Contained Histories

Iain Biggs and David Walker-Barker

‘Place as a point of entry into a latticework of sensuous cognition open to deep time’ or ‘The studio as echo chamber’.

An unfolding memory and a dedication

“Here lad turn over this stone” and as a dutiful 10 year old I did as father instructed as he placed in my hand a pebble of shale picked from the mound of coal he was shovelling. Turning the stone over, the obverse side showed a delicate trace of leaves; shiny black against the grey shale. My father had introduced me to “fossils” in a most unpretentious and profound way. He gave no lecture but handed me 285 million years without ceremony. This singular gesture impressed on me the relationship between deep time and the present moment, a pre-occupation that has remained with me ever since.”

David Walker Barker May 2005

Preface: a note on ‘authorship’.

There is a tendency among those who write about the work of artists to assume, post-modern critiques of the “author” not withstanding, that they “author” the texts they produce and publish. David Walker-Barker and I both earn our living in universities, where we work as artist/educators and researchers. Through its aesthetic, conceptual and metaphorical dimensions David’s work is indeed itself a particular form of research, one focused by the complexity of humanity’s long-term interactions with the material world – particularly, but by no means exclusively, that associated with geographical, geological and mineralogical knowledge and associated histories. He shares his “findings” in a number of ways, most obviously through the art work he makes and exhibits, but also through academic presentation, teaching and through studio notes and reflections shared informally with those of us who recognise his extraordinary knowledge and respond to his passion for his subject. He is also a scholar, a fieldworker, a collector, and an attentive “listener” (in a number of senses). All these activities are important to his art work. Like a somewhat reticent scientist working at his laboratory bench, testing and pondering carefully constructed “models” of reality in their different configurations, reflecting on the work of others – both in his own field and elsewhere – David records his thoughts in the notes which now form a substantive part of this text.

I use this simile because we have adopted the convention in science that authorship of research texts is shared between all the participants, regardless of who types the words on the page. My role here has in large part been to act as foil for, and editor of, conversation and David’s written notes on his research process and work. While I bring to this my own perspective, concerns, sense of context, these are focused by a critical solicitude for David’s work. What follows is, then, our jointly authored reflection on David’s underlying preoccupations and some tentative thoughts as to the larger significance of his work in its totality.

Iain Biggs March 2005


Landscape as matrix for ‘another thinking’.

Although the work draws on an intimate relationship with and knowledge of particular places and landscapes – some of which are referred to in the titles of individual works – it would be a misconception to conclude that “landscape” in its popular sense lies at the heart of David Walker-Barker’s work. This results from concepts, but within a sense of continuum where concept is inseparable from bodily understanding or sensual thought. The image-objects he makes are both tangibly material and, precisely in their materiality, profoundly metaphorical. As a result, the work may be said to reflect a position close to that of contemporary neuroscientists who have refuted the traditional Cartesian division of mind from body, reason from unconsciousness, by speaking instead of a complex and dynamic continuum of mind-body-place, the boundaries of which are increasingly hard to discern. There is nothing “New Age” in this. The artist has an acute sense of the ways in which the consensual trace of the Cartesian folk mentality has produced a situation where our society’s conceptual map of reality bears less and less resemblance to the reality of our environmental situation. He is only too aware of the consequences of that consensual trace, speaking movingly of the evidence of past mass extinction in the geological records and of the possibility of global warming once again leading to the loss of most or all major life forms through the release of vast quantities of methane hydrate from the ocean floors. None the less, both interested in and sceptical of science, he continues to explore alternative forms of dynamic “mapping” particular mind – body-place continua. In consequence, one way to think about his work is to see it as in some sense seeking to respectfully model these continua through the ‘wroughting’ of iconic image-objects.

We can look at the work this way because, as Guy Claxton has recently reminded us, works of art offer us ‘implicit models of mind’ and, additionally, that ‘certain geographical features and locations lend themselves to modelling the unconscious’.[i] Despite his own preference for models of the mind that reflect the contemporary fascination with new technologies, particularly computers, Claxton has to employ metaphors of place, in all its multiplicity of meanings, so as to imagine the continuum of mind – body – environment that we still call, somewhat presumptuously, “my” self. Claxton writes, for example, of changes in ‘the explanatory landscape’ of thinking concerning the unconscious.[ii] Landscape seen in the context of geographical process is, of course, that category of place where the most powerful geological, biochemical and other environmental processes intersect most directly with the plethora of forces that frame human lives in an endless interaction. Such an understanding of landscape is the starting-point for the work.

After finishing his studies at the Royal College of Art, David Walker-Barker was to make a shift from a perceptual to a conceptual-perceptual-sensual understanding of landscape, largely as the result of an encounter with the fossilised remains of a trilobite “Paradoxides davidis“ in the Cambrian rocks of St David’s in Pembrokeshire in 1970. This remnant made the deep time of the fossil record and of geology seemingly tangible yet ever elusive in comprehending its true magnitude. There was, however, nothing whimsical or idiosyncratic about his engagement with the fossil record. Here was an extraordinary window into the past, a substantive record if it could be deciphered, even in part, a palimpsest of layered histories and memoranda of evolution and change.

Although Alfred Wegener first posited the notion of ‘continental displacement’ in his The Origins of Continents and Oceans (1915), the idea of ‘continental drift’ was still highly controversial when Alfred Holmes published his ‘Principles of Physical Geography’ (1944). It was only with the first map of the dynamics of plate motion, made by Xavier Le Pichon in 1968, that the new science of ‘plate tectonics’ really established itself. The artist’s interest in trilobites thus parallels in time that of geologists like Richard Fortey, who used their distribution to work out the position of very early land masses. For Fortey plate tectonics are to be seen as ‘the world’s “unconscious”[iii], a claim that adds a missed dimension to Claxton’s understanding of place-based metaphors for mind and entirely in accord with David Walker-Barker’s thinking and visual modelling. Just as Claxton demonstrates the need to reverse the hierarchy of our society’s Cartesian folk psychology by placing ‘unconsciousness’ at the centre of mind, so Fortey argues that geological factors underwrite both biology and history, deciding what can be built or grown and where and, through its continuous dynamic, dividing humans and animals to create new species and societies. Trilobites were, in this respect, a portal to a radical interdisciplinary thinking.

Many of the paintings, drawings and constructions produced by the artist derive from the diversity of landscape environments and from the complex and often obscure narratives that are part of their fabric both upon the surface and at depth. Any landscape contains remnants of earlier landscapes and the evolutionary processes that underlie them and have in part constructed them. Consequently, landscapes appear like a document with past history recorded on and within it. Some of the script is obscured whilst parts of the record are inevitably missing. In some instances the contemporary text resides side by side with eons old calligraphy. This sense of continuous removal and remaking is the fundamental dynamic of the processes that have shaped and continue to shape the earth, the landscape and human identity. It also provokes a desire to seek and attribute meaning to the places we inhabit, perhaps the most fundamental desire in the making of the work. Specific landscapes and particular locations provide a special point of contact or entry and some elements of the image-objects straightforwardly imply a topographical or scenographic depiction, recording aspects of appearance but simultaneously implying what lies beneath the surface. Other elements, or indeed entire image-objects, have become increasingly concerned with an interpretation of the complex reality that constitutes and underlies the phenomenal world, one embodied in relationships across time and through a multiplicity of scales.


A concrete example of what is in play here may be useful. During a conversation in the artist’s studio he may hand his guest a crystal formed some one hundred and eighty million years ago and point out that, on close inspection, this contains a small bubble in an interior chamber. When the crystal is tilted, the bubble moves. A bubble formed and trapped in a single instant some one hundred and eighty million years ago, still moves in the here and now, thus producing an extraordinary sensation of the compression of time into the space of a single small object animated by the simplest of gestures. The guest has experienced, in the most immediate material terms, the unified arc between the present moment and deep time – a deep time made present through the well-chosen geological specimen. Given the dependence of the evolution of organic life on its dynamic interaction with inorganic processes, this experience in the studio becomes a metaphor for an interdependence constantly referenced in the work. One between ecology and the mineral world, the physical landscape and human processes, micro-biology and civilisation upon which, as we are beginning to recognise (as the insights of post-Cartesian science come increasingly to parallel those of certain Eastern thinking), the survival of our species depends.

The relationship of the artist to the diversity of landscape has continually shifted and in so doing informed the range of images produced. At the local level it provides the themes and points of contact for a deeper identification. Form and colour may be manipulated according to already established modes of depicting a particular “nature” or “reality”, but their translation into a believable representation of the underlying “reality of landscapes” is not easily achieved. The task is less one of depicting the seen experience than a matter of finding equivalents to an experience that is sensory, perceptual, conceptual, and culturally referential. The contemporary “landscapist” – once he or she moves beyond the either/or of conceptual versus perceptual approaches – is confronted with the problem of knowing what that landscape is, what constitutes it at its most complex levels. Appearance alone cannot be taken for granted as either real in a fundamental sense or as having some essence that readily communicates the complexity which under-girds its reality. However, conceptual knowledge is not enough. We cannot see this complexity without intuition, or imaginative and theoretical conjecture. The act of making an image of landscape that seeks to reveal its complex nature depends on the act of forming a conception of it from a total response to it. This must combine mental or intellectual activity with felt, sensate experience.

The experience of seeing and interpreting the sensational is an increasingly complex one as the artist seeks a more comprehensive and inclusive conception of landscape. In this sense the “autonomous” marks in a painting or drawing or the relationship between objects and surfaces in an icon-like construction establish a range of references that in turn seek a particular resonance. In a sense the images are always ambiguous and uncertain in that they must be analogous to the experience of landscape itself as underwritten by dynamic processes. No one reading of them should be safely taken as they seek to convey something of the contradictory and paradoxical aspects of intricately complex interweaving systems.


The studio as archive and echo chamber.

Rows of fragments stored in drawers, jars and small vials archive the residue of intersecting histories. Specimens and artefacts recovered from selected sites provide a range of materials and signifiers. Some become pigments and are used conventionally whilst others inhabit Relic Flasks retaining their mystery as the residue of an undisclosed event. They are the basis for something akin to a redemption – honouring the past and raising questions of what is remembered and why – and are used to fabricate objects that act as emblematic touchstones to places and the obscure meanings embedded there.

The processes of making and the engagement with materials, tangible and intangible, establish the studio as a true place in Edward S. Casey’s sense. (Casey differentiates between ‘position’ and ‘place’ by arguing that, if a position is understood as a fixed posit of an established culture, then a place, despite its apparently static appearance, is in actuality ‘an essay in experimental living within a changing culture’)[iv]. This is the context where practical, conceptual and personally significant elements are amalgamated. The resulting images acknowledge the metaphorical role that materials and objects play in developing various iconographies. Materials are no longer used for descriptive purposes. Images are no longer topographical. Nor are they either images of landscapes or metaphors for landscapes that replace representational scenes. Rather the original site itself becomes a metaphor for something else that is then transcribed in and through the visual works.

As a result, and when the creative process works as it should, the original locations, the materials and the artworks resonate together by means of an indefinable set of relationships, a system of communication, which is an essential quality of that process. In this encounter meaning and resonance are created through the dialogue between the artist, the landscape and creative and imaginative processes. In entering the terrain of the landscape, revisiting seemingly familiar locations, new territories are discovered and this is transmitted both to individual art works and to the body of work as a whole. In so doing a kind of text emerges through these inspirational sources, experiences and the working of art materials. The raw material for the work has its own unique character and distinctive syntax that reveals itself through and within the logic of its own compulsions and constraints. In this way iconographies and materials may come to speak. Consequently, the studio is not simply a place for production, it is also a place to think and, above all, to “listen”, a place akin to a museum archive but perhaps more active than we usually think of archives, hence the image of an echo chamber. This produces a satisfactory and ever changing arrangement that shifts with a whim or with a much clearer purpose and direction. David Walker-Barker’s studio has always been like this, it is what gives it a personality and enables him to work there; a place with which he can identify because its growth mirrors his own, both a creative inventory and an echo chamber in which he feels privileged to play his part.

Shards of pottery and fragments of glass recovered from 17th and 18th century contexts share a cabinet with fossils, minerals and obscure objects whose function and origin are less certain. This is a strange archive and despite the seeming orderliness of some of its arrangements, it remains taxonomically open, likely to be rearranged at any moment. Drawers may contain a good portion of a Weardale quarry in the form of self- collected fluorite crystals that were originally deposited over two hundred and fifty million years ago within carboniferous rocks. They represent a barely graspable arrangement of deep time. On the wall a copy of the remarkable geological map of England, Wales and parts of Scotland made by William Smith in the first decades of the nineteenth century, accompanying two prints by William Blake. The heavenly and the earthly sit close together. There are more drawers filled neatly with geological specimens and human relics. Each drawer is dedicated to a category or a type, the narrative of a location with all its variety or the diversity of a mineral or fossiliferous species. The lower drawers have a more open arrangement, telling a less obvious story or perhaps no story at all. Here are words simply waiting to take on a form. Above the specimen drawers another Victorian vitrine filled with large groups of crystals interspersed with small fabricated fictions mimicking a fragment of something older, once precious and now discarded. Adjacent to this two other cabinets are filled with versions of Relic Jars, vessels made up to contain the residue of places, to intimate histories now lost or to reflect processes of transformation that once were and perhaps still are active in some invisible realm.

These old jars contain relics in suspension that are wrapped and encased, bound up so tightly that nothing of them escapes. The memory of events and their remnants held onto as if forever. (There is nothing sentimental or nostalgic here. Rather the reverse. Any sense of ‘redemption’, a word the artist uses with both care and some caution, lies in a sensate understanding of our place in an order of things well beyond rational explanation or literal re-presentation). In others mercury and oils, spring water and wax preserve minerals, tiny bones and teeth, fragments of plants and medicinal herbs. These somehow echo the artist’s reflections on lead miners as makers and on the Spar box and Spar case tradition, where he writes:

“The Spar Box can be seen as an imagined and alternative space, a world in miniature, a cabinet of curiosities that acted as an analogue to the miners’ experience of the hidden landscape in which they spent a major part of their lives. Often beautifully fashioned they were painstakingly fabricated and represent a unique example of an indigenous form of folk art that flourished in the North Pennines for only a brief period. Sadly very few of them have survived.” [v]

Central to the work is the precariousness of survival. This animates solicitude towards those unknown and forgotten multitudes who worked the mineral earth and who are unremembered in any of those annals that constitute official social memory. Simultaneously, the work somehow acknowledges that their absence from collective memory as we currently understand it is both irredeemable and a subtle rebuke to the living who benefit from their labour.


In search of the hidden landscape

The description above of David Walker-Barker’s studio justifies its identification as a place as Edward S. Casey understands that term. Any genuinely new imaginative understanding that might result from engagement with place in the context of ‘experimental living within a changing culture’ will, however, require a combination of knowledge and empathy that grasps, for example, the significance of the fact that memory is not exclusive to human beings. Such ‘sensuous thinking’ may be precisely the basis necessary for a new social conception of mind appropriate to our current political, social and ecological needs.

In the written version of a paper given at the recent LAN2D conference in Halifax, David Walker Barker quoted from the title page of Gideon Algernon Mantell’s ‘A Pictorial Atlas of Fossil Remains‘ (1850), as follows:

All things in nature are engaged in writing their own history. The planet and the pebble are attended by their shadows – the rolling rock leaves its furrows on the mountainside – the river its channel in the soil – the animal its bones in the stratum – the fern and its leaf their modest epitaphs on the coal.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

He continued:

So, in respect of this Pennine landscape.

Imagine if you will this landscape beneath your feet disappearing as if the surface features before you begin to dissolve slowly away or become perfectly transparent. As the familiar terrain disappears, geological strata become visible but this too is subjected to the same mysterious process. The fabric of our world slowly ceases to be.

There are two exceptions to this transformation. Firstly, as most of the material world vanishes, the normally hidden structures created long ago by processes of mineralisation remain visible and become clearly defined in this strange restructuring. In the newly forming landscape we see a growing three-dimensional lattice work that spreads in three major directions, the NE – SW veins, the NW – SE cross-veins and the WNW – ESE quarter-point veins.

Enormous curtains of minerals hang in space reaching downwards for over a thousand feet to a distant contact with a mass of granite far below. These curtains of rock stretch for miles. To the south and southwest where once had been the great Cross Fell range you would see the huge curtain of the Great Sulphur vein and its eroded edges, to the north the vast vertical deposits that bisect the now invisible northern fells of Cumbria and the border land of Northumberland. Eastwards other static curtains penetrate the now invisible rocks of County Durham, bisecting where Weardale and savagely bleak Rookhope Vale once were.

The undulating top surface of this complex latticework is the only reminder of the geomorphology of a now invisible landscape. From its vertical or near vertical architecture protrude platforms. These are the stratiform and once strata bound horizontal ore bodies flanking the vertical veins. Some are localised and small whilst others are of immense size and extent. Found at varying levels these horizontal extensions represent enriched formations of the mineralised deposits. Whilst the vertical or near vertical veins are usually solid, these stratiform deposits are riddled with chambers and cavities lined and criss-crossed with spectacular crystallisations.

Scope in on these chambers and you will enter the world of fluorspar, crystallised in transparent cubic forms, of deep green, lilac, pale blue, water clear, purple, golden amber and the multi coloured crystals ever so rare. You would touch Quartz in varied forms, calcite, heavy spar and rarer minerals, then Zinc and lead itself. You would find them in all manner of combinations with particular areas or zones of exceptional richness in which these associations would achieve an extraordinary perfection.

For over 250 million years this complicated transformation of substance and scale would remain unknown.

The first latticework now completed, this is overlain by our second exception. On to the naturally formed structure grows a new and much younger pattern. It starts with narrow horizontal passageways and vertical shafts growing and expanding, chasing into the veins, seeking out the richest ground and the huge deposits.


Cavernous spaces appear at salient points in the natural structure eaten into as if by a parasite. The new pattern grows extensively and as it evolves it descends deeper. Passageways join up; levels connect with others across distances of miles beneath familiar place names associated with lead and ironstone mines. Smallcleugh and Rampgill mines at Nenthead, Heights Pasture Mine twixt Eastgate and Westgate and the legendary Boltsburn Mine beneath Rookhope. There are hundreds more.

This pattern has its own complex history and its own nomenclature. Hardshins and Straightlegs Vein, Hardy’s String, Lucy’s Level, where men and women sought to personalise their relationship to these hidden places and this other world.

The human intersection with the geological is mapped by an ever-changing pattern drawn through time across the invisible surface of the landscape and at depth following the pattern of the minerals, a drawing that has been continually erased and re-drawn. Over two thousand years ago it was a tentative sketch now barely visible. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it was drawn strong and hard and in great detail. In the 20th century the final marks were made before this lengthy calligraphy was completed.

Grove Rake and Frazer’s Hush Mine high up in the Vale of Rookhope were the final details added. They were working for almost two hundred years yet barely touched the extensive minerals lying beneath. The last decade was one of their most productive, working ever deeper into the fluorspar rich deposits before reaching the point where even modern technology could no longer ensure the mine’s survival.

Frazer’s Hush closed on the 11th December 1998. Bob and Joe Forster were the last miners of a great tradition to work this final shift on the 260 East Level and exit the mine for the last time.

In this extraordinary extended image, at once exact and poetic, literal and metaphorical, the artist invites us to envisage both the macro-history of unfolding geological time and the micro-history of the lives of successive individual miners. While the mines are now closed, they continue to provide the artist with imaginative material saturated with metaphoric potential, pointing us back to the convergence between the respective histories plotted by Claxton and Fortey in the books referenced earlier, a convergence already established at the heart of the artist’s work.

Iain Biggs and David Walker-Barker
March 2005.



[i] Claxton, G 2005 The Wandering Mind: An Intimate History of the Unconscious London: Little, Brown pp. 25 & 31.
[ii] Ibid. p. 10.
[iii] Quoted Whitfield, J ’70 Centimetres and Rising’ (review of Richard Fortey’s The Earth: An Intimate History 2005),
London Review of Books 03. 02. 05 p. 34.
[iv] See Casey, E 1993 Getting Back into Place. Towards a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World Bloomington
& Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, p. 31.
[v] Quoted from Walker-Barker, D ‘Realities and Histories“ In search of a Hidden Landscape” ‘(forthcoming in the Journal
of Visual Art Practice vol 4 no 3).

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