Hidden in a small private woodland, off a public footpath, several miles from any town, overlooking an artificial lake, itself a product of the Derbyshire Dales industrial past, stands a lone wooden shack, barely large enough for four people to stand in. The shack is a bird hide, from which twitchers can monitor the avian comings and goings on the lake. Set into a narrow wooden shelf, beneath the hide’s long, thin windows, is a compass showing the cardinal points. Contained within the hide are two A4 notebooks, in which a log has been kept, a diligent record of the species and numbers of birds frequenting the lake, dating back to 2004. Human beings are natural archivers, recorders, creators and organisers of data, from which, I assume, we must gain a Darwinian advantage over our competitors. The variety of means through which this inclination manifests, as a collector (as well as creator) of narratives, endlessly fascinates me. Also contained within the hide and the notebooks is evidence of behaviour for which the hide was not designed. Sketches and scribblings amongst the sober recordings suggest it is not only bird-watchers who visit the hide. A doodle of a duck smoking a joint hints at other, more illicit, uses.
On Wednesday, 13th November, 2013 I moved to Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast, where I rented a small, sea front cottage, until Tuesday, 24th June, 2014. Over those 32 weeks, or 224 days, I took a photograph from the same spot on the beach, directly in front of my cottage, looking out to sea, at roughly the same time of day (usually between 11am and 1pm, depending on what I was doing that day), for every day that I was resident in Aldeburgh. (There are notable gaps in the record, when I was away seeing family, or visiting friends in London, for example.) I was interested in repetition, and discipline. For the first time in my life I was devoting myself entirely to art. I had a little capital, and, for a short while at least, I was not relying on regular paid employment. I had moved to the Suffolk coast to establish myself as a full time artist, my aim to earn a sufficient income from my work.
My interest in taking the photographs was, like much artistic practice, simply to see what would happen. If I limited the criteria: the same physical place; a similar time of day, and limited the composition: 50% sea; 50% sky; bisected by the horizon in the middle, what would be the result? How different would the images be? Because, of course, I didn’t take the images in the same place, or at the same time. Space and time are relative. The Earth had moved many thousands of miles in the intervening 24 hours, so had the Sun, and the Solar System, and the Milky Way, all in an endlessly complex interplay of cycles. And it was a different day, with different light and atmospheric conditions. And maybe, it could be argued, I was a different person, with 24 hours worth more life experience, in a different mood, with different brain chemistry. No two moments are the same moment. It is, therefore, no matter how carefully composed and contrived, impossible for any two images to be the same.
The result, Thálatta! Thálatta!, is a series of 168 photographs. The title is taken from Xenophon’s Anabasis, and is the cry of joy made by an army of Greeks upon seeing the Black Sea, and realising that their safety is close at hand after a failed military campaign against the Persian Empire in 401BC. (1) It is a cry echoed in Iris Murdoch’s 1978 novel, The Sea, The Sea. The protagonist of Murdoch’s novel, Charles Arrowby, a narcissistic playwright, has retreated to the coast, withdrawing from the world, searching for the isolation in which he can examine his life and write his memoirs. (2) It was a similar withdrawal which took me to Aldeburgh. It was a wiping of the slate clean. After a failed relationship and stagnant career, I had quit work, quit home, and was starting completely anew. By staring out to sea, by limiting my view, reducing my surroundings to the fundamentals of sky and sea, air and water, I was seeking solace and tranquility, a gathering of strength with which to begin again.
The images in Thálatta! Thálatta! reference the black and white seascapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose own series began when asking himself what contemporary view might early hominids recognise. His answer was the sea, and possibly only the sea. (3) When we look out to sea we find our perception of time is altered, it slows down our present, asks us to contemplate the past, whilst also projecting us into potential futures. What possibilities lie beyond the horizon? Where will I be in a couple of years from now? As Sugimoto says: “Mystery of mysteries, water and air are right there before us in the sea. Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing.” (4)
What did I learn from my own “voyage of seeing” in Aldeburgh? I learnt that, as far as I was concerned, worrying about money took all the pleasure out of making art. I arrived at a point where I could no longer allow myself to create something unless there was a visible pay cheque at the end of it. I discovered that the monetising of my practice changed my relationship to creativity to such a degree that I no longer enjoyed it. I saw that attempting to place a financial value on my work resulted in bad art, or even no art at all. Also, I was depressed and running out of money. And so, I left my little sea front cottage, moved back to the hills of the Peak District, my spiritual home where I had not lived for eight years, and began my new beginning again.
And now, with Thálatta! Thálatta!, I complete a work that has been in my head for more than three years, ever since I took the first photograph, at 12:29 on Wednesday, 13th November, 2013. With this work I celebrate my eight months on the Suffolk Coast: the collages made in a sun-filled living room-come-makeshift artist’s studio; the album recorded in the little attic room overlooking the beach; the unfulfilled artist’s residency at Sizewell Nuclear Power Station; the walks and bike rides up and down the coast; the visits to my friends in Debenham, 25 miles inland; the strangeness of the watery landscape (Orford Ness, Shingle Street, Snape, Thorpeness, Dunwich); all this is contained in the 168 photographs of Thálatta! Thálatta! It may look like a sea and sky the same as any other on the planet, but it isn’t. It is a very personal record of a very specific time and place. It is one small, but significant, chapter in an ongoing autobiography.
CJ Robinson, January 2017, Buxton, Derbyshire
1) Xenophon, Anabasis (The Persian Expedition), translated by Rex Warner (Penguin Classics, 2004)
2) Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea, (Chatto and Windus, 1978)
3) Kerry Brougher & David Elliot (eds.), Hiroshi Sugimoto, (Hatje Cantz, 2005)
Thálatta! Thálatta! can be purchased here.
In 2001 James Merrick created his abstract graphic novel Paving Stones. Now, sixteen years later, CJ Robinson produces Paving Stones II in homage to his friend, colleague and occasional collaborator. Paving Stones II uses images and text borrowed from … Continue reading
This gallery contains 10 photos.
Last weekend I attended a private book sale at the house of a friend’s friend. The house owner’s husband had died a few months ago leaving a library of over 10,000 books and the house owner was in the process of organising the house’s contents in order that she could move forward with her own life, and eventually sell the house. The book sale was a part of this process. The man who had accumulated this library, a retired journalist, had spent the last two decades of his life researching a book, which will now never be written. Many of the books in the sale contained strips of paper with handwritten notes relating to elements of his epic work in progress, giving tantalising hints as to the subject of his unwritten magnum opus. Found Narrative No.7 is one of these books. The notes suggest that the author was looking into that blurred area where science and faith meet, often uncomfortably. The many other books in his library strengthen this suggestion, covering, as they do, subjects such as: physics; cosmology; philosophy; linguistics; astronomy; astrology; ufo’s; mythology; spiritualism; magic; the Western Esoteric tradition; angels; comparative religion; alternative history; and more. When I asked my friend, who has been close to the family for many years, what the curator of the library’s book was to be about, she replied, after a considered pause: “Everything!”
Hidden away in the fire place of Dove Cottage, a community venue owned by the church next door, in Debenham, Suffolk, Found Narrative No. 6 is a set of index card drawers containing the hand written record of every birth, … Continue reading
The difference between looking and seeing.
By definition, to look is considered to be the more conscious act. We see things that come into our vision, unexpectedly, we look with intent. This suggests that looking is the more purposeful, dynamic activity, involving thought and will. We turn our gaze to a specific thing. Seeing, it seems, can be almost accidental, and does not require thought. But, a deeper meaning of ‘to see’ is to reflect on something and to gain an understanding of something. It doesn’t have to have been visually seen. As in “oh, I see,” it involves a realisation, a moment when we cross a threshold from something unknown to something known. You can look without seeing, but can you see without looking? It is this deeper meaning to which I am referring with the series of installations and photographs Look and See. (I owe a debt to Roy Voss, my tutor from the University of the West of England, where I studied a Masters Degree from 2006 to 2009, whose work I am openly referencing with this series.)
“As Above So Below”
an artwork by CJ Robinson
made for the second Grinlow Art Trail, held in Grinlow Woods, Buxton, Derbyshire,
on Saturday 18th & Sunday 19th July 2015
CJ Robinson interviewed by James Merrick
James Merrick: So, maybe we should start with a brief description of the piece. “As Above So Below” is a grid of variably sized mirrored tiles arranged into a four foot square, placed on a roughly forty-five degree slope next to a path in a public woodland. What were your immediate aims for the piece?
Chris Robinson: Well, I suppose I was hoping for a transformation of the familiar, an unusual view of something we are so used to that we maybe take it for granted without even realising we are taking it for granted, and so offer an opportunity to shake us out of our complacency and consider it afresh. I mean, I live locally and I walk through these woods regularly, and I like to think I appreciate them, but I’m sure sometimes I’m so wrapped up in my day-to-day life and problems that go with that, that I don’t really see the woods. I know them, I look at them, but I don’t really see them.
JM: There’s a lightness of touch to the work, a simplicity, that automatically evokes Minimalism, and in particular the square grid pieces of Carl Andre. Was that intentional?
CR: Of course. I admire the work of Carl Andre, and Minimalism generally. One can’t lay squares on the ground calling it an artwork and not reference Carl Andre. And I suppose in my own work I’m increasingly looking for the simplest means to create the most profound transformation. That’s what I admire about Minimalism, it’s ability to address complex ideas with the lightest of touches. There’s a reduction, a stripping away of the unnecessary, in a search for the essential. There’s a purity to the best of Minimalism – the artist, by the subtlety of his or her intervention, is almost absent from it.
JM: And I can also see references to James Turrell’s Skyrooms in the way the mirrors frame a small section of the woods and sky, drawing attention to and inviting a slow contemplation of a possibly overlooked, or neglected, detail.
CR: Yes, I’m glad you saw that. I didn’t consciously reference James Turrell, but I am a fan. I would love to visit his volcano in the states. The work also references that whole Land Art thing of Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long, or the geometry-in-nature of Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty”, or Agnes Denes’ “Tree Mountain”.
JM: We should talk about the title as well, which inevitably brings us into the realms of Conceptual Art, where a carefully chosen object and title can combine to provoke all sorts of associations and meanings. Do you want to tell us where the title comes from and why you chose it for this piece?
CR: “As Above So Below” comes from the opening section of “The Emerald Tablet”, a rather strange and esoteric ancient text attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, who may or may not have been the Greek equivalent to the Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth. Anyway, Trismegistus (which means ‘thrice great’) developed the magical system of Hermeticism, which went on to influence the whole of Western occultism. People as diverse as Isaac Newton, William Blake and Aleister Crowley were, to varying degrees, followers, or, in the cases of Newton and Crowley, practitioners. Now, I’m not particularly interested in occultism or magic, I am a rationalist and a materialist, but I appreciate how the natural world, and in particular here in this instance a woodland, can heighten that sense of the spiritual and pagan in a person, it can heighten our wonder at the natural world and our place within it. But it is what that first section of the Emerald Tablet says and how it links to me placing mirrors in a wood that I’d like to draw attention to here. And in particular the phrase “as above so below” which in this tradition is said to “hold the key to all mysteries.”
JM: Maybe at this point it would be useful to insert the relevant quote before carrying on?
CR: Yes, of course.
This comes from a website called themystica.com:
“’That which is above is the same as that which is below’…Macrocosmos is the same as microcosmos. The universe is the same as God, God is the same as man, man is the same as the cell, the cell is the same as the atom, the atom is the same as…and so on, ad infinitum.”
So, contained in this quote is the idea that the really, really big looks the same as the really, really small.
JM: Like Blake’s “to see a world in a grain of sand”.
CR: Exactly. In that poem Blake was directly referencing “The Emerald Tablet”. And it is an idea that science has only relatively recently discovered. An atom has a similar structure to a solar system or a galaxy for example. In fact we find the natural world has managed to produce infinitely varied complexity out of the simplest of rules.
JM: We’re entering the realms of chaos theory here aren’t we, along with fractals and particle physics.
CR: Indeed we are. The Mystica goes on to say with reference to ‘as above so below’, as well as Hermeticism more generally:
“To the magician the magical act, that of causing a transformation in a thing or things without any physical contact, is accomplished by an imaginative act accompanied by the will that the wanted change will occur. The magical act and imaginative act becomes one and the same. The magician knows with certainty that for the change to occur he must will it to happen and firmly believe it will happen. Here it may be noted that magic and religion are akin: both require belief that a miracle will occur.”
I would like to posit that were we to replace the words ‘magician’ and ‘magical act’ with the words ‘artist’ and ‘artistic gesture’ this paragraph would still hold true. So if the magical act can cause transformation without physical contact, and the artistic gesture (say, by placing mirrors in a wood) can do the same, we are left with an equation:
if magic = transformation, and art = transformation, then art = magic
And I would go further and suggest you could also replace those words with the words ‘scientist’ and ‘scientific experiment’.
JM: So, science and art are both modern day equivalents to magic and religion?
CR: Yes, it’s where we look for meaning in the world.
With that in mind I will leave you with one more quote from The Mystica, and, again, try replacing the word ‘magician’ with either ‘artist’ or ‘scientist’, and the word ‘witchcraft’ with either ‘art’ or ‘science’ and see what effect, if any, this has on the paragraph’s meaning:
“To bring about such a change the magician uses the conception of ‘dynamic interconnectedness to describe the physical world as the sort of thing that imagination and desire can effect. The magician’s world is an independent whole, a web of which no strand is autonomous. Mind and body, galaxy and atom, sensation and stimulus, are intimately bound. Witchcraft strongly imbues the view that all things are independent and interrelated.’”
JM: And all that just from sticking some mirrored tiles in a wood. Chris Robinson, thank you very much.
CR: Thank you.
James Merrick is an independent writer, curator and critic. A series of his essays can be viewed at: www.jamesmerrick.blogspot.com and his self-published books can be viewed and bought from: www.blurb.co.uk/user/JamesMerrick