Friday, 20 March 2015

Guest Blog 3: Standing on the edge... by Imogen Ashwin

A very great welcome to the third of our guest blog posts in the NMGS Mini Blog Festival. All the pieces are written upon a single theme - 'What history/Heritage means to me' - by a mixture of heritage volunteers, artists, writers and heritage professional. The intention is to develop and highlight themes that link all these groups, explore ways in which we are different and think about the themes and influences that we share.
This weeks blog is by an amazing woman who has been exploring ideas and concepts that link art, heritage, archaeology and folklore in ways that, if I am honest, I'm rather jealous of. With a dual background in fine art and archaeology Imogen Ashwin has explored her own relationship with the past - and led others by the hand, not to follow in her footsteps - but to walk alongside her in their own exploration...

Standing on the edge... by Imogen Ashwin

We stand on the edge of a tree-lined track in mid Norfolk, eyes fixed on the horizon, conjuring our ancestors from the landscape. Here, today and 4000 years ago, a stream begins in the marshy meadow. Water from the tiny River Eyn rises between Salle and Heydon and still flows into the Wensum, and on to the Yare and the sea.

Four thousand years ago the sources of rivers are thought to have been honoured as magical places. Gazing through hazel saplings we hear of sacred ceremonies, to do with death and the afterlife. Incense might have drifted on the breeze.

Incense is twisting through the air, fanned by a swan feather from a smoking jar.

These are the opening words of a feature article in the Eastern Daily Press (14/07/14) by journalist Rowan Mantell. At midsummer last year, she and her husband Howard joined Trevor and myself, aka World Tree, for Headwaters, a phenomenon we bill as an ‘Archaeology/Live Art Performance Walk’. Not an elegant description, but it’s hard to put a succinct name to the blend of ‘straight’ archaeology and what Rowan summarises, in this instance, as history, botany, birdwatching, landscape archaeology, fire, fiction, folk traditions and an impromptu picnic.

We were delighted with the article and delighted that Rowan really ‘got’ what we try to do. But glancing again at the article’s headline - Trevor and Imogen step into the past- it occurs to me that however fulfilling, indeed essential, it feels to immerse ourselves in the past, it is really the act of facilitating that experience for other people that lies at the heart of our work.

On the other hand, the brief for this blog festival asks us to consider ‘what history/heritage means to me’. To answer that, I need to step back quite a long way, although not as far as the Bronze Age. That comes later on in the story.

Like many others, my abiding memory of school history lessons is of learning the dates of innumerable Laws, Acts and Treaties and weaving them into essays. I enjoyed History O Level as a subject which played to my strengths - of memorising and of essay writing - but it didn’t touch me personally. It probably wasn’t until I had small children myself and picked out a faded red-covered book from the as- yet-unburned-down Norwich Central Library called Memorials of Old Norfolk that things changed dramatically. One chapter in particular fired my imagination – a catalogue of the Norman doorways in Norfolk churches. New words played around my tongue: soffit, cushion capital, billet, chamfered abacus, hood-mould. Living to the south east of Norwich at the time, I had landed on my feet as my home stood at the gateway to the richest seam of Norman doorways in the county! Strapping my 18-month-old into her car seat, I would go off on adventures while my older two children were at school, hoping that Poppy would be asleep when I reached Thurlton, or Heckingham, or Hales, so that I could run my fingers over the unevenly chiselled, vividly human creations, and even take rubbings of them, which somehow made them spring even more evocatively to life. I admit it; soon weekday forays were not enough and on Saturdays all three children were cruelly made to endure the Norman doorway excursions. Emily quickly developed an ‘allergy’ to them and would affect dramatic sniffles and sneezes as yet another medieval church hove into view.

Fast forward a few years, and with all the children at school I studied Fine Art at Norwich University of the Arts (then Norwich School of Art and Design). My foundation year was an Access course at Norwich City College, the second half of which consisted entirely of a personal project. I decided to focus on the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and found myself immersed in and entranced by the ‘shadow’ of the ship in the sand: the imprint, the rivets, the trace of that burial place and all that it represented. I soon realised that the ephemeral excited me – but what exactly does ephemeral mean? In the words of Thom Yorke in an interview of the time, describing the feeling at the end of a Radiohead gig … you feel that you’ve really done something - you feel that when you leave the room there’s something in the air that wasn’t there when you started.

Feverishly I started digging my own ship-shadows in the garden; lining them with sand and rows of nails which rusted and left marks as they weathered and slipped. Other ships were earthen mounds, or flanked with standing logs, and all were photographed from a tall step ladder (much to the consternation of the next-door-neighbour), recording the process as they became traces themselves. Out in the landscape I videoed traces; I photographed traces. Back at college I made installations to pin them down for a while, always with Thom Yorke’s words ringing in my ears.

During the three years of my degree, things only got worse. Seahenge ‘happened’ and I made work about it obsessively, perhaps by way of therapy as – ironically - I felt helpless in the face of archeology. At one point I had the intention of depicting the Bronze Age monument in some way every day for 100 days.

There was one tutor on my course who really couldn’t accept that my passion was personal. Gazing at my technically inept elipses and semi-circles she said ‘but that’s just … nothing’. When I showed her my own black and white photographs of the timber circle her only comment was ‘So, was that before the Romans? Weren’t we backward then!’ When I babbled on about Bronze Age barrows she looked at me uncomprehendingly until it dawned on me that not everyone knew that a barrow was a burial mound, and actually not everyone knew what a burial mound was anyway. But the strangest thing was, that not everyone felt that these things were immediately relevant to the life of the present - and to our own hopes and fears. Explorations involving contemporary issues of gender, sexuality, cultural differences, urban decay YES; explorations involving those same issues through the filter of the deep past DECIDEDLY DODGY and at the very least objective rather than subjective.

I spent many hours at a rural crossroads performing all kinds of actions: from taking photographs in each direction every hour for a whole day and recording ambient sound for 15 minutes every day for a month, to leaving a primed etching plate in the middle of the crossroads at the ‘witching hour’ for seven consecutive nights and printing up the resulting plate to see whether it bore traces of supernatural intervention! Another strand of work involved transferring partial images from medieval wall paintings of virgin saints with uncanny black faces and hands to pieces of flint from a Norfolk field. I threw the altered flints back into the field, recording the action on video, and found it thrilling to imagine the flints being picked up and puzzled over in later times as uncanny objects in themselves – if they ever come to light.

When the degree marks were out and we were called to the course leader’s office one by one for feedback, I was told that I’d gained my First by a clear margin, but that one of the tutors on the panel had had doubts about awarding it to me, on the grounds that the work ‘wasn’t personal enough’.

Hmmm …

I stayed at art school for another year to study for an MA in Fine Art, and I relished having the extra time to build on ideas that were still bubbling up. Early in the course, I acquired a new obsession as I discovered that the north door of churches was traditionally known as ‘the Devil’s door’. As medieval worshippers entered the south door and signed themselves with holy water from the stoup, the Devil, if he was lurking, had his own door in order to leave the stage pronto. Whether he left ‘something in the air that wasn’t there when he started’ is unrecorded. I started to visit the north doorways of as many medieval churches as I could, using infrared film to photograph each one. After all, the Devil, fiery as he is, would be sure to be captured using such a method if he happened to be using his door at the time. I loved this work. It was so exciting to arrive at an unfamiliar church with no idea of what I would find as I slipped silently round behind the tower. Sadly the devil was too wily for me, but I did discover some very atmospheric north doorways. I was going to recommend a few, but I don’t think I will – after all, it would take away from the experience if you were expecting it.

In the corner of an arable field near where I lived, next to a lay-by, lay a rather unprepossessing drainage pond. Passing it frequently, I noticed how the trees growing around it formed a circle. Indeed, many of them appeared to be growing out of the water. At night, refracted sparkle from streetlights on the A11 transformed the surface into something enchanted. Notwithstanding the fact that the timber circle at Holme next the Sea lay some distance inland at the time of its construction, something about the sight reminded me of the feeling I had had when first glimpsing Seahenge in situ on Holme beach, before the hazard tape and bulldozers moved in. We’ll have to have a chat sometime if you’re interested in hearing more about the ways in which I attempted to forge a sympathetic link between the two sites. Suffice to say that homemade interpretation boards were involved. So were 55 photographs of the pond, marked with the legend ‘You Are Here’ and sealed in 55 plastic water bottles before being arranged in a circle on Holme beach for the tide to re-distribute how it would. There was even a giggly voyage in a blow-up dinghy with a good friend and a video camera. It strikes me now that the difference between this work and my previous projects was that I’d adopted a mundane site and started to add my own layers of history and myth. Of course, in a way we all do this all the time – we can’t help it.

Take a Bronze Age barrow cemetery; say, the one on Salthouse Heath (I said we’d be coming back to the Bronze Age). It has its deep history of barrow-burial and ritual starting around 4000 years ago, of course, but untold layers of history, folklore and human emotion have accrued since then. One graphic example is suggested by the name of one of the largest burial mounds, Gallow Hill. Lying on the parish boundary between Salthouse and Cley, the probability is that during the Anglo-Saxon period it was used for the macabre purpose implied by its name. The ditch at Gallow Hill has never been excavated, but the ditch of a similarly situated barrow at South Acre – again on a parish boundary – has yielded the sad remains of what appear to be executed criminals. Who knows what other human experiences and encounters have taken place at Gallow Hill? Perhaps an archaeologist once met an artist there; an artist who was keen to learn more about the barrow cemetery from a prehistorian who could bring the life of the past into the life of the present more vividly than any book or website ever could. Perhaps a pair of barn owls flew over that barrow and were taken as a sign.

My work is concerned with the ambiguous interplay between human activity and the landscape. I am interested in the physical and psychological residues that may be present in particular locations – prehistoric monuments, crossroads, the north side of churches, watery places – and in particular by the way that the irrational or supernatural continues to be interwoven with 21st century life through superstition and folklore. Fascinated by myth, magic and (pre)history, I spend time in places that resonate with a certain genius loci; sites where things have happened and perhaps still happen.

That was the artist’s statement I concocted as a student, and looking at it now it’s all still true. Since becoming half of World Tree creative partnership my art practice has continued, while becoming more of a bone fide archaeologist as Trevor has, in turn, developed his own artistic side. An Arts Council grant enabled me to devise Festial, a self-directed residency in the medieval church of St Andrew’s, Wood Dalling. For a full year I researched and dreamed and felt my way through twelve medieval festivals, which I marked on their Julian Calendar dates (see A year or so later, Pace ( saw me traversing Magdalen Street in Norwich, mindful of the sounds and scents that once emanated from the seven medieval churches that used to stand along its length. Admittedly, it takes imagination to sense the ghost of St Margaret Unbrent lying under the 99p Store! In one of my favourite projects, I made 100 ‘kits for magic’ wrapped in sheet music and gradually and secretly left them in nooks and crannies throughout the street. Finders were encouraged to make use of their kit to evoke the past life of the street, and to get in touch with me to let me know how it had worked out.

At the same time, our ‘straight’ archaeological guided walks continued. Participants often start out hungry for facts, but soon realise that interpreting any landscape is a challenge for us all if facts are what we insist on. After all, there are no ‘right answers’ to many of its mysteries and there are things that none of us can fathom. Walking and talking together, we can share the questions and consider how they might one day be answered. Beyond facts, beyond questions even, we always seek to evoke the life of the past; to ripple the membranes that separate us from the unseen world of spirit. I like to think that in its own way every walk plays a part in this sifting and shifting and augmenting of the layers in the landscape.  And perhaps archaeology itself is becoming more fluid; there’s less of a gap between the diggers and the dreamers.

The question is, how does the artist’s freedom of interpretation dovetail with the ultimate responsibility of the archaeologist to provide rational evidence? It’s one thing to get a thrill from devising my own routes to the Otherworld and back, hoping that viewers will catch glimpses of the mystery or use my experiences as a springboard to unlock their own stories. It’s another to take fellow travellers with you as you jump into one of the myriad pools in the Wood Between The Worlds while retaining archaeological integrity. But in the unfolding of the Performance Walks with their alchemical blending of disciplines, one answer, at least, seems to have been given.

As I watch the faces of our small group wending its way along lanes and tracks, stopping to encounter a gang of thieving Salle siblings, a herb-gathering wise woman, Bronze Age mourners and a medieval carter – not to mention the descendants of barn owls who once roosted in the now-invisible settlement of Stintuna – I know it. As we handle sticks of ash, oak, hazel and holly, marvelling at their different properties, I know it. As we dowse with homemade rods for the edges of a ring ditch and as our midsummer bonfire crackles into life, I know it. When we journey together into the life of the past - when we reach out and touch, see, hear, smell and taste it – we return transformed, all of us.

And that’s what heritage means to me.

Imogen Ashwin graduated from Norwich University of the Arts with a BA Hons (first class) and MA in Fine Art. Her work then - as now - always exploring human interaction with resonant places in the landscape, ten years ago she had the extraordinary good fortune to meet archaeologist Trevor Ashwin in a Bronze Age barrow cemetery. The rest, as they say, is history. As well as continuing to pursue her research and art practice, the couple work together in heritage publishing, research and interpretation as World Tree creative partnership 

1 comment:

  1. I can see why you'd feel a bit envious Matt; intimate, insightful and inspiring - it stretched my imagination ('Imogen'/imagine). Thanks Imogen!