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Fieldwork and Other Landscape Stories

Posted 30th September 2017
Watts Contemporary Gallery

Fieldwork and Other Landscape Stories is an exhibition of photography and sound that explores language, our perception of nature and the landscape. The work examines what we can and cannot see. It invites questions about how we use our senses, how we imagine and how memory and language play an important role in perceiving our surroundings.

The exhibition examines seeing the landscape in two parts. One part consists of large scale photographs that examine the hidden, what we see and what we want to see, through landscape photography and descriptions by blind, visually impaired and sighted people. Their words have been transcribed in Braille on a translucent layer in front of the image, but as cut-out holes rather than the usual raised dots, providing fragmented views into the photographed nature. The actual words are unrecognizable for many viewers who cannot read Braille. Accompanying audio descriptions are soundscapes and interpretations of the photographs, providing an alternative image of the space that we cannot merely see with our eyes.

A series of woodland photographs form the second part of the project. Together with a book of short texts or landscape stories, these explore the image of nature and the context in which we perceive these surroundings. The texts question the connection between perception and knowledge, how what we see is influenced by what we want to believe.

Most of us find it incredibly relaxing to spend time in nature. Historically, nature was even prescribed as recreation, and places like the Surrey Hills were exactly the type of location to which a doctor would send an overworked Londoner. It was also where G F Watts escaped to. Despite its multi-sensory properties, we mainly use visually-focused words - ‘beautiful’, ‘green’, or ‘stunning’, for example - to describe our surroundings. But being close to nature is a highly subjective experience. We often close our eyes when we relax and express this joy of having found peace and quiet by drawing in a deep breath of fresh air and listening to the silence or the breeze in the trees. I wanted to find out more about nature’s ability to relax us and what makes us use primarily visual and aesthetically-focused superlatives to describe our surroundings.

The Surrey Hills is one of 38 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in England and Wales, which, together with Kent’s AONB, stretches all the way to Dover, through the area known as the North Downs. The Surrey Hills were given the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty status in 1958, and policies govern why and how this status and land is maintained. Beauty being such a subjective perception, it is interesting to explore how a policy is in place to confer a protected status upon our most naturally beautiful landscapes and how this is defined and agreed. How much ‘beauty’ is required to achieve this status?

What we consider a ‘stunning’ or ‘beautiful’ landscape has been defined differently through the various time periods. From the ‘demonic’ wilderness as described in the Middle Ages to the Romanticism’s ‘picturesque’ and ‘sublime’ view, human landscape perception and how we see nature has changed quite drastically. Even the word ‘landscape’ has gone through various re-definitions. ‘Landscape’ is often defined as ‘all the visible features of an area of land’. Is sight the most important sense here? How does someone who is blind see the same landscape?

I have been collecting writings and descriptions of different experiences and perceptions of the landscape from various sources ranging from policy documents, postcard texts, interviews and to stories told by people I met on chance encounters whilst out photographing in the North Downs.

Fieldwork and Other Landscape Stories is the culmination of my exploration into the question of what is lost or gained by description and how words or obstructions alter our perception of the landscape in front of us. The more we describe, the more we either give or detract, altering our perception. I am fascinated by how our brain tries to make sense of what we perceive and makes connections even where there might not be any. This exhibition is curated to engage the viewer, allowing them to draw invisible lines between the photographs, sound, text and implied meaning. As a photographer and artist, I am always interested in the limitation of photography and what we can and cannot see.

Monica Takvam