Living in a wooden Egg for 12 months, writing with ink from Oak Gall and Quills from Geese, World War 2 Seaforts, Japanese Wabi Sabi, guarding a bridge between Hungary and Slovakia – this performance artist is on a mission to understand Time.
Your work is concerned with aspects of time and the relationship between transience and permanence. Tell us more.
Much as we like the idea of permanence and stability, in actuality we live in a transient changing world. In the flux running through geological, seasonal and human time, all things eventually pass and with their own particular metre. Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations (161 -180AD) wrote that ‘Time is like a river and its current is strong. No sooner does a thing appear than it is swept away and another comes in its place’. I’m interested in what echoes remain of the past, when indeed the past begins to be differentiated from the here and now.
You spend long periods in unusual and/or abandoned places, noting the changes in the complex relationship between people and their environment. Why is it important for your work to be rooted in research?
I often seek out places abandoned by people that offer space for solitary contemplation of our relationship to the natural world. There is a complex warp and weft of interconnection for the curious mind to consider. Research for me is rooted in the experience of being somewhere, about immersion in a particular place and I look from different perspectives. I like to live in an ethical relationship with nature and tread as lightly as possible upon the land. I want to give a voice to mute nature; to be amanuensis to the tides, the terns and turnstones.
In the Exbury Egg project you addressed the meaning of place at a time of great environmental change. Why did you decide on this project and why an egg and not a regular shaped house or other boat?
Originally commissioned to consider the possibilities of creating a temporary live-work space for an artist in the New Forest National Park, I was drawn to its fringes. The permeable edges where one place ends and another might start are dividing lines on maps, but are hard to draw on the land itself. The estuarine borders looked particularly promising and we travelled many miles by boat, before I alighted on the salt marsh of the Beaulieu River and immediately knew I needed to be there.
Climate change is already re-drawing these shorelines. The entire littoral environment
is virtually changing with every tide. The implications for wildlife and for the flora as well as for people here are challenging. They raise awareness of a particularly 21st century sort of tension and anxiety that we all need to address.
On first landing on the marsh at Beaulieu, I almost crushed the egg of a herring gull. That evening I had the eureka moment of seeing an egg shaped home as the symbol for nature’s fragility, as well as a universal symbol for the inter-connection of life; since everything living comes from the egg (or its evolutionary cousin the seed).
In the guise of The Beaulieu Beadle, you worked on, in, and around the Egg for twelve months – why was the Beaulieu Beadle guise important?
If the land can be seen dynamically as a series of events occurring in time, my life in the Egg was a performance in real life and actual time and place. I decided to characterize myself as the Beaulieu Beadle since I was floating on a river of that name. It means beautiful place and I saw the Beadle as a kind of custodian of it. Beadle itself has Indo-European roots meaning to make aware and also from the Latin ‘bedellus’ rooted in words for herald. Being the herald who makes people aware of a beautiful place seemed a good role for an artist.
And what did the Beadle do there?
As the self appointed guardian of a small personal parish the Beadle could share, for example, the rise and fall of the tide every twelve hours as an induction into the importance of natural cycles, a natural rhythm quite distinct from the nine to five we traditionally impose on the day. The Beadle loved this heartbeat of the river, which engendered a great feeling of wellbeing.He took pleasure in everyday activities from washing to walking. Cooking as much as collecting, for example, grew into daily rituals signifying the importance of the ordinary and commonplace as much the special and rare. Nothing at 50 ̇47’8.53”N x 1 ̇24’27.02”W was ever considered waste or wasted, nor taken for granted. The Beadle wanted to live in, and share, every moment. The sun was vital not just for keeping him warm and providing light to work with, but also as a creative medium. All his cyanotype photographs were printed onto the back of the recycled packaging he had saved up in the Egg. Cyanotypes are a Victorian method of producing photographs called blueprints and sometimes known as Sun Prints. It was satisfying to respect and borrow the natural power of the sun in this way.
What did you learn from that combined deployment of past and new technologies?
This sharing of his ‘being there’ was virtual and required the latest technology of solar powered Wi-Fi to enable the modern equivalent of a ship’s log, the online Blog (www.exburyegg.me). But equally, he loved discovering beauty in the potential of all that lived and grew around him, curious to explore true local colour in the traditional dyes and ink made from local oak galls, or to draw using quills made from the feathers left on the foreshore by visiting geese. If the online record was the fruit of a new kind of technological knowledge, the older wisdom was more grounding. Together they made for a balance, for the best of all worlds.
In the Seafort project you took up residence in WWII sea forts for a period of time corresponding to a WWII tour of duty. Why?
It was a project that took me to the physical horizon, six miles out to sea, where I thought I could consider the transience of human intervention in this marine environment. In 1944 the Seaforts were the latest in innovative design in concrete and steel, but how well had they resisted their daily dance with waves and damp saline air? What evidence might remain of their human occupation in their decay into ruin? What other life might have in turn thrived there after the people left? I thought of my time there as a sort of homage to the memory of the men who were there during the war years. Six weeks was their tour of duty and it seemed a good measure for my own.
You were part of the Third World Water Conference in Kyoto, Japan in the early 00’s, exhibiting at the Honen- in Temple and later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Toyota. What were your thoughts on Japan?
I discovered a Japanese aesthetic and way of living based on Buddhism called Wabi Sabi that celebrates ordinary life, the incomplete and the unfinished. I like the notion that nothing is forever, nor perfect and where we learn to cherish imperfection and humility in a world of hubris. A Japanese Tea House I visited embodied these ideas. I had to bow down to enter through its low door, in some ways like entering my own Egg.
You were the guardian of the Maria Valeria Bridge between Esztergom (Hungary) and Štúrovo (Slovakia) from October 2011 – March 2012. Why did you choose that bridge and what did you discover?
The Bridge (or its organizing committee) really chose me. Since its reconstruction in 2001, the local communities have invited artists from around the world to guard the Bridge, recognizing that continual cultural exchange is the surest guarantee of freedom and enlightenment in a region that has been fought over for many centuries. I was there for six months with a particular interest in a tiny leaf-mining moth that is currently conquering the horse chestnut trees of Europe (Its advance guard crossed the bridge from Sturovo to Esztergom back in the 1990s) and forward echelons are now gaining a foothold in the north of England. It is named for Cameraria Ohridella
for Lake Ohrid in Macedonia where it was first identified in the 1970s.
You have found a way to make ‘green’ captivating. Why do you think your work connects so strongly with the public?
People are increasingly looking for alternatives and for ways of taking control of their lives. For many the idea of mindfulness, of self-under- standing and wellbeing is an attractive element of my creative practice.
What have you got coming up?
The Exbury Egg is currently on tour around England and I am looking to continue this internationally at the Venice Biennale of Art in 2019 (there is commonality in the theme of rising sea levels). I’d love to see it on Walden Pond in Massachusetts, where HD Thoreau built his own home to live close to nature. ‘Shall I not have intelligence with the earth. Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself’ he wrote. Whatever I do next, I hope it would embody some of his particular acuity.
The Egg is currently at Jerwood Gallery, in Hastings. http://www.jerwoodgallery.org/ whatson/soon
Find out more about Stephen and his projects by visiting: www.stephenturner.org.uk