White Cube Bermondsey, South Galleries, London
22 January – 13 April 2014
by HARRIET THORPE
Addressing and exploring the zone in question is a new exhibition of work by Darren Almond, presented in three rooms. Almond, who photographs landscapes across the world, is also caught in a process of understanding history and documenting the extent of human intervention. Speaking with him the day before the opening, I notice that he always returns to a romantic point of view. “The show starts with the coast of Cape Verde,” he says. “This was Darwin’s first tropical island discovery. He was a geologist and I like the idea that one guy staring at a rock was triggered to dispel creationist theory, all because his observations on a piece of stone. There is something incredibly poetic and beautiful in that observation.”
This new show includes photographs from Almond’s Fullmoon and Present Form series, as well as some small-scale bronze sculptures. The Fullmoon photographs are taken under the light of a full moon using long exposure. Fullmoon@Cape Verde (2013) confronts the viewer head on, transporting them to paradise. The deep azure blue could be an endless sky or an interminable sea, through which flowing white gas surges over glittering mounds of rock. Travel is an escape for many, but for Almond, it is a necessary part of his practice; he is a landscape artist searching for subject matter. Travel has other uses too: “I think it’s about being in an environment that you’re unaccustomed to. It alerts your perception, makes you a little more vulnerable to your conscious instincts – there’s something instinctive. I like that vulnerability of not really knowing where I am and then you’re very dependent.”
Almond’s landscapes are informed by the places he visits, yet they are also lands of his imagination. So are we on Earth or in the clouds? “There’s a romantic element to it, but there is in everybody’s artistic practice: you need a romantic soul at heart.” Almond is a photographer, but in his studio he manipulates and develops moods and colours like a painter. He tells me about the canon of landscape artists he has followed. “They’ve been my guides through various tropes that make up the landscape of cultures. I’ve followed Turner, Constable, Walter Phillips, De Kooning and the Japanese master Sesshū Tōyō. I’ve made my pilgrimages to sites of paintings and areas where artists have lived.” He has also been influenced, he says, by “the West Coast pioneering photographers such as Robert Adams – he’s a contemporary topologist – and Carleton Watkins. It’s like you’re building with them and upon them. You’re informed by them.”
Like a rising morning mist, steam from a hot spring and a magician’s brew of liquid carbon dioxide combined, Almond’s treatment of water is like a natural occurrence from another land. To achieve this effect, he shoots at one frame per 12-50 minutes depending on the extent of full-moon light and cloud. He explains: “Our perception is only a level of perception that allows us to see the ocean in the way we see it. If we could only see one frame per minute, it would smooth everything out, we would notice the current and it would reveal this durational experience similar to the making of these photographs. It’s a live act; it’s not immediate (he clicks his fingers), there’s a duration there.” The technique requires endurance. “I have to be active with the exposure and constantly reading what’s going on around me, the amount of moonlight that’s breaking through the cloud. The moon is the thing that generates the oceans and the tides, but if you observe the oceans solely through the light of the moon, it erases the tide, it shows you the currents as light, so it becomes more transparent and it fuses something like water back into a gas and they merge as one.”
In Laurentia (2012) a quotation by Nan Shepherd is composed on cream and gold train-plates. The plates appear like signposts helping us to navigate in the wild, but the words are not geographically factual. Instead, like poetry, the words form layers of emotional interpretation. Signposts are a human attempt to navigate and control nature. Almond induces us to realign with the expressive side of nature. “I’m not a scientist, there’s no science at play. I’m dealing with the stuff of emotion,” he says. But is he an activist? His words are so passionate, imperative, when describing the environmental concerns of the landscapes in his work. “They are landscapes of our imaginations, but at the same time these landscapes are disappearing, and they need to be protected. We need to have a different approach to nature, we need to stop thinking about it as this self-governing holistic presence. We have to put in legislation to control the nature that’s around us. In the year 2041, Antarctica will lose its political independence. Antarctica is a landmass twice the size of Australia and it’s full of minerals, oils and fossil fuels that we are using. I knew about this when I was in primary school stuck in the north-west of England, but I can’t really see from my observations over the past 20 to 30 years that we are coming to terms with our footprint.”
Moving through the gallery to the second room of three, you find yourself on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, just west of Scotland. It is a cloudy day, but the sky holds hidden colours – like Turner, to achieve the effect he wants, Almond has made use of many colours, which emerge only on a closer look. Monumental Present Form series photographs of the monolithic Standing Stones impose themselves from the walls. These natural forms were placed on Lewis by humans more than 4,000 years ago and a shared and generational respect for the history of the landscape means they remain there still. Almond tells me: “I think they’re protected by a global consciousness. There’s something that unites us, that doesn’t want to destroy them, even though some have been demolished or pushed over. I like how history is always in a state of flux, this level of questioning, examination and discovery that we’re still undergoing. As futile as staring, it seems into the starry night sky. We have these stones, which are this observational tool. Because they are arranged in a circle, they become a lunar clock, and the moon kisses the top of these stones and begins another circle. The level of sophistication was in the culture back then.”
Essentially, these stones mark one of the earliest human footprints on the landscape. It is a basic instinct of claiming territory, making a mark. So how far does our territory extend? “That’s why in with the stones, I’ve put small weights that refer to the astronauts who’ve been on the surface of the moon. Each weight is the relevant weight of the astronaut: the ones standing are still alive and the ones lying down have since passed away. We have this relationship with the moon because we have an association with it; because we have a footprint on the moon. However, our brains and our language fails us when we think beyond this.”
The small weights to which Almond refers are six shiny, golden, cylindrical vials – Apollo 11, Apollo 12, Apollo 14, Apollo 15, Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 (all 2013). Their displaced weights are left behind on Earth, but the floor of the gallery is grey and mottled like the pockmarked surface of the Moon. Like the laws of gravity, the laws of the gallery dictate the notion of weight (variable) and material (polished bronze and lead) as fact. Like a scientist with a theory, I balance evidence to suggest that these shafts of golden light are weightless and, instead of being on the Isle of Lewis, we are in fact on the moon. Each vial is individually engraved with an initial, like a fingerprint claiming an identity, and the form is given life, like urns of ashes, or gases. Placed in pairs, at an angle where gold reflects upon gold, there is a moment of intensity like the explosion of a star in space. The artist has captured and controlled this moment on to the surface of the cylinder.
Almond continues: “There’s this lovely short story by Primo Levi called A Tranquil Star. An astronomer explains to his children what will happen when the sun dies; the mountains will melt and everything will happen very quickly. It’s quite a descriptive text, which really puts things into perspective. He then explains how pathetic and ridiculous our written language is, because as soon as we go beyond a certain scale, we just turn it into a number and add a zero. I feel as though the moon is one of the furthest objects that we are able to talk about because it’s in our scale and it’s in our context.”
Entering the third room, the earth is no longer a familiar planet. The deep reds of Fullmoon@Argentinian Patagonia (2013) and the scaly shadowy forms of Fullmoon@Gordon River (2013) expose the diversity of this earth’s surface, reducing it to the status of an unknown planet rotating and circulating the sun. Scenes are determined by distinct moods that are dictated by the weather, the coarseness or smoothness of the landscape, and the colours chosen by Almond, the creator. “I get really anxious because I don’t feel as if there’s ever a second take. I generate situations where it’s going to happen there and then. It’s a live event that takes place, and then all that feeds into making a still in a full moon. The same kind of energy is channelled through the work and becomes the negative space within the composition of some trees. I was speaking to Elsworth Kelly in his studio about the void, and how we’re all tuned into, and searching for, the void. Then we find the void within something and that’s what holds us – this very fine-tuned moment.”
Before our conversation, I had stood, alone in the gallery, in front of Fullmoon@Sandwalk Wood (2013). The sun penetrating through the black trees blinded me. Then my eyes adjusted and the dark forms receeded. I was left with the shape of the void on my retina.
Is he always consciously creating a “landscape”, framing images as he travels? “Yes, like a maniac! Then I have to find it (the frame) again in the evening and then it can shift; as I’m travelling through the landscape in the day, I’m also aware of where the movement will be in the night. When you’re reading the landscape in the day, you’re also dealing with an instinct to be drawn to the light of the sun.” Almond speaks faster and faster, explaining the limits and trials of his working practice: “Then when you come back 12 hours later, the moon is over there and it’s a completely different image! The water’s not getting the same light. Then you have to park your tent and see where the moon goes, although you kind of know that after many years of practice and it may work, may not, and then you’re also dealing with the weather and the weather carries emotion.”
He suddenly becomes very practical. “Unlike the romantics, who travelled through space and time, through the landscape sketching and drawing and collaging the landscape together to come up with a Romantic ideal, I’m doing it all with a camera from a single point, so I’m almost questioning whether the romantic landscape ever existed.”
It is hard to avoid, that in the foreground of the void, we are often met with the telltale signs of human activity. A railway charges through a forest (Fullmoon@Tasmanian Tracks, 2013), a walkway subtly occupies an upper-left field of vision (Fullmoon@Glacial Crossing, 2013) and a fence cordons off the rocky edge of a cliff (Fullmoon@Lewisian Gneiss, 2013). Almond explains: “The industrialised world has brought about this geological time shift called ‘anthropocene’. In a sense this was caused by the communications that were put in place with the railway. You’re going to get political incursions into the landscape that tend to be about controlling and dominating. They’re tools of war as much as they are tools of distribution.” How do these man-made incursions affect his work? “Because of their nature and what’s necessary in order to make a full moon photograph, I need sites that haven’t been scarred, or [affected by] light pollution. These areas are reducing quite dramatically. But they still tend to be at these perimeters of the romantic.”
The railway was central to industrialisation in north-west England, where Almond grew up, and was, therefore, part of his landscape from the start, and it resembled freedom. It has become a motif central to his work. “The shot of the rail track that you see here in Tasmania, there’s a reference there to Carleton Watkins and the West Coast pioneer photographers who followed the railway [using it] because of the cumbersome nature of their cameras. Tasmania is home to the oldest eucalyptus trees on the planet. They were transplanted into California because they’re quick growing and were used for the construction of the railway, and then they became endemic. Now they’re a blight on the Californian landscape generating wild fires.”
In the next moment, Almond is plummeting back through time to prehistoric Patagonia: “I've hung Fullmoon@Tasmanian Tracks, 2013 in the last room because it’s opposite the Glacier (Present Form Exposed, 2013). This is a moment when daylight has hit the ice for the first time. The fresh reveal of ice and the blues that you see is the prehistoric ice. Ice has this incredible facility to record history, as we know, but it can also record subatomic history.”
I cannot keep up. Each landscape has a history embedded within, which Almond reads like a book.