Peregrinatio: Thomas Joshua Cooper

Thomas Joshua Cooper

Over an eleven day period, GSA’s Head of Fine Art Photography Thomas Joshua Cooper travelled to Skye, Raasay, Cumbria and Northern Ireland, covering a total of 3135 miles.

He worked on two photographic bodies of work. For the first, he travelled to photograph the birthplaces of Saint Patrick, St Brendan and St Columba. His description of Lough Gartan, St Columba’s birthplace, echoes the mention of trees in Sorley MacLean’s poem ‘Hallaig’. MacLean imagines the cleared village’s absent women as, “ … a wood of birch trees / Standing tall, with their heads bowed.” Cooper speaks of, “Three silver birches, leaning towards the Lough, a trinity picture”.

For his second series, he went to the very edges of land, visiting the cardinal points of Northern Ireland including Benbane Head, County Antrim, the north-west point and then onto the east-most point at Burr Point on the Ards Peninsula.  In particular, with the latter location, he focused on the view from Ireland across the water to Scotland, aiming to echo St Columba’s last view from Ireland, before his exile to Scotland.

A quote from a book brought in during our residency by local Raasay resident Jenifer Burnet, describes who St Columba was in terms of the cardinal points.

‘In the West he [St Columba] was called upon as a bard, a guardian of the magical powers inherent in the literary traditions of the Celtic languages; in the North, he was a prince, a member of a prestigious lineage with a responsibility for the defence of his people; in the East he was a father, an abbot who was a just and tender provider of the many monks under his care and in the South he was a priest who dealt directly with the forces of the Otherworld.’ 1

In an interview after he had returned firstly from Raasay, Cooper explained his relation to the land and how it impacts on his photographic process. In particular, the group’s question on Peregrinatio had a real resonance for Cooper in describing his creative practice, which involves going out to the edges of the world. He described peregrinatio as, “The compulsion to send yourself out on potentially an unending, undestined voyage”. He went on to say, “As soon as I heard it [peregrinatio], it’s one of those words. It creates through syllabic movement a motion, and I have been set in that motion always, since as a boy. I find my way but I never know where the way is”.

Cooper also described the title of our project ‘Convocation’ as having meaning for him in terms of how he works with the land, as he only takes one negative at each site. “Can there be a convocation with the site? In enough silence, things will speak. If there is enough respect and the site is willing to participate, then that for me is a conversation.”

1 P. 252, ‘Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World’, John O’Donahue

Acknowledgement

Thomas Joshua Cooper would like to express his deep thanks to Kate Mooney, Laura Indigo Cooper (who travelled with him to Northern Ireland) and David Bellingham, “for their insights, practical help and kindnesses in helping me take this project to conclusion. “

Photos of Thomas Joshua Cooper at work (2013): Laura Indigo Cooper

Thomas Joshua Cooper

Thomas Joshua Cooper

Thomas Joshua Cooper at work

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Di Domhnaich

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We leave the island today.

Over the course of the week, we have oscillated between the rational and aspects of faith or mystery. The artists in the group are comfortable about using the latter terminology in talking about their practice, with Michail Mersinis talking about “photography as an act of faith”. The group are split however between the two entities when thinking about ‘The Life of St Columba’. “Maybe the book doesn’t want you to know”, Clare Lees said earlier in the week. “The book is its own I”.

As we sat in the waiting room yesterday evening for our last discussion, looking out to the ferry making its way in between Raasay and Skye, it was a good location to highlight that the group are at the start of seeing how the information from the week will filter down into their practice. Distance and the return home seemed to be the next stage that will help us see what we have learnt.

Jennifer Burnet, the woman who helped Jessica Ramm cut peat, has been visiting Raasay House with a wealth of information in forms of books, photocopies and photographs relating to our area of enquiry. A quote from one of the books she brought, sums up our first phase of the Spiral.

“The Celtic mind was never drawn to the single line; it avoided ways of seeing and being which seek satisfaction in certainty. The Celtic mind had a wonderful respect for the mystery of the circle and spiral”1
1 ‘Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World’, John O’Donahue

 

Thisssssss: Sound and Silence

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Jessica Ramm and Emma Nicolson

 

Hallaig

 

Yesterday was bookended with both a real and a transmitted experience of the same place, Hallaig. In the morning, Emma Nicolson led the group on a walk to this cleared village situated in the south-east of Raasay. In the evening we watched we watched Francis Mckee’s copy of ”Hallaig: The Poetry and the Landscape of Sorley MacLean’ 1

‘Back through the gloaming to Hallaig,
Through the vivid and speechless air,
Pouring down the steep slopes,
Their laughter misting my ear.’ 2

Emma Balkind, one of our illuminators, has been recording the sound of our field trips and conversations. When we interviewed her for the short film we are making about the residency, she said, “I felt I was switched on all the time”. She and her microphone have captured the layers of words and movement of the group, alongside the land and the sea around us. I asked her if she has managed to record silence at Hallaig and she said no. Even when Johnny Rodger, one of the most ebullient in our group, asks for silence on the hill, the put-put-put of a boat out on the Sound can be heard, followed by the musical tone of a button on a digital camera.

In the evening, the cadence of Sorley MacLean’s voice and his delivery of the word ‘Thisssssss….’ sticks in my mind. The letter ‘s’, a spiral in form, fizzes in his mouth, shaping the word into a new sound and entity.

How can something, as Sorley MacLean has it, be ‘vivid and speechless’ at the same time? Much of our discussions have circled around pairs of words that come from different realms but are interwoven in order to exist: Faith and Doubt. Rational and Spiritual. Discipline and Devotion. History and Present. Interior and Exterior. Both Clare Lees and Kathryn Maude from King’s College London talked of the desire for dates in their field to evidence an occurrence or event versus the reality of the gaps that exist. As Clare put it, “My career is half-knowing things”. There are many different ways of learning, from the academic to the intuitive. In our discussions over Raasay, “The landscape has unsettled the theory”. 3 We have referred to the remoteness of the past whilst being surrounded by three billion year old rock.The Spiral is still turning, but it is important to acknowledge “Thisssssss”; that the disjoints, impossibilities, gaps and unknowns occurring are as important as the entities that surround them.

1 ‘Hallaig: The Poetry and the Landscape of Sorley MacLean’, originally produced by The Island House Film Workshop, Alva (1984), a film by Timothy Neat.

2 ‘Hallaig’ by Sorley MacLean, translated by Seamus Heaney.

3 Francis McKee’s observation

Vision on Raasay

Calum's Road

“It’ll be like an Autobahn” 1

Emma Nicolson, Director of ATLAS Arts, joined the Spiral. Her input on the shaping of the project, her choice of Raasay as location and suggestion of Skye artists Caroline Dear and Jessica Ramm, has proved invaluable. Emma invited local author Roger Hutchinson to meet the group and talk about ‘Calum’s Road’, which tells the true story of a road built over ten years by one man on his time off, Calum MacLeod, to link up to his declining community of Airnish at the north of Raasay.

MacLeod wanted a ‘motor road’, using a 1901 book about building roads for motor vehicles to act has his guide. Using a pick, wheelbarrow, spade and hammer to make the road from stones, his friends also got him dynamite, which he used to blow up a local landmark, a stack that was in the way of the road. He completed the road in 1979, at a point when it was only he and his wife remained in Airnish.

Roger Hutchinson covered the ‘practical sphere and metaphorical sphere’ of this true story. He said that MacLeod was aware he was ‘building a metaphor’ as he fully realised that the migration from his home community was terminal. As the local council, Inverness County Council, had always refused to build the road, latterly citing their decision in view of unsustainable costs for such an enterprise, for such a low population, MacLeod also knew he was building something subversive. Hutchinson said that the Raasay islanders he interviewed said, “Just how he did it was beyond belief to all of us”.

Hutchinson proved to be a great storyteller. He concluded that Calum Macleod died in 1988, found by his wife in his wheelbarrow, presumed to have had a heart attack. Calum MacLeod was posthumously awarded a British Empire Medal, not for the feat of building singlehanded this two mile stretch of road, but for his work as an assistant lighthouse keeper.

1 Vision of Calum MacLeod, Oct 1982, ‘Calum’s Road’, Roger Hutchinson, 2008, Birlinn Limited

Roger Hutchinson and Emma Nicolson

Roger Hutchinson

Disperse and Distill

Rope by Edwin Pickstone

The rhythm of the residency has changed.

After saying goodbye to the Medievalists, the day became one of ‘Disperse and Distill’ for the group, allowing time for ideas to form and information to settle. Artists set out both individually and in small groups, to swim, walk, and cycle across the island. Some sat with Skye artist Caroline Dear to learn how to make ropes from the reeds near the beach. Jessica Ramm went in search of a local resident who still cut peat, meeting Jennifer, who showed her a Viking burial mound and discussed the Celtic spirit along the way to the peat bank. Hardeep Pandhal found two containers of Camp Coffee in Raasay House’s library, and thought one of us had placed them there on purpose. He is currently making work back in Glasgow about this coffee originating from the same city, bearing its picture label of a Sikh servant serving a British soldier with a cup.

Augustus Veinoglou summed up the type of endeavour many have at this point, by saying “I want to extract wisdom from this space”. What is this space formed from? We have the book, our conversations with each other and the Medievalists, our past work, this location, experiments, serendipity and the unknown we are yet to encounter.

A number of artists have previously explored aspects of extraction, dispersal or distillation in their work. Edwin Pickstone, one of our illuminators, runs the Letterpress at The Glasgow School of Art. He gave us a summary of the Letterpress at the artists’ presentations, focusing on what this form of production had historically meant, speeding up the hand printing process by ‘the equivalent of 300 years’. Edwin said that learning about the placement of type, helps computer-literate students to understand the weight of space between words. He showed us an image of a close-up of the edge of an 8pt letter ‘e’, the black ink seeping into the white pulp of the paper. This view pushed the physical matter of language into an unknown territory. In his work ‘The Components of the Complete Compact English Dictionary’, Edwin distilled the dictionary ( a book already condensed from twenty-six books into one, through the use of 1pt font) into the sum of its parts – namely 1123 sheets of bible paper and a concentrated poured blob of 128.8 grams of black ink equalling the exact weight of its words. For Convocation, Edwin plans to distill ideas, activity and information of the residency onto the surface of a Raasay map.

In ‘Life of St Columba’, Book Two, there is a story of a knife, which following St Columba’s blessing, has the sacred property that it cannot harm man nor beast. ‘Having discovered this fact…. the monks melted down the iron of that knife and then coated the liquid metal on to all the other iron tools in the monastery. From then on, these tools were unable to harm any flesh…’.

Michail Mersinis has been mixing liquid silver to coat photograph plates, for his series of Raasay landscapes he is making, taking each image at the same times of day and night when the monks prayed.

 

 

 

Sorrow and Stones

“The stone was dipped in some water, where, in defiance of nature, it floated miraculously on the surface like an apple or a nut, for that which the saint had blessed could not be made to sink.” 1

Through listening to the artists’ presentations and talks on Raasay, there have been a number of links to stones and sorrow.

Ceara Conway, the artist commissioned to make work for the Derry~Londonderry knot on the Spiral, has been part of our group and gave a talk on Tuesday night on her practice and this particular project. As part of her research she visited the Stone of Sorrows at Gartan, St Columba’s birthplace in Co. Donegal. This was the stone it is said St Columba laid down and slept on, during his last night on Ireland before he was exiled. He was so full of loneliness and sorrow, but as he lay on the stone, the stone took these feelings away from him. Ceara went on to say that the stone became a site of ritual, for those leaving Ireland through the ages, in exile or emigration, to spend their last night in Ireland there. This longing and sorrow became part of her performance and sung lament, ‘Vicissitudes’, which took place in a boat on the River Foyle.

Kathryn Maude from King’s College London gave her talk last night to the group on her area of research, looking at the texts both on and by women in the Medieval period. With so few texts remaining- approximately 5 letters and 2 poems over a 500 year period- she read a section from ‘The Wife’s Lament’ in Old English, which is written in a woman’s voice. “I sing this poem full of grief, full of sorrow about my life”. 2 Kathryn went on to say as well as the distance in time she feels from these women there is also an ’emotional gap’.

Jessica Ramm sang the Gaelic song “The Cave of Gold” as part of her presentation, where a playing piper ventures deeper and deeper into a cave, in search of gold he has heard lies at the base of it. Those outside can hear the spiral of sound moving away from them, getting fainter and fainter, until the sound of the pipes at the end is transformed into unbearable discord, as the piper has met his end with the ‘Green She-Bitch’.

Over the course of this residency, the scholars and artists have offered several texts and song from different languages and times, including Latin, Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Old English. Performing these to the group, it brings forward Professor Clare Lees’ notion of performative time: “See! Look! We’re here!” Rather than time being linear, in this moment the link to emotion and voice brings the past breaking through the surface of the present.

 

1 ‘Life of St Columba’, p.182′, Adomnan of Iona
2 ‘The Wife’s Lament’, translated by Eavan Boland, ‘Making New the Word-Hoard. The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon poems in translation’, edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto, published by Norton

Lewisian Gneiss, Raasay

How do we navigate the Spiral?

Swimming on Raasay

Whoever wishes to explore the Way,

Let him set out, what more is there to say?”
In Sue Brind’s presentation today, she referenced our question of Peregrinatio, through Farid ud’din Attar’s C13th poem, ‘The Conference of the Birds’, where, as she outlined, “The Hoopoe tries to lead all the birds of the world on a journey to find the Simorgh- the Persian name for a benevolent flying creature-who appears in Attar’s poem as the illusive King of the whole World. It will be an arduous journey, over deserts, mountains and through valleys, gaining knowledge along the way. Only 30 birds have the courage to complete. They finally arrive at the land of Simorgh and what they discover is a mountain lake in whose surface is revealed a reflection of their true selves”. 1
In our journey of ideas and expedition for new knowledge, as we explore the histories behind ‘Colm Cille’s Spiral’ then hear about the group’s own work as individuals, what is our objective? Do we wish the group to find St Columba, and what he means for our times, by peering at history through the mountain lake’s calm surface, or instead to have the ‘sea churning and lashing itself, in maniacal states’? 2
‘The Spiral’ is a common form in manuscripts and monuments, which amongst various meanings represents the dialectic; a method of debate for resolving disagreement. The discursive nature of this project is intended to mirror this dialectic. Where do you enter and exit the Spiral, if it has no beginning or end? The ongoing discussions at different times of the day, both formally in the allotted time at different points of the island, and informally over meals, travel and sharing each others’ space, have allowed us to enter into the debate at diverse points. Through strange alignments of place, repetition, language, mirroring, dislocation, thought and reflection, we are beginning to circle Colm Cille’s Spiral. At times we move away, only to return to the anchor of the book ‘The Life of St Columba’. Where one person finishes speaking, another loops in with the next point or observation.
If you unravel a spiral you will always find a circle. I can recognise Convocation’s structure as made up of three interlocking circles. At the beginning of the project, the working group debated and discussed ideas for the structure. This has been developed until it could be a feasible form to be opened up and made public to the group of artists and scholars participating in the residency on Raasay. The final circle occurs in October, when in the exhibition and event opens up and presents the first two circles for public engagement with a new audience.

History has proved to be a spiral for the group, at times running parallel only to slip out of reach. Yesterday we saw, at a distance, disturbances on the water of the Sound, and birds hovering, then two whales coming out of the water. Professor Clare Lees from King’s College London had, before to this event, spoken of, “The past surfacing like a whale in the present”.

The Spiral is turning each day of the residency. Yesterday, the medievalists successfully illuminated the historical background to the questions. The day was intense with information, with so much of a rich oral resource created it would be impossible to capture it as a whole. Today, the next turn on the Spiral occurred, with the morning’s focus on presentations by each of the group on their practice. Like links in the knot, hearing about each other’s processes and ideas allowed connections to be made between each other and also to begin to see connections to this project.

In the morning Francis McKee observed that the default of yesterday’s discussions had been on the rational, looking at the geo-political aspects of the text, whereas in essence this book is equally about the spiritual, with much emphasis on miracles and prayer. This afternoon’s discussion, on the beach of stones near Raasay House, allowed us to begin with reference to mystery and spirit. As the group unconsciously sat in a spiral formation, in this open landscape and often in a light rain, we saw the other side of the Spiral, and the that the rational and the spiritual exist at the same time. Francis talked of the tradition of immersive prayer, taking place in water. We had originally gone to the beach, as members of the group had wanted to swim there. At the end of the discussion, it seemed fitting that the work of the mind gave way to the embodied experience of the water.

Footnotes
1 Susan Brind and Jim Harold, presented at CCA, Glasgow, for ‘What we make with words’, Artists’ Readings, 10.12.11

2 This quote comes from Johnny Rodger’s presentation, where he quoted from ‘The Long Ship of Clan Ranald’, by Gaelic poet Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair.