Arts of the Air: an Evening at The Exchange

‘The Exchange’ is the University of Birmingham’s new building in the city centre, offering a public cultural programme alongside business courses and centres for research collaboration. Exhibitions and events are programmed around a new theme each season, starting with ‘The Air we Breathe’.

We are sorry that, due to unforeseen circumstances, ‘Arts of the Air’ has been postponed. We look forward to working with The Exchange in 2022.

Arts of the Air

The Old English ‘Storm Riddle’ takes us riding on the turbulent air of a thousand years ago. Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ expresses the revolutionary inspiration that Romantic thinkers found in the weather. Virginia Woolf considered the changing air of each century and how it might influence life on the ground. The history of English literature is a history of air and human responses to it. Visual artists, too, have been gripped by this most elusive and omnipresent subject – from the earliest landscape painters to Peter Lanyon depicting the thermals under his glider, they have shaped our ways of seeing and feeling the air around us.

With help from friends and colleagues who will share their specialist insights, Alexandra Harris will explore some of the very different ways in which air has been perceived and represented in Britain. This atmospheric winter evening will carry us through gales to frosty sunsets – and perhaps a balmy breeze.

Constable, John; Rainstorm over the Sea; https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/O1841 Credit line: (c)  (c) Royal Academy of Arts / Photographer credit: John Hammond /
Image: John Constable, Rainstorm over the Sea, ca. 1824-1828.
Oil on paper laid on canvas. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer: John Hammond.

Fire and Ochre: Films by Julie Brook

Artist Julie Brook pictured near her home on Skye (Jane Barlow/TSPL).

Over this past summer, Alexandra Harris talked with our Artist-in-Residence Julie Brook about her motivation, her materials, and her methods. Brook is a British artist who creates large scale sculpture. She uses a variety of natural materials and incorporates photography and film to combine wild terrains with classical formalism. Drawing from, with, and in the landscape, Brook has lived and worked in the Orkney Islands, on Jura and Mingulay, and in the Libyan desert. She currently lives on the Isle of Skye. She often travels wide and far for her work, using what she finds in particular landscapes to create new forms and works within those spaces.

In this post we showcase two sections of the conversation, focusing on Brook’s ‘Firestacks’ and ‘Japan’. These, and a further section of the conversation, ‘Labour’, will be screened in-person at the University of Birmingham on 22 November at 5pm. Please do join us if you can. Register here. Come and see Julie’s spectacular images on the big screen! We’ll be making the swish new Teaching and Learning building as much like a cinema as possible…

Firestacks

Firestack, Julie Brook. Jura, West coast of Scotland.

In the early nineties, Brook moved to the remote island of Jura on the west coast of Scotland to paint and draw. Living beneath a natural stone arch, the solitude became part of her art which she then translated into her ‘Firestacks’ series, a body of work which uses rocks to build cairns on the shore, and wood to set fires in them. Eventually, as the tide comes in, the stacks topple and Brook captures the whole transient process on film.

In this video, Brook and Harris explore the rock cairns that Brook now builds every season in the same place; they discuss the process of documenting how each day and each season affects the firestacks differently. 

Firestacks: Julie Brook in conversation

“I first conceived of this work really as the beginning of my sculptural work as well. I was living in a natural arch, I was collecting my water, I was making a fire everyday to cook on. After doing functional building in the arch to make it habitable, I wanted to use those skills and that sensibility to make work.”

Julie Brook

Japan

Ascending, Julie Brook. Kanagaso, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan.

The second video concerns Brook’s project in Japan, entitled ‘Ascending’. ‘Ascending’ is a 2019 sculptural response to the ancient working quarry of Kanagaso in the Ishikawa Prefecture. Working on a huge scale in the space of the quarry itself, Brook used the material nature of the stone to give ‘Ascending’ its weight, mass, colour and sound. 

In the video, Brook and Harris discuss how Brook’s artistic work within spaces reaches out to the surrounding landscapes, highlighting their own sculptural likeness and giving new life to the space.

Japan: Julie Brook in conversation

“I couldn’t compete with the cliff but I wanted the work to be about the cliff… I wanted the steps to feel like they’d always been there, that they’d simply grown up overnight. It was almost like I was revealing them rather than making them… It’s the whole experience of the environment and the way in which you can ascend the piece to experience that natural amphitheatre that quarries often create, whereby, you change your sense of scale by being able to walk on it.”

Julie Brook

Tobacco and Feathers… The Art of Looking


Arts of Place is supporting an exciting evening’s conversation at Trinity College Oxford (Monday 8 November 6pm) and an online version with live discussion (Monday 15 November). BBC New Generation Thinkers Lauren Working and Lucy Powell discuss art, literature, and colonialism with art historian Stephanie Pratt. This event is part of the 2021 Being Human Festival.

The event at Trinity College is now fully booked, but please do register for the online version on Monday 15 November 6 – 7.15pm. A film of the panel talks and conversation will be screened, followed by live discussion with the online audience. Book here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/being-human-festival-transatlantic-tales-stories-of-feathers-and-smoke-tickets-179205748217?aff=erelpanelorg

Please note that unfortunately Alexandra Harris is unable to chair this event, but Lauren and Lucy will take her place in hosting the conversation.


How do you read a feather? How did tobacco, a plant cultivated by Indigenous peoples in the Americas, end up in the playhouses of Shakespeare’s London? How were transatlantic objects altered or incorporated into ‘new’ worlds?


From parrots to sunflowers to chilis, plants and animals from the Americas have reconfigured cultures across the world for over four centuries. This event will examine objects that crossed the Atlantic in the early modern period, illuminating their place in everything from still life paintings to botanic gardens to the writings of the seventeenth-century playwright Aphra Behn. Drawing on literature, art history, and Indigenous perspectives, Lauren Working, Lucy Powell and Stephanie Pratt will follow the journeys of feathers and tobacco to discuss the ongoing impact of colonialism and empire on society and culture in England.

Julie Brook: Arts of Place Artist-in-Residence

As part of our celebrations at the close of the first year of Arts of Place, we are delighted to welcome leading land artist Julie Brook as our Artist in Residence. Here, we look over Brook’s career and work.

Brook is a British artist who creates large scale sculpture. She uses a variety of natural materials and incorporates photography and film to combine wild terrains with classical formalism. Drawing from, with, and in the landscape, Brook has lived and worked in the Orkney Islands, on Jura and Mingulay, and in the Libyan desert. She currently lives on the Isle of Skye.

Artist Julie Brook, pictured near her home on Skye. PIC Jane Barlow/TSPL.

Brook travels to and dwells within remote regions, spending time inhabiting the landscape either alone or with local guides. These places are usually quite solitary and inhospitable, from caves in the Hebrides to Libyan deserts. From there she makes art that reconnects us with the natural world, in exciting ways, through sculpture and large-scale drawing. From 1989 Julie Brook has been living and working in remote landscapes in Scotland: Hoy, Orkney (1989); the west coast of Jura (1990-94); on the uninhabited island of Mingulay (1996-2011) in the Outer Hebrides. Recently she has been working in different parts of the desert: in Central and South West Libya (2008-09) travelling with Tuareg guides; Syria (2010); NW Namibia (2011-14) travelling with Himba-Herero guides; Aird Bheag, Hebrides and Komatsu, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan (2015-2022).

Pigment Drawing, poured. Otjize, NW Namibia.

In the early nineties, Brook moved to the remote island of Jura on the west coast of Scotland to paint and draw. Living beneath a natural stone arch, the solitude became part of her art. While living alone and collecting water and fuel for drinking and cooking, Brook began to build artworks using materials found on the island. So became her Firestack series, where she used rocks to build cairns on the shore, and wood to set fires in them as the tide came in. Eventually, the stacks toppled, and Brook captured the whole process on film.

“Brook’s Firestacks are works that we feel could have been made at any time in the past 5000 years, but they have had their pertinence refreshed by the current focus we are putting on the environment. When the tide comes in her artwork has to make its own case against the elements, just as we, in the age of dawning climate change, might still have to.” – Jonathan McAloon for Elephant Art

Firestack, Autumn: Aird Bheag, outer Hebrides, 2015.

We are extremely excited to host Brook at Arts of Place this summer. On the afternoon of 23rd June, she will be running a practical drawing workshop for Arts of Place writers and readers. This free workshop will be a chance to explore form and emphasis in a different medium. You can read more about the workshop and reserve your place here.

Practical drawing with Julie Brook

To celebrate the end of the first year of Arts of Place, we were thrilled to welcome leading land artist Julie Brook to a summer residency with us. Brook registers the infinite drama of the four elements and measures time on multiple scales. She has worked over many years in Libya, Namibia, Japan and Scotland, learning from local communities about the materials of the earth.

Julie ran a free Drawing Workshop on 23 June, 2-5pm and there was no artistic experience required! This was drawing for writers and readers, a chance to explore form and emphasis in a different medium. We worked with charcoal and swapping the usual A4 paper of our working lives for the expansiveness of A1. Julie provided special charcoal and rubbers for those who participate which were sent to participants in the post. It was a treat of an afternoon.

Here are a couple of the participants’ wonderful drawings from the workshop:

Cover image: Firestack. Outer Hebrides, Autumn 2016

 

William Cowper, Art and Afterlife

William Cowper lived in and around Olney in Buckinghamshire from 1768 to 1795. It was here that he wrote Olney Hymns (1779) (with John Newton), Poems (1782), The Task (1785), and his translations of Homer. The poet’s experience of his immediate surroundings, his close attention to the natural world, and the importance he attached to domestic life gave particular energy and vision to his poetry.

On 3rd and 4th of September 2021, Arts of Place members Andrew Hodgson and Will Bowers hosted a conference at The Olney Centre, focused on Cowper’s career in verse. The event included a visit to the Cowper and Newton Museum where attendees toured Cowper’s home and the beautiful garden in which he worked.

 

‘William Cowper’ by George Romney (1792)

A range of papers explored formal and stylistic elements of Cowper’s writing (Gregory Leadbetter discussed the ‘exploded couplets’ of the blank verse of The Task; Samuel Diener examined warring lyric and narrative impulses in ‘The Cast-away’; Jessica Fay looked at Cowper’s handling of movement and stillness in the closed stanzas of the Hymns). There were also papers focused on Cowper’s critical heritage (Tim Fulford traced an association of ideas about church-bells from Cowper to Coleridge and the Wedgwood family; Alexandra Harris explored Virginia Woolf’s appreciation of Cowper’s ‘white fire’, while Andrew Hodgson read Cowper’s fear and dread through Donald Davie). Meanwhile, Will Bowers offered a paper on Cowper’s conception of time, Andrew Newell introduced Cowper’s ‘exegetical poetics’, and Tess Somervell presented Cowper as a key poet of the anthropocene.

The highlight of the conference was Fiona Stafford’s lecture on ‘Cowper’s Hare Care’. Cowper owned a number of pet hares but alongside an exploration of his personal attachment to these characterful animals, Stafford showed that a close reading of Cowper’s poetry can open up the extended literary heritage of the hare — a heritage that stretches from John Gay to Seamus Heaney.

The conference also included an informal discussion of the value of teaching Cowper’s poetry at a time when many of his preoccupations have renewed pertinence in the classroom.

 

 

Featured image: ‘William Cowper’ by George Romney (1792), National Portrait Gallery

The conference was supported by the British Association for Romantic Studies, British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and Queen Mary University of London

Listen to Alex Harris and Kate McLoughlin talking about Cowper’s poetry here.

The Lives of Naturalists

Richard Mabey on Gilbert White of Selborne, in conversation with Alexandra Harris

The Summer 2021 Weinrebe Lecture, presented as part of a new collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. Available to listen here now.

Portrait of Richard Mabey    Gilbert White: A biography of the author of The Natural History of Selborne: Amazon.co.uk: Mabey, Richard: 9781861978073: Books 

Richard Mabey, who celebrates his 80th birthday this year, has been bringing people closer to the natural world since his first books Food for Free and The Unofficial Countryside delighted readers with their subversive outings to the hedgerows in the early 1970s. He is on the side of the weeds that refuse to be tidied; he takes his cues from the playfulness and conviviality of swifts; he gives us all a ticket to join the exuberant ‘cabaret’ of plants.

In this conversation, Mabey reflects on his work as a biographer, and particularly on his long relationship with the great eighteenth-century naturalist Gilbert White of Selborne.

“White is talking about the possibility of birds being parallel citizens”

“I was able to find specific colonies of plants at the precise addresses where White had seen them”

Arts of Place is extremely grateful to OCLW for hosting and producing this lecture recording.

Related links:

The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW)

Richard Mabey’s website

Gilbert White’s House

Expand your Mabey reading list with help from Profile Books: Happy 80th Richard Mabey

Pallant House Gallery explores artist’s responses to The Natural History of Selborne in Drawn to Nature.

Edward Thomas: Out of Place

Monday Conversation, 19 April 2021, with Andrew Hodgson and Ralph Pite

“He handles the name Adelstrop as if he’s jiggling a key in a lock, expecting it to open up a feeling of connectedness”

Dr Andrew Hodgson (Birmingham) argued that, though Thomas is firmly associated with certain kinds of English landscape, his relationship to places is often deeply unsettled. Andrew read poems including Adelstrop and The Ash Grove as the work of a poet ‘out of place’, restlessly seeking forms for disconnection and doubt.

Professor Ralph Pite (Bristol) explored Thomas’s ‘terrestrial’ and ‘extra-terrestrial’ qualities – and the unpredictable relationship between them. Thomas emerged as a radical thinker, interested in non-proprietorial ways of belonging to the land.

“Thomas leads the conversation from a fanciful dream of escape, to disillusionment and world weariness, and after that pleasure in the everyday and he becomes therefore as perplexing a figure as the woman he meets…”


Dereliction and Healing among Coal Spoils

British coal mining is drawing to a close, with the last working mine in Durham extracting its final load in August 2020. The implications and legacies of coalmining are complex and often difficult, but abandoned spoil heaps provide unique habitats and opportunities for life which challenge common conceptions of what ‘healthy landscapes’ look like.

Essay by Michael Malay


A few summers ago, I was standing on a coal spoil in South Wales, overlooking the derelict structure of the Cwm Coking Works. I was there with Liam Olds, a young entomologist who specialises in the insect life of former collieries. ‘People see these places as eyesores,’ he said, ‘but they’re so much more than that. For animals, they’re a kind of shelter — a refuge from monoculture farms, conifer plantations and fragmented habitats. They’re important ecosystems in their own right. It just takes some time before you begin to see them.’  

‘How do you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?’ Meno asked Socrates. It is also a question for our times. Without any of our interference, and without any of our planning, some of the landscapes we call wastelands have become difficult paradises. They are places where life is learning to thrive again, but they are difficult because they do not conform to our ideas of what healthy landscapes might look like. The miners who scooped coal from deep inside the Welsh earth brought other things to the surface, among them clay, shale, sandstone, and ironstone. The materials were piled up in the most haphazard ways, first in little hillocks, and later, as the mining continued, into landscape-defining hills. Limestone mixed with shale, sandstone was thrown up alongside clay, and the stratigraphy of the earth, which had been gradually laid down over millions of years, and which ran in large folds and faults beneath us, came to be mixed in the strangest proportions. 

What followed was bizarre, wild, unpredictable. The spoil heaps formed complex topographies of their own, characterised by varying gradients and aspects, and because the spoils were composed of different materials, with different pH levels and soil structures, they provided the underlying substrate for different landscapes to emerge. During my tour of the spoils, I saw more distinctive habitats in two hours than I usually do over a day of walking. There were bilberry-filled heaths next to wildflower meadows; patches of open, free-draining ground next to bristling reed beds; woodlands next to boggy marshes; and, on the other side of the spoils, what Liam called ‘inland sand dunes’, habitats usually formed by wind, but which emerged here under less natural conditions. 

The habitats were home to a bewildering diversity of plants. On some slopes we found carline thistles, which thrive in calcareous soils, and the low-lying fields were filled with undergroves of bird’s-foot-trefoil and kidney vetch. Nearby we found southern marsh orchids, a plant of damp alkaline meadows, and, half a mile away, round-leaved wintergreens, a plant that typically grows on coastal dunes. And interspersed among these plants were a variety of moss and lichen species, including greasewort, Clay Earth-moss, Olive Beard-moss, and Whorled Tufa-moss. ‘The soil here is nutrient-poor’, Liam explained, ‘which is why these plants are here. They thrive in the stressed ground conditions left behind by the spoils. In fact, the more stressed the ground is, the more flowers they seem to produce.’
 
With the greenery came the insects. There were dingy skippers and graylings, mottled grasshoppers and meadow grasshoppers, dozens of bee species, as well as dragonflies the size of my hand. And, amongst this heady mix, there were the parasites: specialist hoverflies that preyed on a particular kind of ant, flies that preyed on beetles and moths, and a wasp that preyed on certain miner bees. (Later in the day, as Liam pointed out a miner bee’s burrow, the wasp he was talking about appeared right on cue, a yellow flash in the air.) Some of the creatures recorded here are common to Britain, others are nationally scarce. Others still are new to science, including a millipede Liam’s friend found on the Maerdy colliery spoil, duly named the ‘Maerdy monster’. And here they all were, the rare and the abundant, sharing the strange commonlands of the spoils. Since 2015, Liam has found more than 900 invertebrate species on the coal tips, but there are many more surveys to conduct, and he suspects his list will grow substantially in the years to come.
 
‘too ugly to care for…’
 
No-one knew these spoils would be so accommodating to wild life. Inadvertently, the impoverished landscapes left behind by mining generated pockets of richness. Wildflowers that could no longer be found on intensive farmland began appearing here, followed by beetles and bees, moths and butterflies. Some of these abandoned collieries are among the most successful rewilding projects that have taken place in Britain, although they have never been seen or described as such. People find them too ugly to care for, and today hundreds of spoil tips are threatened by reclamation projects, including proposals to ‘green’ the spoils. Liam shudders at the misnomer. He wants them recognised as sites of special scientific interest.
 
Some of the places we have spoiled will never heal again, at least in our lifetimes. The barn swallows of Chernobyl continue to be born with strange malformations — misshapen beaks, bent tail feathers, crippled toes — while open-cast mines in Appalachia have completely terraformed the geology of the earth. But if many landscapes are in need of healing, there are also those places that have found their way back to health, although not in ways we intended or planned. They rebuke us with their strength, but also educate us with their presence, reminding us of the vitality that can sometimes emerge from damaged places. We should celebrate them, too, not in order to excuse destruction, or to uncritically celebrate nature’s ‘resilience’, but to appreciate what happens when we stand to one side. The Latin term relinquere gives us the adjective ‘derelict’, a word for forsaken and abandoned things, and it also gives us the verb ‘relinquish’, to give up or desist from. Not all derelictions are bad, and some of our plundered places can come good again. We do not necessarily have to withdraw from these places, but rather inhabit them more skilfully and on different terms. Liam has taken up a family tradition — both his grandfather and great-grandfather were coal miners — but he works the land in a very different way now, noticing rather than extracting, and standing aside rather than digging down.


Michael Malay is a Lecturer in English Literature and Environmental Humanities
at the University of Bristol

A Street in a Global Pandemic

As part of a remarkable project to record lives on a single British street, documentary photographer Martin Stott has been capturing images from the age of coronavirus as it unfolds in a very local context. Here, Alexandra Harris chooses a small selection, and recommends a visit to Martin’s website where you can see the full series.

All images are © Martin Stott.

A cobbled kerb-side, with the usual detritus of twigs and wrappers and cigarette ends caught between the cracks, and, blown here or thrown here, a very 2020 kind of cast-off: latex gloves, still holding the mould of whoever wore them, still rolled at the cuff where they were peeled off. I’m tempted to say there’s something ghostly in the image, but Martin Stott tends to steer refreshingly clear of hauntings and freighted symbols. He likes bright daylight in which we can see how things are.


Martin has been photographing places and communities since the 1970s. His images of the co-operative movement, of people in Mao’s China, and of Bhopal in the wake of the 1984 disaster, are all now valued for the social and cultural histories they tell, as well as for their distinctive qualities of openness, clarity, and keen watching. Martin photographs things so ordinary you hardly noticed they were there and bothers with every nuance of detail in a humble setting. He lavishes attention on pavements and dog-eared notices; in his portraits, people often look straight at the camera – there’s no pretence: they are having their pictures taken – but they are surrounded by the intricate business of their lives.

In recent years, Martin has focused on what is to be found within a few metres of his own front door. That door opens onto Divinity Road in East Oxford, a long street of Victorian houses just off the busy and super-diverse Cowley Road. Martin has lived here for more than thirty years, and has been active in community-building initiatives throughout that time. When the lockdown came, Martin went out with his camera. Many of his subjects will seem very familiar. Chalked pavements, children’s rainbows, unreadable eyes behind a visor: these are the visual language of 2020, passing across our screens each day. But here is one particular street, part of the global story but not exactly the same as anywhere else and containing multitudes within it. In the tradition of Mass Observation, the pictures tell us something of what is shared while revealing a wealth of idiosyncrasies. Each arrangement of window posters is individual. Each household is in its own lockdown. The relations between inside and outside, private and public, are being renegotiated.

How much can we tell about the street? We can sense the Thursday night atmosphere: families emerging from behind privet hedges or peering between the parallel-parked cars to see each other. The lockdown has made some neighbours more visible and part of the community; others have disappeared. Someone has needed the paramedics’ stretcher. There’s a party spirit further down towards the Cowley Road: housemates are making the best of things with an outdoor drink, though the flat roof of the Co-op isn’t anyone’s ideal terrace. Another group stands ready with new turf and spades: they are clearly embarking on a garden together. In fact they are medical students working at the sharp end of the pandemic through long hours up at the hospital. Their new lawn will give them a place to relax during the difficult months ahead.

The images of gutters and kerbs remind me of the sculptures made by the Boyle Family when they focussed in on certain squares of ground and made faithful reproductions of them in fibreglass and mixed media to hang in a gallery. They made us look at the pavement markings and the texture of tarmac. But any similarity here points up a contrast. The Boyle Family aimed for objectivity; they went to places they didn’t know and examined them like scientists. Martin has been trying to know this street for thirty years. He’s poised between objective recorder and long-term neighbour. He’s photographing ‘his’ place, with a curiosity and attention that comes from loving it. But he knows the street is always changing and that neighbourhoods are best not taken for granted.