30 Aug 2012

Salt Landscapes Revisited

A few words in the subject of salt, or more specifically 'salt landscapes', or even more specifically 'sea-salt landscapes'. This is currently the subject of investigation for me.

Perhaps it was all sparked off through encountering the Hopi Salt Trails in 2011, or more likely it was there all along, slowly building up to a precipitation point? In any case, over the past year, I have linked up with academics and heritage experts attached to the Ecosal Atlantis project. In parallel with (and related to) this I was commissioned by Newlyn Gallery to support their young artist group (LAB) in their research+exhibition project on the theme of salt.
My main focus and working-scale relates to landscape, so I was keen for the LAB group to get out of the studio and join me on some fieldwork, navigating some unusual 'salt landscapes'. To this end, we visited the central salt depot of Cornwall County Council, which is where the stocks of road de-icing salt are stored. This turned out to be a fascinating encounter - with the workers and with the material (via all the senses). One mountain of salt had been transported from a deep mine in Northern Ireland (and so is 'geological' salt), and - intriguingly - the second mountain was of Egyptian (solar) sea-salt. We were able to taste the essence of these far-off waters, revelling in the geopoetic potential of salt; the material becoming a vehicle for transporting our imaginations.

It seems it's all about economics - the price and availability on the open market. These geopraphies, the 'material journeys' then became integrated as a facet of the LAB investigations. One of the group - Beth - documented the field-trip photographically, and the slideshow can be seen here. Lovely work. The resulting exhibition too was full of very strong material (view some here). My salty connections with Ecosal and with Newlyn re-converged when I joined salt-heritage expert Andrew Fielding during the 2012 Museums at Night at the gallery. To accompany his re-enactment of traditional seasalt-making practices (using peat as fuel), I assembled a projected backdrop of archival and landscape-based film footage.

Next on the salt-trail was a brief visit, in July, to the northern Irish coast at Ballycastle to see some remnants of a once-thriving salt-making works. Images here, and a further link to a previous Ecosal visit here.

With LAB, we touched on the alchemical and symbolic qualities of salt. Previously I have explored the (eco-) symbolic aspects of another material - peat...in an Irish context. At that time, I could see possible links to some of the material obsessions of Joseph Beuys, who - during his Irish sojourn - also became fascinated with the symbolic power of peat (e.g. in 'Irish Energies').

"For Beuys, the ‘transformation of substance’ was far more critical than any finished, static object, and for this reason he strove to create an art form that was always in process, contingent, and open to reconfiguration…the concept of ‘transformation’ indicated for him the passage from raw energy into meaningful form. Beuys understood this process, which has its roots in alchemy, as essentially dialectical. The opposing forces of energy and form, of chaos and order, are held in check via ‘movement’, or the manifestation of the artist’s will at work." 
Nancy Spector: 'Matthew Barney & Joseph Beuys: All in the Present Must Be Transformed'

Whilst waiting for a full-blown creative salt project to crystallise, I shall be keeping this topic alive as part of a 'tidal landscapes' project that I'm involved with as research consultant and curator. This is called 'Between the Tides' and is a link up between artists and academics from around the Severn Estuary and the Wadden Sea coast of the Netherlands. In earlier times, salt-making was carried out on both these coasts - in the case of the Severn, evidence of this dates back to Roman times.