Final Major Project – self-isolation earthwork performance

Following my reflections on self-isolation, making oneself an island, in this current climate of coronavirus lockdown, I wanted to experiment with creating an earthwork in performance. A moat, while ostensibly being a body of water, is first an earthwork – involving the movement and construction of large amounts of earth. I planned that this should primarily involve my push gesture, on my knees, arms extended, pushing the earth away so that it would create a trench and a mound encircling me.

The video above records this process, which in fact ended up seeing much more tearing and pulling than pushing – I encountered several areas where the earth was resisting my efforts, and felt great frustration and hopelessness. I persevered, and it took great physical effort. I paused at the end to rest, recover my breath, and find peace in the space I had made for myself. Throughout we hear and see the effect of external forces (the wind), and some passersby can be spotted in the background, and reflected in my reaction during my recovery period.

I decided to walk out to Northchurch Common, approx. 25 minutes walk from my home, to conduct this performance, taking with me my camera and holder. I chose this place as I was aware of there being historic earthworks in this area, used for a similar protective purpose. I discovered a tree near to these earthworks with suitably low-hanging branches I could affix my camera to, with a patch of ground that would be appropriate for my experiment.

Map of Northchurch common, with the earthwork marked in the centre.
The tree from which I hung my camera, and my completed earthwork – I considered whether to make use of the long shadow of the tree but decided it best to allow focus on the process/form itself of my constructing.

I particularly wanted to engage with the process of making the earthwork using my hands/fingers, rather than using any tool or gloves to shield or protect myself. Firstly, so that my only protection was coming from the earthwork itself – we have no defence from this virus other than the practices of self-isolation, social distancing, and hand washing. Secondly, to directly undermine this hand washing practice – making my hands purposefully very dirty. Thirdly, as a representation of manual labour – I am literally labouring with my very hands, something that is atypical for someone of the middle class, and in our digital world where we engage less and less with the physical, with nature. Lastly, to make this most personal and direct means of expressing – by sensorially and manually engaging with the earth, I felt I might be better able to channel my emotions through my actions.

I chose to dress in black, to reflect the dark emotions I was exploring, and to avoid drawing focus from my actions. But too, the top I wore was similar to a dance leotard. I chose to keep on my accessories (engagement ring, watch, earrings, hairband), which I felt personalised the video more, made it individual and also feminised. It also roots the act in my identity and social strata (something I cannot escape). I kept on my practical hiking shoes, though in retrospect I think it would have been poignant to have worked barefoot here.

That my top rides up at the back in the video, revealing my lower back, was unintended, but is a curious effect. It highlights my vulnerability in this process, as well as being an unflattering view of my body. This harks back to my future self-portrait, which sought too to highlight and undermine notions of feminine beauty.

I think I will need to do some further research, to understand land art as a context, and what female performance has taken place within a context of nature/earth previously.

Final Major Project – Reflection on pushing gesture

Following my experimentation with pouring paint/gesture, it took several days for the paint to dry. The colour darkened during this, and below the final result. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m not sure this fully expresses, since I was concerned with the pour of the paint, and so a more vigorous gestural work in this vein might be worth doing. It also could have done with some sort of background? Though I quite like the stark simplicity of this.

I like the near symmetry of this piece, and that the marks suggest a pattern or symbol of some form. It reminds me somewhat of rorschach ink blots in this way. But too the fluidity of the paint and the arching imply a spring or fountain of water for me. I was interested too by the concept of bodies of water in themselves as an action, having visited my local castle ruin in Berkhamsted on one of my daily walks.

I was reflecting on the concept of a moat in relation to the practice now of social distancing and self-isolation that we are mandated to perform during this coronavirus pandemic. The word isolation itself deriving from the Latin word insulatus, meaning to make an island. The manmade moat of this castle is in a literal sense constructing an island (whereby the castle is the island, isolated from its surroundings), and making manifest then this idea of social distancing.

Moats for me though imply a sense of stagnation, of anxiety and fear, and protection. I took several photos on my visit as I reflected on this, but found it difficult to capture just one that fully encapsulated that this was in fact a moat, and not some other body of water, such as a river. The closest to communicating that is the first below, where we can see the path across, a piece of the castle walls, and the two fortification mounds, but to gain this perspective little of the moat itself is visible. I think use of a drone camera (or at least, a much higher angle) would best work to capture the full sense of the moat.

I think this sense of distancing/isolating ourselves is also reflected in this pushing gesture I have been exploring. Pushing others away, rejecting our former habits and behaviours, creating physical distance/space for ourselves, all for me can be implied by this action of extending the limbs forwards and outwards.

When thought of in the context of water – pushing against water perhaps – it is also reminiscent of swimming, i.e. the breast stroke. A means of propelling ourselves, harnessing the resistance of the water. In thinking about water I became interested too in this resistance – the forces that act back upon us when we act on the world, as in Newton’s third law – the effects of our actions, repercussions and consequences (foreseen or not).

This is particularly topical at the moment, as we are made aware of the consequences of our individual behaviour on others – the possibility of spreading the virus by unnecessary contact with others. This has been made apparent by the study of the spread of the virus in South Korea, where just one infected person accounted for the majority of cases – patient #31.

Many images/animations have been circulating online using this matches illustration for the importance of social distancing to prevent the virus spreading to others