Monthly Archives: November 2015

‘Erdkunde’ revisited: some thoughts on art and time


I’m re-reading Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room, a beautifully written account of his relationship to the Shiant Islands, which lie some five miles off the Isle of Lewis, and of the world in which they are enmeshed. It is one of a number of books about a specific place that seem to me to convey something of the essential concerns that underlie what, out of habit rather than conviction, I continue to refer to as deep mapping.

Yesterday I found myself speaking as a ‘representative’ of those concens as a panel member at the City Museum and Art Gallery in Bristol in a public discussion of the Museum’s Erdkunde exhibition. (I should say at once that John Wood and Paul Harrison’s work has grown on me to an unexpected degree since I referred to it in an earlier blog – their understated yet multilayered video and the surrounding material taking on a much greater richness and resonance as a result of my making an additional visit and through turning over elements of the work in memory).

Two connections with Nicolson’s book appear to me relevant to the exchanges during that panel talk and the questions from the audience that followed it. The first is the question of our experience of time, something to which we kept returning in various ways. Perhaps thinking about geology inevitably leads to thoughts of deep time and, in this case, its contrast with the sense of instantaneousness associated with so many of our new technologies. The second connection is not unconnected to this and has to do with what I can only call the politics (small p) of making worthwhile art, an activity which it may now be increasingly important to understand (given that any form of ‘Political art making’ is already captured within the dominant categories and networks of our existing culture).

In a beautiful account of gathering water from local springs close to the dwelling where he stayed on the islands, Nicolson writes (page 67) about the way in which, in the simple act of collecting water, his sense of time became no longer linear – that is part of the sweeping away of the past in the present towards the future that dominates so much of our lives. Instead his experience of time shifted, becoming what he refers to as the awareness of “a laminar flow”, one in which “different sheets of time” move at different speeds, “one over another, like the currents in the sea”. This is I suggest the same awareness of multiple, co-existing temporalities that we can move into when walking at a steady pace along a windswept rocky shore, one where the seemingly frozen geological movement of folded cliff strata and the low cliff edge blackthorns distorted by years of subjection to the constant of a prevailing wind are counterpointed by the just perceptible shift in the tide and, in another register again, the rapid passage of sea birds and the constant scudding of clouds.

The second point, what I have clumsily referred to as ‘the politics (small p) of making worthwhile art’, relates for me to what Nicolson writes about a particular form of thought. He identifies this (page 101) with the help of a phrase from Denise Levertov’s poem Overland to the Islands. There she names it as “intently haphazard”. Nicolson then draws  attention to her presenting this in the image of a dog that is always moving, notices everything, frequently changes its “pace and approach” while retaining its overall direction; the act of an animal for which “every step” is “an arrival”. This, it seems to me, is the territory in which the materialised thinking – although ‘thinking’ is perhaps the wrong word here, James Hillman’s ‘the thought of the heart’ might be closer to the mark – that we intuit through examining the products of the activity we call art. One that is able to sidestep, even to a degree counter, the all-consuming instrumentality that increasingly dominates every aspect of our waking lives. And it’s in this territory too, and perhaps for similar reasons, that the spaces appear in which we are able to apprehend time as sinuous, as not strictly linear; that “laminar flow” that allows us to experience the complexities and contradictions, the currents and counter currents, that carry the present out of the past.

It was in this context that it dawned on me, reading a review of Massimo Bacigalupo’s Ezra Pound: Posthumous Cantos, that Pound’s magnus opus too might be thought of as related to the impulses that underlie the deep mapping project. A somewhat sobering thought that perhaps leads to difficult questions about the relation between the desire of inclusiveness (or should that be the fear of not being in control) and a certain brand of politics? However, it appears that these last, posthumous, Cantos tell a somewhat different story and one that, I must admit, I now want to hear.

Although not planned that way, I now realise that my re-reading Sea Room has turned out to be an unconscious act of preparation for one of my periodic periods of self-immersion in some aspect of Scottish culture. I’ve just bought a second hand copy of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair, the first part of which is said to be the most single most popular book with readers in Scotland. I have resisted examine this impulse, part of my sense of an increasingly dominant in-between-ness in my life. Perhaps reading A Scots Quair will finally prompt that examination.

Landscape Values: Place and Praxis – 29 June-2 July 2016


I don’t usually use this blog to advertise events but this conference, set up by the Centre for Landscape Studies at NUI, Galway, looks to be really interesting in a number of respects. What particularly caught my interest was the following:

“Arranging the contributions around four themes: Place Values; Places in Action; Place Thinking; and Place Governance; the conference aims to reflect and critique the journey of values from their genesis and expression in place, through how they are recorded and documented, to the position they command or are accorded in governance and contemporary social praxis”.

“All of the human sciences recognise the important role that the collective values engendered in place-making have in building and reinforcing community cohesion. However, a 2015 survey by the Heritage Council reveals that, in Ireland, the public rank built and natural heritage equally. In fact, though the gap is statistically insignificant, nature is ranked ahead of monuments and buildings as heritage. This suggests that the values associated with nature are not only scientific, that ecosystems service more than just the biological needs of society, and that topophilia and biophilia are deeply intertwined. In short, place has ecological dimensions which, in terms of management, can be honoured by initiatives such as Natura 2000, Green Infrastructure and High Nature Value Farming”.

Typically, however, many of the cultural values attaching to landscape are expressed only in the languages of poetry and the creative arts. Though uniquely sensitive to the synaptic and protean nature of the relationship between people and place, such expressions are commonly deprived of their force and agency during the decision-making process. When it comes to regional, national and international business and governance, historical and cultural values are usually required to cede to biophysical and economic ones, leading to an inversion of value-hierarchies customarily associated with community projects“.

I know (or have met) a number of the people involved in setting up this conference and, as a result, I’m further encouraged to enthuse about it in advance.

But anyone interested in submitting will need to get their skates  on as abstracts (not exceeding 800 characters) and nomination of one conference theme has to be in by 17:00 (GMT) 27th November 2015 using the online abstract form located on the Landscape Values: Place and Praxis web site hosted by