Monday, 29 August 2016

Giants in Thimbles - VI Closing the Gap

I observed Belicena differently today. I decided to go for walk using a different palette - a sound recorder. Equipped with a different tool for recording my experience here on planet earth, I started to 'see' things differently. Reacquainting myself with my original calling, I placed myself within an ecology of sound and began to listen properly. When you listen properly, you instantly become present in time and space. Processes slow down and one becomes acutely aware. You find yourself merging with the landscape and you begin to see how even your own body influences the way sound waves move.

Sounds are like ghosts. They slink around the visual object, moving in on it from all directions, forming its contours and content in a formless breeze. (Voegelin, 2010)

Poplar (Populus x canadensis) watercolour by Inky Leaves
Poplar (Populus canadensis)
Work in progress. Watercolour on Paper. 1m x 1.25m

I have mentioned several times in this online diary that I am interested in how painting could hint at a sound to produce an experience that is beyond visual, or in fact, audible - to tap into something that is spiritual. There have been times when I see a painting and the artist, being a master of brush and composition, ushers me into a space where I hear sounds - imaginary ones. In this sense, a painting can be seen as a theatre, transcending its material form into something else entirely, something ethereal, such as a story or a feeling.

Sound renders the object dynamic, it makes what we see quiver with life (Voegelin, 2010)

Catalpa watercolour by Inky Leaves
Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignonioides)
Watercolour on Paper. 76 x 56 cm

Over the past two years, the Leafscape Collection has become multifaceted and layered - it no longer is just a collection of paintings - it has become phantasmagoric. I am still working very hard to provide my audience with an experience, using writing (crowd funded book/blog), pictures (the paintings), sound (a CD album), place (the stories on the backs of paintings) and to time (painting titles). The album itself, which I have not mentioned until now, will feature sounds taken from the sites where each leaf grew. I am doing this to extend the nervous system of botanical art and what it can achieve as a call to action, but the CD can also function as a stand alone piece (it'll be available to those who pledge for a limited edition book on my Kickstarter Project this Autumn). 

‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’ Walter Pater

Poplar (Populus x canadensis) watercolour by Inky Leaves
Poplar (Populus canadensis)
Work in progress. Watercolour on Paper. 1m x 1.25m

This collection invites you to explore distant lands (nb map-like features), lost memories and invisible worlds through sound and sight. The main story arc is about plants and humans - how we interact with our environment and how our environment interacts with us, and I believe very strongly that this story cannot be told with pictures alone. Everything is in pictures these days. Try to embed an audio file in Blogger and you'll find the experience fairly frustrating. There is no easy way of doing it. It’s the same with Facebook and Twitter. 

The blink of an eye lasts three hundred milliseconds. The blink of an ear lasts considerably longer. From birth to death, the ear never closes. Kim Cohen (2009)

Populus x canadensis botanical illustration by Inky Leaves
Poplar (Populus canadensis)
Work in progress. Watercolour on Paper. 1m x 1.25m

There aren't many people who pay attention to the sounds and often when they do, sound is left to enhance another sensory output and never left to singularly become (Voegelin, 2010). Yet, the invisible and the formless world must be given equal validity in order to transform the visible and the formed. This is basic alchemy. This is how one can belong to the world fully. We all have invisible souls that grow into something intangible but in the modern world this seems to be unrecognised. We are all living in a world which overly taxes the left hemisphere of our brains. Our languages and our systems rarely tap into the right side - the ‘acoustic’ side – of our brain, and as our existence is becoming progressively more ‘wired up’, this is becoming increasingly so. I believe that by using pictures and sound we begin to use the other side and become more responsive.

Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba) botanical illustration
Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba)
Watercolour on Paper. 30 x 30 cm

All that is visible must grow beyond itself - extend into the invisible.
Hexagram 50 of the I-ching

Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba) botanical illustration
Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba)
Watercolour on Paper. 30 x 30 cm

The auditory world is always dynamic and never static and in order to really understand sound, you have to realise that you are part of it. You are inside a soundscape.  This is how I try to ‘see’ when painting – I try to feel the space around as if I am part of it. I try to sense the distances between the object and myself and convince myself that they are not really there – there is no distance, it’s an illusion.  Sound’s ephemeral invisibility frequently means it is ignored. Ever heard of the saying ‘seeing is believing’? It seems that there is this absurd belief that to see things is to understand things. Furthermore, often when we see something for the first time, we tend to give it a name and construct a relationship with the item which in turn defines us and our own identity. We separate ourselves from it. Listening, however, is always cloaked with disbelief. We often say ‘did I hear you correctly?’ or more often I find we say ‘pardon’ when we really did actually hear what somebody said. 

Giant Rhubarb (Gunnera manicata) botanical art by Inky Leaves
Giant Rhubarb (Gunnera manicata)
Watercolour on Paper. 76 x 56 cm

The unsettling thing about sound is it breaks down the ego. For example, if we hear a noise then we are instantly part of that noise - we share the space and the moment with the noise. There is no distance between us. I find thunder and lightening to be an excellent example for illustrating how differently we react between sight and sound. When we see the lighting, we instantly identify it and locate it and measure the distance in relation to ourselves. Then, if the source of lightening is a few miles away, a few moments later we will hear the thunder clap. The problem is, you can't see the thunder, which means you can’t locate it. Consequently, the rumble of thunder is far more frightening and intimidating because it’s right there, all around you. You can't grasp it, but you can hear it. It is obscure. Such is the sublime nature of sound.

English Oak (Quercus robur) botanical illustration Jess Shepherd
English Oak (Quercus robur)
Watercolour on Paper. 76 x 56 cm

Of course, we ignore the most subliminal aspect with the recorded audio in particular. Akin to photography, it determines the threshold between life and death, whilst simultaneously offering the exhilarating and terrifying possibility of passing between the two. The human body and mind become peculiarly vulnerable at this threshold (Dickson, 2016). We live in an age where we can extend our existences beyond the grave, but unlike photography, which is based on sight and therefore allows us to distance ourselves from the memory, audio from beyond is uncomfortable because sound is part of us – there is no distance. So rather disturbingly, you get the melding of space and time inside of you. You become a vessel; you become the landscape, the environment between this world and the one that existed before.

Catalpa bignonioides painting by Jess Shepherd
Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignonioides)
Watercolour on Paper. 76 x 56 cm

As I look back, sound has always played an important role in my work. When I think about installation I made in a dark room in 2002, not only did I work with the contrasts between dark and the light to hint at the sublime, I worked with sound. I put a compact disc by COIL on a loop. As a fourteen year old, I was also had a habit of recording sounds -it was a hobby I kept up until I was 21 years old. I still have all the old analogue dictaphone tapes littered with outside sound recordings. I have teachers delivering lessons, the starlings on the roof, birdsong in Barcelona, my father's old car engine, seagulls and lunchtime mayhem at secondary school. I think I even captured myself walking the complete circuit of Andrew Goldsworthy's moonlit path at midnight. At the time I recorded these sounds, it was about trying to document my reality. The tapes were predominately my way of diarising my life. I remember organising my recordings – I would tape me vocally reading out the date back at home first thing in the morning so I wouldn't look strange talking into a device in the middle of the street. How things have changed with hands free devices since then?! That was in 1998 and things have moved on. 

Sound is perpetually on the move, making time and tenses rather than following them. (Veogelein, 2010)

Grape Vine (Vitis vinifera) painting by Inky Leaves
Grape Vine (Vitis vinifera)
Watercolour on paper. 76 x 56 cm

When I stopped condensing time into reel at the age of 21, I started to do the opposite - I started to listen. My favourite channel on what was then the 'new' DAB radio was the test channel, which was bird song in a farmyard on loop. I used to listen to it all day and sometimes all night. I found doing the latter would completely disorientate me and this effect really intrigued me. This was probably the first time I realised the power of sound on the body, our existence and our ideas of reality.

One of the most nourishing aspects of producing the Leafscape album is how it has taught me to reclaim my existence – a way of living that feels almost primeval. Time is slowed down when you are in the field recording and vision looses its importance. The noises made by humans can seem intrusive and you start to see patterns. You learn when certain birds sing and when the farmers open particular sluice gates for irrigating. You sit eagerly waiting for the thunderstorm to blow in and the flap of a pigeon's wings becomes intolerably loud. As you crouch down, trying to get out of the wind, swallowtail butterflies will land on you and a snake will slide past. Everything changes scale - time changes and space changes - which is not only intriguing to witness, but also fairly satisfying to see given the rather large leaps in scale in the artworks themselves. Everything in this compilation is now mirrored - the collection has become whole. It has become its own ecosystem, with its own measures of time and scale.

Poplar (Populus x canadensis) botanical art Jess Shepherd
Poplar (Populus canadensis)
Watercolour on paper. 76 x 56 cm


Chain, P., (2016), Sound mummification and the art of fixed sounds 

Coppolino, E. F., (2016) Planet Waves Podcast 

Cohen, K., (2009), In the Blink of an Ear, The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, New York

Voegelin, S., (2010), Listening to noise and silence, The Continuum Internataional Publishing Group

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