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Contained Histories: Taxonomy of the intemporal

Chris Rawson-Tetley

Jorge Luis Borges in his short story, “The Library of Babel” postulates, in a footnote, the possibility of all knowledge being contained in a single volume containing an infinite number of infinitely thin leaves. He finalizes the footnote with the conclusion that, “The handling of this silky vade mecum would not be convenient: each apparent page would unfold into other analogous ones; the inconceivable middle page would have no reverse.” Such a book would appear to be a bibliophile’s dream, a holy grail made all the more desirable by its contradictory and illusory nature.

In some senses this impossible book could be seen to represent the paradoxes inherent in humanities continuing attempts to resolve its place in the world, for it seems that the more knowledge we gain the greater the mystery becomes.

In the early part of the nineteenth century when the Cambridge scholar Adam Sedgewick referred to early geology as “sermons in stones” he was hinting at more than the traditional theological view of the presence of God’s hand in the creation of the world; both he and Dr William Buckland at Oxford struggled with a means to reconcile Christian theology with newly discovered geological actuality. Buckland’s assertion that geology was, “the knowledge of the rich ingredients with which God has stored the earth beforehand, when He created it for the then future use and comfort of man”, was an attempt to accommodate this new thinking within traditional boundaries.

In early 1837 John Ruskin went to the first meeting of the Geological Society in Oxford. John James Ruskin (Ruskin’s father) had encouraged his son’s interests in geology and introduced him to Buckland whose “Bridgewater Treatise on Geology” he had bought. Buckland’s thinking on the erratic distribution of different kinds of rock was at odds with the strict Biblical interpretation of such phenomena as remnants of the Mosaic Deluge. Ruskin attended all Buckland’s lectures when he went up to Oxford later that year and peppered his letters home with constant references to them. Buckland invited the young Ruskin into his circle where he dined with Charles Darwin. Ruskin later wrote to his parents, “He and I got together and talked all the evening.”

Ruskin eventually incorporated the insights he had gained at these meetings into his own constantly evolving art theoretic which formed the structure of that immense landmark of art criticism, “Modern Painters”. The difficulties that Ruskin encountered in the creation of “Modern Painters” are apparent throughout the text and serve to demonstrate, as Borges states, that, “All language is of a successive nature; it does not lend itself to a reasoning of the eternal, the intemporal.”

The ambiguities inherent within the interdependent structures of life on earth have a significance for David Walker Barker’s practice that has nothing to do with the forming of any textual theoretic. While such documentary evidence as exists may contribute to his considerations they are not a part of the work. Unlike John Ruskin, who spent a great deal of his life in an attempt to articulate a natural theology that could accommodate and inform artistic practice, David Walker Barker’s approach is more in line with that of John Berger who wrote, “That we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone, that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course of a single life would lead us to believe…”.

The desire to encapsulate and interpret this narrative of interaction with the landscape is apparent both within the title of this catalogue and the means by which David Walker Barker approaches, what Albert Camus described as, the “absurd confrontation”. Intriguing phials and bottles, small stained linen bags bound at the neck with waxed string, odd looking objects that appear to be the discarded tools of some unknown industrial process, faded images and geological detritus appear in aged cabinets set into heavy, weathered, timber frames. The frames themselves, redolent of age and past antique value with their peeling gold leaf and cracked painted surfaces, allude to the contained histories that David Walker Barker intimates are the source of these narrative surfaces.

The works at one level act as a reference point for the history of lead mining in the Northern Pennines and, in consequence, all the pioneers of the hidden landscapes that honeycomb this and other areas.

The history of mining in this country, as with many other places, is a long and a disreputable one of commercial greed, needless deaths and individual and communal indominitability. David Walker Barker not only knows this history but has familial associations with it, his father was a miner in the South Yorkshire coal seams, an intimate connection that both fuels the engagement with these hidden landscapes and adds a personal perspective that may be read in the discreetly sensitive visual approach to the innate dangers of working underground.

One of the works has a pair of doors set within the frame, they are old and weathered and painted white, the paint is cracked and peeling, the doors are closed and a sheet of glass covers them. Are these doors into a past that cannot or must not be opened or a past that the present does not want to access?

I am reminded of a song that I first heard in the folk clubs of South Yorkshire in the early 1960’s, performed by Stan Crowther, a great character and one time MP for Rotherham;

“Come all you young fellows so brave and so fine And seek not your fortunes way down in the mine, For it forms as a habit, gets into your soul, ‘Til the blood in your body’s as black as the coal.”

There was a stubborn and perverse communal pride in living with the dangers that attended mining. A pride that was emphasized in the chorus to the song;

“Where it’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew. Where the dangers are doubled and the pleasures are few. Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines. It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines.”

The words of the song have a melancholic tone but the tune has a swing and swagger that invites you to join in. It serves as a reminder that outward pride in a shared communal history often has darkness at its heart which is the true unifying factor.

There are some histories that the present finds too terrible to contemplate or resurrect. The Huskar pit disaster of July 4th 1838 at Silkstone in South Yorkshire when 26 children between the ages of 7 and 17 who worked as “trappers” and “hurriers” in the pit were drowned underground attempting to escape a flash flood is just one local example that David Walker Barker knows. He is also aware that graphic realization can, by its very nature, occlude an honest remembrance by dictating a response. The doors in this work may stand as a mute act of commemoration for all such tragedies thereby allowing the dignity of a personal engagement with a painful history.

The work is not, however, necessarily concerned with a commemorative purpose, just as other works are not necessarily icons of, or metaphors for a specific location within a landscape. The act of placing oneself within any landscape has an import that raises the question of what category of landscape we may think we are engaging with and, more importantly, what we bring to that engagement and why. It is true that some landscapes have a resonance, individually, that others do not possess, and for David Walker Barker it is the post-industrial, a distinction which holds a fascination for me as well. Perhaps such a fascination is the legacy of a South Yorkshire background, an industrial legacy built on coal and iron, mines and foundries and one that was very visible and tangible in both of our formative years.

Much of the U.K has to a greater or lesser degree its own post-industrial legacy visible in the landscape; the spoil heaps of old lead mines in Weardale and the Yorkshire Dales; tin mines and clay quarries in Cornwall; slate quarries and brick works in Pembrokeshire; and elsewhere, old lime kilns, flint pits, pot-banks, not to mention the coal pit slacks that have been landscaped in recent years. From North to South, East to West hardly a square mile has escaped exploitation by humanity for geological, mineralogical or agricultural reasons. Many of these sites are now within what are designated as “Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty”, or “Sites of Special Scientific Interest”, or “National Parks”. The real history of humanities engagement with survival and progress within the actual landscape over thousands of years becomes buried under a rush of environmental concern for “a landscape” that is somehow now re-designated as “natural” and a leisure resource that must be preserved for the future enjoyment of the inhabitants of our overcrowded cities.

David Walker Barker’s work does not codify the landscape, or address it in the political terminology of environmental concern, nor does he separate humanity from it. He puts humanity firmly where it belongs, in the context of the landscape. He is aware that a direct and intimate engagement with the world may change not only the landscape but the worker in it. In the words of the song …..

“For it forms as a habit gets into your soul ‘Til the blood in your body’s as black as the coal.”

Under such circumstances as these a sense of place is a sacred thing connecting to what David Walker Barker refers to as “deep time”, an authentic sense of connectedness to everything everywhere and “everywhen”.

From considerations such as these grows work such as “Distillations and Concentrates”; a large cabinet set into an old oak frame, flanked by two encased glass rods containing what appear to be thin core samples, flanked in turn by panels having the appearance of thinly sliced polished rock. The locked cabinet has seven shelves, on each are either bottles and small jars or linen bags tied and sealed at the neck. What do the bottles, jars and bags contain? The bottles are stained, the labels illegible, the linen bags also stained evidently by their contents. The shelves are neatly placed, the bottles jars and bags standing as though in some ordered relationship that has been lost. A carefully assembled but forgotten collection that has or had a purpose?

Many of the other pieces contain similar enigmatic objects along with semi-legible drawings and texts that hint at mathematical calculations. Do they stand as abandoned scientific references, the possible remains of a Ruskinian endeavour to intuit through material propinquities a natural theology that could accommodate both divine belief and geological evidence? There is a strong sense that these could once have been intended as guides, the physical equivalent of scientific itineraries, or perhaps sub-ordinate taxa created in a conscious attempt to rationalize a greater intuited taxonomy.

In the preceding essay by Iain Biggs and David Walker Barker, reference is made to the traditional Cartesian division of mind and body and its refutation by contemporary neuroscientists in favour of a more complex definition which blurs the boundaries of what was termed the self and its relation to what might be considered reality. Concepts of place are a determining factor in the re-assessment of our multi-faceted relationship with both what constitutes the self and the world of which we are a part. I think it was Peter Ackroyd as novelist who wrote, “We are all pieces of dead stars”. In his sensitive manufacturing of the artificial David Walker Barker re-enacts the traditional role of storyteller in order to relate through the mundane, or the apparently abandoned detritus of taxonomic investigation, both the awesomeness of our individual existence and the cosmic implications of our physiological composition.

Urszula Szulakowska in her essay for the catalogue of the 1999 exhibition “Migrations through Time”, wrote;

“ .. he has experienced in his interactions with nature and his paintings that a profound intelligence at the sub-atomic core of reality produces matter simply as one aspect of itself.”

It is at this point that Borge’s statement concerning the inability of language to connect with the intemporal becomes apparent leaving no obvious means of engagement other than the expanded imagination or intuition.

The works in their intuitive engagement with all these underlying perceptions resonate with the implication of narratives that imply all the chemical and material aspects of what we term existence.

An argument worth remembering is that, traditionally, the point at which language fails has always been the moment of artistic opportunity.

Chris Rawson-Tetley is an artist and PhD graduate of the University of Leeds. He is also a member of LAND2.