A text by David McCleavy
Our relationship with our environment has always been highly contested, at least since the dawn of the agricultural revolution, starting back in the mid 17th century. We all view our collaboration with the natural world differently, with some camps aiming to work in a symbiotic way with nature, encouraging a cyclical ecology of mutual respect. Whilst others feel we can harness what is around us, innovate and transcend the biological similarities we have with other species on this planet.
Identify, adapt and control.
As I write, we are experiencing a heatwave here in the UK and we are on the cusp of hitting highs of forty degrees celsius, something few could fathom out. However the effects of climate change are becoming more visible, sticking a branch in the wheel of our seemingly well lubricated infrastructures.
Some climatic and environmental changes are less visible and more difficult to experience directly. As the heat beams down on our necks, we have a visceral connection to something we haven’t felt before, at least here on the patch of land we call home.
Experience turns ideas into reality.
However, our landscape is changing in ways that are less obvious but equally as life changing.
Towards the North Sea, around the Humber Estuary, the water levels shift and fluctuate at a remarkable pace. Much of this is due to the unique tidal surges and water flows at the point where the estuary reaches the open expanse of water to the north east of our island. The Humber is classified as a macro-tidal estuary because of its large tidal range, reaching around 7.4m at Saltend, close to where the estuary meets the North Sea, and even as high as 6.9m in Hessle, which is around 45 km inland.
We are all familiar with the warnings of water level rise and the dramatic and devastating effects that such an event would have on coastal communities, and although it may feel like a problem akin to a runaway train, this also feels like a story of control. Some may say that it is a fallacy to think we can control something of such magnitude. Most would be right in understanding that our old habits will no longer work and that new approaches need to be explored.
Tracey Holland’s new body of work, Confluence, explores the intricate relationships between landscape, human psychology and the somewhat spiritual. However when you begin to distil her work to a more concentrated end, it feels more of an examination of the idea of control. Let’s take Hollands’ new film The Ice House as a starting point; a film which includes footage of Grimsby’s Ice Factory, known as The Ice House, as well archival imagery and photographs of worn and calloused hands. The audio for the film features interviews and accounts from retired fishermen recalling their experiences at sea.
The fisherman’s compulsion to re-visit and reconnect with the ocean seems completely irrational, however, there is something that appears more spiritual about the need to reconnect with this almighty force of nature. Using our senses to explore the depths of human experiences, the despair, respect, the elation and stillness, all experienced through this body.
From one body of water to another.
The similarities are discrete, but present. In The Eyes of the Skin, Juhani Pallasmaa speaks of the way that touch and texture can counter the dominance of our ocular or visual understanding of the world.
The feeling outweighs the seeing.
In The Ice House, we hear these stories playing out through the snippets of conversations that ex fisherman have with Holland, and you get the sense that they are answering questions that they very rarely get asked. We are more familiar with the stories of historical significance in the fishing industry. The Cod Wars of the late 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, and other politicised periods in relatively recent memory, but what Holland manages to do is get to the heart of what it feels like to be out in the elements, dancing with the sea and being at its mercy. The voices in Holland’s film speak of what the water gives to them, both in terms of sustenance for themselves and their communities, but also what it gives to them as living beings. A sense of purpose, of perspective and something that makes them feel alive. Layered over the voices are the aforementioned photographs of cracked hands, which tell the visual toll of this labour.
Cracked hands over cracked film.
The folds and lines tell a parallel story, one of touch and texture. But also one of respect. What is apparent from the recounted stories of the fishermen is that they are constantly negotiating with the sea, a battle of respect and fundamentally a back and forth of gaining and relinquishing control.
Just over 10 km away, as the crow flies, north of Grimsby, is Sunk Island. Another example of an area of shifting use. A landscape constantly being choreographed by human intervention, whilst remaining wild, breaking free from a fixed state of being.
Holland’s new 5 screen moving image work, which shares the title with the area in question, highlights the unique nature of this peninsula, shaped by nature and man in seemingly equal measure. The land that makes up Sunk Island is flat and extremely fertile. Alluviallly very rich, the land is subsequently very profitable, with crop yields wastly outweighing that of neighbouring areas. Again, the harnessing of water across this piece of terra firma exemplifies the compulsion to control. Dykes and sluices direct the tidal water whilst encouraging a shifting of geographical boundaries, resulting in Sunk Island appearing as a transitory space. Holland’s work is concerned with capturing and further emphasising this liminal, almost dreamlike, state, where landscapes slip and states of presence are put on pause. Images slowly blend from screen to screen, building a dynamic collage of almost tidal bleeding. Some images appear static, before moving so slowly that you may fail to notice that they appear in a new form, changing, developing and morphing, akin to the intake and exhale of the tidal system itself.
What’s clearly evident across all of the works which make up Confluence, is a preoccupation with time, and how the passing of time is something which our species has always found to be fascinating and uncomfortable in equal measure. On the one hand, we appear to understand how our world is changing, moving in such a way that suggests a controllable lineage, where our mastery of the natural world is becoming clearer with the passing decades. However, we are mere bystanders to the passing of time in all its many forms. Our landscape is changing, our environments and ecologies are shifting, and we are subject to its consequences now in the same way we always have been. Holland’s approach to making embraces this uncertainty, both highlighting the decay and rebirth of landscapes through the material re moulding of our environments. Kurt Vonnegut is often quoted to have said about time, ”Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why”. When taking a closer look at Holland’s work, it seems she is less interested in the ‘why’ and more concerned with shedding a spotlight on what’s contained within the amber.