Land, sea and sky: Red Earth's Seven Sisters ritual performance

Brighton’s Red Earth re-make performance ritual on the South English coastline

Brighton on England’s south coast – often (though erroneously) described as Britain’s San Francisco – sits amidst a geographical formation thousands of years old. The chalk downlands rise up a few miles inland, the first inkling of foothills which will continue to grow in grandeur for many miles, before abruptly brought to a halt by sea and English Channel. Eastwards, at this meeting point between sea and land, are stone-filled beaches, mouths of river valleys cutting into the downland, and dramatic chalk cliffs, which continue for a full score miles until the Southdowns sweep down into a different ecosystem; flat plain-land signalling the next urban town, Eastbourne. Near this easterly conclusion, aeons of time have weathered seven river valleys, today and for a long time dry, into the world famous Seven Sisters cliffs. Below on the rough, boulder and seaweed laden shore the cliffs rise magnificent and awesome. Hundreds of years of sheep grazing has produced a ‘diverted climax’ - in eco-systems speak - of grass and heather.

Red Earth1The Southdowns are public land, owned by the British National Trust to be kept for the public’s benefit and enjoyment. Which, of course, the public does; the whole area is a popular recreational destination all through the year. But the Seven Sisters contain another story, which happens not in terms of people’s lives, but in earth-time, geological spans of thousands of years. These vast time spans inspired the Red Earth artists, a Brighton based installation cum ritual/performance art ecological partnership, when they began to plan an all summer project exploring what one half of the group, Caitlin Easterby, describes as the ‘geological tension’ between the forces of the sea and the forces of the land. The installation, Geograph: Drawing the Landscape, which took place over the summer of 2005 involved a series of events which drew on and drew out the particular geological qualities of the Seven Sisters, and its immediate shoreline Red Earth 2habitat.

Beginning with a two hundred metre long erosion line, created by over fifty participants in one day Trace referred to the quiet, invisible, yet relentless erosion which is a geological constant at these cliffs, and echoed the contour of the cliff face ten years earlier.  Trace, was the first installation piece of Geograph. It was complemented by a ritual towards the end of the June day with a water offering to the low tide, while conch shells blew and bells rang. Simultaneously, thousands of miles away, on the shoreline of the Javanese coast, a long-time Red Earth partner, performance artist and shaman, Parmin Ras was performing another water ritual. It was as if despite the distance between the two, the planets same finite amount of water was being shared, from one side of the earth to the other.

Weeks later, up on the brow of the fourth sister, Vanishing Point , the site specific installation designed by both Caitlin and her partner, Simon Pascoe, the other half of Red Earth, was completed, a beautiful piece of woven birch in the shape of two interlocking curving waves, held together by wattle and daub plus nails. Folded into these events Red Earth consulted Rory Mortimer, a professor of Geology from the University Red Earth 3Red Earth 4 of Brighton, the local university. From Mortimer the couple learnt considerably more about the history of the chalk cliff. Not only did the European chalk range carry across much of Britain, up to York, two hundred miles north, but also over a significant part of continental Europe, at least as far as Berlin, Germany. While the two were familiar with the classroom geology, which teaches that chalk is fossilised creatures compressed over thousands of years undersea, they learned something new and astonishing. It is only when the sea water drops that in surface height that holes appear, in the Red Earth 5silica, made by sea creatures in the calcium deposits from yet earlier generations of sea creatures which, in turn fill with silica and over long periods of prehistory solidify, turning into the flint which is a ubiquitous and immediately recognisable part of the chalk so central to the downland. Stranger still, in Simon and Caitlin's eyes, is the fact that the silica's solidification only happens at very particular geological moments, when there is a shift in the elliptical movement of the planet, and the Earth's axis tilts, a celestial phenomena which Mortimore pointed out, happens either every, 45, 000 or 19, 000 years, (the geological jury still being out on this) remaining to this day as a series of still present flint lines, marking these distant moments.

This was a revelation to Red Earth who over the years have given charged, elemental performances in different parts of this landscape. My sense, received through their performance pieces, as well as the sense of their personal language, Red Earth 6is that Simon and Caitlin see the world, including the natural world as phenomenally alive - a kind of contemporary animism, which we are all part of, rather than separate from. While distances of space – different, other parts of the world – have been a staple part of the Red Earth repertoire, a literal association with time, and particularly geological time hasn’t seemed significant. However, their name, Red Earth, suggests an implicit connection to the long geological time-spans earth, be it either red or white chalk has been around. Up to this piece, Caitlin and Simon haven’t foregrounded the sense of vast periods of time that comes with the geological perspective, an investigation which Andy Goldsworthy explored intensively in his Millennium year London installation Time, (see Fourth Door Review 6.)

Geological time, implicit in the process of continuous erosion, and its effects on the Seven Sisters landscape, could again be seen in the backdrop of the concluding days performance and installation was a week short of the end of September, when the closing ceremony was held. By this time Parmin Ras had travelled the four thousand miles from Parmin RasIndonesia, and along with Simon and Caitlin, as well as the extended Red Earth performance family, Impey, musician Ansuman Biswas, and performer David Statham performed a slow purification ritual at the Vanishing Point installation. They invited the audience to walk through the sculpture, as a gateway between visible and the invisible. This part of the ritual, entitled Journey, continued down the valley dip, with a series of ten white 5 metre flags brought out to mark another chalk line, where in years to come the cliffs would reach. As afternoon moved towards early evening, the performance moved to the Birling Gap beach, where both performers and audience waited for, what was, when it came, the dramatic sight of the beaches water line lit with fire, before the final closing water ceremony, where again chalk water - with Parmin this time at its centre - was returned by Impey from a bowl into the sea.

Parmin RasAs an indication of Red Earth's hybrid performance-installation pieces, Geograph contained many of the elements, which have made them well known in Brighton and further a field over the last 15 years. Working with and in an open site-specific context, mixing or drawing together the ritual/ performance element, with installation pieces, is a combination, which in Britain, at least, no-one else is attempting. As sculpture Vanishing Point feels not unrelated to the willow vortices of Chris Drury or the Irishman, Patrick Dougherty's, whispy creations, but try imagining either of those artists adding ritual into the mix (you can't) and you get the difference. Then there's the intercultural element. Caitlin and Simon went through a long series of related journey pieces, which came out of their experience with Parmin and other dancer-artists in Indonesia (exhaustively explored in their Fourth Door Review interview Interfacing Spirit World's - Red Earth's Javanese Odyssey, FDR4) as well as other projects in or with Mongolian and Japanese artists. The ritual element for the Seven Sisters installation as much as any of these earlier joint pieces aims at unveiling, as Simon describes it, 'notions that are tantalisingly beyond our comprehension.' Animism, liminal spaces, alchemy, and from Hindu cosmology by way of their Indonesian sojourn, the Javanese term halus - the increasingly refined sense (or more precisely, essence) of the world. Such a language of the alchemical, the liminal, and of activation, are a core part of Red Earth's vocabulary, words which express the experience of the other worlds they are seeking to draw their audience into sharing. 'Erosion' Simon points out is 'about constant transformation. We're always in a very liquid state, which can never be fixed. Fixing is a completely artificial notion.' And Geograph, from Trace, through to Vanishing Point is about the impermanence of the landscape, including the geological tension between land and sea.

Red Earth 7Is this art and ecology, or art and geology? Simon says there isn't a difference. And yes, the chalk was once living sea creatures and belongs to the life world. But the time spans are inordinately different, the fossilisation processes that initiate chalk belong to a different world from that of the flora and fauna which shoot up out of the downs thousands of years later. Simon professes delight at how Geograph facilitated two completely different ways of relating to the world in one project - "that's why it was a successful project." I ask if the two men, Parmin and Rory, met each other, to which Simon demurs, saying the one felt the land, while the other explained it.

When five years ago the Javanese trilogy of pieces - Water Crossing, Alum Halus, and Dark Matter - was complete, they splintered into two directions, a land art installation, Outcrop appeared on the north face of the Downs in 2001 - itself a continuation of their pre-Java work - and a performance piece Breath was the result of a new collaboration after a Japanese residency. Since then they have made two performance /research trips to Mongolia. Geograph, however, constitutes the first sustained piece where the Indonesian connection has been resurrected, yet is something rather different, informed by Red Earth 8this other, occasional strand - Both conceptually Geograph and in Vanishing Point as land sculpture picks up where the Outcrop strand of their work left off and adds new elements to the architectural-sculptural language of their installations - and the beginnings of something new. The partnering with science, in the shape of geology seems more central than hitherto. Where will this lead? This far in, who is to say, but adding the pre-human deep past of earth time is a suggestive element in Red Earth's performance ritual repertoire, taking up the arrow (rather than the cycles) of time into the ring of their one-off hybrid of nature-based art installations.

This piece first appeared on the GreenMuseum web-magazine in 2006. See also 21st Century Land Art in this Unstructured.

Vanishing point full silhouette