Just under the Surface

Kay Syrad

On 6th May 2011, an extraordinary exhibition, Just under the Surface, opened in the Crypt Gallery beneath St. Pancras Church in Euston Road, London. The crypt was used for coffin burials between 1822 and 1854 and as an air raid shelter in both world wars, and although it has been a gallery since 2002, it has hardly been changed or renovated. Before the exhibition was installed I was overwhelmed by the smell of damp as I descended the stone steps into the dismal passages and chambers, a damp that was manifest in the brick walls scaling and encrusted with crystallised salt. But Just under the Surface completely transformed this space, first of all by using a film projection of water that flickered over the central passageway and over the tombstones, making us aware of movement even in this place of stasis; and secondly, by creating cleverly lit installations that drew attention to the life force present in all forms: rivers sculpted from rawhide or paper, tactile ceramic and sand sculptures, real and fabricated spores, an installation mirroring the efflorescence of the bricks, a film made in the depths of a forest overlaid with experimental sound works.

Just under the Surface was extraordinary on two particular counts:  firstly, it was the inaugural show created by an international artists’ collective called Art in Touch, whose mission is, according to the exhibition catalogue, to explore ‘the aesthetic, emotional, bodily and metaphysical possibilities of an art that is keenly aware of the senses, especially touch.’ Pioneered in 2009 by Tereza Stehlίková and Katie Gaudion, both research students at the Royal College of Art, Art in Touch proposed  ‘to create a platform for collaborative art projects…outside the limits of artistic disciplines.’ The core of the collective now comprises Rosalyn Driscoll, a sculptor from the United States, ceramist Bonnie Kemske, also from the US, French textile and installation artist Anaïs Tondeur, and Stehlίková, who is a Czech filmmaker. The four were assisted in creating this show by two British artists, Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner), a sound designer, and large-scale photographer Dan Tobin Smith), whilst a Swedish designer, Kristina Gromark, produced the exhibition catalogue. Taking the project into deeper and future terrains, Art in Touch is also working with a French philosopher, Claire Petitmengin, who has been interviewing the artists and members of the audience about their inner experiences of the exhibition.

Secondly, the exhibition was created as if the crypt were another collaborator, so that the artists not only developed their ideas in mutual dialogue, but they did so in the presence of the demanding and visceral catacombs. Consequently, the themes that emerged for each artist – rivers and water, roots, branches, particular textures and shapes – occurred 'rather naturally,' says Stehlίková 'simply through experiencing the space of the crypt together as a group…' This engagement with the spirit and tactility of the space was fundamental to the project.

Below, Rosalyn Driscoll beautifully evokes and analyses the exhibition. Driscoll, who lives in Boston, is an artist renowned for her exploration of 'the languages of the body', and is an expert on touch. Her installations for this show drew on the classical mythology of the rivers that flowed through Hades, creating five rivers made from rawhide (which began to react to the elements in the crypt, producing a powerful smell) and two rivers delicately wrought from tissue paper. Here she begins by describing Stehlίková's projection onto the walls of the crypt:

'In Tereza's film of Wistman's Wood, we see brief glimpses of a child climbing a spiral staircase; the child is small and the images are occasional, ephemeral flashes in the whole film, locating the viewer in a much larger, non-human field of being. Minimal human presence is also expressed in the stillness of the camera; any movement comes from the natural elements stirred by the wind or the motion of water, rather than imposed by the photographer. This vision of the natural world as the ground of our being ran through the whole installation. Although we had not consciously decided to develop this theme, the elemental nature of the crypt suggested a realm of being that is deeper and larger than our ordinary range of attention. It evoked in each of us the desire to explore a field infinitely larger or other than our usual sphere of awareness.

Radical shifts in scale and viewpoint, rather than the familiar human perspective, were an important part of this effect. The shape of the rawhide rivers could alternatively suggest a birds-eye view or the motion of water close at hand. Tereza's film so magnified the domain of moss and lichen we could not tell where we were or what we were seeing; the forms were both natural and alien. In Anaïs' rendering, spores grew taller than people, sprouting green in the midst of darkness and the dead. Bonnie's sand landscape could be microscopic or terrestrial. Tereza's video images projected inside the rawhide river evoked in quick succession the interior of a body, fields of wheat, and vast landscapes.

One visitor observed that his sense of agency or will was loosened and freed in looking at the rawhide river in the last room; it seemed not made by human artifice or will but by the forces of nature. I had in fact made the rivers by allowing the natural forces of drying rawhide to take the fluid, serpentine forms of rivers. I used whole hides, so the animal from which it came was present in an essential way, transformed into motion and light. Translucent, like water, and lit from within, the hides were both elemental and other-worldly.

Water, the medium of life, was central to the installation. Water insinuates itself into the tiniest crevices, rising up from below and sinking down from above, bringing life or death wherever it goes. Visitors entered water, moving from immersion to observation and back again. Visitors were immersed in water in the main passage; the gravestones were made of water; water flowed through the film and across the crypt wall; the rawhide rivers embodied the motion of water and, resembling our own skins, reminded us that we are made of water.

One visitor remarked that the exhibit expressed regeneration and renewal—new life in the very midst of death. Another thought of the myth of Persephone, who was abducted to the underworld and had to remain there because she ate one pomegranate seed; she was allowed to return to the earth once a year, when it blooms again. The seed of regeneration is planted in the underworld. The installation evoked the regenerative aspect of death, conveying that nothing is ever really without life. Life emerges in the darkest places—as mould, fungi, mushroom, lichen—growing close to the surfaces from which it springs. This is an intimacy not of touch but of emergence, merger, embrace.

Indeed, in this installation we artists explored the somatic, bodily senses more than simple touch or contact. People were bodily, viscerally affected—disturbed, disoriented, delighted—as they moved through the labyrinth looking, touching, listening and smelling. We moved under the surface of touch, of the skin, of the earth, taken to new depths by the crypt and each other. We came together around the sense of touch, but discovered deeper meanings and manifestations of "touch," to the point where I feel we need new language for what we are doing.

In this sense the installation did not just represent; it managed to present. The artwork was not detached but integrated into—indeed, emerged from—the crypt and its inhabitants. Each artwork was not just an image or representation of something else. It was not meant to be seen from a safe distance. It would not exist in its fullest meaning somewhere else. Each element was an event, a situation, a space, a realm one could enter, move inside. The crypt itself—stone floors and lintels, brick walls and arches, odd alcoves and chambers—surrounded, disturbed and engaged visitors, intensifying the impression that the installation was as much the crypt as the things within it. The sensory intensity deepened this experience, offering not bloodless, disembodied images but full-bodied, multisensory presences. To paraphrase Hans Gumbrecht, in meaning cultures the dominant human self-reference is the mind; in presence cultures, it's the body.'

Interested in developing some of the themes emerging from the show, Unstructured had a few questions to ask of the collective. The first, Do you think the work that you are doing (individually or as group) can be/should be considered ecological art? was answered by Tereza Stehlίková, who is not only a filmmaker and animator but also a writer and co-editor of the cultural journal, Artesian. Her PhD research at the Royal College is about tactile memory and ways of enabling the body to experience the tactile in film.

'This question of ecology is something I am concerned with, but perhaps not as directly as some other artists are. I believe by the virtue of being alive at this point in time, I cannot but be involved in this problem, at least to some extent.

I think the key lies in the definition of ecological art. How do we understand ecological art?

Looking at the etymology of the word ecology, we see that the first part comes from the Greek oikos, which means a house. The symbolism of the house is manifold, but all definitions share some very basic qualities.

"House is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind" says Bachelard in his Poetics of Space, "without it man would be a dispersed being…It is the human being's first world".

Ecology is a form of housekeeping, it is about integration: of individuals being part of a larger world, and the world being part of us.

I believe that ecology needs to be understood as both an internal as well as an external concern. In fact, my sense is that it is primarily because of being dispersed internally that the external disconnection happens. The consequences of this failing of internal integration are apparent, even, or especially, on a global scale.

My work is, to some extent, about turning inwards and pinpointing the landmarks scattered across my own psychic map, noticing the paths that link them in a network of interactions. It is through this most subjective pursuit that I believe a more general pattern of fundamental interdependencies can be discovered.

The Crypt, where Just under the Surface took place, is itself an archetypal space imbued with universal symbolism. To come back to Bachelard, we hear him speak of "an oneiric house, a house of dream-memory, that is lost in the shadow of a beyond of the real past." He calls this "oneiric house the crypt of the house that we were born in. Here we find ourselves at a pivotal point around which reciprocal interpretations of dreams through thought and thought through dreams, keep turning."

It is in "the shadow of the beyond of the real past", or in other words the crypt that one must begin to start making sense of the world and one's positioning in it. It is where the sense of sight alone is not sufficient to help us see, where other more primal senses must take over. It is there that we come to realize how much there is to discover, to remember about ourselves in order to start understanding the all too painful intertwining of our being with all other beings, trees, buildings, cities and forests that make up our world.'

Stehlίková also responded to our second question, What is the relation of the work to the natural world?

'This question is a continuation of the previous point. In my work I had literally to return to the house of my childhood and record it, in order to free myself from its "haunting". The need to turn towards the natural world followed quite organically. What appealed to me in the Crypt in particular was the merging of the literal house (i.e. the Crypt itself) with the less obvious, but equally powerful sense of an enclosed space of a forest. This theme seemed to be further connected to the idea of inverting outside and inside. Bringing an exterior into an interior space taps into a deeper fascination with an ability to reverse the relationship between the inner and the outer. Here the theme was very much shared between us, with Roz's idea of underground rivers, Anaïs's underground plants and even an early concept of a field of wild flowers, very much feeding into this process. At the same time, the way I filmed the forest was an attempt to make something deeply interior, visible.

To connect this to my earlier point, one of the concepts I am interested in is the surrealist idea of "morphologie mentale", which was also reflected on by Rilke, Bachelard and for example the contemporary Czech geologist Vaclav Cilek. It is the idea of the intertwining of the external landscape and an individual's psyche, especially in early childhood. Landscape can thus be read as an external expression of the deeply internal. In my work exploring the natural world is about exploring oneself.'

The French artist Anaïs Tondeur - whose work included a witty installation of bright green growing lentils in transparent trays hung from the ceiling of one of the chambers and exquisitely fabricated giant spores, with the new lentils stitched into the spore heads once they were mature enough - fruitfully rephrased our question and responded under her own heading,

Relation of the work to the natural conditions of the space :

‘The collaboration between tactile artists working with sculptures, moving image, installation and words, Just under the Surface is before all, a collaboration between artists and a space: the Crypt Gallery.

The traffic of the arterial road behind, below the solemn church of St Pancras, the Crypt Gallery opens onto another realm: a cold burial site of efflorescent stones.

The under body of the city unveils a hidden archetypal space where shadows of the natural world resist and the show, through a multi sensorial installation, offers to re conquer.

Water flows, clay dries and crackles, forms germinate, grow and die…

The pieces of the installation draw their roots in the far murmur of an undercurrent stream, in the embrace of the space, in the rough texture of the crackling bricks …

The natural elements of the crypt inform the symbols, the shapes, the materiality of the work but also play a role in its physical emergence. Thus, at the end of the long, central, fluid and shimmering corridor, a thin inner wall of clay crumbles, collapses and gradually reveals a textured projection of vegetal traces. This last piece is composed of an ink drawing and a projection. The drawing lets, in the transparency of its textured lines, the projection of a lichen appear. As in the natural world, the work takes form with time.

Behind the heavy doors of the crypt, larger ink drawings also evolve during the time of the exhibition. Created from a reaction of fine soot, shellac and salt, the drawings transform according to the humidity level of the Gallery. The salt in the composition attracts the wet particles of the crypt that, once on the canvas make the lines of the pattern evolve.

Furthermore, growing sculptures, interacting with a projected close-up of moss or presented as a suspended garden, were developed as a process-led work. They do not only change in reaction to humidity but are generated by it. The moistness of the air, in a smell of humus, activates the germination process of the organic elements of the sculpture. In spite of the darkness of the crypt, they grow with an effervescent suddenness.

Time and natural conditions are collaborator and accomplice in the production of the work. They are defining factors of its emergence.

In this collaboration between material and space, the human input collects, combines, directs matter and elements, and creates an interaction between the natural conditions of the space and the materials of the sculpture. A considerable attention is given to the "energies in progress" (growth, decay, breath, balance…) imperceptible yet living signs of transformation, caring for transitory states and the prehension of the body amongst it.'

The fourth artist, Bonnie Kemske, challenged the formulation of our next question, How would you talk about the relation of the senses to the natural world (and specifically touch)? Kemske, Editor of Ceramic Review, holds a PhD in touch and ceramic sculpture. Her textured clay-fired work is made to be touched and held by the viewer, challenging the predominance of sight in response to art. In her artist's statement in the exhibition catalogue, Kemske says that 'As a ceramist I felt I was on the inside of a clay vessel…exploring the inner furnace of this sense-engaging space.' Thus her pieces for the Crypt Gallery were designed to 'deepen the sense of containment…speed up the sense of decay and articulate the influence that visitors have on this respected place.'

'This question does not sit comfortably, perhaps because the term 'natural world' implies an us-and-them relationship between humans and earth. It carries with it overtones of our Judeo-Christian heritage, and not particularly healthy ones. God created Man and gave him dominion over all the earth – setting him apart from the earth. In reality, there is no natural and unnatural world; there is only one world. The natural world includes all that humankind creates, just as it includes the complex structures made by bees and the wasteland created by a tsunami.

Sometimes, however, we need reminding of this, that we are of this earth, and we yearn for that which we have not created ourselves, or at least for something that seems to take us beyond what we are (one of the roles of art). In the Crypt we brought some of that to the foreground of our consciousness, bringing in the images, impressions, and most of all, the feelings, of things we perceive as not touched by humans. Damp fills the air, escaping from the stone of the crypt walls. Lichen-covered branches sway in a wind over which we have no control. Seeds sprout of their own volition. The flesh of rawhide rots, a rank odour emanating from it. Sand shifts and changes or remains still, depending on gravity and intervention. It is in experiencing these kinds of 'natural' events (physical sensations that feed our mental awareness) that we feel part of the 'natural world' again.'

Anaïs Tondeur also challenged the formulation of the question by again responding under her own heading, drawing attention specifically to touch,

Looking for a way to be amidst rather than standing before the world

'[The] multi sensorial installation Just under the Surface draws from the wish to share an experience and an emotion of the place […], a perceptual engagement, and bringing, beyond the immediate, the presence of a sensation. In this endeavour, the senses are mediators, links between the exterior and the interior, passages from the world to the body, the skin to touch.

The principle of touch invites us to re-interrogate constantly the need to feel the constriction of a contact, the reach of a limit. There is a risk, when one holds, when one touches. It is like groping one’s way along, like a sighted person suddenly blind, and trying to make one’s way through. The hand is capable to touch, attentive to the friction with the foreign. It is open to the exteriority and the possibility of meeting something new. But the hand shows a limit. Between curiosity and fear, it perceives the relief, the textures, the pleat or the interstices but cannot apprehend depth or the hidden thickness of a surface.

It is the haptic that allows access to this depth, the materiality of a form, of its contours and points. The haptic space brings into focus the materiality of the poetics, […] it can re-situate the flesh and the substance to an ordinary perception.

To move from the optic space of the installation (the scenography) towards a haptic space is to get from an exogenous space to endogenous space. It can be apprehended in a different way, in a sensible way. The sensation procured goes beyond the function of the organs.

Haptic, from the Greek apto: to touch, was used by Alois Riegl in his research on Egyptian art and flat relief compositions. The haptic signifies a possibility of the gaze. It is a type of vision distinct from the optics, which gives to the eye the power to touch. In Francis Bacon: the logic of the sensation Deleuze considers the haptic as a function where the hand is not subordinate to the eye, as in the classical tradition of representation, but gives to the eye a tactile function. It takes further the distinction between eye/hand, tactile/optic.

Just under the Surface questioned this tactile eye as a type of encounter that is not a means to replace the other senses but allows one to slide in the materiality of the work and its “ineluctable modalities”.’

Stehlίková also responded to this question:

‘The natural world is, in my view, a place where the senses become most fully activated. In modern cities, due to noise pollution and advertising, our senses (especially those of sight and hearing) are constantly over stimulated, leading to numbness. On top of that, contemporary western cities seem to be about neutralizing, or smoothing of one’s experience, removing any friction, especially in regards to touch and the body in general. One can glide through a shopping mall and feel almost weightless, disembodied.

In comparison, the natural world is less managed, and therefore more challenging and rewarding to the senses. It offers to us the feeling of both being part of this world and in friction (or dialogue) with it, through one’s body, and its resistance. This sensation, while not necessarily smooth or pleasant (i.e. we may be too hot, too cold, have blisters, get stung…) is constantly invigorating, and creative.

To take this further, I would say that the directness of such experience is connected to its authenticity, which itself is a form of presentation, rather than representation.’

Finally, we asked Do you feel that the four of you and your work is an ensemble? That if you subtract one or other, it is still credible as an art entity, or does it lose something inherent to the project?Stehlίková again:

‘The Crypt show was a first major collaboration that happened under the umbrella of Art in Touch, and in my view it was a very successful one. The four main artists involved had all equal curatorial input, and we made sure to meet regularly and discuss the show in the space of the gallery as often as possible. This close dialogue helped us to develop our shared and individual work further, since we were able to help each other to overcome the limitations of our particular field of expertise, and approach the subject from angles we would normally not perceive. Our mutual dialogue happened on various levels, and we have found some interesting echoes and threads running through our work, almost organically. These were themes such as rivers and water in general, roots, branches as well as various textures and shapes. All of this happened rather naturally, simply through experiencing the space of the crypt together as a group, and discussing our thoughts and ideas.

I believe that collaboration within the right configuration of individuals (who are both strong in their field while very open to dialogue and new impressions) is an absolutely invaluable, inspiring way of working, as it enables one to confront one’s own limitations and blind spots, through gaining new perspectives. I have also noticed something quite alchemical in regards to a successful collaboration: a process can take place which, while being set in motion by individual participants, gains its own momentum and also character.

In the case of this particular collaboration, there was also an added element of our common interest, the sense of touch and to some extent also the concept of embodiment. Physical presence was therefore vital, in terms of working closely on the overall concept of the show, and also directly on the location, i.e. in the space of the Crypt. We were very conscious of the unconscious influences exerted by a particular place, especially one so charged as the Crypt Gallery is.’

‘Collaboration. It implies such a free-flowing process, a give and take, a joining. Yet it is so much more,’ said Bonnie Kemske. ‘We each bring to the venture our art, our knowledge, the processes we have learned, conquered, and made our own, but we also bring ourselves. Four individuals, each with a distinct approach to working, a discrete understanding, a separate vision, and an independent personality trying to meld, merge, and balance a single event.

First, we search for points of connection – where do each of our approaches, our visions, meet? From there we search for the way forward, we look for the dynamic that will carry us together to a single result. In addition, each of us interacts separately with the others – some pairings finding strong common threads and work from there; other twos work through contrast, the differing processes clashing and bringing us to new ways of thinking.

Even the very premise of the project, touch, we approach and interpret differently, bringing additional layers of experience to the visitor. Some of us are materials-based; we think through our understanding of the stuff of our art. Others lead with concept – dreams, stories, and visions guiding the outcomes. Some work ahead; others respond in the moment. Adjustments are made, and through the adjustments new approaches emerge.’

And what of future projects for Art in Touch?  The collective found that working together as a small group was most powerful in combination with a specific environment, as was the case with the Crypt. Rosalyn Driscoll used the Buddhist concept of "creating conditions" […] - an improvisatory process for deepening the end result.... [in future] we might do more physical, spatial, sensory exploration ourselves as we develop another project’, exploring ideas in specific surroundings, and working on collaborations with particular locations in mind, so that – as it did in Just Under the Surface, the collective can produce ‘something far beyond each of our capabilities.’

Kay Syrad  is a poet and novelist.  She wrote the exhibition catalogue for Just under the Surface. www.kaysyrad.co.uk