Landscapes - People - Global change

Tag: art

Day 2 at ISSRM 2017

Hard to photograph a panel while you're on it: the ears of Stedman, Measham and Jacquet.

Hard to photograph a panel while you’re on it: the ears of Stedman, Measham and Jacquet.

1:30 am again so might as well reflect on another solid day at ISSRM.  A late start for me today thanks to that insomnia. First I had a fun mentoring session over lunch with two up-and-coming  female scholars, one finishing her PhD and one pre-tenure. I love participating in the mentoring program each year at ISSRM and appreciate folks like Paige Fischer organizing it.

Next I headed to an energy transitions panel (above) which was a bit of a follow-on from one I organized last year. This time Tom Measham (CSIRO) organized and chaired, and I served on the panel with Rich Stedman, Jeffrey Jacquet and keynote Neil Adger . It was a great turnout, and resulted in a really rich discussion about myths, subjectivity, governance and equity in the context of energy transitions. Lots of food for thought. We five started consuming that intellectual nourishment in barley form later at the ‘Pipes of Scotland’ bar which four of us closed down at midnight.

A subsection of the Norrbyskar scale model showing cable cars of sawdust heading for value adding.

A subsection of the Norrbyskar scale model showing cable cars of sawdust heading for value adding.

Immediately after the panel it was off to the field trips, mine to Norrbyskär, a fascinating island community that was designed around lumber production in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Ruled on principles of temperance, paternalism, and clear social hierarchies, the island was entirely engineered: saw and planing mill joined by raised railways, and lumber drying structures everywhere not taken over by regimented housing and other buildings. Today the houses are occupied by seasonal residents, but the island hosts a great museum and cafe with a delightful scale model (left), and a miniature set of buildings for kids to play in. They had skilled and knowledgeable tour guides, and offered a diverse dinner of traditional swedish fare.

A wonderfully quirky addition was an end-of-year art exhibit by Umea Academy of Fine Arts students in an adjoining room. It was not obvious that the art show was open because of a downed banner at the entry. Turned out that was one of the art pieces: Josefine Ostlund’s We’re Building Natural Habitat (material description: “Banner from construction site”). Students visited in May and describe that they felt ‘watched’ by the empty houses, so reflect on the place in terms of “power, architecture and dreams”. It was wonderfully uncommercial work. Neil Adger’s favourite was Suffering is optional, by Linnea Johnels, material description “Beds, gun holes”, which she describes as “working with the frustration and worry that forces itself on you at night”. I can relate. Godnatt.

Neil Adger with Linnea Johnels 2017 piece, Suffering is optional.

Neil Adger with Linnea Johnels 2017 piece, Suffering is optional.


Weekend wetlands

Thaddeus Holownia's series of a small wetland near his home, with my girl near her favourite.

A subset of Thaddeus Holownia’s series of a small wetland near his home.

In between storms, my family and I got out on the weekend for some wetland adventures. The Shubenacadie Wildlife Park is always popular with our small ones, though the wind chill sped it up more than usual. It was great to see the new(ish) developments and interpretations that connect the park more closely with the Greenwing Wetland Centre. They had snowshoes available to borrow, and we all gave them a go, though the smallest member of the family struggled at their size. In the afternoon, after a warm-up, came a visit to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, for their excellent show of Thaddeus Holownia‘s photography. Holownia is based around the Tantramar marsh, and while his photographs vary more widely in their geography, it was the local stuff I loved most. For instance, particularly intimate and moving was the above longitudinal series of photographs of a little manmade pond on his property near Jolicure, NB, over time and in different conditions. It was also wonderful to see his series on the erstwhile Radio Canada International shortwave towers near Sackville, NB, a missed landmark for me. My cellphone reproductions do not do the work justice: AGNS says on their website that there is an “attendant publication” for this show, but it was not available in the shop. Hopefully soon.

The faint sketches of the shortwave radio towers of CBC Radio Canada, captured by Thaddeus Holownia before their removal in the early 2010s.

The faint sketches of the shortwave radio towers of Radio Canada International, captured by Thaddeus Holownia before their removal in the early 2010s.

Weatherland (2015)

My softcover edition of Alexandra Harris' Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies

My softcover edition of Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies

Becalmed in Heathrow after a cancelled flight returning from Portugal this fall, I picked up Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland (2015) to ease the wait. Last night I finished it. Why so long? Well, it was a busy time, and I dipped in and out between work travel and renovations. Frankly, at times like that, nothing other than fiction gets more than a page read at bedtime before oblivion. But I also savoured it. This is not a book to be rushed. It’s a beautifully written liberal arts education in paperback.

Harris goes back centuries to track the influence of weather and seasonal cycles on art and literature, and in doing so, tracks changes in awareness as well as public preferences fads in scenery. For instance she records Robert Burton’s observation in the early 1600s, in Anatomy of Melancholy, how “thick, cloudy, misty, foggy air or such as comes from fens, moorish grounds, lakes and muckhills” (p. 120) uniformly lower spirits. (Rod Giblett would say not much has changed in public perceptions of wetlands.)

Later, in the 1700s, the English idealize the Italian landscape, and painters like Richard Wilson tried to capture those moments when the English light matched that of the Mediterranean, like the paintings of Claude Lorrain from the previous century. I loved Harris’ description of the ‘Claude glass’ which was a small mirror carried to help late 18th century tourists get the painterly effect on a dreary day. Comically, users turned their back on the landscape and viewed it in reflection, the light changing toward the sublime thanks to the mirror backing. We cannot look back in anything like superiority given the popularity of the selfie stick.

Fast-forward a hundred years to the Victorian tourist for whom the fad was not light but shade, and public ferneries and the miniature, dappled, dripping landscapes they foster. I can relate. This attention to small scale makes me think of Macfarlane’s revelation in The Wild Places, as well one of my favourite quotes about Sable Island, in the Introduction of McLaren’s 1981 Birds of Sable Island:

A much travelled colleague has remarked that he has been in places more beautiful than Sable Island, but has seen more beauty there than anywhere else. The expansive seascapes and dunescapes, magnificent yet ‘dreary’ to some 19th century writers, soon force one’s attention to the smaller scale.

Harris moves forward to the poetry of Ted Hughes in the 20th century, for a distinct lack of the romantic in weather. Rather, life and death, as well as livelihood: of mending a tractor in the cold: “Hands are wounds already / Inside armour gloves” and “Between the weather and the rock / Farmers make a little heat”. She finishes in this century, as was inevitable, on climate change and how we should respond. There is little art and literature yet to draw upon here, but again scale is evoked (p. 386): “small alterations in familiar places can disturb us more than dystopian visions”. She invites us to savour and record now for remembering later: “certain plants in certain places, the light in the street after rain”, what she calls ‘intimate elegies’, reminding us that “in the sadness there is room for celebration.”


Melanie Colosimo's Transmission Tower I, at the AGNS Terroir exhibition

Melanie Colosimo’s Transmission Tower I, at the AGNS Terroir exhibition

One of the nice things about sabbatical is a little more time to enjoy my city and its attractions. I visited the new Art Gallery of Nova Scotia exhibition, Terroir, before the cottage week. Though I will need to return for a more fulsome look,  this open-call show of Nova Scotia art has a nice range of media and messages, each intended to connect to the local landscape and story. I saw some familiar artists, such as Steve Farmer‘s wonderful detailed photos of rust and abraded paint – what he calls “industrial documentation” – which I had previously seen at Pavia in Herring Cove, and one of John MacNab‘s mathematical machined wood sculptures. I also discovered some new artists, such as Wayne Boucher, whose large abstract Fall (2005) made me feel I was drowning in the work; when I later read that was an explicit aim I felt a little creeped out at its effectiveness. Finally, I enjoyed both pieces by Melanie Colosimo, whose air-mesh-constructed Transmission Tower I (2016) (see photo) is evidence of her artistic move:

…towards a preoccupation with traditionally masculine utilitarian imagery and themes of progress and construction … to explore memory, transitory states… thresholds between a previous state of being and the next phase.

This appealed to me based on some of my new thinking about energy transitions as the recycling of landscape from one use to another, something we probably need to get used to doing.

Dr. Sherren’s Day Off

I’m enjoying a stopover in Chicago on the way to the ISSRM in Michigan. The city has always been of interest to me, as a once-aspiring architect and child of the 80s, but this has been my first chance to visit. I re-watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on the flight here (happy 30th birthday), and headed straight for Frank Lloyd Wright sites in Oak Park upon arrival. A real highlight of my visit has been the Art Institute of Chicago special exhibition America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s. This expertly curated and described exhibition explores the response of artists to the ‘fall from grace’ that America felt after the stock market crash of 1929: some looking backward to pastoral ideals and others conveying dust bowl realities; showing stoic tradition or grotesque modern life; and documenting the dominance of industry in landscape and economic life conveyed as utopias (in some work sponsored by corporations) or the opposite by socialists. The industrial (Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth) and agricultural (Grant Wood, Alexander Hogue, Marvin Cone) landscapes were particularly compelling to me: telling of fears and hopes, as well as ambivalence. Functional landscapes were in eye as well as in mind as I travelled Chicago by L-train (elevated), which provides a great view of the working parts of the city, as well as its unique features such as the dominance of brick construction, steel bridges (including old drawbridges) over its many rivers, and water towers (which may have something to do with the Great Fire of Chicago, ca. 1871). I was also reminded of urban/nature juxtapositions at the wonderful Garfield Park Conservatory, where the marvelous fern room brought relief on a very hot day, in how the City Garden meadow beautifully framed industrial buildings. I look forward to returning to Chicago, maybe in a cooler season.

Industrial buildings for the Garfield Park Conservatory behind the natural meadow of its City Park

Industrial buildings for the Garfield Park Conservatory behind the natural meadow of its City Park

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