expectations. They go on to explain that a ‘real-world’ setting inspires pragmatism and goal setting, whereas an art setting or gallery inspires a more distanced perspective. It's not to say that one cannot be moved by artwork, but it does mean that a viewer has more capacity to absorb, experience and learn without the pressure of immediately responding to the stimuli offered to them. I suppose it allows the viewer to be ‘in the moment’.
What all three artists do, but I believe Zadie Xa does best, is create a symbolic language that has both cultural and personal ties. For example, the magpie that has appeared in her work, especially paintings, for a number of years, acts as a symbol of both her diasporic culture – the symbol of the magpie is prominent in Korean folklore, and her personal life - her partner and collaborator, a companion to her own bird form – a seagull.
To quote the title of an Alice Walker book, I feel she has created a Temple of Her Familiars, a cascade of memories (ancient and contemporary). She Allows them to drift through each medium that makes up the installation, whether that be painting, textiles, sculpture or kites. Creating a home for her artwork within its temporary one, strength in numbers, a cast of oddities
In a tutorial I was offered the phrase ‘cabinet of curiosities’ as something to work towards, a path for my jumbled and multi-disciplinary thoughts to travel along. It was a seminal moment in my ongoing realisation that I needn't focus on one thing, that I should harness variety and use the idea of a collection in my favour. Xa succeeds in creating her own breed of a cabinet of curiosities, often collaborating to meet her narrative standards. A room full of what seems like curated relics, rich with narrative and personal culture. Through her use of mythology and storytelling she summons; place, homeland, belonging and the symbols that connect us to these places, creating a cross-cultural visual language.
While Xa’s work celebrates the richness of her diasporic culture, Shapour Pouyan’s work focuses more on the dichotomies and contradictions of culture and history. Pouyan has developed a typology around domes, a symbol developed to celebrate power across history. He asks; why do we make the same forms? Why do we make the same mistakes? The repetition of mistakes and errors is one of the main concerns of his practice, not necessarily with a political agenda but achieved by using the materials of the political world. For example, using the commonality of architectural forms from places included in his own genealogical test results, creating a collection of architectural forms from his places of origin.
I visited the piece, My Place is the Placeless – I, at the Strange Clay exhibition at The Hayworth Gallery, Southbank. He has both a mastery of the material and succeeds in creating an immersive experience for the viewer. The title of the work borrows from part of a stanza from a poem by Rumi, a 13th century poet and Sufi mystic. It is titled Only Breath; “My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless”. Despite being Islamic and writing in Persian, there is a universality to Rumi’s work, it presents a unique and open world view, he is inclusive in his descriptions of human experience and existence. Pouyan uses the complex and colourful context of Rumi’s work to frame his own.
All three of these artists - Michael Rakowitz, Zadie Xa, and Shahpour Pouyan - sit within the context of environmental art and narrative installation. They use immersive elements and focus on themes of cultural heritage, identity to create thought-provoking works that encourage the viewer to consider different perspectives and experiences. These artists are also concerned with the role that materials and objects play in shaping cultural narratives and understanding of the past, present, and future.
I would say the gallery context is more concerned with aesthetics, here the initial visual effect of my work would take precedence over other aspects that would be better supported in say, a site-specific context. However, the three artists in my case study prove that communication can be achieved in the gallery context, if there is an element of immersion in the exhibition experience. By referencing the past, present and future I can create vacuum for my work to exist within, framing my ‘cabinet of curiosities’. I would be interested in contacting local museums and possibly placing my work within this context.
Alongside the installation element of How do I make you feel this place? I have created a written proposal for ceramic tiled information signs at the henges and nearby village. I feel this would take my project a step further towards my goal to make it informative in a public setting and provide a service which is currently lacking. This way, the project would interact with all my intended audiences, and be a practical response to my frustration with the lack of focus on prehistory in Yorkshire.
I have tried to give back some gravitas and status to a site that was once “first and foremost a landscape where the air was thick with religion... spiritual energy and sacredness... evoking the powerful forces responsible for the cosmos” (Harding, Johnston, Goodrick 2006). I have done this by highlighting some of the lesser told stories of the Thornborough Henges, untold because they’ve melted into obscurity or been intentionally kept from the public. My multidisciplinary approach will allow the viewer to peer through a ittle window into this important but much changed landscape and experience the atmosphere I intend to develop over the next 4 months.