Solway Walk – Experiencing place through photography

In seeking to report here on my experience of the Solway as expressed through art, what has happened is that I have come to question my understanding of how I experienced the Solway.

In some ways this was a bit alarming. My main contention with Moving Space, is that art making provides an expression of experience that is closer to the direct embodied experience than verbal or written accounts. This remains true, but on reflection the following has emerged.

  • That whilst being in experience (as an embodied, sensed, cognitive, spiritual and durational phenomena) is encountered as a ‘normal’ seamless thing, retrospectively upon examination through words, images, and personal recollection, the shear magnitude of the simple experience of being on the Solway has dawned on me. It was also something far from normal.
  • Each artform I have worked with has given a particular account of, or path through the experience. All are valid but all are incomplete compared to the actual magnitude of the experience of being there.
  • The one bit of art making that came closest to being directly in the actual experience, was the moment I stopped walking an image of an idea and moved into performance and decided to (like KC & The Sunshine Band implore) do a little dance.
  • This is the one bit of artform that leaves no concrete artefact, like a painting, or a photographic image, of a poem. With performance there is no art object.
  • Of the artforms producing an object that I have worked with at time of writing, the film and the photography, the images of the experience that best get to how it felt, are the least figurative ones. The more abstract the image, the less it appears to depict the place, the more it shows how the experience felt.
  • But collectively, the more modes of artistic expression I explore, the more I get to an expression of the experience as a whole.
  • Whoever would have thought a one mile walk on a beach could contain so much experience.

Over this post I want to show what I made and pick some of this apart. But first I want to pick apart some art history which is pertinent to my reflections above.

History is written retrospectively and by it’s nature contains many narratives. Historiographically one narrative is that sometime around the end of the 19th C photography ruined painting. In the UK, most Victorian painters were portrait painters. People of sufficient income wanted paintings of themselves and their families that would show sufficient likeness that they could hang them on the wall and not have guests say ‘Who is that in your lovely painting?’ But along came the photograph, and apart from the time it took to expose a photographic plate, the photograph became a means of making an image of total likeness, that was available to everyone, including people who’s income was insufficient for a painting by an artist.

But a theory goes that now photography could simply and quickly make a totally accurate likeness, painting which was hitherto largely figurative became impressionistic. Photography showed the real thing, painting showed an expression of a thing. Painting became an impression of the experience of the painter. Painters went outside their studios and painted ‘En plein air’ in the outdoors. Freud explored the unconscious, artists explored surrealism, science discovered the quantum world, and suddenly we find that the observer of reality changes the reality they observe. The modern era had arrived.

So in recounting my Solway Walk and the art making that ensued I want to start by reviewing my photography on the Solway because this most easily illustrates some of the points I made above.

Long before I did the Solway Walk I climbed Criffel with my wife. Map here. The day we were there, the tide was out on the Solway and the clouds scudded literally just over our heads. We could see and touch the clouds around us and also see them reflected in the ebb tide thousands of feet below us. It was a mind expanding day. This impression of the Solway never left me.

To me these are very impressionistic images because at the moment we peaked Criffell, the whole place gave an impression of a place bewixt and between. The images are accurate depictions of the place. The images have an abstract quality with the sky and the cloud edge below us.

Other images of the Solway, whilst having some aesthetic merit and accurately and figuratively recording a photographic image of what I saw. They are rooted in my sense of sight, but don’t convey the otherworldly aspect of the Solway. They are conventional landscape images that show what I experienced with my eyes.

So working with images, post-processing them on my Mac with Lightroom, I find nice landscape images, because I saw nice landscape shots. But other images I took, which clearly caught my eye at the time, don’t have that nice figurative ‘landscape’ look. They show my experience, but don’t make classically photographic images.

My Amateur Photographer ‘Landscape’ eye judges them to be boring. But my judgement is that they covey my experience of the Solway as a place eternally between sky and sea, between tides, between land and water, but nobody will understand them.

In the end I produced this image which to me most accurately conveys my experience of the Solway.

To me this conveys the idea of ‘The more abstract the image, the less it appears to depict the place, the more it shows how the experience felt.’ I put this image out and make judgement that in ‘landscape’ terms this is not an image easily understood by a person viewing it. It is not really a picture of a thing. It is an impressionistic triptych, and in some ways cubist, showing three views at the same time, like Hockney’s cubist inspired ‘Joiner‘ images. It has shifted away from a figurative ‘landscape’ image that shows what I saw, but it shows much better my experience of the Solway and a place that feels like it is always between things or many things at once.

So in terms of how art making can be used to explore and express personal experience of place, I come back to a recurring theme. There may be a tension between making art that is accessible in terms of being a figurative account, that looks to me and other people like a ‘landscape’ and more impressionistic or abstract images which mean something to me, that show my experience, but may be less explicable to other people.

Furthermore. If the performance of the dance came closest to being directly in the actual experience of being on the solway, but has the least to show, then using art to explore and express personal experience may need to have two threads. One is more personal and connected to process. Art is made that helps the individual process their own experience, but may be inexplicable to other people. The other thread is one in which art is made that is less impressionistic, but makes personal experience more explicable to other people.

All I have talked about here is my photography. This reinforces that both in terms of personal process and the production of art that is explicable to other people, working with a number of artforms may be useful. No single artform can covey experience in it’s fullest. It also reminds me of the idea of the ‘exposition’ in a previous post in which the author describes artform as embedded in a setting which includes some ‘..sharing of thinking processes and the revealing of methodology; and.. invites participation in order to enrich and expand understandings from the inquiry.’

The author goes on to say ‘One may even say that there is something inherently gentle to exposition considered as introduction, a relief, perhaps, from the obligation of being a ‘work of art’, in the serious sense of the word.’

In my next set of themed posts I want to explore what art is and use walking art as a vehicle to frame the discussion. My proposal is that we best understand how to work with at as enquiry if we work with ‘art not ART’. By this I mean getting away from an approach rooted in ‘Fine Art’ with galleries and sales and judgement on skills. Fine Art informs art as enquiry, but the work is done with art as a verb not a noun.

Relating to the intention to explore a model of art making as experiential learning then the art making is the central component but it is informed by all sorts of other experiences and modes of enquiry. Regards art making it is best understood as being playful, in the serious meaning of the word and the actions. And as such we learn from playing in many different ways.

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