One Stone Too Far…
Gosh, it seems so long since I was last here! Well, after my break I am feeling considerably better and ready to leap into a new topic that I have been mulling over recently. What is this megalith that has been on my mind? It is the Stanza Stones Project: a collaborative art project organised by the Ilkey Literature Festival, imove and Pennine Prospects as part of the cultural programme running up to to the 2012 Olympics. The project places work by the well-known modern poet Simon Armitage into the landscape of Ilkley Moor and surrounding areas in West Yorkshire by carving the words of his poems into a number of rocks. A couple of these rocks have been imported, but many form part of the Moor’s natural geology. The idea is that they will form a ‘poetry trail’ through the landscape between Marsden and Ilkley. Two poems have already been carved, at Marsden Quarry and Nab Hill, with more to follow.
The poems are a collection called ‘In Memory of Water’ and are all on the theme of water, an important natural force that has helped to shape the landscape in this area. The organisers suggest that the carving of the poems onto the rocks places the work into the context of human carving in the moor’s landscape over centuries, from prehistoric times through to masonry, through to ‘twenty-first century informal unauthorised carving’ (otherwise known as graffitti! More on that later…).
To give a bit of background to the Moor itself in all this, Ilkley Moor (aside from inspiring a famous song about a person who went out without their hat!), is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) as well as forming part of the South Pennine Moors Special Protection Area. This status is primarily due to the abundance of rare flora and fauna that inhabit the moorland, which are of international importance. The moor is also a protected geological and archaeological site, awash with ancient monuments and rock carvings, many of which have been designated as Scheduled Ancient Monuments. All this should mean that it is subject to an array of protective local, national and international conservation and environmental directives and legislation. However, according to an article in Voice of the Valleys, the appropriate surveys and assessments have not been carried out. The article also suggests that the means through which this project has gained approval from Ilkley Council is highly questionable and that attempts have been made to deny protestors a voice, including attempts to censor opinions both online and in the press. This is a very well-funded arts project, supported by the Arts Council and Legacy Trust UK via imove, with huge sums of money at stake for those involved. Of course I am not saying there’s a connection, but you can’t blame people for wondering… 😉
So, why am I writing about this? Well, much has already been said in various places about how this project has gone ahead through misrepresentations and inconsistencies, a disregard for public opinion both locally and further afield, and the size of the sums of money going to a tiny group of individuals at a time when the general populace is struggling to make ends meet. All this angers me, as does the question mark over whether the legislation that is there to protect our natural heritage has been circumvented – this is playing with something that once lost cannot be replaced. That’s one (or maybe more than one!) reason, and I am glad that groups such as Guardians of Ilkley Moor have taken up the gauntlet to challenge this, along with spreading awareness of the wider issues. That said, I am going to resist the urge to rant about that aspect of things in this blog (because I will rant, I know I will, it makes my blood boil!). Instead I will focus on the other bone of contention in my mind, which is how I feel about the nature of the project itself.
There is no doubt that the Stanza Stones Project is controversial. I have read various perspectives from various people that are strongly rooted on one or the other side of the argument. For me, as a lover of art and poetry, I can intellectually understand the artistic statement of the project. However, as a lover of Nature and the Environment with, I hope, my feet firmly planted on the ground, I cannot support it actually being carried out, or the underlying ideology that it seems to represent.
I am not unrealistic, I know that places will always change and evolve and Ilkley Moor is no different; it has been used for farming, quarrying, had paths and tracks laid through it. There has always been human interaction with this moor and pretty much all of the land in the UK, utilitarian alterations made for humanity’s convenience; but not always for one person’s (or in this case a small group’s) desire to express themselves.
Part of me says ‘but didn’t our ancestors make their mark in these places? What about the ancient sites that are created with the natural rocks and stones? What about the carvings into those rocks? Is this just a question of time? In 2000 years will people go and visit these carvings and view them in the same way that we have come to view the Neolithic presence in such places, almost as part of that landscape? Will language and communication have evolved to such an extent that the words may no longer be a familiar alphabet, but viewed similarly to the way that we might look at the carving of a Norse rune or Celtic Ogham script or even a more basic symbol such as a spiral? Might it become a means by which future generations come to feel a connection to their past – us – seen as an ancestral site within the natural landscape?’ All this almost makes sense if I look at it in a superficial way with a superficial context; if I look at it with my mind alone, as a clever idea; divorce it from its impact and deeper meaning.
Yes, our prehistoric ancestors made their marks both here and in numerous places right across Europe. However, from what I know of the archaeological evidence it would seem that these works were not created for personal gain or to celebrate the work of an individual, rather that they were used with sacred significance, tied to life rites and the cycles of living and dying. Though we may never know for sure exactly how these sites were used, it is clear that many of them are constructed with alignment to natural landscape features or important natural events, such as the Solstices. Some are believed to be grave markers or burial chambers, places of reverence for those who had passed on.
Whether or not you have a spiritual belief it is very difficult to stand within monuments such as Newgrange in Ireland, Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey, or the Avebury circle in Wiltshire, and not feel the ancient presence of the early people who used these places, how deeply tied to the land they were and how the stones were made sacred through their use in such a place.
Though these places have been built onto the land – are human-made – they are part of it, just as the people who made them were a part of it. They did not live in modern towns and cities, visiting the landscape to create these places, to interact with it one step removed; they lived within it, knew its rhythms intimately, interacted with it on a daily basis to meet their most basic of needs in a conscious way; they understood how to live in balance with it. It is natural that their presence should be found within the landscape, no different from finding a bird’s nest or a badger’s burrow. Can we say the same for ourselves as modern people? When we create permanent ‘art’ in the landscape does this not have a very different meaning? I think it is extremely unlikely that the makers of these early monuments thought of themselves as ‘artists’, or assigned themselves the same level of personal status and accolade when working to create a spiritually meaningful structure for their community.
I can understand that the Stanza Stones may be viewed as a means for people to interact with the landscape and to encourage them to be present within it, but I question as to whether they are in fact interacting with the landscape or with a human interpretation of it. Can we really divorce form so entirely from intention and meaning? Can we take a sacred site and the carvings that form a part of it, such as a spiral symbol, a form that is found everywhere in nature, that reflects the turning, renewing force of the Earth, and suggest that it is the first step in a progression to ‘’twenty-first century informal unauthorised carving”: graffiti that has been carried out as an act of vandalism: an act which is a statement of separation from the stones, the exact opposite of what our ancestors created? And if we are going to make such an association should we not stop that progression in its tracks rather than effectively sanction vandalism through placing it in this context?
Now it may seem from all this that I am anti-landscape art. This is not the case. I love to visit outdoor sculpture parks, places which have been designated for this purpose, such as the Yorkshire Sculpture Park or the Sculpture Trail in the Forest of Dean.
I am also a fan of some of the works of artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, who has made many pieces within the wild landscape and documented them extensively through photography, because they are not permanent. These pieces are made with natural materials such as leaves, sticks, thorns, even ice, to create works that are made from the materials of the land and return to it through the natural processes of decomposition, thawing, the force of the wind, rain and sun.
These gradual or sudden transformations seem to form part of the work, a co-creation between artist and nature that is not a rigid, unchanging statement, but something that evolves, making these usually unnoticed processes and cycles visible and present to the human eye. There seems to be a kind of humility to this work, the idea of surrendering a creation to Nature; a recognition that our own creativity is simply a small part of these much greater creative forces that are at work all around us. Simple forms such as spirals and circles do not conflict with the landscape, but blend with it.
This is perhaps one of the issues that I have with the Stanza Stones. I cannot help but feel that the use of human language – words – in this setting, within the context of the statement that has been made about the project, becomes something intrusive. Unlike a simple symbol such as a spiral or circle that is universal in nature, words tend to be very specific to an individual human being. They are the individual voice of a poet and while I love poetry and am not criticising the verses themselves, I do not think that the wild landscape (or as close as we can get to ‘wild’ in the UK!!) is the place for them to be permanently etched.
When it comes to art, our society seems preoccupied with the ‘right’ to creative expression at the expense of everything else. It seems the moment we call something ‘art’ (if anyone has ever worked out what that term means!) it allows us to cross lines that would usually be out of bounds. It becomes ‘transgression’, ‘subversion’, ‘avant garde’. These things have their place and I believe it is very important to uphold our right to express individual views that are outside of the majority consensus and to challenge what we cannot consent to live with. I would be the first to stand up and defend someone’s freedom of speech. However, when an artist in Nicaragua chained an emaciated street dog up in an art gallery without food or water as a creative social experiment to see how long it would take for people to become outraged, then to me that was simply animal abuse. He claimed to be exposing hypocrisy. Perhaps he was, but his perceived right to express this in the most shocking way possible came before his concern for the experience of that animal (I would suggest that exposed his own hypocrisy as much as anyone else’s!). This experiment was sanctioned by that gallery because the artist called it art, as if this somehow allowed it to transcend the label of cruelty. This is clearly an extreme example that most people would see through, and I am not suggesting that the Stanza Stones Project is the same as someone willfully abusing an animal, but my point is that in today’s world it seems we can pretty much justify anything intellectually by calling it ‘art’ and skim over the need to closely examine our personal responsibility or the ethics of turning an idea into a physical reality.
The archetype of ‘the artist’ can be a powerful one. It has the potential to challenge perceptions, be an agent of social change, be the voice that speaks out when others are silent, discards public opinion and reactions of shock, stepping beyond the restrictions of convention. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a tremendous force for liberation and empowerment. Artists of all kinds have been imprisoned throughout history right up to the present day for creating works that challenge political corruption and tyranny, have been people that have worked tirelessly to break the silence around regimes of oppression. A recent example would be the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei who was detained by authorities following his 100 million hand crafted porcelain ‘Sunflower Seeds’ exhibit at London’s Tate Modern:
However, in a Western society that has grown complacent, apathetic, self-obsessed, that focus has sometimes come to rest on the artist themselves rather than any greater cause. Again, this is not always a bad thing, the rise of the ‘confessional’ artist has broken the silence around personal experiences, allowing damaging social taboos to be confronted; but at times it seems this impulse has degenerated into unchecked self-indulgence. At what point do we peel off the layer of BS, discard the all-encompassing shield of the word ‘art’ and examine something for what it is? As has been pointed out by others, when someone is allowed to go into an environmentally protected area and start carving into rocks for the sake of their personal expression without proper consideration for the protected life forms, habitats and heritage all around them, seeming to view the landscape as a personal blank canvas rather than a living breathing thing in it’s own right, why is this called ‘art’ and not graffiti or environmental vandalism, as it would be if you or I did the same? I compare it with some of the exquisitely beautiful city street art I have seen, which demands just as much skill, carried out by anonymous artists on derelict buildings where it interferes with nobody’s property and damages no other life-forms, but it has not been sanctioned by a massive Arts Council grant and so the council paints over it, deeming it an act of vandalism.
It would seem that art in the modern world is not so much about what you do or where you do it, but about who you are, who you know and who gives you a seal of approval. This seems to me to be a rather dangerous state of affairs. It discourages people from taking responsibility for their actions, provides immunity from conforming to a basic value of respecting all forms of life and affords what I think is an unhealthy indulgence to the right of the individual to express themselves over every other right. I’m reading this and thinking it makes me sound like some kind of 21st century Mary Whitehouse figure! Nothing could be further from the truth. I have spent most of my life challenging oppression either in my own life or through supporting others to speak out. I guess I just feel that we do not live on this Earth as isolated beings. As such the rights of the self must be in balance with the rights of the other. My rights as an individual being are not unlimited. My freedom of thought is absolute, some of it may even be considered ‘art’, but that does not mean I have an automatic right to carry all those ideas out where those ideas negatively impact on more than just myself.
I am back to the point at which I can understand the Stanza Stones Project as a clever idea, but do not want to see it carried out in a real landscape. This is for all the reasons I have discussed but also because there are so few places in the UK where you can be outside of modern life: away from culture, away from over thinking, away from modern language, just simply to be in a place that speaks to something deeper within us, something more primal and intrinsically human.
Simon Armitage himself has been quoted as saying
“People have been coming up to these wild places to say their prayers and express their dreams for thousands of years. I want to be part of that same dialogue of celebrating these places through language.”
When people enter a natural place to pray and dream, I think they experience their internal space through the landscape; a landscape that does not speak to them with words, does not communicate with their minds, but with something less conscious. It is this experience, this unspoken interaction that can bring forth and guide our own words or emotions or creativity, that can inspire or comfort or revive or restore. These prayers or dreams are private experiences between the individual and the landscape which if spoken will simply and harmlessly float away on the wind. A reading of poems or the singing of a song inspired by a place, in that place, is a wonderful, beautiful thing, an offering to the land, which leaves no physical mark. As a voice fades, a place becomes silent and to all intents and purposes as it was, but the words are still present, have become part of the memory of the land. They do not need to be carved into the rocks to achieve this. If we wish to share something of ourselves and our humanity with the land, why must we change it, stamp our mark on it? Why must we ‘own’ it rather than have a free conversation with it? If people wish to bring the words of others into these places then why not bring them as books or memories or speeches that they then take away with them, leaving the next person who comes to this place with a choice as to how they wish to dream?
It is perhaps a symptom of our digital age of over stimulation and demand for entertainment that we seem to have lost the art of simply being with Nature, of noticing the incredible poem, painting, song, dance that is present within every part of it, available to us through direct experience and revelation if we learn how to look for ourselves and allow it to move our hearts. We need no intermediaries, no additional stimulation, just ourselves and the Earth and those deep human memories that live in the footprints of those who walked before us.