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Monday, 2 October 2017

Book of the Month: Perigree by Paul Gaffney

So here's my book of the month for October. It's Perigee by Paul Gaffney, the latest of three books that progressively delve deeper into how we walk, live and interact with the land.

The first was We Make the Path by Walking which was a walking meditation on the Camion de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain. The second was Stray, a gloriously black artist's book in which Gaffney delved into the nightime world of a forest in the Ardennes in Luxembourg.

There was actually another book as well, a one-off made during a residency Paul and I took part in in Tharoul, Belgium. During the residency, we had to make a book in three days. There was Paul the photographer, me the writer and Pierre Liebaert the bookmaker.

It was here that I saw how Paul went beyond the image to get to the heart of the experience, tracing the foliage and the paths in the forests around the Tharoul farmhouse. He created a view of the world that corresponded to the perspective of the wild pigs that lived in the woods, a view that was made during a few solitary shoots around dawn and dusk.

So it was a case of identifying both with the landscape and with the way it was lived in. That approach was developed in Stray and is now further developed in Perigee, a book of images made in forest under a full moon. This is what Eugenie Shinkle says in the promo to Perigee (and read her full interview with Gaffney here).

“Drawn with light that is barely perceptible to the eye, Gaffney’s photographs emerge out of intuition, coincidence, and an underlying longing for connection and stillness. And although it’s tempting to call them landscapes, they are created through different ways of knowing a place – ways that acknowledge the moving, feeling body, rather than the distanced and distancing eye, as the foundation of our experience.” - Eugenie Shinkle

 And this is from Gaffney's artist statement.

'Drawing on Arnold Berleant’s theory of a ‘participatory approach’ to landscape, in which the artist, environment and viewer are considered to be in continuous dialogue with each other, his practice proposes to communicate an experience of immersion in nature to the viewer.' 

The basic idea is the participatory element and the immersion. Perigee is a two-volume edition - the first is a smaller white book which features black and white polaroids taken at night. Here, the images that are becoming increasingly abstract, a Cy Twombly mass of undergrowth, a barbed wire love-in of twigs and brambles, branches. The forests Gaffney photographed in Luxembourg were not particularly wild, so there is a kind of visual muscle memory going on here. He's creating a wilderness for us, he's creating a place that he identifies with, that we can identify with through a form of communal memory of what a forest once meant to us.

Where the white book has small images buried in the formal expanse of the page, almost sucked up by the expanse of the page, the larger black book features the colour images in full bleed falling outside the page. The white book is a landscape contained by our selves, by our vision of the world, by our ordering of the natural environment, the black book is the immersive experience where we lose ourselves in a place, or in an idea of a place, in something that lies outside our control.

Or maybe it's the other way round, the black book representing a visual taming of the land through recognisable forest parts (the trunk, the branch, the twig, the leaf) that we see in colour, with the sequencing of the white book taking us down from the branches of the forest canopy (and it's a tame forest) into the neural networks of the bramble and bracken of the forest floor. And they are neural networks, a reminder that no matter how much we want to control nature through enclosures, through mapping, through art and language and behaviour, it's still lodged in our brain in ways that we have no control over.

The books are austere, very austere, but they are also beautiful and suck you into the world they represent, the bring an idea of the forest as a sensory environment.

In all of Gaffney's work, there's this idea of meditation and immersion. This connects to the idea of place identity; the way in which identifying with a place brings a sense of unity outside the self, creating resilience and mental strength.

By identifying with a place (and there is much more on this in this article on place identity) you stabilize your self, you make a kind of environmental global point which you can reconnect with and re-establish yourself from at any time. There are different ways of doing this, different ways of interacting with an environment and making yourself part of it.

The idea of place identity and the ways in which landscape overlaps with who we are is central to my book, All Quiet on the Home Front. But Gaffney takes it from the realm of being to the realm of making, so the very act of walking and creating work in the landscape becomes a form of identification. The books themselves are a form of identification (which is not always the case with walking artists), and the way that we read them and write about them is also part of that identity.

It's a really interesting example of artistic practice establishing the self, with the additional strata of the environment and the unconscious added. Gaffney is developing a language of his experience of the environment, his works a form of mapping and naming. At the weekend Robert Macfarlane wrote about language and the environment. This is what he said:

I also believe that names matter, and that the ways we address the natural world can actively form our imaginative and ethical relations with it. As George Monbiot wrote recently, calling for a “new language” to vivify conservation, “words possess a remarkable power to shape our perceptions”. Without names to give it detail, the natural world can quickly blur into a generalised wash of green – a disposable backdrop or wallpaper. The right names, well used, can act as portals – “hollowings”, in Robert Holdstock’s term – into the more-than-human world of bird, animal, tree and insect. Good names open on to mystery, grow knowledge and summon wonder. And wonder is an essential survival skill for the Anthropocene.

Gaffney is working with naming, but on a more unconscious level. His work is a struggle to identify and map how his mind works in the landscape, and how his experiences can act as a 'portal' into the 'more-than-human world of bird, animal, tree and insect'. It's an experiential language that Gaffney is learning, one that we can all learn, one that will help us to experience wonder and ground us in something beyond our illusionary human experience.

Buy Perigree here.

Buy the Subscriber's Edition of All Quiet on the Home Front Here.

Buy the Regular Edition of All Quiet on the Home Front Here.

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