Being an artist and being in quarantine, she did what artists have always done — make wonder out of limitation, privation, and boredom; illuminate the universal through the tiny aperture of the deeply personal.
Maria Popova, April 2020, reviewing work by Sophie Blackall.
Maria Popova poses a challenge for artists working within Corona restrictions. I had to find different ways to develop my initial response to the Home Turf and Wetfutures projects during my residency in Wageningen University. I compared notes with an Iranian artist friend, Pantea Shabahang. This post is about beginning to work creatively with the fragments of wetland lives and cultures that we are uncovering, suggesting this is a process of ‘un-finishing’ stories.
As lockdown life began for me, Pantea was already an expert at combining digital work and social life in her small Tehran apartment. Last year we explored Scottish peatlands together and now we are both linking into cultural projects about wetlands – but in two very different countries. This post draws out themes from conversations in which we wove between different places and times, near and remote. We have been busy finding links between the dry urban setting of Tehran and Persian wetland cultures, as well as comparing this with some remnants of Dutch peat cultures that I have encountered. We also have memories of both joyful and awkward days on Scottish moorlands.
Maria Popova emphasised that artists in Corona times may succeed in creating wonder and I find tenderness is also important for me, now that precarity is so evident. The English word ‘tenderness’ allows both a realisation of vulnerability as well as compassion and care. This state of mind could extend to an understanding of how other species are also vulnerable, as Robin Wall Kimmerer recently suggested.
Backstory of connecting remotely to peatlands
Previously, in Scotland, I initiated a project (Peat Cultures reported here) in support of a forthcoming peatland restoration programme (Peatland Connections) which is a regional partnership project aiming to engage people to value peatlands – as heritage, for climate action, and wildlife protection. This project helped pilot different ways in which field workshops could interest people in peatbogs, which are typically remote rural places. I asked how socially engaged art can create different perspectives on peatlands, in my practice-based Masters by Research. An aim was to help shift traditional viewpoints away from seeing peatbogs as expendable wastes of land and instead re-present wetlands as intriguing places in their own right, and point to new ecological insights.
Corona restrictions make field workshops impossible, but the hiatus let me pick up digital conversations with Pantea Shabhahang. Her recent project was about how the Sundew, an elusive plant typical of Northern peatlands, is represented. When she had only recently arrived in Scotland and first encountered wetlands, she heard about this carnivorous plant – but it took a long time to actually see it. Images of Sundews are often used to illustrate the beauty and value of peatlands, but they exist underground as a hibernaculum in the winter months. Their absence fed Pantea’s imagination. Her approach became “looking for the sundew” as if she were an adventurer. This took her on a different path than if she were a research scientist. For example, she looked for sundews in her first excursion to a peatbog but mistook a lizard for this plant. So this happenstance became part of her project; she connected with diverse representations of sundews, such as texts, illustrations and photographs, in different times and places. Pantea’s creative approach and energy has been an encouragement during the Corona emergency.
A recent seminar at ArtEZ (an art school in the Netherlands) proposed that Time Matters. Monique Peperkamp and others expanded on ways that artists might generate different encounters with ecological time, giving this introduction:
Now – at a time when ecological catastrophes become ever more manifest and the term Anthropocene connects the symptoms of this crisis – it has become clear that modern culture has only ostensibly been cut off from the multifarious web of intimate relations we call nature. Perception is changed by knowledge and art, shifting what and how things touch and move us. Art makes sensible that the way we treat nature is also the way we treat each other, and subversively practices and presents different perspectives and relations, by interrupting conventionalized routines and tempos in order to attune to other lifeforms. Likewise, art relates to knowledge to evoke actions, alternatives and care.
Monique Peperkamp. Introduction to the Seminar Ecological Time: natures that matter in activism and art, ArtEZ, Arnhem, March 12, 2020
After going to this seminar, my attention was drawn sharply to the present. With lockdown, I found myself working on a dining table in rented rooms and had to create a new timetable for work. I had an impulse to create pattern and looked out my window at a flooded meadow. Water that was diverted from the Nederrijn created a temporary wetland, used by a pair of swans. I was intrigued by their fluidity of movement, daily foraging pattern and free flight.
Via wifi, other seasonal signs appeared. Aukjen Nauta, graduate student with the Home Turf project, sent a cheery image of daffodils in the western Netherlands.
Around the Persian New Year (23 March), as Pantea and I began to meet online regularly to swap ideas and images, she showed me a plate of wheat sprouts growing for Persian New Year. I asked what they meant, and heard about the different calendars Iranians work with.
Pantea Shabhahang: The origin of the Persian calendar goes back to 4000 years ago, and it is called the Persian Solar Hijri Calendar. Each month represented a ritual or celebration performed by farmers and shepherds and is linked to Zoroastrian traditions and beliefs. We also refer to other calendars, we call the Arabic one the Moon Calender, and the Western calendar is called the Birth Calendar as it refers to birth of Christ. Farvardin is the first month of Persian Solar calendar, beginning in mid March and represents a celebration for New Year Day. People used to have big fires and celebrate the new year, new plants and new cycle of life. The celebration respects the dead as passed beings and encourages mending relationships.
Corona restrictions gave the sense of time apart, but was also grounded by arrival of spring. As the concept of balkonsolidariteit (Balcony Solidarity) appeared in Dutch, improvised banners appeared on Iranian balconies as people found new ways to send traditional New Year poetic greetings about spring, flowers and love.
Transformations of nature and the eternal circle of life and death are pivotal concepts in Persian poetry. In a Nowruz [New Year] such as this one, with the shadow of death looming large over everything, people searched for the meaning of spring in poems.
Extract from Quarantine Poetry in Iran by Ahmadali Khadivar
The images described in Quarantine Poetry in Iran are shown below with permission of Golrokh Nafisi.
Staff in Wageningen University shared information, including Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic which is a compendium of social researchers’ remote methods. This included the idea of Story Completion (see here). This provoked questions about how artists can work and reach different audiences. Some people might be drawn to the idea of completing a story – and others might question the starting point. Perhaps the Corona virus has created a limbo period for humans, and the words before and after are acquiring new multiple meanings. Pantea spoke of how wetlands are also in-between places.
Pantea Shabahang: Wetlands have a half-way quality which gives them distinct attributes. From science, we learn that they own characteristics of both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Perhaps wetlands are the type of ‘nature’ humans find challenging to physically comprehend as they bring about a lot of uncertainty from the moment you put your foot on the ground to when you attempt to line up a management plan. Interestingly this resonates with my state of being, oscillating between two continents. Not only is this about a state of geographical immigration but also a constant translation of culture, language and meaning of home and identity into different time-scales.
Sharing this process of ‘constant translation’ to be energising. Snatches of stories began to emerge.
Stories in the making: Working from photographs
Corona times are offering unexpected encounters with the ‘more than human’. While I was absorbed with the fleeting movement of swans, Pantea was excited to see clear and blue skies emerge in Tehran and to hear birdsong in streets that are usually full of noise and heavily polluted. I was surprised, having assumed that blue skies were commonplace in Iran.
Hearing about a project to revitalise wetlands cultures in Rasht, a city in the north of Iran, I looked at google images to understand how Eynak Lagoon is severely compromised by human activities. Aerial photographs of roads around urban lakes made me feel as though the wetlands had nooses around their necks. A recurring theme in conversation with Pantea was how people can become interested in wetland conservation, when for many these issues might seem too distant. (This reaction would also have applied to our previous selves.) Being unable to travel to Gilan because of the lockdown, Pantea found photos from previous visits:
I kept looking out of my window and back inside again, as we told each other fragments of stories and found patterns to link to. Becoming aware that she was surrounded by domestic objects crafted out of wetland materials, Pantea recalled a previous visit to Rasht where she had bought a typical basket. She had other cheap woven items from Rasht in her apartment, seen in the photos below.
Some houses near Wageningen have thatched roofs, as I noticed while getting my daily fresh air. These would have been ‘poor man’s roofs in the past, replaced with tiles when a family came into money. Pantea was surprised to see these villas, and to learn that in the Netherlands artisanal roofs are prestigious.
In Gilan, a northern wetland region around Rasht, traditional houses are less valued; older wood or thatched features are often replaced by iron or concrete.
Typical Gilan houses have a traditional style of balconies right around the upper floor. This gives space to women to weave rugs and talk to with passers-by, as Pantea’s drawings show.
I was bothered to learn that occasionally in Gilan, disused but highly decorated and carved wooden doors might be taken from old houses to function as a workaday bridge in the wetlands.
Bridges and trackways over uncertain ground
In a seminal article on prehistoric trackways in the Netherlands, W.A.Casparie (1987) observed “These trackways and paths were seldom part of a traffic system.” Home Turf researchers confirmed that some of the older peatland trackways in northern Europe seemed to have had a ritual purpose, rather than functional. This fed into my sketchbook reflections:
Perhaps this search for pattern was about looking for bearings. It might also be a response to the possibilities of circular time. Robin Wall Kimmerer (see above) suggested circular time can be conceived as events that co-exist to be repeated. For me, drawing is a route to discern new patterns.
To return to the prehistoric trackways, it appears it is not fully understood why all of these had been built nor what they led to.
Aukjen Nauta’s PhD studies include consideration of the reliability of data and how to engage the public with this. In a recent presentation, she used a story of excavations at Bourtangermoor to exemplify why interpretations must be made cautiously.
The story is that a well known professor in archaeology could have given a piece of a wooden trackway (found during peat digging), with a note describing the find, to a local reverend in 1936. This piece of wood reappeared in literature 70 years later as a possibility to date the wooden trackway. However its provenance was uncertain. A plank (possibly ‘the plank’) was found in the depot of the Drents museum. The note was found in another collection and has a different year on it (1937 and not 1936). The reverend and his housekeeper could not be interviewed: they both had died. However a friend of the housekeeper clearly remembered (60 odd years later) that her friend had talked about the plank from the wooden trackway and the note. This is not hard evidence.
Aukjen Nauta, personal communication
Aukjen Nauta’s advice, ‘embrace historic data, but beware’, has scientific research in mind. As an artist, I may use freedom to imagine how doors, bridges, and trackways can help negotiate uncertain ground.
I imagine … just possibly … just an idea..
a prehistoric trackway being laid down amongst Dutch fields
and leading into a doorway from Rasht, laid on the ground
possibly a glimmering of Gilan wetlands
evaporating away visually
[story to be continued by viewer]
Engaging other senses: listening as well as imaging
Corona restrictions have meant more time on screen, confining us to what can be represented in image, sound or text. Other bodily senses can only be conveyed indirectly. But the combination of sensory encounters when visiting wetlands is unpredictable; looking close-up on a peat bog makes me look beyond myself and think about how other creatures are using the space.
Creative practice does not just stem from visual stimuli. Already working with sound, Pantea ventured into field recording in Scottish wetlands. Her specific prompt was the watery sound and feel of her footstep on a Hebridean peatbog. These slight sensations implied a presence of a body of water under the living surface. You can think of this surface as a skin, like the top of a water-fllled drum. Pantea’s influences include auralization as advocated by Pauline Oliveros; her recent soundwork everydaymeal combines the sounds of waders, moorland birds, that she had heard in Southern Scotland with sounds from her present surroundings in Tehran.
Pantea Shabhahang: Every place with its own story of time and space sparkled memories in my head, an experience similar to what Pauline Oliveros calls Auralization, a practice to ‘hear’ memories in one’s mental space as opposed to visually imagining them. While playing around with the process of Auralization, the distinction between these recordings and my memories would blur. Also, it seemed like every sound could assume multiple identities in the context of other sounds.
Finding new materials for story in-completion
Where I live near Wageningen, the planting season was heralded by the arrival of a pile of compost bags containing peat – which is sometimes called ‘brown gold’ in Dutch.
This is imported from other countries where expansive peat deposits still exist. The shiny plastic packaging was a sharp contrast with my experiences of appreciating the lively surface of a peatbog, and wondering at the depth of time quaking underfoot (explored in earlier work, Mending the Blanket.)
A study of bog moss turns attention to time and connectivity. As air and rainwater draws Sphagnum mosses’ crown-shaped heads upwards, their stems are collectively pushed down. Over millennia their brief life in the light creates a deep, dark, suspension. A quaking peatbog is a sensory memory, archiving varied patterns of life since the Ice Age meltwaters left a foundation of boulder-clay.
Kate Foster, New Networks for Nature catalogue, 2019.
The compost bags were like distant time arriving on the doorstep, dislocated and appropriated. I began to collect these bags and quickly acquired several different brands, kindly given me by people in my locality.
These empty plastic sacks have become a new art medium for different ongoing conversations and exchanges of images. These compost bags are like ‘pages’ on which to document unfinished stories. The first one I am working is on the theme of a Roman helmet that Dr. Maarten Jacobs (Wetfutures project) showed me. This impressive gold helmet was photographed on a black field – as black as the lining of the compost bag. I began on my own version of this story.
I read that this gold helmet – known as the ‘Peelhelm’ – was found in a peatbog near Deurne in the Peel in 1910 by ‘Gebbel’ Smolenaars. The reasons why the helmet was left in this spot have been reinterpreted since then, because contemporary archaeology pays more detailed attention to the circumstances and context of finds. New evidence helped researchers create a fuller history of the Peelhelm.
This post has documented some conversations exploring different ways of connecting remotely to wetlands in Corona times. I have described how through conversations with Pantea, the idea of ‘Story Completion’ has been replaced by a process of Un-finishing Stories.
Perhaps this iterative creative process has a parallel with scientific enquiry. Ecological understanding is shifting the ways wetlands are valued, and archaeological research painstakingly attunes past cultural practices with contemporary scientific interpretation.
As an environmental artist, inspired by wetland cultures in the Netherlands, Scotland and Iran, I find myself negotiating distance by weaving between different places and times, with explorations yielding broken strands and fragments of stories-in-the-making. I am starting to work images into found materials in a mood of tenderness, leaning sometimes towards disruption and sometimes towards reparation.
This method of working, from the ‘tiny aperture of the deeply personal’ can allow fragments to gather multiple meanings. This process can be developed by using the tremendous Dutch resources of archival photographs, such as those found in the Netherlands Photo Museum and online tools to make historical comparison like topodijreis.nl. Artwork may develop in other directions when I can reach wetlands themselves and talk directly with people who understand these places in different ways.
As an artist I have the freedom to shape narratives over interwoven timescales. This may open up other connections, as Paul Robbins suggests:
Artists may play a role by paying attention to the more than human, acting as catalysts by placing things in the world into the path of potential interacting actors and investigators. Paul Robbins (2012)
Robbins, P. (2012). Talking through Objects: Multidisciplinary Dialogues with “Things’. GROUND \ WATER: The art, Design and Science of a Dry River. E. McMahon, Monson, A, Weinstein, B. Tucson, Arizona, Confluencer for Creative Inquiry: Pages 59 – 64.
To dr. Roy van Beek and all members of the Home Turf and Wetfutures projects at Wageningen University. Especial thanks to Aukjen Nauta for comments and contributions, and also to Klaas Strijbis and Michael van Beinum.
Any unintentional errors are entirely my (Kate Foster) responsibility.
Information about the artists
Kate Foster trained as an environmental artist in Glasgow School of Art, and since then has developed an interdisciplinary collaborative approach. Her work largely takes place outwith the gallery, being a socially engaged practice supported by drawing. Peat Cultures has a project website. Archive: www.meansealevel.net www.inthepresenttense.net Twitter @peat_cultures
Pantea Shabhahang is an artist working with experimental documentary, analogue photography and field recording to explore new ways of telling stories. She studies themes of the environment, immigration and wetlands. Pantea’s work on Sundew has been recently published as creative nonfiction in Plumwood magazine. Her recent release everydaymeal is available in different formats.g