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Rupert White on landscapes, psycho/geography and the internet
e-interview Harriet Hawkins
I grew up in Cornwall and moved away to live in London between the ages of 19 and 35. I continued to visit and make artworks down here during that time (eg Killed by a falling branch (1993) right), then came back properly about six or seven years ago. In fact I went to London originally to train as a doctor, subsequently doing an MA in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art some years later.
Can you outline your artistic practices and your involvement in the Cornish arts scene?
Like many of my generation, in the early 80's I was in new-wave bands as a teenager, and through making music I started to use video which was still quite a new technology. An interest in film and video, originally inspired by Derek Jarman - who I visited at his home in Dungeness before he died - and the way that places are used as locations for filming, has stayed with me since.
I am involved with art in Cornwall as a writer (editor of this website!) and curator as well as artist.
Landscape is best understood as relating to a genre within Fine Art practice consisting, mainly, of painting but it is also a bigger, more diffuse concept in that it is a term used to describe the countryside and/or natural world.
As an art genre that in some ways has had its day, but it still exerts a huge hold on the imagination of the public. It is, for example, still a key part of many provincial art scenes, including Cornwall: just think of the populist success of Kurt Jackson for example. This popularity makes it important to deal with. I think, in fact, that it is now almost impossible to paint the landscape without falling into cliché. For modernist painters (eg Cezanne and Mondrian) the landscape was a convenient - visually complex but ideologically neutral - springboard for their formal experiments. Contemporary versions of these experiments are rarely very interesting or relevant and the originals subverted the romantic idea of the landscape anyway, such that it has been very difficult to return to it again without a sense of disappointment.
I think the landscape genre is usually more interesting now when it is approached obliquely. I am interested in representations of representations ie thinking through what images of the landscape might mean or be used for. This relates to its commodification (often by means of new digital technologies) on the one hand, and the effects that this has on people living in rural communities on the other. These dimensions come together in Cornwall where the landscape is used to sell the place.
Given the above I was wondering if you could unpack further your comments on representations and landscape art by relating this to your own practice?
'The Wicker Man' (1973) is a film I studied closely for a couple of years. Its interesting to think of it in relation to the landscape genre, as it deals with many interacting themes: such as the links between folklore, local customs and rural communities. I used ideas and motifs in the film to remake parts of it in a way that brings out associations and ideas that I find interesting. eg I've made versions of the 'Hand of Glory' which relates to the occult practice of burning the fingers of the severed hand of someone who is recently deceased. I have also made a short video called 'Trinity' using three images of the sun taken from the final scene (in which the main actor - who is a devout christian - is ritually burnt to death in the Wicker Man). The title and structure of 'Trinity' simultaneously invokes both the Christian trinity and more ancient traditions which are related to sun-worshipping.
About three years ago I also started a project to remake sections of 'Straw Dogs', another film of a similar vintage that this time was filmed in Cornwall, by visiting the locations and using some of the props from the film. More recently again, I have been using Flash and 3D computer modelling to explore the potential of digital technology to recreate specific places that can then be visited online by anyone, anywhere. Michael's Mesa, for example, is a recreation of Michael Heizer's Double Negative in the Nevada Desert, which includes a large and incongruous 3D model of Excalibur, the sword.
The potential for digital technology to compress geographical distance is fascinating to me, so, for example, I'm exploring this by working on a version of Smithson's Spiral Jetty in Utah that is peppered with models of Cornish tin mines. The idea that the world-wide web itself is ultimately a geographical construct, but one which profoundly affects our experience of place, space and time is interesting. Another approach to this phenomenon is 'googlemeter' which I made last year. This is a webpage - the Google homepage to be precise - that has been modified to take data from a local weather station, so that the whole page appears to rotate according to local wind-speed.
All my recent curated exhibitions have had landscape, or, placescape-related themes. 'Second Nature' was a show of video art at Truro Cathedral supported by the now defunkt Vitreous Gallery, and 'psycho/geography' a related exhibition at the Newlyn Gallery. I also did something called 'Tales of the Unexpected' which was work made in the landscape in 'unofficial and unannounced locations' by 7 or 8 different artists . Photographs of the interventions were all uploaded onto a blog, and brought together in a book.
At the beginning of last year I organised 'The New Landscape' with Rob Airey at the County Museum in Truro, that I know you visited. This show did not include painters - not because we were against painters but because it seemed important to recognise the potential of other approaches.
In editing this website I am involved with 'curating', if thats the right word, the webprojects section of the site. That's a different process entirely because the audience is completely different, but I find myself constantly bumping up against the problem of whether the web should be used to document art that is happening in real space, or whether the technology of the browser should be used to create art that only exists online. I'm open to suggestions on this one, and also interested to hear from artists who are more directly involved with new technologies than I am.
I was really intrigued by the unofficial interventions which have been a feature of your practice and was wondering how you chose the sites and topics for these...
The works in 'Tales of the Unexpected' (2007) started in most cases with the location and thinking about what will work best in that context. Most were intended to be unofficial in exactly the same way that graffiti is unofficial. 'Splasher'- the projection of bird-shit on Tate St Ives - is an example of this. Most of the other projections, many which I did with Daryl Waller, were on other corporately-owned buildings, like an Argos megastore and a large Marks and Spencers' in mid-Cornwall. The animated emoticon that symbolizing sadness, enlarged several thousand times, was a recurring image that year.
There is a huge difference between commissioned artworks that take place in safely sanctioned 'art' locations, and locations that would be off-limits because they are owned by corporations that would be keen to maintain a corporate or brand identity. They feel and, in some small way, are, more subversive.
The term 'psychogeography' is one which geographers have seen fit to pillage from artists, and in its existing usage we pay very little attention to rural 'psychogeography'. I am interested in the way in which this may - or may not link into a tradition of affinities and relationship to landscape and nature which seems to have ebbed and flowed throughout English landscape tradition - a point I understand your piece 'Magic Tree' (foreground below) to develop very well.
When putting together the psycho/geography show at Newlyn, myself and the other participating artists were conscious that the term refers to the effect that geography has on the psyche. We were basically interested in the deeper, darker meanings of the Cornish landscape, in contrast to the pretty surface features that tend to sell the county to tourists.
So we wanted to use the term psycho/geography in a way that hinted at the possibility of a form 'radical-ruralism'. We took some liberties with the word - psycho is a lay-term for someone who is irrationally violent, of course - but were interested in the link with Situationism too. Even though we were interested in environmental themes these turned out to be less pressing and important than conveying ideas relating to other aspects of the experience of living in Cornwall. I think people underestimate the extent to which so many aspects of that experience are now commodified, in a way that is really quite alienating.
I have a strongly held view that when an artist lives in the countryside their sensibilities and particularly their relationship to the landscape and their audience is hugely different to an artist that might live in Central London. Metropolitan artists are more likely to either filter representations of the landscape through various layers: memory and narrative particularly, or treat it as 'other' (eg the subject of exotic travel), or simply to think of it as naff. I think the landscape features in a more unforced, direct and unmediated way if you are a rural artist, (ie an artists living in a rural part of the world) and this is true of nearly all artists in Cornwall - even those who wouldn't profess to be landscape artists.
Certainly overturning the perception of contemporary Cornish art as populist and light-weight is the main challenge that artists face in Cornwall now.
It sounds like, with psycho/geography you were clearly reacting to more obvious, clichéd representations of Cornwall.
Definitely...and I should mention that Steve Messam who was the founder of FRED and Fold gallery in Cumbria, and who has a particular interest in rural art, mentored the project.
How you think other artists tend to respond to the artistic tradition of the area?
You can't understand the Cornish art scene without understanding the influence of the art market. I think that's true of other places too, but its really in your face here. So you have the most commercial tourist art which is typically landscape painting, paintings of harbour scenes or beaches particularly most of which is kitsch and sold out of gift shops, along with jewelry and driftwood souvenirs. It tends to be impressionistic in style and unchallenging in content. You get that in every village and town in Cornwall, and its quite an important part of the economy.
The next most commercial are the abstract painters, a large number clearly influenced by St Ives modernism. The Tate and the history of art in Cornwall supports a market for this work. And you find that, as a result, some galleries make a point of supporting this type of art-practice too.
But in fact there is a shortage of artists responding in other ways to the tradition. Many simply choose to ignore it. In many cases this is explained by a morbid fear of appearing 'parochial', which is regrettable and to me suggests lack of confidence.
I wondered if you could say anything about artists' networks and organisations in Cornwall? I also wonder what you think about these sorts of ‘networks’ and the role they play ?
Like-minded artists tend to band together in order to put on exhibitions, and gain publicity and mutual support. The Newlyn Society of Artists, The Penwith Society and the St Ives Society of Artists are big organisations (the NSA has over 150 members) and have been around for the best part of a century.
Other artist groupings tend to be more informal and transient, though some are supported by county or arts council funding and so have a more established structure. ALIAS, Creative Skills, Cornwall Art Forum and artcornwall.org are in this category and have all been around for a few years. All help underpin and provide support to networks of artists in different ways.
What other roles do you see artcornwall.org as playing?
We've talked about the art market in Cornwall. Much of it is conservative and domestic in scale - and it's the conservative galleries and artists that tend to get coverage in the press and lifestyle mags down here. This is ultimately because these publications are written for a lay-public who isn't that interested in art.
More interesting, experimental or challenging art, understandably, gets marginalised even though there's a lot of it about, and some of it rather good. So this is something that the artcornwall.org website was set up to address. It was intended to provide a focus for debate and discussion for people who are already interested in art, and to make up for the fact that largely because of geographical isolation, very few critics ever come down here these days. Private galleries who are interested in developing audiences and markets for new art from Cornwall have, in particular, been very supportive of the site, as have Tate and Newlyn, and we're grateful for that.
Of course we have inevitably become increasingly linked with other artists and writers out of the county. This is a good thing as it doesn't hurt anyone for artcornwall.org to broaden out and increase its readership. At some point the artcornwall.org name may change to reflect this broadening out process. We are, at the moment, in a position to have editors working in different cities in the South West and Wales, as well as London, for example. But there would be a danger that what we do in Cornwall would change too. The focus would move away, which might OK, but it might be a mistake.
You obviously get a lot out of being in Cornwall but I wondered if there were any issues about working in Cornwall, and the distance from the world of galleries and reviews in London? How does the art scene in Cornwall relate to that in London and elsewhere?
The main thing, and this is something you may sense I feel passionately about, is that London and Cornwall are different. The histories are different, the economies are different, the lived environment is different, and artists choose to work down here in relative isolation for good reasons. Therefore if you compare art from Cornwall and London you risk comparing apples and pears. To a certain extent art from Cornwall exists on its own terms and should be judged with that in mind.
Cornwall sometimes feels, culturally, like a nation apart. Iwan Bala has written passionately about the Welsh experience - which he describes as post-colonial - elsewhere on this website and there are parallels with Cornwall. Both areas had their own language, both were very reliant on mining and heavy industry, and both have suffered economically in the post-war period.
Much of our culture and media is still centred on London, but, luckily for all in the so-called 'provinces', there are signs that the period of London's complete cultural dominance, and dominance of the media, is at an end. The internet is more democratic, more rhizomatic, and places like Cornwall are in a position to take advantage of this fact and to also celebrate their otherness.
I think artists are worrying less about whether what they're doing is in line with the latest metropolitan trends. This was always over-rated and doomed to failure anyway (I mean you cannot set trends and follow them at the same time). The time is right for the centre to move, or at least become more dispersed, and I think that this is something that is happening now, as we speak...
Harriet Hawkins is a researcher in Geography at the University of Exeter