Saturday, March 26, 2016

Is nothing sacred! : mountain artists verses the purists

Part of the Pip Hall/Simon Armitage Stanza Stones project
A couple of weeks ago, North Wales based photographer, Nick Livesey posted a photo on a social media page of him sitting alongside a carefully made stone spiral set on a pale rock pavement in the Rhinog mountain range. Nick wasn’t outraged by the work but lamented the fact that someone would muck about with natural materials and impose a human dimension on the landscape. There then followed a fairly feisty debate about just who has the right to interfere with the mountain environment and just who is the ultimate arbitrator of ‘acceptable interference’?

I found myself in a minority in that I don’t have a problem with land art in the mountains providing it compliments or even improves the setting. I’ve always been a fan of Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash and Anthony Gormley for example and think that their work generally enhances the environment it is set in.However, I do realize that there are contradictions going on here in that I generally oppose man made structures such as hydro plants and wind farms being placed in an upland setting. To be fair though, the latter projects are installed for easy subsidized profit and not placed within the environment in a spirit of creativity and yes...reverence to nature.

Richard Shilling's Clougha Egg

One of the reasons I don’t have a problem with ‘good’ land art in a place like Snowdonia is that at the end of the day it is a small park on an overcrowded island which has been degraded for decades by quarrying,forestry,poor farming practice-EU subsidized  livestock overstocking- caravan sites and tourist developments. Furthermore, in a global context, it is not particularly wild. You won’t meet a grizzly bear or wolf, fall down a crevasse and you won’t have to stop off overnight at a refuge en-route to bag a mountain top. If you were parachuted anywhere in the park then you could walk in any direction and hit a road within an hour. With millions of visitors every year, the main mountain honeypots like Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon), have more in common with Oxford Street on a Black Friday than a lonely mountain!

It puzzles me why we accept a random pile of stones on a mountain summit but not an exciting sculpture? If an impressive Goldsworthy work suddenly appeared on the summit of say Arenig Fawr, the Outdoor Taliban on UKC would be up in arms but we don’t appear to mind a cairn and war memorial up there? Personally, if I was mooching about on one of the high points in the heathery, boggy Berwyns or on on the Migneint and I came across an arresting work of art it would add so much to the journey.

There was a similar Brouhaha about the Stanza Stones on Ilkley Moor when stonemason, Pip Hall carved six Simon Armitage poems into rock set at various locations on the brooding moor. Not surprisingly, I personally thought it was a great project and as the stones have weathered over the last few years,they have melded beautifully I feel into the landscape.

As for who has the final say on what is and what is not acceptable practice in a mountain environment, then it has to be the Snowdonia National Park Authority.An organisation which will not allow someone to discreetly fix a small memorial plaque to a rock but who will allow farmers to gouge access tracks across the mountain,erect huge agribarns and leave their fields littered with used silage and feed bags.An organisation which will object to someone parking up a hot dog van for a few hours at Ogwen Cottage but who will wave through private and NT Hydro schemes and various ‘improvements’ in the name of tourist development and renewable energy.. Given the fact that the SNPA is somewhat compromised by employing so many people who have a foot in both camps- planning and farming, then it is little wonder that we witness a generally favourable approach to planning applications from this sector and the turning of a blind eye to farming bad practice within the park.

To get back to the original point though, will it ever be possible to appease both camps-the purists and those sympathetic to land art? I think not somehow. To demonstrate just how impossible it is to reconcile the two schools I would cite the views of two true climbing intellectuals who as friends would agree 90% of the time on political and environmental issues. David Craig and Harold Drasdo. David like myself is generally a big fan of land art to the extent that he has co-authored a book with Andy Goldsworthy and penned articles like ‘Perfectly mobile-perfectly still’. My late friend Harold on the other hand did not like Andy Goldsworthy’s work one little bit and told me ‘Man cannot improve on nature’. Although a native American or Buddhist would say that we are part of nature so is a rock fall caused by water erosion or the wind uplifting a tree more natural than an Australian aborigine daubing ochre animals on a cave wall?

Sorry, getting unnecessarily philosophical here but you get the point. Do we have the right to change the landscape in the name of art and if not...why not? I sense there will always be two diametrically opposed schools of thought and any artists carrying out furtive installations in the hills or wilder places is always running the risk of having their work vandalised by well meaning,but -I would obviously have to say-misguided mountain purists.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

'How to keep your Volkswagen Alive'. A Counter Culture classic

Over the years I have owned probably over 50 motor vehicles. Most of them bangers which started with the ubiquitous Mini-I’ve had five of those, the first two were written off in accidents. I’ve had Land Rovers, 2cv’s, all manner of boring Euro boxes etc. However, the only vehicles which really captured my imagination were aircooled VW Beetles and Camper Vans. There was something about that growly engine sound, the unique flat boxer engine with opposing horizontal cylinders. The strange heating system that either didn’t work or melted your shoes! It was a vehicle that even a mechanical dork like myself could work on. Yes...I too have removed a 1600 engine from a Type 2 Camper.

Ironically, in all the years I’ve owned aircooled V Dubs-four Beetles and four Campers- I never owned THE Bible. John Muir’s ‘How to KeepYour Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by step procedures for the compleat (sic) Idiot’. The irony being that now I own a modern-ish watercooled diesel VW Camper and Muir’s book is all but useless as a workshop manual. However, ‘How to etc’ is more than just a boring car manual. It is a genuine piece of US 1960‘s Counter Culture art. From the laid back writing style of Muir to the Crumb like Peter Aschwanden illustrations. The book which first came out in 1969 reeks of tie dye grandad vested, bandana wearing hippies, driving their vans, Beetles and combis across the states to the soundtrack of The Grateful Dead.

Given the fact that these old aircooled vans where somewhat underpowered given their 1600cc engines, and given the regularity they broke down-overheating was a problem in hot regions like Muir’s New Mexico- then an impoverished hippy really did need to tackle problems head on themselves without recall to using expensive garages.
This is where John Muir-the great grease guru came in.He was a structural aeronautical engineer who in the time honoured manner of the day 'Turned on, Tuned in and Dropped Out’. Muir left the world of the souless corporation behind to become a writer and car mechanic. Opening a garage in Taos, New Mexico which specialised in  aircooled V Dubs. Somewhat surreally, John Muir was related to THE John Muir-the Scottish born, US conservationist.

Flicking through the book last night, it was clear the lasting impression Muir’s book had made on millions of people the world over. In my 30th anniversary edition, various people now middle aged like myself, recalled how in their youth the book had become more than just an oil thumbed manual but a book which was part philosophical tract, part good Samaritan text and part love letter from a dear friend.

Unlike the common or garden car workshop manuals which are dry as dust and impossible for lay people to understand, Muir uniquely treated his reader as an enlightened teacher would a child who is keen to learn but so far limited in their understanding of the subject. Jobs were described in an easy to understand-non jargonised way, with simple illustrations and avuncular advice when things didn’t quite work out the first time.

Uniquely, ‘How to keep your Volkswagen alive’ is the one manual people keep as a work of literature as they would a favourite novel. Often long after they’ve actually owned an aircooled VW. It has inspired affection and reverance, stimulated pride and satisfaction and has been used by teachers to demonstrate good writing. It is as much a ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance’ cult classic as a technical manual.

It certainly makes me want to own an original aircooled V Dub again although prices these days have skyrocketed in the UK to classic car levels. Hopefully one day, I’ll adjust my vinyl seat and set the controls for the heart of the sun...until then.

Illustrations from the original book.