2008. Tracey Warr ‘Place Section Introduction’
Extract from Ratcliffe, Helen; Smith, Alan & Warr, Tracey eds. Allenheads Contemporary Arts: Art in a Rural Context which will be published by Editions North, Sunderland, later this year. The book includes additional essays by me and by Rob La Frenais, David Butler, Helen Ratcliffe and Alan Smith as well as material on artists’ projects made in the village of Allenheads over the last ten years. http://www.acart.org.uk
Wading down the Allen river in the North Pennines from its source with ecotaxologist, Alan Donaldson, and a group of artists, I can see where the water runs down off the hills to the watershed turning the ground into a raft that bounces when you jump on it, bending the reeds out of its path before it has even become a river, then carving, cutting and meandering its way through the land dragging shards of fluorspar, limestone and ancient pottery downriver and depositing them elsewhere. Ankle-deep in the cold, clear, river like a group of eager David Bellamys we can taste the watermint growing mid-stream and observe the tiny plant ergot near the bank that it would not be so good to taste. Its toxin causes hallucination and has been blamed for historical bouts of witch burning. You see how the river has drawn human settlement and industry to it through the centuries and the legacies of that human and river interaction are visible in the landscape. The following day we spent four hours underground in a disused lead mine at Nenthead, wading thigh deep in watery tunnels hand chiselled by miners through the limestone, marvelling at deposits of galena glittering in the rock like the milky way, hauling myself on hands and knees and sliding flat on my stomach through tight holes in the rock until we emerged into a vast cavern where thousands of tons of lead had been mined out. With our helmet lights out we sampled just how dark dark is when you are hundreds of feet underground. How sound reverberates when you are encased in solid rock.
We weren’t on an outward bound course. These immersions in geology, atmosphere and landscape were part of a week long artists’ workshop organised by Allenheads Contemporary Arts (ACA). The week’s activities took us beyond our romantic or urbanite preconceptions of landscape and weather and beyond our previous conceptions of ourselves, expanding our sense of relationship with the environment. ‘The city gives the illusion that the earth does not exist’ (Smithson, 1979: 83). Instead of observing that it was raining outside, we felt on our faces that it was raining and that the wind was whipping cold across the fells with clouds streaming past fast and their shadows pursuing them on the grass.
Allenheads School House is 1,400 feet above sea level, the highest point of England’s highest village, on a near vertical hairpin bend, close to the border between Cumbria and Northumberland. In 1747, nearby Cross Fell was described as ‘generally ten months buried in snow and eleven in clouds’ (The Gentlemen’s Weekly cited in Hopkins, 1989: 65). On a clear day Allenheads looks and feels like the top of the world. The eye is awash with sky and moor, the wind feels like it might blow you off the planet. In the winter the sky closes into the land and the guide poles are the only way of knowing where the road out and in once was, now buried under several feet of snow. To the north are Hadrian’s Wall, Kielder Forest and the Cheviot Hills and the ‘disputed lands’ adjoining the Scottish border.
Some mornings the school is in the clouds, the village below invisible, sounds wafting up from the bowl of the River Allen valley beneath. The surrounding windswept heather and peat fells are the habitats for red grouse, curlew, snipe, golden plover and alpine flowers. The nearest towns are Allendale and Hexham to the north. It is an hour’s drive to the nearest cities – Newcastle and Durham to the east and Carlisle to the west. If you go due south or due north it is many miles before you reach any major urban area.
Artists and curators working here must inevitably engage with the place, with its rural community, the contemporary economics and politics of the countryside, cultural assumptions about the country, the human geography, the dialogue and sometimes confrontation between the urban and the rural.
Britain’s ‘green and pleasant land’ is an essential reference point for a sense of national identity. Yet it is as much the result of centuries of agricultural husbandry and early industry as it is ‘natural’ or produced by more recent conservation and green tourism.
When students and artists arrive at Allenheads, the project directors – Helen Ratcliffe and Alan Smith – devise ways to swiftly immerse their visitors in a sense of where they are. Sitting in a shooting butt on the windswept moor-top alone for an hour will do it. Spending four hours underground in the old lead mine tunnels confronted with dark and silence will do it. Spending two hours watching the technicolour performance of the sky as it changes from blue to red to dark at sunset in James Turrell’s Skyspace will do it. Wading down the icy River Allen, that will make you feel on your pulses where you are. Spending an evening chatting to ‘locals’ in the Allenheads Inn will do it too. One’s sense of self is different here from the city.
A place in which the perceiving self might take measure of certain aspects of its own physical existence … the terms of this interaction are temporal as well as spatial … existence is process (Morris 1970 cited in Tiberghien, 1993: 83).
Every artist who has spent time at Allenheads has in some way, and in very diverse ways, made a portrait of the place. The artists’ work in this section ranges through a portrait in sound, portraits emerging in darkness and light and an aerial portrait. Phil Ogg made recordings of sounds in and around the Allenheads Shed – a place precariously between inside and outside, a shed for growing ideas and conversation as well as seedlings. Sue Scowcroft’s photographs of trees and gates in the vicinity were shot at night by torchlight. Alan Smith’s canvases were left underground or underwater to accumulate sediments, microflora and microfauna and then emerged out of the darkness to bloom into extraordinary depths and patinas of colour. James Turrell’s proposed Skyspace for Black Hill was eventually built in Kielder. It is an engagement with place through natural light. London Fieldworks examine the interactions between the human body and weather and light phenomena in and around Allenheads. Their work uses the body, rather than the mind, as a means of knowing the environment. Wendy Kirkup worked with a parachutist to produce an overview of the village as he fell to earth. In all these works artists and site collaborate with each other.
Hopkins, Tony (1989), Pennine Way North. London: Aurum Press.
Smithson, Robert (1979) ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’ in Holt, Nancy ed. (1979) The Writings of Robert Smithson, New York: New York University Press, pp. 82-91.
Tiberghien, Gilles A. (1993) Land Art, London: Art Data.