‘Ar Lan y Môr’ / ‘At the Edge of the Sea’ is exhibiting at Aberystwth Arts Centre from 15th May to 8th July 2018, and features the work of a range of Welsh artists who responded to an open call.
The mixed media show features textiles, ceramics, paintings, photographs, sculpture and films. Amongst the flying seagulls made of medium-density fibreboard, outline images of North Sea cod made from plastic chip forks, rock pool-themed pottery, and much more, there are photographs and a short (roughly 7 minute) film made by Dewi Roberts. Dewi’s blurb for the exhibit even mentions geomorphology, and highlights how he aims to showcase coastal examples of GeoArt: natural sculptures in rock, stones and sand made from the action of water, sediment and wind. Examples are provided from the Welsh and Dorset coasts.
The photographs are visually arresting, and the film quite mesmerising. Some stills from the film are included here, and should suffice to convey its essence. Despite the onrush of waves and turbulence, and the associated flurries of pebble or grain movement, the overall effect is strangely serene, and reveals a world rarely seen, even by people like me who think about particle movement on a daily basis. And as a visual tool for conveying some of the fundamental essences of geomorphology, it works perfectly.
Dewi tells me that he plans to film similar processes in operation in rivers, to develop his collaborations with artists, and to try and embed some of this into school curricula. We also plan to include these and other films as part of the British Society for Geomorphology’s Annual Meeting, to be held at Aberystwyth University, 10th-12th September 2018.
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The artist Naomi Hart is the Leverhulme Trust artist-in-residence at the Geography Department, University of Sheffield for 2017-18. In the summer of 2017 she accompanied staff and students from the Department’s Polar and Alpine Change Masters course and UNIS (University Centre in Svalbard). The exhibition ‘ice report’ is a consequence of the visit and working with scientists and students in the field and she is in the tradition of artists accompanying scientific missions. The link with Sheffield is by way of Robert Rudmose-Brown who was a lecturer then Professor of Geography at Sheffield and a Svalbard botany expert. Naomi Hart’s images are well worth seeing as part of this tradition.
The mixed media works are typically in blue but sometimes with indistinct outline figures or bold orange (of survival suits). Contrasts and harmonies of investigating glaciers and meltwaters are evident. We view human interventions in decaying mine workings and seal skeletons as well as trappers’ huts and exploitation for coal and various ores. These are some of the details and generalities depicted by these works that tourists on cruise ships rarely see – but should.
As Naomi Hart says on her website, ‘I am currently working with ‘carbon’ as a material and theme: carbon copies, the role of carbon in climate change and the cyclical nature of carbon as an element in life, signifying death and decomposition and its role in creating new life.’ Several of her Svalbard contributions were on the stark walls of the Portland Works room as ‘found’ poems on carbon paper on artist paper. The black/white contrast mirroring something of the coal seams and ice and coal and rock debris on snow that can be seen in the mountains as well as the road from the airport to Longyearbyen.
This is an interesting collection of work that provokes consideration of wilderness and exploitation past and present, whether the viewer has been to Svalbard or not. On my gallery visit I stepped from a gloomy, windy and snowy Sheffield into the relative (!) warmth of the exhibition space. I wonder if appreciation of the images would be enhanced by viewing in the ambient temperature of the glacier side? A thermal synesthesia that might also trigger thoughts of non-renewable resources for heating and electricity production. For those visitors without ‘geo’ education there may be a loss in appreciation but there is little doubt that Hart’s images provide thought of ethics as well as aesthetics.
The exhibition notes are available here and will probably be travelling to other locations.
“Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River” by Peter Dombrovskis is arguably one of Australia’s most iconic wild river photographs and played an absolutely critical role in galvanising a nation against hydroelectric dam development in southwest Tasmania.
My journey with this image began as a very young primary school student. I have a misty recollection of this image and the ‘No Dams’ slogan (see below) and watching protestors (including Bob Brown) in their inflatable rafts blockading the Gordon below Franklin River at Warner’s Landing, as we watched on a small TV with push-button dials.
Having family in Tasmania meant lots of summers and autumns there, and as soon as we were old enough and capable enough we were hiking the many trails of the Cradle Mountain-Lake Sinclair, Walls of Jerusalem and Mt Field National Parks. I’d bought Peter Dombrovskis’ book “Wild Rivers”, read “Death of a River Guide” by Richard Flanagan and had a Rock Island Bend poster up on my wall. Somewhere along this fluvial geomorphology journey I made a commitment to myself that when I had the money and fitness, I was going there – to Rock Island Bend!
So in 1998 after walking the Overland Track (the headwaters of the Franklin) I set off on a 5-day rafting trip down the Lower Franklin River – a kind of pilgrimage. My encounter with Rock Island Bend happened on the afternoon of Day 1. It came up quick and took a few seconds to register that this was it!
It was a different time of the day, it was bright and sunny and the colours were different, but this did not diminish the power of seeing the real thing (photo below). The water was flowing fast and it took some paddling effort to keep the rafts still while taking in the famous scene before us. I managed to take one snap of my own (with slide film!) before we drifted past. I recall us floating in a small backwater just downstream, the five of us on the raft silent and mesmerised. Although we did not have much time to contemplate as the Newland Cascades were coming up!
Ten years later I was lucky enough to go back to the Franklin River and raft the Upper Franklin for 7 days. I recall hiking out at Mt McCall on a rain soaked, cold, misty morning, feeling like I wanted to turn around and go back to see Rock Island Bend, just downstream. On a day like that it would probably have looked just like the Dombrovskis image! But it was not to be, and that is not really the point. The point is that it is still there. It’s been there for millennia, and it will continue to be there for millennia thanks in no small part to that photograph.
Another ten years on and I find myself in front of this image again. This time in the National Library of Australia where Peter Dombrovskis’ work is on display in an exhibition “Journeys into the Wild”. I did not notice the famous image at first, again it had crept up on me! Then I saw it hanging, “Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River.” It was lit with a spotlight and a tingle went up my spine, almost the same sensation as I had rafting past that rock island 20 years ago. It was quiet this day in the gallery and I just stood in front of it, silently, for about 5 minutes. I even went back again 30 minutes later for one last look. People walking past fell silent as well. The power of that image is in its soul. It continues to inspire generations of people and open their eyes to the beauty of a wilderness that could so easily have been lost. For those of us lucky enough to work in fluvial geomorphology, river science and environmentalism more generally, and those of us who have been lucky enough to visit that place, this image will continue to inspire us and galvanise us for many years to come.
Can art and images inspire interest in geomorphology, and can this influence careers? Certainly! Given that geomorphology is largely about ‘Reading the Landscape’ and interpreting process from the landforms that make up a landscape, the saying “a picture tells a thousand words” is certainly true. Geomorphology, to a significant extent, is an innately visual and observational science, with the role of the image playing a fundamental role in the way we see the landscape, interpret the landscape and teach others about the landscape.
One of the main outputs of the Visualising Geomorphology Working Group was the commentary by Tooth and others (2016). In this commentary, we pondered whether newer, technology-driven artistic approaches could be employed to communicate geomorphology to non-specialist audiences, noting that geomorphological subject matter had yet to feature widely among a recent surge in digital artworks.
Work by digital cartographer Robert Szucs illustrates some of the many possibilities that exist. Under his monikor GrasshopperGeography, Szucs uses open-source geographic information system software to map the world’s rivers. The resulting maps are striking visual displays of river networks on the various continents, and have been picked up widely by various media outlets and websites (to illustrate this variety, see CNN Travel, The Daily Mail (online), and IFLScience!).
Szucs says that the maps are “100% scientific” as they are based on satellite data and digital elevation models, and with every river being placed on a scale of 1-10 according to the Strahler stream order classification (in most settings, stream order is a rough proxy for size). The map designs, however, involve many artistic decisions, especially the choice of line widths and colour combinations. Each map commonly goes through many iterations over days and weeks before the final output is realised. And although the impression of space filling by river flow could be slightly misleading – the line widths obviously cannot be scaled in accordance with the actual map dimensions and the networks don’t reflect the permanency or otherwise of flow – the maps nonetheless illustrate graphically the potential importance of river action.
For me, Szucs’s work is an interesting example of how science data and digital art can collide in creative ways and highlights the great potential for communication in outreach contexts. The maps are visually arresting and may provoke questions about what the maps actually mean. Why are there so many river networks on the continents? Why do they typically form tree-like (dendritic) patterns with their roots in the oceans? Why does the centre of the Australian continent appear to be such a weird exception (see image above)? These are not necessarily easy questions to answer but perhaps medical analogies could help. For instance, if ones sees mountain ranges as the skeleton of a continent, then could these maps be used to suggest that river networks are effectively the arteries, conveying water, sediment and nutrients from the continental interior (the ‘heart’) to other parts of the landmass (the ‘body’)?
11-12 km north of Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, west Wales, an ancient (c. 6000 year old) forest lies partially buried beneath the sand that forms an extensive beach between Borth and Ynyslas. Rising mid Holocene sea levels drowned the forest but today the eroded, gnarled tree stumps and underlying peat are exposed at low tide, particularly after storm events when much sand is moved offshore.
These and other landscape features play to the some of the myths and stories that abound in the culture of mid Wales, most notably Cantre’r Gwaelod, which refers to the drowning of an ancient kingdom located to the west and which now lies beneath the waters of the present-day Irish Sea. Such features also provide reference points for contemporary concerns over rising sea levels and associated landscape change, as well as for the debate over environmental management options for the west Wales coastline (e.g. abandonment or managed retreat?).
To create a cultural response to the material changes taking place along the coastline, local artist Robert Davies wants to create a large-scale mould of a local tree, cast it marine bronze or steel, and site it in the inter-tidal zone on the beach adjacent to, but not within, the ancient forest. His aim with ‘Tree’ is “to draw attention to this unfolding narrative [of sea level rise] and the last time this happened.”
The proposal has generated vigorous debate in the local media, most notably in the Cambrian News. Some people are supportive of the proposal, others are supportive but with qualification, and yet others are opposed. Supporters say that ‘Tree’ has the potential to become a high quality artwork that could rival some of Antony Gormley’s sculptures (including those in coastal settings) and increase visitor numbers, and that it could be the first several site-specific artworks that are commissioned for the Ceredigion coastal path. The main objections seem to centre on the visual intrusion that such a sculpture would introduce, and whether people need such landscape artworks to prompt contemplation of past, present and future environmental trajectories.
The full background to the project, including the concept, dimensions, artistic impressions of the sculpture in situ, public consultations and planning applications, and media coverage, is detailed on the following website:
This local debate raises wider issues about when, where and how landscape artworks can be employed in the communication of important geomorphological/geoscience and wider environmental concepts. Personally, I really like the artistic concept and hope that the sculpture can be developed in a location and in a way that satisfies some of those objecting to the proposal.
[Post by Stephen Tooth, December 2017]
[Update: January 2018 – in December 2017, the proposal for ‘Tree’ was narrowly voted down (10-9) at a meeting of Ceredigion Council’s Development Control Committee. The Council was expected to give approval to the sculpture, as it had already attracted support from its planning department, but it seems that the hundreds of signatures on a petition collected by a local opposition group had an influence. The debate has featured as part of a wider story about NIMBYism and social media in the national British press:
Mike Perry is a British contemporary photographic artist whose work is increasingly influenced by landscape and environmental concerns. Many of Mike’s large scale, detailed colour photographs have been taken whilst driving around Britain’s marginal coastal and upland regions, and according to his project website “combine powerful painterly aesthetics with seemingly mundane locations or areas of environmental degradation.”
Details of some of Mike’s projects and exhibitions can be found on the following websites, and include some podcasts, sketchbooks, and downloadable educational resources:
Particular projects that encapsulate the interface between geomorphology/geoscience and art include:
Môr Plastig, Welsh for ‘Plastic Sea’, a photographic study of plastic objects washed up along the west coast of Wales and beyond.
White Gold, a photographic project that capture the impact of mining for ‘pure white’ marble on the landscape in the Sud Tirol region of Northern Italy.
Wet Deserts, an ongoing series of large scale colour photographs taken whilst driving around the overlooked scrublands and fringes of western Ireland, Scotland and Wales that examine the quality of landscape and document environmental change.
For me, Mike’s work helps bring a much-needed visual artistic element to many concepts related to the Anthropocene, including land transformation, novel materials, and the questioning of the human-nature dichotomy. His approach remains objective, however, and according to the text that accompanies the Môr Plastig exhibition, his photography “is not concerned with the campaigning rhetoric of straight environmental documentary. Rather it poetically alludes to changes taking place and what we might be leaving for future generations.”
Works from the series, ‘RELIEF’, are currently showing at Rewind Gallery in Glebe, Sydney, Australia.
The series consists of 3D anaglyphs made from historical aerial survey photographs, adapting techniques used in geomorphology and geology for a creative purpose. The works encourage the audience to see landscapes differently, in many cases experiencing landscapes that have since been irreversibly transformed, revealing stories of human-environment interaction and/or dynamic geomorphic evolution.
The works from RELIEF appear as part of a collaborative exhibition entitled ‘Dated’ that celebrates hard-copy records as tangible markers of passing time, and is showing until early January 2018.
From the exhibition catalogue:
“The materials we keep and preserve say a lot about the people we are. Even as more and more information is stored digitally, there is something uniquely intriguing about hard copy records. The roughness of paper on skin, the weight of a volume in your hands, the familiar and musty smell of old pages and ink. Dated explores the passing of time as recorded in collections of paper-based artefacts, through two projects, by Sophie Willison and Simon Mould. The Terra Firma 2018 Diary (Sophie Willison) is an investigation of different people’s collections of books and magazines accumulated over time, from messy piles to neatly categorised shelves, and allows you to record your thoughts, events and deadlines in the long-held tradition of diary-keeping. RELIEF (Simon Mould) is a 3D time capsule for landscapes that no longer exist, recorded in military aerial survey photographs but changed forever by collisions between people and environments. Both projects celebrate the power of the hard copy record to make more tangible the passing of time.”
If you are wanting to get an overview of British geology and geomorphology then look no further. If you want an idea of literature and graphic art that is related to British scenery and places – then you have it here, too.
Chapters 1-16 are concerned with resumes of geology and geological history, works of the imagination, settlement, building stones, architecture. Chapters 17-34 are regional snapshots via ‘GeoRegions’.
The book is very well illustrated, in colour, which is important in understanding the copious maps and diagrams. But as well as the science, it is illustrated from equations from poems and prose, guidebooks and reports. Paintings and sculptures are included, too.
Explore this book and use it to explore Britain, you’ll not be disappointed. Mike Leeder and Joy Lawlor (and the publishers) have done a magnificent job and the book is very reasonably priced. The book is written in English but the dedications are also in Cymraeg and Gàidhlig.
Susan Schuppli’s video work, Can the sun lie?, is currently showing at ARTSPACE in Auckland, New Zealand. From the early use of photographic evidence in court to more recent observations of the sun made by Indigenous people in the Arctic, this work questions claims of objective truth in nature, and explores tensions between lay knowledge and scientific expertise.
“In the Canadian Arctic, the sun is setting many kilometres further west along the horizon and the stars are no longer where they should be. Sunlight is behaving differently in this part of the world as the warming Arctic air causes temperature inversions and throws the setting sun off kilter.” – Exhibition brochure, 2017
Schuppli draws comparison between the way that sunlight interacts with chemical grains on a film photograph to produce an ‘objective’ image, and the chemical impurities in ice crystals – produced by human activities – which are changing the way light interacts with the Earth’s surface and altering our visual perception of the world.
Set in the context of a broader group exhibition, which focuses on capturing “community-based realities“, this work is interesting to me because it encourages me to think about the limits and nuances of ‘objective’ knowledge when human impacts are so deeply changing the nature of the world we study in the geosciences. Are physical environmental records like photographic snapshots, or is the reality a little more murky? And what might be the implications for the ways we analyse and interpret environmental change?
You can view a preview of Can the sun lie? on Susan Schuppli’s website. The work is currently showing as part of Ex-ante at ARTSPACE, 300 Karangahape Rd, Newton, Auckland, New Zealand.
Recent years have seen an increasing number of collaborative projects between scientists and artists. Usually, it is artists who use their creativity to reveal aspects of the natural world – be they biological, geological or geomorphological – in new and unexpected ways. Examples include the works of the British artist Andy Goldsworthy, who is known for making fragile, temporary sculptures from leaves, rocks and even ice. But, just occasionally, the tables are turned, and the natural world mimics art in new and unexpected ways. For instance, when viewed from certain distances, at certain angles and under certain lighting conditions, naturally weathered or eroded landforms can resemble familiar everyday objects. Examples of such ‘geoart’ include the profile of a face in a sandstone escarpment in eastern South Africa and the outline of a toad on a conglomerate boulder in northwest Argentina (below).
The names given to such features generally only have informal status, however, for the naming of landforms, or the broader landscapes within which landforms occur, is less straightforward and even controversial. Unlike in biology or geology, where strict conventions exist for the naming of newly-discovered species, mappable strata or time periods, there is no formal naming convention for landforms or landscapes. This may change in future, for several pressures are combining to increase awareness of the need to address more formally how landforms and landscapes are ‘branded’. In geomorphology, many overlapping or closely similar landforms are known by a plethora of seemingly interchangeable local terms – for instance, ephemeral drainage features (rivers and gullies) are known in different parts of the world as ‘wadis’, ‘arroyos’, ‘gulches’, ‘creeks’, ‘washes’, ‘badlands’, ‘lavakas’, ‘dongas’ and so on – which frequently causes confusion. In geotourism, indigenous names often compete with colonial names for recognition in the marketing and promotion of visitor attractions that revolve around landforms. Australian examples include Uluru/Ayers Rock, Kata Tjuta/The Olgas, and Watarkka/Kings Canyon National Park. In some instances, landform names even have had to be changed, owing to racist or other negative connotations. The United States and Canada, for instance, contain many examples where pejorative landform or place names ascribed on the basis of colonial events or the characteristics of native habitants have been changed in recent decades to something more acceptable. In the closely allied geoconservation field, global initiatives such as the World Heritage List and the Geoparks movement have led to increased lobbying for certain distinctive landscape types with local names to provide the ‘type example’ and the generic term for other similar landscapes worldwide. For example, the ‘Danxia landscape type’ – named after a type locality in Danxiashan, Guandong Province, China – has been proposed as the generic term to define all erosional landscapes developed on continental clastic rocks (sandstones) of red colour. These kinds of moves are seen by some as less than desirable, for use of local names as generic landscape terms may confuse (who would likely understand the significance of a name such as Danxia?) and may only serve to detract attention from unique characteristics of superficially similar landscapes, thereby decreasing the case for conservation of those landscapes at the global scale.
While these debates may continue, and robust scientific approaches and formal procedures for formal landform/landscape naming are yet to be established, more frivolous landform-naming activities can still be undertaken, perhaps rivalling those undertaken by cloud spotters (see The Cloud Appreciation Society website, for example). Ground-level views can be important but so too can vertical or oblique aerial perspectives. Abundant remotely-sensed imagery of the surface of the Earth and other planetary bodies is now available for free through virtual globes such as Google Earth and Google Mars. This provides opportunities to examine landforms and landscapes at different perspectives and under different illuminations, and thereby discover other examples of geoart. The ‘Face on Mars’ (below) is a well-known example of how image resolution and lighting conditions can reveal the illusory nature of some geoart, but other examples (below) seem to be more permanent while still highlighting the human brain’s capacity for recognising familiar patterns in nature, especially facial features.
In rarer instances, some examples of geoart even manage neatly to encapsulate some broader concepts about landform/landscape structure (below).
Can anyone else find any other interesting, original examples of geoart from ground or aerial perspectives? If so, please alert us to examples along with your proposed informal name, and perhaps we can include them on the website.
Further reading for the inquisitive:
Brierley, G., Huang, H.Q., Chen, A., Aiken, S., Crozier, M., Eder, W., Goudie, A., Ma, Y. May, J.H., Migon, P., Nanson, G.C., Qi, D., Viles, H., Wood, C., Wray, R., Yang, G., Yang, X. and Yu, G.-a., 2011. Naming conventions in geomorphology: contributions and controversies in the sandstone landscape of Zhangjiajie Geopark, China, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 36: 1981-1984 (DOI: 10.1002/esp.2216).
Tooth, S., 2013. Google EarthTM in geomorphology: re-enchanting, revolutionising, or just another resource? In: Shroder, J. (Editor in Chief), Switzer, A.D. and Kennedy, D. (Eds), Treatise on Geomorphology. Academic Press, San Diego, CA, Vol. 14, Methods in Geomorphology, pp. 53-64 (DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-374739-6.00372-9).