Expressing the Earth - organised by Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, and the University of the Highlands and Islands.
The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics was established in 1995 by Tony McManus and others and is affiliated to the International Institute of Geopoetics founded by Kenneth White in 1989.
“The geopoetic project is not one more contribution to the cultural variety show, nor is it a literary school, nor is it concerned with poetry as an art of intimacy. It is a major movement involving the very foundations of human life on earth.” Inaugural text of the International Institute of Geopoetics.
The conference was held in the village hall at Ellenabeich, on the island of Seil, around 17 miles south of Oban. I first heard of Geopoetics earlier this year when I spotted the call out for participants and contributors. I was surprised that it had remained under my radar all this time, and considering the breadth of subject matter and realms of influence that Geopoetics embraces it was continually apparent that a great many artists and writers today are engaged in Geopoetics, in some way, whether they realise it or not. I would highly recommend becoming familiar (as I am now doing) with the work of its founder Kenneth White.
Seil and the neighbouring islands of Easdale, Luing, Lunga, Shuna, Torsa, and Belnahua, are known as the slate islands, with the fruits of the quarrying that went on here furnishing roofs around the world. This photo above shows a flooded quarry on Easdale, an island with no paved roads, and hence, wonderfully, no cars. A powerful storm in 1881 inundated the quarries with water, effectively bringing industry to an end.
Normal Bissell delivered a keynote speech on George Orwell and his relation to Geopoetics. It was fascinating to learn that Orwell wrote 1984 whilst staying on Jura, which can be glimpsed from Seil. That such a prophetic text was written in a place which one would not immediately associate with the enveloping fears and oppressions that saw the authors name become an adjective, offers an insight into how being present in old landscapes can evoke certain seer-like qualities in one who has attuned their mind to the elements.
During the conference I found that I became continually more aware of water and its presence. Of course, when staying on a small island at the cusp of the Atlantic, water is never far from one's thoughts. Staying on the island of Easdale required a 3 minutes boat crossing to Seil. What constitutes a rare and almost novel experience for me, features prominently in the considerations of islanders. There is certainly something about being transported in this way which is very different to a journey on road, by air, or rail. Perhaps it is the notion of a 'crossing.' A break in the continuity, transition, and the clarity of leaving one place, arriving in another. No possibility for the merging of sprawl.
Luke Devlin's talk entitled 'Into the Deep: Touching Clyde waterscapes through the sensuous imagination,' offered an insight into sacred waterscape, and how a sense of meaning is encoded in the landscape for those who dwell there. Among the many layers to his discussion, Luke teased out strands of identity emanating from the integrity of the area north of the Clyde, never invaded by the English. There is something pertinent here about how water evades capture, and that this area lies on the boundary of the Highland fault. Truly the 'opening of a world'. Also brought into focus was a rupture between people and place, often exasperated by religious creed, particularly in the view that one who engaged in a pilgrimage was not paying attention to God.
I began to get a sense of the intertwining of water and land, which without noticing had become somewhat segregated in my mind. Images of water penetrating deep into the Earth, such as the inundated quarries on Seil, began to form and suggested new ways of consciously engaging this element my art making.
Mairead Nic Craith spoke on islands and the 'lure of authenticity.' Islandness is closely linked to primitivism, and a raw spirituality. When we encounter ourselves on an island we are truly ourselves, more aware of our edges (skin) as the island is defined clearly by its own boundary. When you have found your 'I' 'land' 'ness' then you have found yourself. Again, seemingly obvious, but when I really acknowledged the implications surprisingly profound - that islands are of course all interconnected. The water is only a surface separation, the land itself continuing beneath the water, re-emerging elsewhere.
Siobhan Healy and Dr Campbell Fleming introduced their individual and collaborative work, which takes the form of a crystal sculpture project. "We have built a hot crystal studio on the hill overlooking Balvicar bay, in which we are experimenting with melting pyrite and other minerals & natural materials found throughout Scotland. We heat the crystals to create molten material to recreate the processes of the natural forces of geology. The crystal will be cooled at differing rates to show how crystals are formed due to slow cooling, to reference the discovery of devitrification by Scottish Geologist John Hutton (1726- 1797). The outcome is still to be discovered." This reforming and shaping of earth itself, not a surface material but something from the aged depths, struck me as a powerful act of experimental creativity. That the results of the project are as yet unknown, there is a focus upon the process as being as much 'the work' as a final outcome. I highly recommend you visit their website, and keep an eye on how their work develops.
A field trip to the Kilmartin standing stones which date back 4000 years or so, provided another glimpse of the physical substance of Earth being itself an expression. I imagine what is visible here to be just a fragment of a monolith, or series of interconnected stones beneath the soil.
The adjacent Temple Wood (or Half Moon Wood) carried a very different atmosphere. More collected, and enclosed, focussed on that specific spot. In contrast to the the standing stones situated in the open expanse of the Glen, where the whole area of all that is visible becomes included in the sacred site.
Alastair McIntosh embodied the Mountain as he spoke movingly about his endeavors as an activist to protect an area of the Isle of Harris from destruction by quarrying. He discussed how poetry can become a political aid, and a potent one at that. A reverence for the land that goes beyond 'ownership' and comes into relation, emerged as central to any strategy of intervention. The conventional is not deep enough in these circumstances, and what is necessary is is an approach which enters the heart.
Dr Anuschka Miller is head of communications at the Scottish Association of Marine Science. When we think of our planet we tend to do so with land in mind, often forgetting entirely that the planet is largely a marine environment. 99% of the biosphere is marine. Ocean is the one area not colonised by homo-sapiens. If we look at sea borders then Scotland is nestled up against Denmark, Germany, Norway, the Faeroe Isles, and perhaps Holland too. Defining borders in this way suddenly opens up new possibilities in terms of relating to neighbouring lands. But of course, there are really no borders, and one ocean.
The prominence of water, the interconnectedness of land, the earth which lies beneath the surface - these recurring themes have opened up new strands of thought in relation to my own work, and intend to developing a series of pictures over the coming months.