'Homing' by Ruth Bretherick

‘Homing’ by Ruth Bretherick

HOMING and ENVIRONMENTAL ART an essay by Ruth Bretherick

For the last few months Matthew Dalziel + Louise Scullion have been artists in residence for the John Muir Way. To be ‘resident’ over a stretch of 134 miles, that wends its way from Helensburgh to Dunbar, seems something of a misnomer: yet to be at home while moving through the landscape would have been a recognizable concept to Muir. He wrote in 1894, ‘for going to the mountains is like going home. We always find that the strangest objects in these fountain wilds are in some degree familiar, and we look upon them with a vague sense of having seen them before.’[1]

Muir’s assertion rests on the notion that we naturally belong in the mountains or the wilderness, but as Robert Macfarlane has observed, ‘three centuries ago, risking one’s life to climb a mountain would have been considered tantamount to lunacy.’[2] Walking in the countryside for pleasure has a history: before the wanderings of the Romantic poets in the late eighteenth century, or the adventures of the mountaineers in the nineteenth, walking outdoors was merely a way to get from one place to another, and being outdoors often meant that one was working the land. To spend time in nature for the joy of it is an inherently cultural act, one that is social and learnt.

This is precisely what Dalziel + Scullion’s Homing project explores: the ways in which humans feel at home in nature through processes that are aesthetic, social, cultural, even industrial. Their use of rush weaving harks back to the historical uses of nature through farming or foraging, with references to ash in the landscape pointing to the more recent industrial uses of the land. Alongside this, Dalziel + Scullion allude to the rise in the aesthetic interest in nature with the walking stick badge, or ‘stocknagel’, which became a common walker’s souvenir as hiking became a popular pursuit in nineteenth-century Europe and America. This aesthetic appreciation of nature is referenced in Homing through sound, touch and sight. This last sense is given focus through the mirror and the eye-loupe, recalling the use of the Claude glass by nineteenth-century landscape painters, who, with this dark-tinted mirror, sought to reproduce the brownish hues of Claude Lorraine’s canvases. In many ways, artists who work in nature inherit this long tradition of landscape painting.

What sets Dalziel + Scullion apart from their predecessors in landscape painting, however, is their desire to place the body in the landscape, not stand at one remove from the view. Such an embedded experience of nature, one in which the whole body matters, has its roots in performance art of the 1970s. In her Silueta series (1973-77), for example, Ana Mendieta would create silhouettes of her body in the earth, often filling them with natural materials such as flowers, stones and blood. More recently, Marina Abramović, who became known for her performance art in the 1970s, has pushed at the limits of what it means to have all of one’s senses attuned in the work The Artist is Present (2010). For this work, she sat across from visitors to the gallery, meeting their gaze one by one, for eight hours a day for three months.

Dalziel + Scullion place their practice under the banner ‘Environmental Art’. This is a term with multiple histories. It is the name of the BA Louise Scullion studied at Glasgow School of Art (GSA) in the 1980s as one of the programme’s first students. The Environmental Art programme (still running today) understands the ‘environment’ to be anything that surrounds us, preparing its students for producing art for public contexts.

[1] John Muir, ‘A Near View of the High Sierra’ in Wilderness Essays (Layton: Gibbs Smith, 2015), p.118.

[2] Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (London: Granta), p.14.

While Environmental Art at GSA has an urban leaning, the term also has a relationship to nature and landscape, and to practices that were referred to as ‘Land Art’ when they first emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s. This included artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton in the UK, and Walter de Maria, Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt in the US, to name a handful. For these artists, working in the landscape was a way to escape institutional spaces, challenging the boundaries of what art might be or where it might be seen. They were interested in subverting traditional notions of the artistic medium: Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967), an ephemeral path trodden into the grass of a field outside London, was a form of minimal sculpture; de Maria’s One Mile Long Drawing (1967), made in the Mojave Desert in California, challenged notions of what a drawing could be; and Holt’s Trail Markers (1969), a series of photographs of orange way markers taken on a visit to Dartmoor, was a form of ‘found’ painting dotted through the landscape.

In these works of the 1960s, while the landscape was central to the practice, ecological concerns were not at the forefront, and the term ‘environmental’ would not have been associated with them. If in the 1960s, one described an artist as making ‘environmental art’, one would be more likely to think of early installation art, for which New York artist Allan Kaprow had coined the term ‘Environments’, referring to the fact that these were artworks in which one could be fully immersed. It was not until the 1980s – with burgeoning public consciousness about climate change – that the term ‘environmental art’ referred more narrowly to art made in nature with ecological principles. This is the sense in which Dalziel + Scullion use it, but they carry with them all the other meanings, drawing them into their practice. Homing invites an appreciation of nature with a light touch and a sustainable outlook.

Ruth Bretherick