Over the last year or so, the expression of time in my practice has grown in significance. Implicit in references and allusions to archaeological practices and geological phenomena, the physical and metaphorical effects and consequences of time have emerged thematically dominant.
The intersection of human with natural history, with time measured in years versus that in millennia, portrayed through signs of decay and collapse, of disuse and abandonment, or of the glacially slow accumulation of sedimentary stratification, where the evidence for one is discovered in the other, this is what ultimately fascinates.
By digging down and excavating the layers deposited by time, by sifting the dirt for fragments and traces, we are able to travel back; time is compressed, and temporal divisions collapse.
"How do we fit in?", a question posed by an archaeologist introducing a TV series revealing the social history of a specific site in England. Both the question and answer are instructive to help understand the success and continuing appeal of TV programs such as 'Time Team', 'Digging For Britain', 'Michael Woods Story of England', etc. The implicit purpose, and sometime stated intention, is to establish continuity of habitation, of use, of custom, of community, and engender or reinforce a sense of identity, through appeals to a shared past, and through both a materialisation and a deepening of the connection with landscape and place. The popularity of such TV shows is echoed by that of the burgeoning literary genre of landscape, embracing the rediscovery of our immediate environments and the natural world on our doorstep.
Moreover, the surge of interest in re-wilding, and of restoring a perceived loss of balance between the urban and the rural, the man-made and the natural, can be argued are symptomatic of a flight from the uncertainty, change and upheaval of the modern world. It is also an expression of unease, of the recognition of our destructive impact on the Earth's ecology and resources, coupled with our own rootlessness, and weightlessness (consider how dematerialised our world has become through internet interactions and social media; the rise of the non-physical, digital constitution of our sense of self and identity). We crave the hard, tangible evidence of our existence in relation both to the present and the past, and thus, perhaps paradoxically, by recovering the past we may also recover the future.
We have perhaps never been more estranged by and alienated from our history, our environment, and the natural world. Cultural trends reflect our desire and anxiety to restore a meaningful relationship and connection with all that we in the post-industrialised West have conspired to remove ourselves from.
'[T]rauma and discontinuity are fundamental for memory and history, ruins have come to be necessary for linking creativity to the experience of loss at the individual and collective level. Ruins operate as powerful metaphors for rejection or absence and hence, as incentives for reflection or restoration. ' (Salvatore Settis, 'Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed').
I recently read an article which associated the feelings experienced at the initial shock and discomfort of 'lockdown', and those encountered during the subsequent imposed isolation, with the various documented stages of grief (denial, anger, etc). But what struck me most was the expression 'anticipatory grief' – the fear and anxiety induced by the thought of future loss, misfortune, and death. This grief for a perhaps distant eventuality resonated with the themes in my current practice, in particular the exploration of the ruin as a projected future which seeks to depict the inevitable by evoking the past. In relation to my work however, I would suggest another aspect of grief is more appropriate, that of acceptance, the final stage of the recognised grieving process. The recurring motifs of atrophy and collapse are not I would argue, the consequence of anxiety for the future, but more a detached representation of the inevitable: a post-apocalyptic, post-human future.
Grief shares much with our understanding of nostalgia as a sense of yearning, loss or remembrance. Nostalgia occupies a singular position in relation to contemporary circumstances, in that it is stirred by the present, but looks to the past (the imperfect, the imagined, the mythologised), in order that hopes for the future are re-inscribed with the sunnier recollections of former times (like the two faces of the Roman god Janus, looking both forward and back in time). The enforced lockdown and isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic reveals not only grief, but the function of nostalgia: trapped indoors, we remember the days of freedom, of unrestricted social activities, and this longing we project forward to the day we can once again enjoy all that we previously took for granted, but are currently denied.
In The Thin Places
The ancient Celts believed in the existence of ‘thin places’ – portals or thresholds, representing a permeable barrier that allowed passage from this world to another. In some respects, my work can be said to be situated at the intersection of two worlds, or realities, in an eerie borderland of fragments and ruined structures. All graffiti shown here can be found in the vicinity of my studio, and when thus appropriated, becomes a signifier for this terra nullius, blurring the boundaries between artifice and the real.
Graffiti when encountered in those spaces that lie just beyond the familiar, or behind the built and landscaped facade, is an expression of a phantom culture that communicates only with itself, addressing an unseen and unknown audience. We are here cast unexpectedly as the outsiders, interlopers, trespassing in these edgelands, and excluded from this dialogue. We are confronted by an archaeological palimpsest of ritual marks and a lost semiosis: a visual history of dialectics, polemic and provocation. Paradoxically, graffiti as symbol, language and art, at the moment of its greatest vitality and affirmation, appears curiously moribund, anachronistic, dead. That it should then be the art and lingua franca of these spaces is perhaps no coincidence.
' "l don't care – l don't care about nobody else seeing it, or the fact if they can read it or not. It's for me and other graffiti writers, that we can read it. These other people who don't write, they're excluded." ' Skeme – 1983