The Balance In the Countryside (or, tangential thoughts on the works of Colin Sackett and James Brooks)

Once upon a time I was fortunate enough to curate the Tangents website (1996-2006) where one of the unwritten rules that no-one particularly much adhered to was the notion of jumping off at tangents in our reading, listening, viewing, writing, lives, whatever. It is entirely possible that an element of ADHD is involved in this kind of tangential approach to cultural consumption but that is perhaps something for someone else to consider.

On the note of tangential connections however, I’ve been finding some between our (no longer particularly) recent considerations of Dorset (via Rogue Male), Somerset (The Levels of Peter Benson and Amanda Harman; the rose bushes of Sarah Jones shown at Hestercombe) and Devon (aka Home) in Colin Sackett’s intriguing ‘River Axe Crossings‘ book which documents crossings of the river Axe from mouth (in Devon) to source (in Somerset) all along its various meanders (through Dorset). It’s not a new book (in fact I am already eleven years late to this particular party) but it is one that his certainly worth picking up from Sackett’s terrific Uniform Books site, from where you can also find numerous examples of Sackett’s work alongside others that explore similar themes and threads connecting into landscape and geography with a small ‘g’. The ‘Uniform Annual’ of 2017 is a great starting point.

Now it would be easy to think of the photographs in ‘River Axe Crossings’ as being somewhat underwhelming, being as they are tonally flat and printed on what feels like a silk finish paper that neither reduces the images to an earthy ‘authenticity’ as would a recycled or matt stock, nor elevates the photography to an ‘art’ status via a more glossy finish. This kind of detail is important, particularly when you bear in mind that Sackett, as a book designer by trade, would certainly have given very careful consideration to the choice of paper stock used in the book. The neutral tonality and printing of the images then lends the photographs something of the feel of shots taken on a GCSE Geography (capital ‘g’ this time) field trip, which is an idea you may choose to interpret in any number of ways, perhaps hingeing most pertinently upon our individual opinions of Geography education at high school level.

Regardless of our perceptions of Geography education though, thinking the photographs in the context of Sackett’s book as underwhelming would be a mistake, for the photographs are simultaneously not really not the point of work and the point entirely. In one sense the photographs are a tool for documenting the process of the work: A means of visually representing the/a moment within the work, where the work is perhaps more about the experience, the journey, the concept being carried through. The work is not particularly about the art of photography yet it is inevitably a critique of the art of photography, for it challenges our notions of what landscape photography should look like. Indeed the work challenges our notions of what our connections to landscapes are at all. In this Sackett’s work is very much in the same sphere as Richard Long’s and in one of those idle thoughts of tangential connection I wonder whether Sackett might have been in the same audience at Exeter’s Phoenix arts centre all those years ago when Bill Drummond delighted us all by slicing up his Richard Long photograph/art work with a scalpel. Does Sackett have one or two of those tiny rectangles bought for a pound stashed somewhere in a box as I do? And thinking all this makes me want to revisit Drummond’s wonderful ‘How To Be An Artist’ book; makes me wonder as another aside too if Sackett might one day write ‘How to be a geographer’.

I’m only lightly touching my tongue to the inside of my cheek when I write that last sentence because Sackett’s work shows quite clearly that he is (as Jim Mays suggests in his terrific little pamphlet that accompanied a display of Sackett’s books on Haldon back in 2009) “not interested in the comforts of pastoralism or the indulgences of the picturesque” but is rather concerned with notions of geographical truth. This removal of emotional attachment to landscape is something I’m intrigued by, partly because it’s something I feel (or perhaps don’t feel) myself and partly because those notions of some kind of scientific geographical ‘truth’ do not interest me in the slightest.

Bringing in our notions of tangents again, this relationship between landscape eliciting an intellectual response as opposed to an emotional one puts me in mind also of the visual and musical work of James Brooks and his Land Observations. Brooks has always been primarily interested in notions of process in his work and the threads of landscape (and of moving through landscape) filter through his earlier musical work with the group Appliance (‘Land, Sea and Air’, ‘‘Mountains, pt 1’, ‘Map Of The Territory’, ‘This Is The Place’, ‘We Are Not Stationary’) but it is with his Land Observations work that the connections to the landscape, and in particular the human interventions with that landscape really mature. The ‘Roman Roads’ body of work (collected in EP and album forms in 2011 and 2013) quite explicitly reference the lines imposed on nature by humans navigating the space through which they must move, whilst 2014’s beautiful ‘The Grand Tour’ develops this into broader notions of movement across, through and between landscapes (urban and rural). In all of this music Brooks has continued to explore the realms of repetition and cyclical patterns earthed in the work of Appliance, pulling these threads further into minimal, liminal spaces between the abstract and the real. Brooks’ visual work over the same period and beyond has followed parallel lines, and if in more recent years that work has been almost exclusively concerned with drawing inspiration from (and reference to) the constructed landscape it is always primarily concerned with removing emotional attachment to the spaces and their visual representation whilst simultaneously (and I would say with a cool humour) recognising instinctive emotional responses through colour and compositional arrangement of shape and form.

These notions resonate strongly in Sackett’s work too, particularly in the way in which he constructs work (much of it collected in the excellent ‘Englshpublshing’ book) by using the graphical quality of text and typography to challenge our perceptions of what language means, what (printed) words are for. Sackett softly but deftly makes us ask questions about the purpose of printed diagrams too, specifically in his terrific 2006 work/book ‘The True Line’ in which he collects a number of landscape diagrams made by Geoffrey Hutchings (there are connections here too between Hutchings’ diagrammatic use of marks out to those used by Brooks in his drawings – check the artwork for the ‘Roman Roads IV: XI’ album). Sackett’s book/work repurposes Hutchings’ diagrams by removing them from original contexts and presenting elements of them within new graphical relationships. With reference carefully made to the original contexts in a list of “published sources” accompanied by a “biographical commentary” of Hutchings’ work the work/book suggests itself in on breath as an academic record of Hutchings’ diagrams whilst in another proclaiming itself as no such thing.

Sackett’s work then seems to insist that we question what we are looking at, that we recognise the possibility of multiple reinterpretations of the same texts. And like Brooks’ work it is cool whilst not being cold, intellectually stimulating whilst never being academically impenetrable. Delicate balancing acts.

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