The Memory of Blue Water
The night before I left London, my friend and I gazed at Dog Island through a french Door, smoking. She is from Wuhan. After suffering through a traumatic year, she said only a few places outside China makes her feel like living in the 21st Century. London is one. The wildly expanding concrete jungle, unstoppable industrial machines and crowded tube stations; office skyscrapers are usually left illuminated for the entire night, and beacons on the top of river-bank tower cranes rank to the end of the horizon. She was intoxicated in the dynamic cityscape, luxuriate in blink moments where the pale reality absence temporarily.
I thought about Cornwall, the warm bottom of my stomach that powered me through the isolation. "It's like…the time is paused there," I told her. When the bus drives up the slope, towards the southwest to Land's End, within stretching alleys, there are gaps between residences where you can have a decent panoramic view of Mount's Bay. St Michael's Mountain rendered out of the foggy air, the orange light dot inside windows condensed with water drops. It is a fantastic experience, almost unreal. A curtain weaved with slight drizzling rain blurs the sense of distance, wipes out details, leave dissolving shapes in a soft, grey atmosphere. Suddenly the reverie stages, it is where you realise that the view is almost the same as it had been gazed by so many travelling artists long ago. I once saw a photo of the grandfather of the Cliff Hotel's owner. The figure walks down the Market Jew Street. The street view barely changed over a century. When the past soul was gone, the view was there; now the hotel has been closed, and become a historic preservation, the view is still there. "The end of the road that I want to reach" has been abstracted into a concept. There lies the sea at the end of the road, barely differs from the one I travelled from. Why the natural desire of witnessing the very end of landscape exists? And why concepts can be consigned with hope, and perhaps mentality?
I was fascinated with the concept of "deeply attached landscape". During the year with constant lockdowns, I cannot recall how many times I wished to have a break outside. I wanted to walk along a Cornish shore, grab a coffee, feel the sea breeze. In the self-isolation that filled with endless school tasks where I anaesthetise myself, sometimes I imagine I can teleport, sometimes I imagine holding the Cornish sea within my palms. "It (the sea) should be like a delicate and elegant specimen that I can have a playful examine; it should be like a trance moment of workday where you paused for a breathe, a daydream before the kettle boils, a mirage appears randomly on any surface.
All my memories,
gathered around her.
strange to blue water…
Often I hear the phrase, "the landscape that only Cornish people could understand". I am usually confused. I wonder if an outside visitor could acquire this understanding by achieving something? I wonder if someone can be converted to Cornish, although the external appearance may not change, but the value, culture and the lifestyle might be able to adopt the life cultivated by Cornish landscape and all her context?
This controversy is what I am trying to challenge for a time to time.
Cornish landscape has assigned new identities to its people, willingly or not, caused by historic artists' romanticisation. I'd be bold enough to suggest it is also linked with the reformation of industrial structure and the local gentrification. Fatally, some people born in Rome, others have to travel to Rome. I am clearly aware that relying on journeys that happen once or twice per year, one or two weeks per time can only supply me a narrowed view of Cornwall; before an immersing experience in its natural and cultural landscape lasts long enough, digging through the angle of anthropology, sociology, art and humanity about "Cornish landscape", "landscape identity" and "identity generated by the landscape" is appropriately cautious before a generally admitted foundation of reliable study in its historical context establishes.
Recently I stepped into a maze for months. I have spent a significant amount of time over-materialistically analysis Cornish identity and Cornish landscape purely based on the idea that "landscape is the result of human and economic activities". I blindly sought matches between the principle of the development of the economy and the history of Cornwall as well as its art. I later realised economic activity and Cornish history of art is in continual interaction. Whether art is a part of economic activities is decided by ideological perspective, and varies in different cased based on different theoretical context. I realised that the local art should not be seen within economic principles as a developing product, it has something new that could contribute to art theories; it is a point with significant importance when interpreting Cornish landscape, or, all kinds of landscapes. Because, truly, to some extents, capital operation and industrial structure impacted on the transformation of Cornish identity and its preoccupied impression.
However, interestingly, despite the overly materialistic point of view, I never forgot the landscape’s symbolic power pointed out by Alan Baker (1992). Stripping off the human sensitivity during the thinking process is especially dangerous in social matters. A world that ignores human emotions and entirely focuses on productivity is apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic. When I reviewed whether the ideological background in which I grew up has influenced my thinking pattern, I cannot help to notice that there is empathy to an authoritative, decisive power. Many individuals are eager to hold a proportion of this power, or to become a part of the power's executor by taking on its side.
Last year, a street in Chengdu, Sichuan that famous for sweet-scented osmanthuses went into a renovation. The construction team chopped down every osmanthuses tree. They did not come out with an apology and pledge to recover the street's original state until the public opinion went furious. The public found out that those half-century-old flower trees were decided to be removed even during the administrative planning stage; a shipment of new osmanthuses trees with similar size was ordered. Strangely a lot of voices supported this project by claiming the street was restored; they also abused rejecting voice as "imaginative nonsense of petty bourgeoisie". "Trees are trees, one must think for the greater good". These obscurantists, administrators and executors clearly failed to recognise the fact that the street gained its identity by osmanthuses trees. Interaction between the landscape and individuals formed this identity. Its distinctiveness relies on the decorative vegetation that had been accompanying the neighbourhood for half a century. It is not only a number, chopping down trees very much equals to wiping out residents' personal experience, memories and feelings; so does the identity of the street, it was deprived, and forcefully removed. Maybe pragmatics would argue that this sensitivity is a hypocritical acting; however, unwilling to put effort on so-called "hypocritical acting" that ought to be achieved easily, I don't think there is hope for "human sensitivity" as well as "aesthetic quality" left in decision-makers. I believe the lack of human sensitivity is fundamental to the disastrous result of how inconsiderate policies were implemented.
Many behaviours could be interpreted as a reflection on regional cultural/identity. This relatively conceptual idea often projected on the material level. The Cornish sea salt, handmade whiskey rocks with Scottish minerals —— full of sense of ritual. They are both made by materials extracted from the local landscape. Questioning the necessity of specificity in material selecting could put us in another pragmatic trap, while ignoring the continuous staging of similar products make people wonder whether it is another capitalistic cliché or the involution caused by protection to the regional manufacture. Artistically speaking, the highest moment of these products' meaning, is when you are thousands miles from the country, but seek pure Cornish ingredients in your cooking pot. It celebrates your distinctive experiences, sells a longing for distance, promotes an exotic lifestyle and memories of immersing in the landscape.
The Memory of Blue Water, 2020, Mixed Media
There is something magical about Cornwall,
that every soul longs to see her again will eventually return to her cuddle
Wenn ich ein Vogteien war…
Outside the town of Falmouth, south of the Swanpool Beach, at the toe of declining cliffs there is Swanpool Stacks. It hides in the shadow of the scarp, which also prevents the majority of the site being exposed to the sweep of wind ---- a perfect spot for fishing. The economic opportunity and the accessibility of the landform granted it the foundation to be identified, defined and finally become a mark on the map. The side faces the town is popular for fishers, while foragers barely set foot on the other end towards the Pennance Point due to the lack of wind shelters. Stacks generally refers to the consolidation of a stony shore formed by rocks and reefs, which means its boundary varies by the tides. But for many reasons, we occasionally need to divide the entity of the landscape to pieces in order to depict it precisely.
Christoper Tilley studies Quoits ——prehistoric megaliths scattered across the Bodmin Moor. He sees one as the centre, and its boundary is often difficult for ancient residence to cross, for example, a forest, a marsh or a river; hence there is an ambiguity in how the boundary between two or more landscapes are recognised (Tilley, 1996). This idea inspired me a lot. Megaliths highlight surrounding areas like pinning on a map, divide the field of Cornwall like serried peaks above the clouds. Its heaviness of the form and spatial occupation founds the tone for those whom firstly defined the landscape. Artists like Barbara Hepworth and Peter Lanyon responded to the materiality of megaliths. Their productions that resonated the power of rocks has brought much to the pictorial identity of the region. I guess what I really interested in responding to the landscape topic is to widely pin the map, then depict the motivation, process and method of how particular landscapes can be identified; by studying the nature of the landscape via physical practices, it might has the potential to be pushed to explore theoretical content in cultural, sociology, history, art & humanity areas.
To Fetch Some Salt, 2021, Installation
50°07'59" N, 5°04'32" W, 2021, Film
The latitude and longitude system is like time, is a coordinate system we created to reduce the entropy of a chaotic entity of information. If we switched off the reference system, essentially, observers would hence be placed in the "middle of nowhere", in the limbo, full of possibilities, float through lines that weaved the continuity of temporals. I chose a random spot which turns to be 50°07'59" N, 5°04'32" W, gathered the seawater from the site and made them into salt sinkers (This bit, its shape and installation was explored in 2020 project Sinker). As I pass this story to others, and if it could be remembered, the point will cease to be "nowhere" even without a coordinate system; it is now "somewhere" near the Stacks, carrying collective memories by its materiality. Many years later, if its memory was gone, like a negative space background, graves swallowed by weeds, it will then degrades to its organic state ---- an unidentified landscape as a part of a bigger frame, waiting to be rediscovered by another observer.
There are much to be explored in challenging and interrogating landscape and its meaning. The preoccupied impression, romanticisation, how images of the landscape and the manner of visualisation or display can influence the identity defined by the landscape. What I aim the next, is a little tentative interaction with the existing visual identity.
Baker, Alan (1992), ‘Introduction: on ideology and landscape’, in Alan Baker and Gideon Biger (eds.), Ideology and landscape in historical perspective,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1-14
Tilley, C., 1996. The powers of rocks: Topography and monument
construction on Bodmin Moor. World Archaeology, 28(2), pp.161-176.