Ben Borthwick, Artistic Director at Plymouth Arts Centre, explores the latest exhibition in the PAC galleries from artist Mike Perry – LAND/SEA (Tir/Môr)
Archaeologists analyse the imprint of humanity on the world. They do this through study of the objects we make, the ways we use those objects to shape our environment, and most spectacularly by uncovering the impressions of our bodies that have been deliberately or unconsciously left behind. Primitive tools give information, but it is the handprint on the side of a cave or the footprint fossilised into the geological strata that enables the imaginative leap to ask who was this specific person and what was her experience?
Mike Perry’s exhibition Land/Sea seeks to extrapolate information about the present in much the same way that archaeologists do for ancient worlds. What can material culture, objects, and the landscapes shaped by them, tell us about this specific moment? The exhibition brings together two bodies of work, Môr Plastig and Wet Deserts, which are formally distinct but both explore the relationship between humans, the environment, and time. Running throughout Perry’s practice is a deep concern with environmental issues and how to make sense of the conflicting impulses of horror and fascination, beauty and desolation, fear and the sublime.
Wet Deserts is a group of photographs shot on 10×8 film of Britain’s upland moors and mountains. These are the quintessential vistas of 18th century landscape painting and Romantic poetry, the kind of places that shaped Edmund Burke’s thinking in his 1757 essay ‘Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’. The opposition between beauty and the sublime has now been lost – sublimated, even – through the effect of Romanticism and the sublime is now seen as being super-beauty. However, Perry takes us back to the original meaning in order to contest the idea that these uplands are the last untouched wildernesses on this otherwise acculturated and industrialised island.
The reason they look so otherworldly is precisely because of their exploitation as a natural resource
While it is undeniable these expansive landscapes are extraordinarily beautiful, the reason they look so otherworldly is precisely because of their exploitation as a natural resource. They are deforested, monocultural sheep farms, eradicating the possibility of biodiversity and sustainability. Shot on 10×8 film, these analogue photographs take on a painterly quality, the colours vivid and subtle, almost seeming to emanate light. Although these scenes are as the artist found them, they seem highly composed and allegorical like the paintings of the eighteenth century English – and Welsh – landscape painters. These large scale photographs combining painterly aesthetics with a hard environmental narrative, shed a very different light on the health of the upland landscape than one is accustomed to seeing in tourist brochures or romantic paintings and photography of the coastline. This is the contemporary meaning of these landscapes – it is not the horror of nature’s magnitude, of but of the scale and impact of human intervention that is truly sublime.
Môr Plastig (Welsh for ‘plastic sea’) is an ongoing body of work that classifies objects washed up by the sea into groupings. It is an open series of photographs ordered into Shoes, Grids, Abstracts, and others. While the archaeologist is able to identify and develop local characteristics from the place an object is found, the sea is a much more chaotic, and appropriate, metaphor for globalised industrial culture. A shoe that washes up on the Pembrokeshire coast might have been made in China and lost by an American tourist paddling on a beach in Portugal.
Perry gathers these plastic objects from the Pembrokeshire coast where he lives. This idyllic stretch of coastline has all the characteristics of the sublime and beautiful – steep cliffs, azure seas, crashing waves, quiet bays and rugged headlands. In contrast to the Wet Deserts, this series is a highly conceptual and minimal interpretation of the landscape genre. Where many artists on the coast will beachcomb and combine these found objects into anthropomorphic sculptures, Perry isolates this plastic detritus and takes photographs that hone in on the details and surfaces. His 15 photograph Bottles Grid of bottles washed up off the beaches of West Wales challenges all kinds of stereotypes: what it means to be an artist – a photographer – engaging with the landscape, particularly the Welsh landscape, especially the Pembrokeshire coast; it poses questions of repetition, serial reproduction, and the unique object.
Refusing the tourist brochure romanticism of the Welsh coastline
In many respects Môr Plastig connects to another eighteenth century genre of images, this time the taxonomical drawings of scientific enquiry. Floating on the page, divorced from their context, these images afford close study of the details and characteristics of the material and surface. The C18th drawings give insights into the object, but they also contain a cultural reference to the fact this expansion of scientific knowledge was intrinsically bound up with colonial expansion and the emergence of empire.
Môr Plastig addresses the state of pollution on our beaches and what we might be leaving for future generations, again refusing the tourist brochure romanticism of the Welsh coastline. It is a kind contemporary version of Graham Sutherland’s ‘Stories from the Sea’. Perry brings contemporary environmental issues to our attention, not a campaigning emotionally charged way, but through analytical examination and a reflective, poetic, manner which pulls the viewer in to think deeper about the subject.
The landscape is a fundamental element of how British (and specifically Welsh) culture and identity has been constructed, but in a way that is supposedly ‘timeless’ and mythological. The critical engagement with landscape in Perry’s practice makes landscape absolutely contemporary, shaped by industrialisation, agribusiness and the exploitation of natural resources. His work frees it from the abstract, alienating, and false ‘timelessness’ of a consumer based heritage industry and locates the landscape as an intrinsic part of contemporary culture and future possibility.
Land/Sea is curated by Plymouth Arts Centre and Ffotogallery. It is a Ffotogallery Touring Exhibition, supported by Arts Council of Wales.
Ben Borthwick, Artistic Director at Plymouth Arts Centre