Friday, 18 September 2009
Wednesday, 9 September 2009
The background to Iain Stewart’s DARKEDEN
by Dr. John Green
‘In my dreams now, I see him, carrying his burden, too much for a child…’[i]
In many ways, Iain Stewart’s recent work sees a return to a deeply personal and emotive approach not immediately apparent in his work since his earlier projects of the 1990s. In so many ways, the emotional turmoil that forms the background to DARKEDEN (2008) calls to mind the semi-abstract Polaroids and short texts of UNFINISHED DIALOGUE (1992) or the scattered notes and discreet imagery of VOICES IN A SMALL ROOM (1991); both these early projects were also born from periods of emotional distress, albeit Stewart now finding a more sophisticated – and consistently darker – vocabulary to mine deeply personal territories. These formative pieces carried the viewer, with touching sensitivity and directness, through the raw tumble of emotions associated with close personal bereavement; anger, confusion, pain - and ultimately some sense of acceptance, eloquently articulating private concerns to the wider audience; short poetic text gently playing alongside what was later to become his familiar, subtly shifting triptych format, conjuring a whisper of universal narrative.
These projects saw Stewart begin to move away from figurative work, though his landscape work, in his words, “is still the same picture”[ii] and he has noted a deeper sense of continuity of subject matter than is immediately apparent from subsequent stylistically or thematically diverse projects, acknowledging too his attempts to bring himself ”together” with the landscape in the camera, speaking of the landscape as a “canvas”, where emotion and experience synthesize, the ubiquitous and transitory blend with formal or abstract landscape concerns. We are familiar with his images of ‘things which we normally give no names’[iii] - the containers of ‘land’, ‘sea’ or ‘sky’, vehicles of harmony, colour and form; whilst a straight line can be picked through the early Polaroid triptychs to the land and seascape work of the following decade, Stewart has often deliberately dissolved any formal reference points – or even clues as to location. We have become accustomed to the ‘journey without destination’; the meditative “gateway” or threshold images that transport the viewer; though to where is never clear, and it seems that for Stewart this vagueness is deliberate – ‘I travelled the world in searching of… something. I knew I would never find it. But it was a nice journey’[iv]. However, this refusal of specific reference points or examination of metaphorical intent should not be read as evasion, more a desire for ecumenical connection with the viewer – ‘…(the work) is not meant to be limited in narrative terms… I want it to work on a number of levels. If you want to take it as a journey from dawn to dusk, that’s ok…’[v]
DARKEDEN deals in a similarly tangential way with the emotional aftermath surrounding his sons’ sudden catastrophic illness in the summer of 2006, though this time location is the key. Typically, Stewart gives minimal background, or explanation of the work, though painful hints are given in the titles - ‘vein’, ‘umbra’, ‘shade’ and ‘chasm’. The location of the work ties events specifically to the Northern Highlands where the family were holidaying at the time his son fell ill. An accompanying short story, ‘Nightswimming’, mentions his desire to share this ‘special place’ with his loved ones, who he’d ‘...told of the empty beaches of this remote coastline, an untouched playground, the sand pure white, child perfect, the green sea breathtakingly clear - and so cold it knocks your breath out like an icy punch…’.[vi]
Sutherland, The Parph, and in particular Cape Wrath are locations that reappear, constantly revisited and reworked by Stewart, from his LANDS’ END/CAPE WRATH book project to the video and seascape work of 58º North, his beloved refuge of ‘scattered boulders and dark loaded skies…’.[vii] We find at once a major shift in palette; the romantic blue nightscapes have given way to the biting reds and angry slashes of orange in ‘vein’; the blissed out golden dawn of First Light over Whiten Head that closed his book just two years earlier has turned inexorably to a leaden slate sky that reflects bleakly down into heavy grey seas, or we retreat to the chambered black tomb of Smoo cave. This is a land now seemingly devoid of hope as well as populace, remote mountains and empty shorelines that once read as romantic and mysterious now cold-shoulder the viewer, bleak and hard; at times we feel exposed to the mercy of the elements, battered and weary where once we were comforted or delighted.
The influence of painting had been a useful marker up until now, notably the abstract expressionists, Mark Rothko and Agnes Martin, but it’s also worth noting here Stewart’s recurring interest in the great stillness and drama of the work of the Romantics, particularly Caspar David Friedrich; indeed the suggestion of eternity and infinity of Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) is directly referenced in ‘Homage’ (2006, from 58º North), one of very few Stewart self-portraits. Equally worthy of mention is the distressed, insular work of Robert Frank, from The Lines of My Hand (1972) and Moving Out (1994), and Franks’ poignant references to the tragic separate deaths of his daughter Andrea and son Pablo.
Music is another important and overlooked source of inspiration; Stewart has cited the sparse, fragmented work of reclusive, melancholic English folk singer songwriter Nick Drake as a major influence on his work, particularly around the time of his move into landscape photography in 1995. Indeed, Stewart’s first landscape series, From The Morning (1995) took its’ title from the final song on Pink Moon, the third and final LP from the fragile young musician, made in 1972, two years before his death at the age of 26. Drake’s work often draws its imagery from the natural world, one can almost visualize the pared down dark horizons of From The Morning and DARKEDEN in Drake’s lyrics;
A day once dawned, and it was beautiful
A day once dawned from the ground
Then the night she fell
And the air was beautiful
The night she fell all around [viii]
The new work should also be seen in the context of the 2005-06 film/audio collaborations with Keith Berry begun by Stewart before his son’s illness abruptly halted his work in 2006. Berry, a London-based ambient composer, whose contemplative minimalist soundscapes often refer more to silence than to music, provided the soundtrack to two video pieces, 58º North (23 mins) and ORCADIA (60 mins); and in some ways DARKEDEN could effectively be read in part as a visual response.
In a further, if somewhat oblique musical connection, John Lennon, another artist whose more experimental practice has previously been admired by Stewart, celebrated the beauty of Durness and its’ surroundings in The Beatles’ In My Life;“there are places I'll remember all my life…” [ix]. The words of Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows’ do appear towards the end of the second chapter of ‘Nightswimming’ – “Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the Void.”[x]. Perhaps an aberration, but bizarrely, Lennon’s 1972 return to the place of his happy childhood holidays was similarly ill-fated, although the car crash that marred his family holiday with wife Yoko and their children Julian and Kyoko, was alarming, but not serious.
The most telling reference of DARKEDEN passes almost unnoticed in the penultimate image of the series; the stunning sunburst over the black sea, which Stewart titles ‘Beyond’. A vital clue as to origin of this title comes in the quotations that bookend his short story ‘Nightswimming’; words of wisdom given by the Guide to the weary travellers in Enid Blyton's lost children’s classic ‘The Land of Far Beyond’;
“...do not be afraid of any dangers or difficulties you come to. Face them and they will grow small - run away and they will come after you!”[xi]
The book is of course a thinly disguised re-write of Christian allegory The Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyan. Both books revolve around a journey that is spiritual as well as physical — a familiar motif in Stewart’s work. Crucially though, the central figures in ‘The Land of Far Beyond’ are children, following the path from Turmoil to Happiness (the Celestial City in Bunyon's work), suffering trials and tribulations along the way, all the while bearing heavy burdens; not all stay on the path - or complete the journey. Stewart has revealed in conversation that he remembers his mother reading this book to him as a child[xii], and the reference to parent and child relationship is subtle but clearly deliberate; ‘Nightswimming’ also closes with the author waking from recurring bad dreams to the words of the Guide -"to go on, first go back.”[xiii], here re-used by Stewart as a metaphor for both Father and son to find inner strength to continue - ‘Pick up, MOVE, get back on…Breathe. Exist…’[xiv]; as well as telling himself to return, to face his demons and to overcome the nightmare associations of his now defiled paradise.
Religious references are more subtle in ‘The Land of Far Beyond’ than in The Pilgrims Progress, though in both works, the central characters’ ultimate goal is salvation and escape from their burdens. This helps us place the final image in DARKEDEN, ‘Arc’. Perhaps the gentlest photograph in the entire essay, a half smile, the hint of a rainbow, and colour finally returns to the world. The use of the rainbow merges the promise of religious redemption or spiritual renewal with childhood hopes and dreams - treasure just out of reach, the end of the rainbow – just like the horizon line, a representation of the infinite, a place of longing and desire, of constant renewal. At last, a sliver of hope, respite for the weary traveller from the heavy burdens endured on this, the darkest of journeys.
[i] ‘Nightswimming’, short story by Stewart, 2008
[ii] in conversation with the author, 2008
[iii] James Lawson, ‘Scottish Photography Now: Between the Culture and the Land’, catalogue to Light From The Darkroom National Galleries of Scotland, 1995
[iv] Iain Stewart, text extract from Unfinished Dialogue, 1992
[v] Iain Stewart in conversation with James Lawson, Studies in Photography 1996, published by The Scottish Society for the History of Photography.
[vi] From ‘Nightswimming’, short story, 2008, as before
[vii] as v
[viii] From The Morning, Nick Drake, from Pink Moon, Island Records 1972
[ix] In My Life Lennon/McCartney from ‘Rubber Soul’, Northern Songs 1965
[x] Tomorrow Never Knows Lennon/McCartney from ‘Revolver’ Northern Songs 1966
[xi] The Land of Far Beyond, Enid Blyton. Knight Books 1942
[xii] in conversation with the author, 2008