Beginning high up in the Orkney Isles and journeying to the South West of England, ‘Odyssean: Topographies’ is a cognitive, visual and, at times, physical expedition into hidden and imagined spaces. The culmination of four artists’ Orkney-based residencies, the exhibition throws into question the ways in which humans formulate perceptions of nature and place in an era rife with technology. Whether through physicality, history, geology, virtuality or a combination of all five, the ‘Odyssean’ practitioners – Natasha Rosling, Alexander Stevenson, Alistair Grant and Simon Lee Dicker – mine the anatomies and psychologies of human, land and ocean alike.
It’s a peculiar match: Orkney is fervently wild and unruly, while its counterpart, Hestercombe, is a managed estate on the rural outskirts of Taunton, Somerset. The notion of distance provides reasoning for the project’s southerly migration: it distills assets bound up in the remote archipelago’s heritage and provides space for new narratives. In speaking at the symposim ‘Space, Place and Sensations’, Professor John Wylie quoted Robin Kelsey’s ‘Landscape Theory’ (2008), “landscape is a space to define humanity as a species that does not belong,” to illustrate our separation from nature and to propose the necessity of distance in the fabrication of experiential and imaginary spaces.
The ‘Odyssean’ artists exploit their own – as well as the audience’s – distance from Orkney. Rosling engineers imagined journeys from the physical, inside-out. Spurred by a fixation with digestion, she builds sensory connections between human and land-bound anatomies. ‘Gut Beneath the Shore’ (2016-17) transports audio recordings of groaning geology into an elegant, cavernous Orangery. Though the link between Papa Westray’s creaking sedimentary rock and Hestercombe’s spritely orange trees appears tenuous, together, they challenge the cyclical, digestive spaces of both human and earth – a concept that flows into Rosling and collaborator Vilma Luostarinen’s participatory land degustation; an earth-inspired feast with which to reimagine nature traveling inside our grotto-esque bodies.
Stevenson’s ‘All At Sea’ (2017) uses storytelling to address the notion of not-belonging. Here, he reflects on his genealogy as a ‘Stevenson’ and assumes the identity of a lighthouse keeper. Frustrated by his distance from ‘lost’ ancestry, he maps out a fictional journey across an archipelago and transforms himself, both physically and psychologically, into the very object that determines his voyage – a lighthouse. Painted, head to toe, and sporting a crown of headtorches, the artist casts off in a human-sized buoy in search of another narrative, albeit remaining incased in his own, personal perception of the world.
Grant expands on humankind’s solitary existence in landscape by questioning the distance and closeness afforded by virtual spaces. In ‘Moving Swiftly Onwards’ (2017), he fabricates two models of a futuristic being: one physical, one virtual. While the former lays limp on the floor – much like the relics from an archaeological dig – the latter moves energetically on the screen. This comparison augments the reductive characteristics of both the physical and virtual, and asks whether technology’s ingenuity provides a viable space in which to garner new experience and meaning. As with ‘All At Sea’, the self-referential presence of a physical sculpture provides a stepping stone into the screen.
Returning to elemental matters, Dicker’s ‘Passing Place’ – a collection of drawing, sculpture and writing – observes a different mode of landscape experience. In ‘Red Hot Haystacks’ (2017) a blistering-blue mound of meadow grass appears futuristic, otherworldly and near-magical, until our imagination is shunted by R. N. Aitkens’ 1969 Scottish radiometric survey in ‘Hoy Hill Screen’ (2016/17). The viewer’s wonder is replaced by the revelation of nuclear testing’s ‘unseen’ impacts: humanity’s discordant relationship with nature floods back into consciousness. Again, tactility is as vital as technology: here, contextual data is supported by the tangible strands of hay which radiate with a tart, earthy smell.
From Orkney to Hestercombe, ‘Odyssean: Topographies’ dismantles traditional definitions of ‘place’ by exposing the abstract, interconnectable qualities of the factual and the imaginary in the portrayal of topographic experience. Orkney’s remoteness affords separation from the mainland’s digital saturation, which in turn highlights humanity’s day-to-day distance from nature. The artists exploit this incongruent relationship and expand upon our contemporary, human-centric perspectives of the land through storytelling, history, virtuality and physicality. Rather than recite reality, ‘Odyssean’ entwines tactility with technology to reveal hidden experiential spaces and engineer new imaginary ones, thus building an alternative kinship with the land.