Subterranean

'Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song' by Lynn Dennison by Claire Mander

Lynn Dennison,  Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song , Sculpture Shock Subterranean May 2015, The Brunel Shaft, photo by AK Purkiss

Lynn Dennison, Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, Sculpture Shock Subterranean May 2015, The Brunel Shaft, photo by AK Purkiss

Nature is shrinking, but the signs of nature and the natural are multiplying, replacing and supplanting real "nature" Henri Levebvre

The transition from agriculture to industry, from rural living to urbanization, brings a chronic shrinkage of nature, and, at the same time, a proliferation of images of nature. Advertising sells cars, deodorant, detergents, air travel and financial services by associating products with spectacular mountainscapes, natural springs, animated swarms of petals, montages of sea, dessert, sky and forest, and lush green fields. The TV schedule is peppered with documentaries of everything from deep sea creatures to storm chasing, printed textiles are almost synonymous with pictures of flowers, and nature is treasured in the backgrounds to millions of selfies, postcards, jigsaw puzzles, greetings cards, and website stock images. 

Lynn Dennison’s new work for Sculpture Shock, Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, divides up the surface of the Rotherhithe Shaft, an impressive underground monument to Brunel’s engineering prowess, with large video projections of the river looking like a calm sea. Nature is restored to the industrial setting, here, but it is not only nature that has been reduced to an image: at the Brunel museum heavy industry itself survives only as a sign. Buildings, bridges and tunnels continue to be constructed on an ever increasing scale, of course, but the classic opposition between industry and nature, captured by Adorno and Horkheimer’s concept of the ‘dialectic of Enlightenment’, has been replaced with ecological crisis and ecodesign. If Dennison’s work is a eulogy to nature, a paean to the river under threat, then it is equally a eulogy to its old adversary, the industrial. 

The transition to industrialization is mirrored in a fetishism of nature: the sentimental love of nature in modernity is an effect of the industrial revolution and an expression of it, insofar as it results from the rift between city and county, progress and tradition, work and leisure, that capitalism unbuckled. Romantic artists such as Friedrich, Constable and Wordsworth, on the cusp of industrialism, modernised culture by drawing on the semiotics of nature. Realism opposed elite cultural codes of meaning by asserting that ‘the forms of Nature speak directly’. At the end of the eighteenth century, coinciding therefore with the period of the bourgeois revolution, nature appeared as the uncoded code of emotion and feeling. Not only could a painting of leafless bushes  in the snow signify death in an apparently immediate, unlearned way; the experience of nature itself, in hillwalking, hiking and mountain climbing, for instance, became one of the central modes with which the bourgeoisie learned to feel deeply. 

Nature was the centrepiece of the modern concept of aesthetic experience. Whereas the classical theory of beauty had modelled itself on the bodies of beauties and secondarily on artworks that replicated their proportions, the revolutionary bourgeoisie turned to nature as the basis both of its theory of judgements of taste and its theory of the sublime. Nature is the utopia specific to industrialisation. This is why, like Dennison’s videos, nature was projected into the very heart of modernity by radical romantics, both as a corrective to its instrumental, calculative and exploitative industry, and as a confirmation of its democratic, subjective and expressive freedom. One of the first things that William Morris says about industry in a future Socialist society, in his essay 'A Factory As It Might Be’, is that the factory should be surrounded by vast, beautiful gardens. Each room, we might add, should look out to the river or have the river run through it.  

Landscape painting has traditionally inserted simulated windows into domestic rooms so that the interior can be blessed with views unavailable though the actual windows. Dennison’s digital installation is scaled-up, like the spectacle of an aquarium in which visitors stand face-to-face with sea creatures. Facing the wall, looking at the river, the viewer is momentarily a figure in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, turning her back to the world in order to face nature and thereby to feel. One of the most profound legacies of romanticism is the belief that this encounter is the paradigm of feeling, or at least of refined aestheticised feeling. It is the experience of nature modelled on the experience of Greek statues ripped from their original architectural, cultural and religious setting. The modern love of nature is the result of a cut, which is both a spatial dislocation from nature and a framing of nature dislocated. Putting nature in a dirty industrial setting, albeit one as refined in its own terms as the Rotherhithe shaft, is to experience that cut as an embrace.

In the era of regeneration, Brunel's shaft seems as endangered as the Thames. The shaft itself will remain in place but its setting is likely to be gentrified, as no areas of London appear immune from this monetising and cultivating process. The industrial is to be nothing but a tourist attraction and its architectural relics are bound to be repurposed for the leisure of the incoming tide. Dennison’s lapping water of the Thames will be followed up, it might be assumed, with a flood of fashionable events. Modernization eats itself, naturally, and at the moment between one crisis and other it is only proper that we should contemplate, reflect and try to feel something. Regret, perhaps, or hope, might be acceptable responses, but then so is anger, fear, love, resignation or delight. Aesthetic experience, heightened by the yoking of industry and nature, is a realm of freedom only if we can feel pleasure in the vicinity of threat. The sublime was an aesthetic experience invented by the bourgeoisie in its revolutionary phase in order, primarily, to address the pleasure felt by those protected from the deadly effects of nature or the unnatural deaths of others. 

Dennison’s work is not sublime. Can nature be sublime in the era of ecological disaster? Nature is no longer conceived primarily as simultaneously the source of life and harbouring the forces inimical to human life; nature today is conceived primarily as a victim. The closest we come to a contemporary sublime is the image of total ecological collapse that brings all human life to an end in a narrative in which technology reaches a limit in its destructive exploitation of the world. Nevertheless, Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, despite the title being taken from a line in TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, is not a modernist grievance against modernity. Nature, here, is not a ruined, barren place. The river is soft, relentlessly soothing or even happy. Dennison has created an oasis. 

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song is utopian in Henri Lefebvre’s sense, which he ascribes to parks and gardens: ‘they refer to a twofold utopia: absolute nature and pure facticity’. He explains, ‘they suggest an absolute and inaccessible nature - grottos, wind, altitude, the sea, islands - as well as facticity - the trimmed and tortured tree that serves as pure ornament’. Absolute nature is made possible by pure facticity: only when nature is cut off from use and other meanings (food, farming, real estate) and is therefore conceived as pure facticity (water, field, hill) can it be fully enjoyed aesthetically, that is as nature in the abstract. Utopia, therefore, is the experience of dislocation, like Greek statues which appear freer and more beautiful when they are carried off from the Parthenon to the museum. Nowadays the cut of utopia doesn’t require chisels and a fleet of ships, only a video camera. Utopia has been let loose: nowhere is everywhere, and it still calls on us to make the world anew. 

Written by Dave Beech

Lynn Dennison Interviewed - Part 1 by Claire Mander

ZK: What made you decide to become a sculptor? When did your interest in the site specific develop and how/where did this happen?

LD: Well I actually started my career as a painter after having completed a Fine Art BA at the Slade School of Art. After about eight or nine years working as a painter I started to introduce three-dimensional shapes into my work. Gradually these three-dimensional pieces took over from the two-dimensional pieces, and in the end the paintings became studies for the sculptures, and sculpture became my main focus.

My interest in the site specific really developed from my desire to introduce the moving image into my sculptures. I had been using photography with my sculptures for a while and I thought it would be interesting to introduce moving images. As I had no idea how to work with moving images and film at all I went back to university and did a Masters at Central Saint Martins and that’s when it really started. I had started off in a white cube gallery environment which I placed objects in and then projected onto, which I felt created more of a theatrical scene that the viewer stood outside of and looked at, and during the course of my masters I started to think about how I could make this experience into something more immersive that the viewer could be surrounded by completely. The forms I was projecting onto became less about something I was making myself and became more of an interaction with the space I was projecting into. In fact the first piece of site specific work I did was during my Masters course for our interim show at the V22 in Bermondsey.

ZK: Who are the artists and photographers you most admire and who have had the greatest impact on your thinking and your work?

LD: I always find that question a tricky one, immediately when someone asks me what my influences are my mind goes blank but let me try and pick out a few; Diana Thater has had an impact on me not only due to the imagery she uses to explore the relationship between humans and the natural world and the difference between untouched and manipulated nature, but also in the way she uses the space that she is exhibiting in, covering windows and light sources with coloured gels so that the viewer is aware of the space they are in. The existing architecture is important to her, it is not just a venue to exhibit her work. I think that dualism has been very influential to my work. John Stezaker whose collages and films have both influenced me talks about his fascination with an idea of a liminal or in between space, which is also something that I am exploring in my work. I like the idea of ‘the slender margin between the real and the unreal’. Another artist for whom it is important that the ‘edge’ is visible is James Casebere who creates models of environments and then photographs them to appear to be real spaces, until a closer look reveals them to be fabrications. I think one of the first things that got me interested in immersive spaces was the research project that took place at the Tate Modern between 2003 – 2010 called the ‘Sublime Object’, in particular Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project created as part of that project and also Miroslaw Balka’s work How it is commissioned for the Tate Unilever Series. Both these artists were creating immersive environments which changed the viewer’s perception of their surroundings, which is something I attempt to do with my own work.

Some photographers who have influenced my work are Noemie Goudal, who works with large photographs, usually of landscape, which she places in urban settings which are often abandoned and decaying, and Jitka Hanzlova who often explores the relationship between nature and culture; her photographs of Essen show the city being infiltrated by nature.

Lynn Dennison’s studio, photo by AK Purkiss

Lynn Dennison’s studio, photo by AK Purkiss

ZK: What is the importance of the site itself to your work and how do you incorporate the existing architectural feature into your installations?

LD: The work wouldn’t exist without the site, and I often let the site dictate what the work will be. The history and geography as well as the colours, shapes, and architectural details of a place are all part of the work. It is a collaboration really between what I am bringing to the site with my projections and what is already there. One can’t work without the other.

ZK: John G. Hanhart senior curator of film and media arts at the Smithsonian Art Museum has stated that ‘video art has a distinctive interdisciplinary quality’. Would you agree with this, and how do other artistic disciplines such as the written word or sound art play into your practice? In particular could you talk about your use of collages?

LD: Yes I would definitely agree with that statement. There seems to be a lot of space for other disciplines to interact with film and media arts. I have worked with sound artists on several occasions and also been influenced by the spoken word in the creation of my installations. I sometimes use ideas from literature in my work. For example in Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthousethere is a passage in which she describes the water metaphorically seeping into the house and covering all the furniture which influenced my work Shipping News.

The collages I use to work out what I want to do in a space. I think because I had come from a painting and a sculpting background, both of which are very hands on, when I suddenly found myself editing video clips on a computer I really missed the more tactile elements of the creating process. My painting had often contained elements of collages so it was almost a natural progression that when it came to working out what I wanted to do on a three dimensional plane I did so with two dimensional collages. Although I now get the same satisfaction from editing I also love creating the collages for their own sake.

Written by Zana Kingwill

'Quantitative Easing' by Patrick Lowry by Claire Mander

Patrick Lowry,  Quantitative Easing , The Horse Hospital, 2014, photo by AK Purkiss

Patrick Lowry, Quantitative Easing, The Horse Hospital, 2014, photo by AK Purkiss

Sculpture Shock 2014 gets underway with Patrick Lowry’s installation Quantitative Easing, housed in the subterranean gloom of the Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury. Access to the space is via a steep ramp, a reminder that the premises were built (in the late 18th century) as a treatment centre for London’s hard-working horses. Picking one’s way down the steep incline, one can imagine their hooves slipping and sliding as they anxiously negotiated the unfamiliar descent.

Patrick Lowry,  Quantitative Easing , The Horse Hospital, 2014, photo by AK Purkiss

Patrick Lowry, Quantitative Easing, The Horse Hospital, 2014, photo by AK Purkiss

After the closure of the hospital, a commercial printer turned the basement into a busy print shop which continued operating until the 1980s. A concrete slab built to accommodate the heavy press is still in situ and it is this recent history which Lowry has chosen to address. You could be fooled, in fact, into thinking he has created a museum of social history. Occupying centre stage is a large Heidelberg Offset press of the kind used in the print shop. Did the printers leave it behind because it was too heavy to move?

Patrick Lowry,  Quantitative Easing , The Horse Hospital, 2014, photo by AK Purkiss

Patrick Lowry, Quantitative Easing, The Horse Hospital, 2014, photo by AK Purkiss

Rather than a trip down memory lane, though, this exhibition is a multi-layered investigation of the smoke and mirrors world of contemporary finance. Despite being utterly convincing, the printing press turns out to be made from sheets of MDF painted grey to resemble steel. The pressure dial was created on photo-shop and its “glass” cover is the plastic lid of a yoghourt pot; one lever is a foot rest from a BMX bike, others are made from lengths of dowelling; the discs that crank the bed up and down are the bases of stainless steel food bowls found in Wickes. Thrown over the bed is a grey blanket of the kind used by removal firms; lift up one corner and, in place of the heavy rollers you expect to see, there is an immaculate void.

The duplicity does not end there. Apparently, the fake press has been printing euro bank notes, some of which are still drying while others are packed ready for shipment. Have we stumbled into a criminal underworld of forgers and counterfeiters? Things are not that clear cut. With central banks stimulating local economies by printing money – the Quantitative Easing of the title – and bankers generating millions by selling virtual commodities to imaginary buyers, the border between the legal and illicit seems remarkably elastic. Whether they like it or not, artists are sucked into this murky realm by producing work that, despite having no actual use, might one day become an investment opportunity. 

Art has always dealt in illusion and, when nothing serious is at stake, being fooled is a delight; but Lowry’s installation generates more than pure pleasure. He seduces us into considering the part played by illusion in other areas of activity, such as global finance, that have a profound impact on our lives – where our willingness to be duped becomes a political issue, rather than a self-reflective game.

Written by Sarah Kent