The Studio, The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal
Multimedia installation by Russell Mills with soundwork by Russell Mills and Mike Fearon, created to accompany the one-person exhibition of paintings and assemblages Extended Wings by Russell Mills in the Warehouse Gallery, The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal
Single channel DVD film (59 minutes) on continual loop, 160 hand painted 35mm slides, two 35mm carousel slide projectors on continual play, ‘interference mirror’ cabinet, lighting gels, asynchronous six CD 12 speakers surround sound system, two poems by Paul Farley
And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books, it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.
– Philip Larkin, Going, Going
Cleave | Soft Bullets was a conceptually and physically split work made partly in response to the myriad confused responses to the Foot and Mouth crisis of 2001, which exposed the widening dichotomy between our perceptions of the countryside as pastoral, romantic, and the historical actuality of the economic and socio-political forces that have consistently shaped it.
For Philip Larkin in the 1970’s, rural England was vanishing under concrete and tyres. But if Leavis and Thompson were right about the ‘organic community’ having disappeared by the 1930’s, one would have thought that by the 1970’s the meadows and lanes would have been not ‘Going, Going’ but long Gone. And wasn’t Hardy gauging the same loss of the old ways in ‘The Woodlanders’ in the 1880’s? What about Cobbet in the time of Jane Austen, fulminating about the rise of the new rentier class with their exploitative relationship to the environment? But then Oliver Goldsmith in his ‘Deserted Village’ of 1770 was blaming modern consumerism for the desolation of the land.
– Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth, Picador, 2000.
So none of this is new and yet it seems as though our understanding of the distinctions between ‘nature’, ‘culture’ and ‘environment’ is as confused as ever. Over the past century there has been an enormous shift from pre-industrial agriculture, in which farmers raised most of their produce for their own consumption rather than for trade, to today’s technologically and chemically dependent practices, that are being driven by an increasingly rapacious market economy. Modern agronomy, plant breeding, agrochemicals and fertilisers, alongside technological developments have sharply increased yields from cultivation, but at the same time have caused widespread ecological damage and dangers to health of humans and animals alike. And the effects of global warming on agriculture and of agriculture on global warming are still not fully understood.
Our roseate perception of the natural world, of landscape, is at odds with reality. Our lives, having become a series of dislocations, personal, national and global, waver between the dichotomies and divisions of the organic and the synthetic, the actual and the artificial, the urban and the rural. We have become disoriented and increasingly removed from the natural world: cleaved.
The installation’s title Cleave | Soft Bullets has multiple oxymoronic and metaphoric meanings. When we cleave, we either forcibly split or sever something apart or we adhere strongly to something. Soft Bullets is similarly used not only for its oxymoronic quality, but also because it alludes to that experience of witnessing moths attracted to an exterior light at night. Mirroring our present state of confusion, they circle and ellipse erratically around the light, ‘soft bullets’ around our head, suicidally spiralling and flaying to their deaths.
Alluding to the mediaeval pyres erected in the wake of Foot and Mouth, sequences of various natural phenomena, shot from varying camera angles, were edited into a seamless montage that was projected onto an end wall of the gallery space. Close-up scenes of a river’s current cross-dissolve into inverted shots of a waterfall, resembling the relentless, shapeless soaring of flames, which in turn flow into inverted flames conversely resembling the ceaseless surge of a waterfall. In extreme slow motion, the film gently loops and unfolds, providing a space for calm focus on the unashamed beauty, limitless wonder and power of the elements.
In contrast, alluding to the urban, two slide projectors mounted one above the other, housed in a specially devised rotating “Interference Mirror” cabinet, projected a series of 160 hand painted 35mm transparencies onto the opposite end wall. Angular abstractions in highly saturated colours ceaselessly revolve, simultaneously sweeping from both left to right and from right to left, overlapping, folding and unfolding, randomly colliding and colluding at high speed.
The contrasting dynamics between the two projections, the manic energy of the urban abstractions and the mesmeric gentleness of the natural, were conceived so as to induce a heightened sense of perceptual anxiety and uncertainty in the viewer. The configuration of the elements in the installation added to visitors’ sense of disorientation, as they were obliged to occupy the centre of the space and continually turn 180 degrees in order to view the deliberately separated events.
The sound work mixed randomly in real time, playing individual sounds sourced from both urban and rural environments that had been subjected to various transformations to produce an ever-changing otherworldly sonic environment. Two conflicting families of sound, one slow and languorous, the other fast, fractured and abrasive, interacted and commingled so as to emphasise the feeling of dislocation and uncertainty. All sounds were mixed and treated so as to give them varying wide stereo separations, which moved ceaselessly and unpredictably, throughout the gallery in 3D.
Spot-lit on the two sidewalls were two specially commissioned complementary poems by Paul Farley, The Cleave and Untitled. Triggered by the study of an early 19th century edition of the Shepherd’s Guide to Wool and Earmarks, the poems reference ideas about the demarcation of property and the dangers of the market economy, which has removed us ever further from the land. Reflecting on the unknown possibilities following the genetic cloning of “Dolly the sheep”, the poems finally converge on the devastating effects of the viral epidemic of the Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001.
Did Moses Mossop sit above Bowmanstead
with this book in early nineteenth-century rain?
He might have done: one drop blurs his entry
in this knackered Shepherd’s Guide, where Herdwicks graze
identically on every recto side
but for a second running through the press
that added the earmarks, and so identified
each flock to owner, and kept things up-to-date;
and sheltering by a sheepfold’s leeward wall
he might have studied this on afternoons
of deepening lows, when drizzle was broadcast
across each chapter – Seascale to Subberthwaite –
where flockmasters, whose names are listed here,
were scattered under blackthorns, out on fells
further than any eye could see. And Moses
might well have held the future in his hands
admiring these perfect, printed sheep,
his mind breeding a May of perfect lambs;
or thumbed its pages quickly so the ears
flickered to life and leapt like inky flames,
and with such animations passed his hours
as mine do, stuck in this dark hostel
with its puzzles and whodunnits; all the paths
taped off and bleached, the scene of some huge crime.
Let this be a warning to the world.
The strobe and klaxon: installation art
as hell’s innermost, track-lit circle.
You might look down and read this in the pit
of fire, waist deep in a frightened herd
running like a river at night; might smell
something like a deep singed eyebrow; in this dark wood
of semantics and signifiers, could feel
your way like firemen in gutted buildings,
listening to the blood corkscrewing the ears
and glass clicks underfoot, and find the wiring
originally to blame for all of this …
Or maybe not – even warnings to the world
are competing for our time – in which case leave
by the designated exits, calm and filled
with the sense that this was art; this was called ‘Cleave’.
In 1998 Paul Farley’s first collection The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and won the Forward Prize for Poetry and the Somerset Maugham Award. In 1999 he was the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and from 1999 to 2002 he was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust. In 2002 he was shortlisted for the Forward Prize again and in 2003 he won the Whitbread Award for Poetry with his second collection The Ice Age (2002). In 2004 he was named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation poets. His third collection, Tramp in Flames (2006) produced ‘Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second’, which won the Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem. In the same year he published a study of Terence Davies’ film Distant Voices, Still Lives.In 2007 he edited a selection of John Clare for Faber’s Poet to Poet series. His poems for radio are collected in Field Recordings: BBC Poems 1998-2000. In 2009 he received the EM Forster Award form the American Academy of Arts & Letters. His book Edgelands (2011), a non-fiction journey into England’s overlooked wildernesses (co-authored with Michael Symmons Roberts) received the Royal Society of Literature’s Jerwood Award, the Foyles Best Book of Ideas Award 2012 and was serialized as a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. His most recent collection, The Dark Film (2012), was a Poetry Book Society Choice in 2012, and in the same year he was elected a Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature. He makes regular appearances on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review, Front Row and BBC Radio 3’s The Verb and has scripted many original dramas.