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Entries in dirt (18)


Shelagh Wakely: ground, 1991

Shelagh Wakely. Curcuma sul travertino, made up of loose turmeric scattered in baroque patterns on the travertine marble floors of the British School in Rome, 1991

What might be the opposite of all those assertive pieces of last week?  Perhaps Shelagh Wakely's large ephemeral pieces that lie flat on the floor, and if not a sheet of gold or turmeric, then small fruits and vegetables, covered in gold leaf, that slowly collapse.  Her potted biographical note shows both the RCA and a BSc in Agriculture which might be one of the roots of her affinity to the horizontal surface, its inscriptions and patterns.

©Shelagh Wakely. Partial recreation of Paisagem Inutil, 1997.   Camden Arts Centre – Shelagh Wakely: A View from a Window, 2014. photo: Marcus J Leith


Boyle Family earth casts

Boyle Family. Rock and Scree Series, 1977. British pavilion, Venice Biennale 1978

Part of the Boyle Family Manual for the Journey to the Surface of the Earth: 'The objective of this Journey will be to make multi-sensual presentations of 1000 sites selected at random from the surface of the earth.  Between August 1968 and July 1968 blindfolded members of the public selected these sites' [by throwing darts at ever larger-scaled maps until a 6' square was found].

1. Take the actual surface coating of earth, dust, sand, mud, stone, pebbles, snow, moss, grass or whatever hold it in the shape it was in on the site. Fix it. Make it permanent.

The rest of the instructions, 6' core sample, film pan from the centre and a 100-frame film of the site, and a study of 'the effect of elemental forces' on the site were always less captivating than the casts of the site itself.  This was done with frames and plaster lifting the surface material with it when the cast was removed.  
There were more instructions for dealing with plants, animals, people, filming them, taking samples, but it was the cast that was the enduring gallery material. Accompanying texts found on the Boyle Family website are impenetrable streams of consciousness, a barrage of words working their way into description.  There is a review by J L Locher, which one suspects was written by Mark Boyle himself as it is so similar to all the other writings on this site.  But what of it, this is a body of work that started in the 1960s and continues still, this recording of the world.  

Such a conceptually simple frame produces simple objects: 6' squares of ground and it is these themselves that invite speculation, rather than the process.  They are notes from the earth, unconnected to any discernible narrative.  The squares of ground are not linked by resource-extraction, climate, cost or beauty; nationalism, history, productivity or location.  They are microscopically complex, conceptually reflexive and this is what is so interesting, that this work shared the unemotional approach to process of Sol Lewitt, in Boyle's case with the complicity of the earth, and that makes all the difference.   


Gerhard Marx: Johannesburg, 2012

Gerhard Marx, Garden Carpet: Johannesburg [1], 2013. Plant material, tissue paper with acrylic ground on canvas board, 120 x 180cm Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

Gerhard Marx, a South African artist, seems interested in the underpinnings of the commonplace, in this case the map of Johannesburg which becomes reinscribed with the surface materials of Johannesburg.  Not quite geology, more dirt, as if the gleaming towers and freeways of the modern city are just this: dirt, roots and grass, the map itself scratches on the ground.

Gerhard Marx, Garden Carpet: Johannesburg, detail. Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa


destination earth

Tidy segregated piles of construction waste placed in between piles of blasted granite.  They take on a kind of beauty as they subside into the landscape.  The gently sagging drywall might simply be fill, but given that one of the remedial actions on an acidified terrain is to spray it with lime, perhaps gypsum has the same effect. 

Drywall. Sudbury building site, September 2011

Brick. Sudbury building site, Sepember 2011

Concrete. Sudbury building site, September 2011

Aha! The ubiquitous blue tarp. Sudbury building site, September 2011

Tire mat, used to blanket a rock explosion. Sudbury buidling site, 2011



making ground

Janine Oleman, photographer. From Be Not Afraid of Greatness, Musagetes Foundation 2011

One of several problems with this new housing on the ridge overlooking Sudbury is that the horizon has been broken by buildings, making it close and limited.  Horizons are like frontiers: places of potential simply because they are so abstract and so distant.  They appear without scale, the line between land and sky.  Here there is a horizon limited by the temporal and limited quality of the housing development.  A roof is not a horizon.  

There was much made in rural Britain in the 1960s about preserving horizons: one could build on a hillside as long as the roof line did not interrupt the natural top of the hill when observed from a main road, or a town, or a footpath – in other words, nothing could be built on top of a hill because it interrupted some sort of sacred understanding of topography.  

Behind this row of drab new housing is a field of rubble: the process by which rock, seen as obstructive, is reduced to ground, seen as fertile for building.  It is a small tragedy; the mistake would be to think that it is the rapacious nature of development or the limited thinking that insists that services be installed as if it was a loamy field.

Instead, the tragedy is one of imagination. There is value in a difficult landscape millions of years old that puts a natural limit on building within it.  In our late capitalist world progression is still seen as positive, growth is necessary, stasis indicates a slipping backward, rather than a stillness.  Must this be?  Why must Sudbury try to expand, and so expand into newer and more difficult terrain?

Building site behind the houses in the photograph above


the north

Terminology, very confusing.  As a child I learned that the difficulty in laying down the trans-continental Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s was crossing muskeg, which swallowed tracks and even whole trains.  This is what happened in the north, which I assumed was in Northern Canada, somewhere in the Northwest Territories, and as with things you learn in grade 8, I never examined it again until this past week in Sudbury.  

It is not that muskeg isn't a treacherous thing, great wetlands that form where there isn't drainage: bogs, full of decaying plant material, trapped moose and train tracks which eventually form peat and I suppose, ultimately coal.  No, the other treacherous thing is the word north.

The northern imagination written about by Northrop Fry, Margaret Atwood, embodied in the Group of Seven and Georgian Bay is not the north I thought it was, The North, north of the provinces.  It is actually western Ontario.   
This came as something of a surprise, given that Sudbury sits at 46°N and has a growing zone of 4b.  Calgary, which no one would consider north at all, sits almost 600km north at 51°N in zone 2b.

In another instance, the Ring of Fire is generally known as the zone of earthquake and volcanic activity that rings the Pacific Ocean, where the Pacific tectonic plate grinds against the North American plate, the Eurasian, Australian and Nazca plates.  In the west we hear a lot about it, especially in Vancouver where all buildings have been essentially rebuilt to earthquake standards.

But in Ontario, Ring of Fire is a mine in the James Bay region where chromium was recently discovered and for which a smelter is planned, much to the purported benefit of First Nations in the area.  It is seen as a revitalisation of Ontario's mining interest and will be introducing Chinese development interests to Sudbury.   I only know this because I watched Steve Paikin's Agenda last night on TVO where there was a debate on whether industrial development or species protection was more important in the north.  Their north.  The wishy-washy conclusion was that we should have both, which means that mining and forestry will proceed with glee and with a few ameliorative concessions to fish, birds and migrating herds. Who do not vote.

It is a different country, Ontario.

Preparing the ground for flatland housing development. Lonely yellow hydrant awaits.  
Anyway, this train of thought was triggered by a new subdivision (above) on a ridge that looks down on Sudbury.  Downtown Sudbury has a problem with drainage, sitting as it does on the bedrock of the Canadian Shield.  Water sits in lakes or in muskeggy wetlands, (they'd be called sloughs on the prairie, bogs on the coast).  In older districts, streets and the little houses lining them in the bottom of the basin in which downtown Sudbury sits, regularly flood, the streets become culverts and swales, the water hasn't got a lot of options.  Thus, new development perched on ridges above the city has a certain appeal.  

Putting in services for new development requires, by convention, that they be underground.  But there is no underground here, it is solid rock, so ground is created in a cut and fill way.  The rock is blasted into rubble and shifted around to make flat sites for houses with the sewer and water safely installed beneath.  
There are a lot of similarities between Sudbury and Yellowknife, where new development does exactly this, rock blasted into coarse gravel for developer houses on cul-de-sacs one could find anywhere in Canada.  Aleta Fowler wrote about this in On Site 14: does one go to the north to live as if one was in a southern Canadian suburb?

Kenneth Hayes has introduced the term geo-cosmopolitanism to the discussion of urban development which, in its rough outlines means being aware of and taking into account the deep geo-logic of place.  The naming is important, we can put geo-cosmopolitanism in all its complexity onto a different way of looking at cities, more deeply rooted in their history, their industries, their place in the world. 



Musagetes Foundation held a Café in Sudbury last week, part of a series of investigations in how artistic thinking, practices and strategies can inform medium-sized cities whose industrial bases are either shifting or leaving.  Rejka in Croatia, Lecce in Italy, Sudbury in Canada.

The Big Nickel: didn't realise this had been a Centennial project, not authorised by the City, independently funded and built by the mining community and originally placed 36" outside Sudbury's city limits.  

The Big Nickel, 1963-4. 30' high, Sudbury OntarioN E Thing's 1969 photograph of an empty billboard in Sudbury.  This one is like the Stanfield fumble: he caught the football a dozen times in a row for a photo-op, fumbled one and of course that is the one they used.  The empty billboard is of course surreal, the empty frame, but only coincidently was it in Sudbury. 

Ian Baxter, N E Thing Company. Sign. Highway 17 near Sudbury, 1969
Sudbury Saturday Night, the girls at bingo, the boys are stinko, Inco temporarily forgotten.  Well, that bit was prescient.  
The Trans-Canada through Sudbury, a channel blasted out of the Shield, chemically blackened by ore-reduction processes that also produce slag heaps.

Kenneth Hayes has written a most amazing essay about why Sudbury even exists.  It is a history 2 billion years old, giant meteor hits the earth and splashes nickel, which may have been in the meteor but may have been deep in earth's core, into a great ring.  Nickel is what hardens steel for stainless steel.  Confusingly, much of the ore is smelted in Norway.  
There are other minerals, copper - lovely pale green river-run pebbles on gravel roads, and iron staining cliffs red when they aren't already black, all this found accidentally when the CPR was going through in the 1880s.  

However, mining requires less people these days, Inco is now Vale (Brazil), Falconbridge is now Xstrata (Switzerland), at the base of the Creighton Mine is a neutrino observatory, there is a new university, Laurentian, soon to have a new architecture school, there is a medical centre with a cancer research component that serves the Sudbury region, there are lakes, there is a fierce re-greening program and there is a hell of a lot of civic pride that appears to rest mainly on the ability to be in a canoe, on a lake, 10 minutes after leaving home.

The thing about stereotypes is that they can act as a protective shield.  The rest of the country can dismiss Sudbury, lodged as it is somewhere in Stomping Tom's 1970s, meanwhile Sudbury has been extremely busy developing itself for better or for ill, almost without attention.  

The swimming-pool blue of a tailings pond. Sudbury 2011


Rare earths mining

BBC. 16 June 2011.

This clip advertising BBC's power of Asia month, is not embedded here.  Click on it to go to the BBC site where it will open automatically. 

As our dependence on plastic supports oil extraction, so does our dependence on electronic devices support rare earth extraction.  Plastic and cell phones: they are everywhere in the world – no place too remote, too untouched, too undeveloped.


Urbanbees: Fleur de sel

Urbanbees. Feur de sel, 2011. Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens Photo JM-1102

This year's International Garden Festival at Les Jardins de Métis includes Fleur de sel, a salt garden by Urbanbees, an international group which includes Farzaneh Bahrami who wrote on the use of public space in Tehran in On Site 25: identity, and Enrique Enriquez who wrote a meditation on exile in On Site 24: migration

Enrique describes Fleur de sel in a pitch for On Site 26: dirt – 'a contradiction thing that came to my mind using a material that it is considered for landscape designers as the first enemy for plants. But salt is a simple tiny material that can speak a lot about our maniac cleanness in the society we live in now.'

Going to Extremes is a Channel 4 documentary series running on Knowledge where Nick Middleton, an Oxford geographer, travels to the hottest, coldest, wettest, driest environments with particular cultures that have evolved, survived and even thrive. Last night Middleton went to a region called Dalloi in Ethiopia, once a sea which as it dried left a five metre deep crust of salt.  It is mined, hacked out in concrete-like slabs, loaded onto camels and walked out – a two day walk to the nearest source of water. 

It will be interesting to see how Fleur de sel at les Jardins de Métis fares over the summer. It will be in situ from June 25 - October 2, 2011, through rain storms, high humidity and dew.  Will it turn to a hard crust as happens with my lovely pink salt from Afghanistan, sitting in its salt cellar on my table?  Will it stay like sand?  Is it Morton's Salt: 'when it rains it pours', a slogan I heard all my life and only just got?  Will it create an eco-system of its own over the three months?  We shall wait and see. 


Gerster 2: land prints

Gerog Gerster. Harvest, Idaho, 1988

Is ploughing, cutting and threshing so individual that their patterns act as a fingerprint?  Something like the individuality of a welder's seam?

I would hazard that these are fields not part of the Dominion Survey, or in the States, the Land Ordinance Act, both of which divided the land into a 6 mile grid, implacable and immutable.  Such fields are square, ploughed squarely, unless there is a slough, or an erratic, or some awkward bit of topography in the way.  Or maybe farmers just get bored.

Well, no. The point of contour ploughing is to increase water retention in sloping soil and to prevent water erosion, survey grids notwithstanding. So something indicates the need for water conservation in these fields.

Gerster seems to have returned to this area, eastern Washington and Idaho many times.  Almost all his work, which is from all over the world, is about the interaction of industrial practice with the landscape – the mark of man, the hand, the machine and the land.  

Georg Gerster. Lentils, USA, 1980


Georg Gerstner: land

Georg Gerster. Felder im Palouse, USA, 1979

Okay, done with the hand for now, the closest landscape we have.  Georg Gerster, German photographer, did a lot of aerials from helicopter and small planes from the 60s to 90s.  Beautiful photography, National Geographic stuff, very photogenic landscapes.  The one above, found in his photo gallery on his website, is a ploughed field in eastern Washington State, near Palouse, shot in 1979.  

Wonderfully graphic, one does have to ask why it is so.  Looked up the area around Palouse on Google Maps and found that on the western slope of the Rockies it is indeed highly topographic, contour ploughing raised to land art.

We have a call for articles out for issue 26: dirt.  Land is dirt, dirt grows crops, crops determine planting and harvesting with large machines these days, those machines make patterns and we find them often enchanting.  

Google Maps: Palouse Washington USA



Approaching dust storm, Fort MacLeod, Alberta. 1930s. Glenbow Museum Archives NA-2928-28So, is this weather, or the result of a war with the land?  Literally tons of soil blew east from the centre of North America dropping on the east coast and the Atlantic Ocean during the 1930s: a drought combined with very poor farming practices that stripped the prairies of the indigenous grasses that held the soil and moisture in place with their roots. 

It made excellent mulch, evidently.  Of course it would; fine topsoil, perfect for planting seedlings.  The process of getting it spread all over your fields however was catastrophic.  



The Great Dust heap at Kings Cross. Photograph: Wellcome Images/Wellcome Library, LondonThere is a new exhibition at the Wellcome Library about dirt and our changing views of cleanliness.  A very good write-up by Christopher Turner is on today's Guardian website.

Dirt is also the theme for the upcoming Fall issue of On Site (see the call for articles here). 

The exhibition at the Wellcome, a medical library, is based on Virginia Smith's book, Dirt: the filthy reality of everyday life, a historic survey of our attitudes to dirt and propriety that affects every corner of our dusty lives, our buildings and our cities. 

Living on the prairies is characterised by a fine black dust that blows off the land and settles on windowsills even at the heart of the city.  One is always dusting, sweeping, shaking out mops.  Our streets in Calgary are washed once a year, a great production of fleets of street sweepers, water sprinklers and then another pass by the sweepers.  There isn't a lot of rain here, so the streets and consequently the air are dusty again almost immediately.  Now, on the coast, where it rains all the time and one has to work hard to find dust, even fine dirt in the gravel bed that is the back vegetable garden, these streets are washed 4 or 5 times a year. 

It seems that this is an issue of perception.  On the prairies, dust, gumbo, mud, grey film, clouds of dust off unpaved roads and city alleys – that's okay.  Blowing grit on city streets that gets in your eyes, your hair, your collar – no problem evidently, until you go to a very clean city where the sidewalks are clean, the air is rain-washed, your white dog is actually white, then you realise how slapdash the cleanliness factor can be elsewhere. 


unstable surfaces

La Jolla, California, 2007Now, here's an example of the ground beneath one's feet being completely ambiguous, certainly mysterious: how deep is the slump beneath this sink hole?  Is it at the level of the water table, or the aquifer, or a mile deep?  This photo looks like something by Jeff Wall: a small suburban crisis.

If you click on the picture it will take you to a Guardian photo series of other, recent sink holes.


Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer. Zim Zum, 1990. oil, crayon, shellac, ashes, sand, dust and canvas on lead 3.8 x 5.6 m. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Yesterday after thinking about the large Gursky photographs and standing around in galleries looking at very large things I thought about Kiefer.  So I wrote the post below, and now find it has sucked all the light out of the day.  Too much Sturm und Drang for me.  I'd rather be looking at Ocean III.  However.

The first major Anselm Kiefer exhibition I saw was at the Saatchi Gallery in conjunction with several Richard Serra pieces – great slabs of steel balanced on their corners against the wall.  Someone had been injured in the installation.  Seeing the Kiefers was something like when an earlier generation first saw Mark Rothko's enormous, ambiguous colour fields at the Tate.  Kiefer's paintings cover whole gallery walls; one cannot get enough distance from them, one is completely humbled by them.

Much is written about the symbols and myths of German history and the Holocaust in Kiefer: Zim Zum, above, is from the Kabbalah and refers, roughly, to destruction and creative rearrangement.  And there appear to be many debates about whether a German can do anything with German myths and not be a closet Nazi.  Kiefer's work is both textual in that it insists on working with both Teutonic and Jewish history, and in its messy application of straw and mud, paint and dust, often to make great ploughed fields that appear to be totally barren, devoid of life, incapable of resurrection, work shouts out about the destruction of Germany.  It helps to know that Kiefer studied with Joseph Beuys. There is a sensuality that is not romantic in this work – perhaps it is the sensuality of melancholy and despair. 

I've never seen much renewal in Kiefer's work, although the symbols of such are supposedly all there in it.  This is one of the issues with text-based work and criticism: the work becomes the vehicle for another kind of project whereby the physical painting is cast as a cipher to a larger, off-canvas discourse which can change with political rapidity.  Meanwhile, one is left standing in front of a 3 x 5 m work which is unbearably, unrelentingly dark.  I think this has to be taken seriously as an end point: war destroys, and whatever replaces whatever is destroyed is never enough.  


the Dominion Grid

an image that everyone on the prairies has: incoming weather, driving in a straight line, fall fieldsThe Dominion Survey turned land into property in the tradition of the Enclosures Acts in Britain, where land commonly and traditionally farmed was enclosed by fences and walls by often self-appointed land-owners.  The Dominion Survey prepared the ground for the CPR and western settlement. Land held for millennia and used in accordance with constantly re-negotiated peace treaties, all of a sudden within a few years in the 1880s, was ruled off into one-mile squares, 6 mile sections, 36 square mile townships.  Road allowances were made at the edges of the sections and the first nations were bundled into reserves.

Metes and bounds, the survey system that measures land between this rock and that river, this mountain ridge and that path at least acknowledges that land has form, and in determining reserves in eastern Canada often the boundaries were negotiated according to an organic and aboriginal understanding of land use.  Not so for the Sarcee Reserve, now the Tsuu T'ina Nation, which was given three townships sitting in a row, a 36 x 6 mile rectangle running from 37th Street in south Calgary to the mountains.  Rivers and streams cut into this block and out again.  One could perhaps understand the same area being defined by the watershed of the Elbow River perhaps, but not this indifferent and random assignation of land. 

If you can measure land, you can draw it and if you can draw it, you can sell it.  Is this not at the base of survey systems?  I grew up with a western Canadian and an architect's love of the Dominion Grid, its absolute rationality that was nonetheless full of errors, correction lines that occur because of the curvature of the earth, delightful incongruities as a road slices over a hill and down a valley, standing on an escarpment and seeing the road go to the horizon twenty miles away.  Old Saskatchewan farmers could still reel off the legal description of homesteads they'd left in the 30s:  Section 22, Township 26, Range 2, West of the 4th Meridian.  I thought all this was magical, and in some sense still do.  But I also see it as a commercial project.  The CPR was given astounding bonuses for building the railway connecting BC with eastern Canada: $25 million (about $500 million today), 25 million square miles (exactly half the land) in a 50-mile zone either side of the main line and a monopoly on rail connections to the US.  Why does most of Canada live within a hundred miles of the US border?  Does the CPR have something to do with this? Are section roads straight?

CPR land was evenly dispersed, effectively limiting the size of a homestead (obtained free from the Canadian governmnent) to one section.


C R W Nevinson: the scale of the road

CRW Nevinson. The Road from Arras to Bapaume, 1917. c. Imperial War Museum

This road, from Arras in the Pas-de-Calais to Bapaume, is very like the section roads that grid off the prairies.  Landscape painters in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan tend to paint from the road, looking into the section, rather than at the roads themselves.  When roads do appear, they are tangential, inadvertant, rather than the rigid registration of the land that they are. 

The Nevinson painting is both from the road and of the road.  By the third year of the Great War, fought to end all wars, tangents, the picturesque, beauty as the subject of art and landscape as something life-sustaining were gone.  Land had become, as in this painting, mechanical and antagonistic.  Thus does war poison perception.  The road, like the war, seems endless.


Eric Ravilious: the scale of the land

Eric Ravilious. Chalk Downs, 1940. watercolour. 23 x 14 in. (56 x 47 cm)Eric Ravilious was a British war artist who died in 1944 when the RAF reconnaissance plane he was on disappeared off Iceland.  He did a number of things before the war: murals, woodcuts, graphic design, drawing and painting in the pale, flat sketchy way that a number of artists who had studied at the Slade used in the 1930s and 40s.  Supreme draughtsmanship, coupled in Ravilious's case with a deep love of the Sussex landscape which was at the time under threat from development, informs the painting above. 

It is small, and the brushmarks are those of a watercolour brush, used quite dry, and in places stippled.  It was a way of working that was fast and portable.  For Ravilious, nature is not wilderness, it is the impacted landscape of earth worked for millennia under many belief systems for agricultural use.  The fence line is important: it delineates territory, the road cuts the growing surface of the land the same way as the huge chalk hill carvings such as the Westbury horse, or the Cerne Abbas giant.

The chalk drawings are neolithic, perhaps druidic.  They are made by removing the thin layer of turf to reveal the limestone below.  They will disappear if not kept clear, which they have been for 3000 years.  It is this immense continuity that Ravilious sees in his landscapes, combined with the modernity of the age in which he lived.  A steam train chugs across the plain beneath the Westbury horse.

The Imperial War Museum held a centenary Ravilious (1903-1944) exhibition in 2004.  A most beautiful book was published to accompany it: Imperial War Museum. Eric Ravilious. Imagined Realities. London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2003.  Their website gives an overview.

Eric Ravilious. The Westbury Horse, 1939. © Estate of Eric Ravilious 2004