Found Narrative No.8

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.

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Thálatta! Thálatta!

thalatta-thalatta-03-webOn 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)

4) http://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/seascape.html

Thálatta! Thálatta! can be purchased here.