Sunday, January 26, 2014

Soft Estate

I mentioned Edward Chell's art of the motorway verges in an earlier post on Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts' book Edgelands.  Since then he has had an AHRC grant to make new work and research the parallels between motorway design and historic theories of landscape appreciation. Edward has kindly sent me a copy of the resulting book, Soft Estate, handsomely produced by The Bluecoat gallery in Liverpool, where his paintings and sculptures have been exhibited alongside work by ten other contemporary artists of the edgelands.  His own work focuses on the plants to be found in this 'soft estate', the name given by the Highway Agency to the 22,000 hectares of land it manages as part of the national system of motorways and trunk roads.  Silhouettes of thistle and hairy bittercress, buttercup and dandelion, lady's bedstraw and yellow rocket are printed on paper in a mixture of ink and road dust, or onto blue reflective aluminium panels resembling roadsigns.  There is a sad sense of isolation in these monochrome images, abstracted from photographs of plants that are growing in places nobody visits.  Some of them are coated in lacquer and would resemble pressed flowers except that they are painted in black, like shadows or carbon traces.

 Edward Chell, Yellow Rocket or winter cress Barbarea vulgaris, 2013

In the book's main essay, Edward describes efforts made over the years to landscape the motorway network and quotes the official Design Manual for Roads and Bridges encouraging 'visual variety' in a tone reminiscent of the original Picturesque theorists.  Nearly 10 million trees and shrubs were planted in the decade up to 1974 are now maturing and the wild grass areas have been left to evolve in their own way.  There is an interesting contrast here with the tidier appearance of French motorways, reflecting national differences in landscape design that have been apparent for over three hundred years.  Soft Estate also contains an essay by Richard Mabey, author of The Unofficial Countryside and Weeds, who describes the way various plants (including the wild daffodils celebrated by Wordsworth) have colonised the motorway cuttings and verges.  Back in the early eighties Mabey actually wrote a Motorway Nature Trail, sponsored jointly by the Nature Conservancy Council and Gulf Oil.  'I'm still unsure whether I ought to feel embarrassed about this.  It happened before carbon emissions became the critical issue they are today, but I was still giving my backing to a resource-guzzling and polluting car culture.'  The rationale at the time was that passengers would get something out of a guide to the ecology of the regions through which their car was passing.  Even so, looking back, he finds it surprising that nobody felt it worth emphasising that this was not something the driver should be concentrating on: 'the programme of peripheral observation it outlines, downloaded into a driver's brain, could be as distracting as a mobile phone conversation.'

I should probably admit that as a very infrequent and unconfident driver myself I have always avoided motorways.  They seem to me a kind of inverse of the Sublime - instead of viewing an awesome natural phenomenon from a place of safety, you pass through miles of banal terrain whilst having to safely negotiate the torrents of cars and looming juggernauts.  Everything seems to conspire against aesthetic pleasure in the environment, from the constant pressure to keep up speed to the need to seal yourself in from the wind and noise.  I wonder how different the motorway would feel if you had it all to yourself and could concentrate on the experience of the unfolding roadscape.  In his essay, Edward mentions a formative childhood incident: 'I secretly rode my Raleigh on the M62 after it was constructed across the Pennines at Outlane near Huddersfield but before it was open to the public.'  It sounds like Wordsworth's 'act of stealth / And troubled pleasure' in stealing a boat to row out onto a lake, as recollected in The Prelude.  I am reminded too Tony Smith's much discussed account of the moment when he realised that traditional art could not compete with the feeling of driving along the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike, a text that became central to debates about the future of art in the late sixties.

Nothing can be appreciated from a motorway that cannot be taken in at speed.  The individual plants that Edward paints are never glimpsed, unless traffic grinds to an unscheduled halt.  However, as Richard Mabey argues, the fact that they are there is important, 'and enough have grown into significant features to become part of the foreground of the motorway landscape.'  He ends his essay with a description of the way Danish scurvy grass began to appear along the edges of roads thirty years ago.  'There are many reasons for the plant's spread throughout the UK road system - the turbulent slipstream of traffic whirling the seeds along; the similarity between its native strandline habitat and the stone edges of the road.  But there is little doubt that the major factor is the saltiness of the modern road - that shoreline tang sprayed from gritting lorries on icy evenings even in the landlocked heart of Britain.  Seen close to, Danish scurvy grass is an undistinguished plant.  Streamed by at speed, it is a ribbon of dazzling white at the motorway's edge, a traveller's joy.' 

1 comment:

theresa said...

What an interesting post. Here in British Columbia, the roadsides in the Fraser Valley and Thompson Valley
are lined with rich drifts of blue flax, not a native plant, but so beautiful to see as one drives by at speed. A plant that echoes sky and water and is a kind of mediator between the two. Also sanfoin, which came in with hay seed in the early part of the 20th c.