All the fun of the apocalypse: Ivan and Heather Morison

Art Journey

Spring was late when the Morison's arrived in Finland in 2004: the English couple had been told about a unique garden planted and nurtured by an elderly Finnish woman and curious, they sought her out. Snow was still underfoot and the thaw had not begun, so they had to imagine flowers beneath the frosted white earth as the woman told them her story. And it was the garden that fired their imaginations. Invisible flowers lay hidden, collected from the four corners of the world and connected to particular journeys and visits the woman had made down the years. Each revealed a different story, signifying long ago memories, which, while talking with her, they recorded for a radio series they were gradually compiling. A few days later, a second chance meeting landed in their laps. Put in touch with a man who owned and looked after an arboretum, they again made the journey to meet him. In similar fashion to the garden's octogenarian keeper, a radio interview was conducted and the interviewee told them of how the arboretum was first planted by his grandfather. Ever since and down the decades, the collection of trees had gradually grown within the larger forest, all individually connected to the original Finnish family. The grandson told the stories of how and where the trees were from - including a Siberian larch bequeathed from his own grandfather. Through the telling of this story, the story of his family was also told. The arboretum had thus become a physical mnemonic of a family tree, the holder of the memories of the family.

The Morisons are Ivan and Heather Morison, a young artist couple, at the time edging thirty, and already established within Britain’s public art networks. They were known for working with the natural environment in urban settings, but in some ways felt stuck; so had begun to conceive a journey, in part to try and find a path out of an impasse: the perception that they were urban agricultural artists, conceptualists playing games in garden allotments. The approach had served them interestingly for a few years short of a decade, but now they knew they wanted a fresh start. And what better way, they figured, than a long transcontinental road journey. They decided it would begin by heading north towards the Baltic; through Lithuania, and then across to Finland, and points East - Russia, Mongolia, China and on, southbound.

After they had reached Finland, and once spring had finally arrived, the Morison’s did indeed continue eastwards, across Russia and on, down into China. There they decanted and began doing consciously art type activities again. The journey had been conceived as a live documentary research project. They were looking for surprises and new unanticipated directions. “It was meant to be a journey led by the people we met,” explained Ivan Morison in a recent conversation. With a footing in the British public art circuit, the journey was at least partially funded by the West Midlands arts organisation,Vivid, and aimed to collect and broadcast stories, conversations and other found and uncovered material while travelling. Postcards were sent, interviews recorded, and leads followed, whether or not any outcome was at the end or not. “We would meet up with people for a day. For instance, live ice fishing, or a florist shop in Lithuania with a young girl talking.” Russia was complicated, taping interviews controversial. “It was difficult to mike up, so we simulated it.” These conversations and discussions would become the basis for Global Survey, an eight episode radio show, entitled Still Life, eventually broadcast on London’s experimental music and sound radio station Resonance. The visit to the Finnish arboretum would become Still Life no 8. Other interesting moments accumulated. Mongolia turned out to be formative, and while staying in a backpacker traveller hostel in the capital, Ulan Bator, the early steps into science fiction, which has subsequently underscored so much of their work, were taken. There they found and then bought a collection of SF books, followed by others in China, which were to make a lasting impact. “Particularly a book called Crabs Moon.”

If new sci-fi books to check out and research were mind opening, it was the experiences in Finland, which stayed most vivid in their minds. By the time they trundled across the Mongolian border into the People’s Republic of China, the idea of an arboretum had rooted itself in their imaginations. The final arc in their road journey East, would be distinctly Western, ending in antipodean New Zealand. Various further experiences during the journey would inform a segment of work during the summer once they’d returned to Britain. By then, towards the end of 2004, the new path beyond the impasse felt clear; to look for a woodland to seed and cultivate their own arboretum, where their stories could be planted, grown and tended over the years, decades even. The urban preoccupations of the Morison’s practice up to this crossroad were familiar, as they were shared with many of their generation who had cast even the shortest span of attention on ‘nature’. By contrast, the arboretum dream was so non-urban that it cuts Ivan and Heather Morison’s art journey in two.

White Valley Wood

Early the next year, and with the arboretum lodged in their minds since their road travels through Eurasia, Wales hove into view. They had been heading across the border into Wales for some time looking for the right place, and in the spring of 2005, came upon some land on the Western edge of the country, near the coast and the Irish sea. Coed Gwynant (White Valley wood) involved selling up in their home in Birmingham and moving out West. The old model of gardens was being dispatched for a new one, the woods.

Out of this move, literal, physical, metaphysical and metaphorical, a new sculptural path began to unfold, one in which the use of timber, both old and new, was to emerge as central to their practice. Seven years later Ivan Morison is telling me something of this story in one of the artists two rented studio rooms, sitting on the edge of a container port in Portslade, part of the urban sprawl which extends west from the Southern English city of Brighton.

“We were trying to find out what we could do”, he acknowledges, adding that they were consciously “cutting themselves off from the past and starting a clean slate.” In practical terms they began work on the woodland, felling and thinning – and planting new species, including ones, which they’d carefully collected whilst traveling on the road overland.

Significant in the development of the artist couple’s wider practice, an explicit consequence has been the series of installation pieces with wood at their heart, which have begun to appear in the years since the journey. These have included Black Cloud in 2009, in 2010 Plaza, an installation in Vancouver, and most recently, a temporary sculptural fence along the rear face of London’s Tate Modern, in place until the new Herzog & de Meuron extension opens in 2016. The road journey also appears to have led to a new curiosity about the mythological, and how the two artists could integrate myths, stories and tales, whether of the imagination or in physical form, into their practice. They broke the ground on their newly seeded creation mythology, the arboretum origin of Morison’s first ur-story.  Yet Coed Gwynant itself, contained its own long lived stories, for it sat within a fragment of the surviving remnants of the great Atlantic Oakwoods. Once covering large tracts of Europe’s Western edges, these temperate forests ran uninterrupted from Northern Scotland down to Portugal; in North West Wales the remaining descendants are named the Meirionydd oak woods.

There was also the future and its mythological uncertainties. Just as they were collecting plant life from their travels, so the couple cultivated and archived a growing taste for abandoned futures. In their journeying they’d come upon a provocative seam of apocalyptic and dystopian landscapes in both science-fiction and other literature, which sat well alongside real world communities, where absolute belief in one form of imminent collapse or another, had led the communities into creating and maintaining alternative cultures and realities. For the Morison’s inner anthropologist, foraging on these sub-cultures was powerful mojo. Intensive forays into one sub-culture or another would be intensively documented, before returning to the civilising galleries of a white cube or installation space, bearing their anthropological evidence of these semi-disappeared tribesRather than an academic tome on one tribe or sub-culture, this was physical source material for one piece or another, invitations to the onlooker to step into a perilous future, or totemic aide memoire’s to a spectrum of disappeared sub-cultures. ‘Relics from the future’ one writer put it, where the documented results of these sorties would be presented, ready or not, to audiences; the mainstream normalised general public and accompanying art tribes.

Or that at least was how they spoke about it publicly. But if one looks at what they did as much as what they said, the move to the Welsh woods suggests something other.

Indeed, up to a point Ivan and Heather Morison’s turn to the wild, mirrors the wider growing up of their pre-Generation Y, those who began studying in the early 90’s in the afterglow of the 80’s Young British Artists schlock and awe. What is repeatedly striking about so much of the work of 90’s artists is its overwhelming urban focus. This includes practices who have been putatively considered environmental; deriving and informed by city life, whether allotments, bicycle or urban wildlife. The rural was out of bounds, unless one wanted to risk reputation, ratings and peer credulity.

Heather and Ivan Morison’s practice had begun on the back of a worldly strategy to work their way into and operate in London’s burgeoning mid-nineties art scene. Moving to London after a Critical Art Practice  course  in Brighton, Ivan Morison worked at one of the hip galleries, Lisson, before moving onto the team, which produced Frieze, the equally hip YBA generation in-house art magazine. “I never doubted that I was going to start as a producer, …there seemed to be no rush,” remarks Ivan. From this immersion the pair, already a couple, moved north, to Britain’s second city, Birmingham, with the aim – successfully undertaken - of making money on a property development, to fund a post graduate course and a bank balance to support their foray into the art field afterwards. The final project was turned into an installation at the end of the year; a garden 144 sq feet, (12 by 12) at the Ikon, the Birmingham’s main contemporary art space; “that was enough to get us going.”

From this earthbound launch pad, they continued with a variety of small projects, including a series of printed cards sent to a select, in the know, mailing list, and further installation pieces, invariably sited and related to gardens. Very quickly, Ivan recalls, they became associated with the then current arts and gardens scene; “our work wasn’t about gardening in any way.” It was a lesson in public perception and how easily work could be construed and associated with a particular scene, mood or fashion. A quartet of exhibitions, in London, Shrewsbury and Sheffield, followed, and by 2006, despite tiring of the gardening practice, I lost her near Fantasy Island, Life Has Not Been the Same, played out the theme, while also inaugurating a working relationship with the Bristol arts organization Situations, which has continued since. An action work of sorts, …Fantasy Island… starred 25,000 flowers spilling out of the open end of a jack-knifed articulated lorry in a busy Bristol street, followed by observation of how passer-by’s responded to the freeload of thousands of flowers for the taking, splayed across the road. A final flower show, The Land of Cockaigne was part of a Bloomberg space installation in 2007, but by then their hearts were elsewhere. The first decade had been exploratory, needing to be released to the winds. They’d been “just trying to find out what we could do,” says Ivan Morison, acknowledging that they were “cutting themselves off” from what had gone before, one act in washing the slate clean.

Before gardening, after woodland

It doesn’t appear to have been expressed in such language, but the move to Wales, precipitated a re-launch of the couple’s artistic practice. Fortuitously, soon after the move, they were approached by Hannah Firth, the curator to the Welsh Pavilion for the years – 2007 - Venice Biennale, inviting them – alongside Richard Deacon and Merlin James - to be one of three groups representing the country at one of the planets biggest art fests. The result would be two pieces made from wood, prototype experiments to a stream of projects which would follow. Fantasy Island, and Pleasure Island complement each other, the former on the Welsh hillside woodland, the latter shipped from Birmingham for the duration to Venice. The crystalline form cabin of Fantasy Island and its Venice sister were made from harvested timber after a February storm had brought down trees in the woods, a mix of Douglas fir, grand fir and hemlock. An impossible rubric cube, its deformed and confusing geometric patterning seemingly extending out of itself. “We had a lot of timber as a by-product, which went to the Venice piece” says Ivan of the work which was also the first physical fruit of a different aspect of their new found fascination - the short lived late sixties-early seventies hippie utopias, and their unlikely beatification of the old master of Geodesics, Buckminster Fuller.
Pleasure Island
Pleasure Island interior
Drop city

Drop city
Sixties utopias took a variety of forms for Heather and Ivan, but encompassed the brief flowering of the likes of Drop City – a geodesic-centric commune - as well as the mind-sets of a thousand other communes across the Western world, and the fantastical embrace of both ‘back to nature’ and the techno-geometrical dreamings informing the cult of Buckminster ‘Bucky’ Fuller . That the Morisons had recently completed an epic journey themselves, an art after-echo of the hippies Volkswagen Silk Route trails to India and the East, wasn’t referenced, even if in the intervening eighteen months between uncovering their arboretum and the Venice Biennale, they had begun investigating a further next step back into the sixties traveling culture. The road east had also triggered research into a related hippie culture phenomenon of converted traveling buses and vans that is partial ancestry to today’s Recreational Vehicle culture. A second, this time westward, road trip beckoned. Travelling the by-ways of the Pacific West Coast introduced the pair to another layer of the hippie sub-culture; craft mechanics who revived, rebuilt, and remade old vans, buses and trucks, turning them into nomadic homes from home, and then set off living in and out of the back of them. One town they visited was Quartzite, Arizona, known for a large market fair trading precious stones and minerals. It was here that the Morison’s came across pyrite (better known as ‘fools gold’), the source of the crystalline forms of their Venice and Welsh wood timber forms. The guru in mobile residence for the sub-culture is Lloyd Khan, the American designer and producer of the cult series of Shelter books, who has continued as part-public face, part documenter in chief of these natural, self-built homes, a continuing living tradition. Unlike Fuller, Khan’s name didn’t survive what came out of this research visit. Nor, for that matter, did any link to the current equivalent ongoing hippie tradition, well-known to any summer music festival circuit goer; the buses, vans, and trucks, which fuse a vernacular art-craft, with the practicalities of transport for the food, clothing and other craft micro-businesses that follow the festival circus throughout the warmer seasons. Again, the Morison’s haven’t to date integrated or acknowledged the contemporary aspects of this nomadic hippie culture, even if quite a few new age travellers end up settling in the very same wild Welsh countryside that the couple had fallen for.

When speaking about their absorption in these particular sub-cultures there is scant indication of any more personal influence on the two. The period and culture was, Ivan will say, a very specific, passing Utopian moment, a moment which includes their connection to Fuller’s geodesics. “We’ve been quoting him for years, and we’ve been tracing that moment, to get it out of our system. We were interested in the fantasy idea – the dome/zome – to take it and mix it all up. But all that unsupported intensity, it doesn’t make sense, I do love it though.” Talking, he finds himself comparing those pasts with the present. “It was such an optimistic moment and then you’d see what they are doing now. At times some did seem worn down, with their old trucks, and wood-hued houses – living in the Oregon and Northern Californian woods, but these were, says Morison, with more than a tinge of wistfulness in his voice, “genuinely beautiful people.”

They stepped into the culture for a while, taking deep breaths of astonishment as they began to realise what this sub-culture had created. And were struck by the care, love and the amount of work and effort, which had gone into many of the mobile homes. “We were amazed by these people, who had made this culture sort of out of nothing, people just doing it, creating beautiful crafted homes… taking something like a tree and changing it, in such a powerful way, to changing your life.”

Still immersed in the apocalyptic edges of sixties counter-culture and a year after the Venice Biennale, a second woody experiment was completed, this time a fully twin geodesic dome, masquerading as a tea pavilion. Commissioned by Tatton Park Arts , I am so sorry. Goodbye. (Escape Vehicle Number 4) sat at the edge of a pond within the National Trust’s midlands Tatton stately home and gardens grounds. Both structure and cladding of the intersecting geodesic structure had come from fallen trees on the estate. The interlocking triangular ribs of the geodesic frame had disappeared under a coat of shingles, and inside a small wood-burning stove kept a tea urn simmering for anyone entering the prickly structure. Like Fantasy Island, I am so Sorry, Goodbye, carried a double message; harking back to the perceived simplicities of the sixties ‘back to the land’ movement, while peppering this with an undertow of menace and dystopian threat. At Tatton Park the crystalline was replaced by a somewhat lumpy squat wooden mushroom of a structure, while the tea gesture spoke to the many offerings the couple had encountered while traversing the far east of Russia, Mongolia and China.

The same year, closer to the Welsh border and a relatively short distance from Tatton, a second National Trust stately home commission came their way. In Shropshire’s Attingham country park this time, the art residency provided that couple with another opportunity to play in the woods the same year. On this occasion however, wood was replaced by clay as core material for an ambitiously scaled earth, straw and lime sculpture. Trading sixties counter-culture in for middle-eastern influence, there was also functional intent, providing shelter and nesting for the park’s bird-life, the walls pocked with small windows that lead to pipes in which birds can make their homes. Squat, and from photographs looking as if the sculptural mass has grown naturally, a slow accretion of earth gradually dropping on to the site. Here, the absence of any formal geometry marks it out from their two earlier pieces, exuding a primitivist undertow which threads its way through the Morison’s narrative story. If the piece steered clear of counter-culture concerns, its title, was true to form, joyous and upbeat. How to Survive the Coming Bad Years was an outrigger in the first post-travel woodland turn; unlike other pieces from this period which have enjoyed various post-exhibition afterlives, the no-tech earth heap is site specific and will in time return to the ground - while the piece’s functional requirements seem to have precluded making much of their usual apocalyptic motifs, beyond the cheesy histrionic title.

By contrast, a third 2008 project from their early post-travels chapter, enabled the couple to once again toy with the dystopic futures theme woven into their overland and Pacific West Coast journeys; and they decided to make their own wood-hued recreational vehicle. Commissioned by the inaugural Folkestone Art Triennial the cultural wing of an urban regeneration programme for this down-at-heal English Channel town, the couple’s discovery that the Victorian futurist H G Wells  had lived in the seaside resort for a decade, fed into the sci-fi aspect of a work titled Tales of Time and Space. Using a decommissioned military fire service vehicle - which the armed forces had affectionately and poetically renamed as Green Goddesses - the vehicle was comprehensively decked out into a woody mobile home, including a small stove, sink, dining table, seating and, opening out of the back, a porch entrance. The lorry’s external wings were also covered in woody cladding, and the interior lined with bookshelves, and filled with science fiction books, the mobile home turning into a mobile library for the duration of the season’s festival, complete with sci-fi buff as librarian for the season. Afterwards the mobile installation was partially retired to the Welsh woods, the land of Celtic green goddesses.

It has been these pieces; the Fulleresque art domes, the re-versioned lorries complete with rustic interiors and exteriors, and the slowly decomposing earthen anthill – which inevitably have identified the Morisons with environmental art, and environmental issues themselves, or so I’d thought myself before I’d begun looking more closely into their work. But in conversation, Ivan is keen to distance himself from the strict categories that the environmentalist tag would have them caged within. “We’re thinking about and dealing with the collapses of the future – survivalist – rather than environmental. ‘That’s the ridiculous thing’ he adds, “about being labeled. There isn’t the same sense of foreboding that permeates environmentalism. It’s an optimistic thing about the future. We don’t want complete collapse, or the notion that things always stay the same. We’re saying ‘Be prepared, be thinking about it.’ But it’s mad to believe it.” The constant has been nature and the human perception of nature; and the ambiguities found in human experience of the natural world, which encompass wonder and beauty, fear, have always populated the Morison’s work. Along with Fuller and the nomadic road travellers, they have tapped into a diverse set of communities conceiving themselves as part of a green future; another pencil mark underlining the connections many have made of the Morison’s as ‘environmental artists’. Fuller, originator of the Spaceship Earth phrase and image, blurs into science fiction and fantasy. Throughout the Morison’s work however, the good and the great of twentieth century sci-fi literature play starring roles: Olav Stapledon, Brian Aldiss, to Isaac Asimov and, off to one edge, the dystopian surrealism of J G Ballard. So apocalypse – now, then and soon – is a woven trope of theirs, surfacing regularly and repeatedly; embracing survivalism, space colonies and social collapse, amidst the gardens, allotments, and, now, the generally deformed, non-resolved geometric structures that have become a mainstay direction of the last half decade of work.

Despite being adamant at not being filed under any ecological artist category, this sentiment didn’t seem to affect their becoming involved in London’s most recent large-scale environmental show, Radical Nature. The publically funded exhibition, which took up a substantial part of the capital’s Barbican arts complex during summer 2009’s run-up to the Copenhagen COP15 summit, provided a profile of many of the Morison’s 90’s generation peer group of artists, who, the exhibition would have you believe, were addressing environment issues. Alongside and interwoven with these contemporaries, was a cross section of pioneers from the 70’s decade of environmental art, the very period Heather and Ivan had become so consumed by highlighting in their own work; mixing celebration with critique of the limits of their generational ecotopias. Works by Hans Haacke, Newton and Helen Meyer, Agnes Denes and Ant Farm stood alongside the likes of Simon Starling, Mark Dion and Thomas Saraceno, the Morison’s contributing a reprise of the Tatton Park Geodesic dome in the altogether less genteel concrete jungle of the Barbican’s city district.

To visit the exhibition was to witness changes in zeitgeists and mind-sets in the space between one installation and the next. Like these various peers and competitors in Radical Nature, to whom one can add Nils Norman, Dalziel + Scullion and London Fieldworks, the Morisons can be construed as telling examples of how a one-time genuinely radical environmental art agenda, has gradually narrowed over the decades, becoming increasingly accepted and part of the commercial and public art world. The stark contrast between the formidable, if naively optimistic attempts to envision different possible futures by the likes of Newton and Helen Mayer or Art Farm, and the neutral, disinterested, and arguably, even cynical, mind-set of more recent generations Radical Nature (probably inadvertently), threw considerable light on the different value systems which these different generations have and are living their professional art lives by. If the pioneering 70’s generation were perhaps not so gushingly blown away by the long strange trip they had once shared with commune and new age gypsy travellers, nevertheless belief, authenticity and conviction were part of the air these artists breathed. And once the times turned against such idealism as Radical Nature’s curator Francesco Manacorda noted in the accompanying catalogue, they dropped out of the arts scene and moved into full time activism. Schooled in the semi-mandatory dispassionate, critical and objective distancing cultivated within art schools, once the environmental arts entered the bloodstream of the academy, alongside the popular – and not only post-modern - eighties turn to irony, subsequent generations have overwhelmingly refrained from such openness of gesture. For those artists emerging in the eighties, nature was to be examined as part of a political critique: in the Barbican Simon Starling’s Island of Weeds sought to highlight nature as cultural construct - while for the next wave of slightly younger artists, including Thomas Saraceno and the Morison’s, ideology, whether romantic or critical, has been completely extinguished; the sixties and seventies utopias being so distant and exotic as to provide a retro-futurist allure of their own.

One particular irony is that if the changed eighties cultural zeitgeist stopped the pioneering generation dead in its tracks, it would come to be the seedbed of much of what informs today’s art world. The cultural backdrop to the Morison’s formative period of art training also reflected a larger canvas - the emergence of a definable British creative industry through the nineties, the form crystallising in the years since Labours election in 1997. A decade and a half later, Britain’s creative industries have continued to grow, and though small in comparison to other economic sectors, a significant hub of artists, their workload often primarily focused on a merry-go-round of public art commissions, have become the visible figure-heads of a substantially larger if less visible arts bureaucracy involved in running and administering projects with the usual agendas for local, regional, national economic growth. It has been in such contexts that certain types of ecological art, generally the mission-driven, uncompromising and, to the art business professionals, often eccentric, have disappeared, while others, usually pragmatic and non-ideological, have flourished.

The Morison’s turn towards timber sculptural installations has continued since the time of the Welsh Venice Biennale and Radical Nature exhibition. It was at its most monumental in Plaza, a piece of public art completed for the second year Offsite, Vancouver BC’s Public art programme over the summer of 2010. Ivan Morison: “It was a sculpture which created a public space, which by the end designed the rest of the space.” Standing tall amidst a phalanx of glass towers in Vancouver’s uptown city district, Plaza caused a mini-stir in a city with a long timber connected history. Dramatic in scale, 11 metres tall, nearly 10 metres wide, and 16.7 metres long, 70 feet long by 30 feet high, from photographs at least, the grid-informed louvered walls compete with the surrounding high-rise; human’s look tiny in the photo’s I found on the web of the project. The dumb box form, turned and reversioned highlights the contrast with the dominant architecture by the mere eight degrees so the walls push outwards at. According to the Morisons the effect is to make the walls appear close to collapse. Inside, wood was sourced from a cross section of recyclable sources, a mix of beaches, ongoing construction developments and construction yards; the piece’s external timbers charred black - after applying a traditional Japanese shou-sugi-ban technique to protect and preserve the installation against pests and the elements.

Inside beams tautly hold the walls from falling outwards, creating a cats cradle of geometries, a roofless wandering space. Plaza was realised working with Vancouver artists, carpenters, and theatre set designers and Blade Runners; this last a not-for-profit organisation connected to the University of British Columbia who worked with the unemployed young, many drug rehab and one nation youth, providing basic skills and training, in order to be job market ready. As per Morisonsville, there is a mandatory sub-text of menace and collapse, a JG Ballard quote, which begins, “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

Yet despite the Ballard quote, and despite Ivan’s rhetoric about Plaza as contradistinctive chaos in the midst of the city’s modernist 3D grid, from afar my primary impression is the embrace of the structural that Plaza represents. As if the early timber design and build direction that began with the Welsh woodlands Pleasure Island and continued with the National Trust garden’s geodesic, has definitively turned a corner into structure for structures sake.

In 2007, introducing the black charred wood techniques that had begun prior to Plaza, with a participatory community project in Bristol, the Black Cloud pavilion - which was to re-appear three years later outside the Hepworth Museum. The dark burnt wood echoed the insect form, a massively magnified cockroach or flea, and strutting across Bristol’s Bedminster suburb Victoria Park. Was it surprising that such a community-oriented commission would result in a comprehensively dystopian form, ‘a shelter for a future apocalyptic world scorched black by the unrelenting sun’ as quoted in the press literature? Still mediated by the likes of communal barn-raising and the Amazonian Yanomamo design source, the Black Cloud – collaboratively designed with architectural student Sash Reading - became home to cheery picnics and other summer park happenings. Two further charred works, both working walls within gallery spaces, The Black Line in Derry’s Void Gallery in 2009 and Frost King in Seattle in 2010, took the elemental presence of charred and slatted vertical timbers further into the province of art statement – Black Line references artist Robert Irwin’s 1975 piece, although as with Plaza, drawing on the increasing structural dimension to the Morison’s work.

All these works anticipate a move into a kind of functionality that comes with designing within the built environment, and is distinguished from a possibility of purer unambiguous art practice. It may have been some time in coming, but in the last four years, the Morison’s have indeed made this move, as well as becoming further involved in housing developments and architectural collaborations. Skirt of the Dark Mouth  opened in autumn 2012 at Tate Modern, the result of the Morison’s invitation to design a temporary seating perimeter as part of ongoing work on the southern, rear edge of Tate Modern, tidying away the container yard-like contractors entrance, and bringing appeal and grace to the rather forgotten and previously forlorn backside of London’s Mega Art Terminus. As with Vancouver’s Plaza, there’s angularity and irregularity aplenty in the Tate’s fence system, pushed outwards from the low-level bench before geometrically reversing inwards again. Below, the cast concrete bench runs the length of the fence, contrasting with the black char of the slatted timbers. How much this is a fundamental shift seems undecided, although the couple are presently involved in several further explicitly design related projects. “We’re probably doing less of this sort of thing,” said Morison when I talked with him, citing the need to continue “a strong gallery practice, alongside this work which takes a long time to complete.”

Science fiction and fantasy in Wakefield

If such design projects have been to the fore, through the first half of 2012, the Morison’s presented their first large scale solo exhibit at the then recently opened Hepworth Museum in Wakefield. For those who already knew something of the artists work, entering the museum’s main upper floor gallery, would have brought the familiar sense of unease that the Morison’s work often elicits. The visitor would have been struck by the scale of the work collectively titled Anna, an ensemble piece of many parts. If outside, another woody structure, the insect menace of Black Cloud – first created in Bristol, was present, the assembled object theatre would have dispelled wavering thoughts that the themes the artists explore are primarily connected to environmental thinking or environmental art.

Anna’s composition installation stretched across scales; a large floating balloon tied to a floor-bound wooden stool, a carefully crafted bench, large scale wall works, and scattered across the gallery floor, several cast concrete planks doubling as low dais for further smaller works - a goose egg carved from chalk, wax, bone ash and china clay flowers, and bone-like miniature sculpted pieces, their blackened bodies reinforcing the unease conveyed by the installation en masse. Common to all, the pieces allegorically referenced to a story by the Anna of the show’s title, Anna Kavan, the literary alter ego of Helen Ferguson. Ferguson/Kavan was a twentieth century writer, whose reputation centred on how Ferguson mixed an early sci-fi imagination with an autobiographical dimension. Since her death in 1967, there has been a growing cult, particularly amongst parts of post punk alternative cultures.

The Anna story is a brutal one; after an innocent beginning, Anna meeting a man and bearing a child, the child is murdered while the murderer is burnt black. A darkness consumed the installation and the story, and darkness is a regular presence in the undertow of their work, if partially obscured by their absorption in the brighter futures envisioned by Geodesic dome dwellers and woody traveling vans alike. The survivalist ‘be prepared’, edge of societal breakdown thread that permeates many of the pieces, is fertile ground for such tales of darkness. So perhaps it’s no surprise to find one of the most poetically dark parallel culture collapse novels of the genre, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker being given the Morison treatment, albeit through another aspect of the Morison’s repertoire, puppetry. Riddley Walker after all features Punch and Eusa, puppet characters both, within its bleak story line.  Puppetry was integrated into Anna, the puppets waited for their moment behind the museum’s ground-floor information desk, on occasion being brought to life to perform a walk-on story telling role in the Anna tale. The artists had brought the Riddley Walker puppeteering back to life from a previous incarnation. They had appeared first within the repertoire of Mr Clevver, a roving residency in far away Tasmania, where the Morison’s moved from one outback village to another on board another sixties truck re-created into small-scale circus or fairground travelling troupe transporter. For the most part experienced puppeteers perform, with the making of the grotesque puppets, out of wood or clay, taken up by the artists. Puppetry had also played a part in their 2009 Bristol commission, The Black Cloud, fitting the bill for this community based project while again underlining the practical maker-designer background that is such a major element at the heart of the Morison’s work. Ivan states that puppetry appears in up to a third of their projects.

Maker-Designer Sky Worlds

Anna’s feature of a floating balloon underlined another, if more recent Morison absorption - in structures of the sky-world, most directly with a larger 12 metre floating balloon, centrepiece to their most recent installation a few months earlier, and in less connected fashion in another of the Morison’s speciality’s: kite making and flying.

Tethered to a barge amidst the creeks and watercourses of the Milton Creek Country Park, Kent, come the darkness of a November evening the balloon lifted off and floated up to about 100 metres before being gradually drawn towards the nearest town, Sittingbourne, inducing, apparently, much curiosity from North Kent’s local residents. A second sun or moon, the balloon lit up the night sky creating a haze of artificial lighting for the duration of its town-bound journey. That people were drawn while not knowing what Sleepers Awake, as the balloon piece was titled, was; testament to the ambiguity and uncertainty that the Morison’s infuse into their work.

The balloon flying had also been a technical accomplishment, with the Morison engaging specialist makers, Cameron Balloons , to realise the artificial orb. Similarly there’s a mix of direct and second-hand maker-designer involvement with the kite projects that the Morison have in recent years become involved in. For The Opposite Of All Those Things the artists again outsourced the design for an elaborate black beast of a kite bird, which would rise up from on Fleetwood Beach, Lancashire in early 2011. The carbon fibre-framed kite made from rip-stop nylon, was designed by Carl Robertshaw and Kite Related Design. It’s a complex looking piece of work, with multiple nylon boxes of different sizes joined to an elaborate strut frame from the limited sense one gets on Vimeo of the kites launch day.

The kites and kite flying were yet another influence from their time in China. “We couldn’t believe it, the way they fly kites.” Not too long after their return they would begin their first kite project, in a suburb of Sheffield with a large Chinese population. Some years later, at the same time as the Fleetwood beach balloon lifted off from the ground, the Morisons were well into a much more ambitious piece of kite design; their Little Shining Men kite. “We’d wanted to do another kite form,” says Ivan before describing what came next as, “an inevitable dense form.” To describe it as a kite is misleading, even if it made the black box kite look like a picnic. Commissioned to create a sculpture ‘that can fly’ for the St Helier’s office of Housing Developer, Dandara, the Morison’s uncovered the tetrahedral box kite’s of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and, in collaboration with kite designers, Queen and Crawford and ongoing architect partner, Sash Reading fused the Bell approach with the crystal structures of pyrite already mined for their Fantasy Island timber pieces some years earlier. The eventual three part tetrahedral kite comprised of seemingly thousands and thousands of pyramids forms resting on each other, in something like Bell’s tetrahedral truss, the architectural analogue of which, are space frames. Bell’s early tetra kites were made from wood and silk, Little Shining Man, is comprised of carbon fibre rod and cube fibre, a composite fabric used for racing boat sails. The three cube kite comprises 23 000 parts, which was constructed by hand over sixteen months, employed rapid prototyping to suggestive effect. Shimmering in sunshine and translucently reflecting light the hi tech materials are both light and strong enough to allow the structure to rise up into the sky, at least, apparently, once a year when the sculpture is taken along to St Helier’s near-by St Aubin beach and put through its paces.

There’s a tinge of sci-fi futurism, supplied by the endless system of triangular tetrahedral boxes, lending Little Shiny Man, its techno otherness, easily imaginable as space-station or satellite out of a blockbuster space movie epic, although this time the dystopic visions of an Earth after civilisational collapse are completely absent. And similarly rather than the woody, earthy even, craftiness of the various metaphorical – Tatton Park’s Geodesic – and literal – the Bedford Green Goddess – apocalyptica escape vehicle iteration, the focus is on the hi tech. What Little Shiny Men shares with the former are a common ground of technological design inventors, Fuller and Bell. Both men experimented with geometrical form, while sharing reputations for idiosyncracy and vision. At the same it isn’t hard to envisage why the Morison’s eased off on the bad news, given this was a commission for a large commercial housing developer, a world the Morison’s had already once stuck a toe in to, and which their most recent commissions have brought them back into.

Developer led

On the outskirts genteel Cambridge and on the shoreline of the Norwegian capital Oslo, The Morison’s are engaged in bringing art to two major but rather different developments. At Great Kneighton six artist teams have been commissioned by the cultural arts organisation, FutureCity to integrate public art into a 2600 homes development on the southern edge of the city, and are lead artists for Hobson’s Square. For this piece of public art, they are envisaging a sculptural piece, which apparently references recent archaeological discoveries and re-imagines what a prehistoric home might have been like. In Oslo, not completely dissimilarly, the Morison’s are part of a small art team led by their friends, arts Bristol organisation Situations, who are responsible for delivering public art in the Bjorvika district, part of central Oslo new shoreline’s super-development, the Bar Code. Working with the US West Coast artist Amy Francisicini, Katie Patterson, and an as yet to be announced Norwegian artist. Situations are well into their proposal, Slow Space, “informed” it reads, “by the best of the Slow Movement commitment to local resources, sustainability, shared hospitality and the value of communal experience.” Consisting of five relatively low (20 floors or less) hi-rise glass towers by Euro-celebrity architects – Snohetta and MRDVR are two - the business quarter development has sparked widespread debate and controversy.  Some find the business quarter refreshing and new for the Nordic capital, although the majority of Oslo’s citizen’s have not been particularly enthusiastic, with descriptions varying between ‘champagne apartments’ to ‘cliché’s of branding’ appearing in the city press. Morison appears unperturbed when the ugly side of the argument is floated, shrugging and pushing its value, and how he believes that the arts programme will “genuinely change the nature of the place.” Three years on from quoting Ballard’s High Rise and their dystopic effects lowlighted with Toronto’s Plaza, he will have the opportunity to find out if buildings, which avoid the Modernist grid, are that different. Maybe they’ll get to meet Dr Laing eating his dog from atop a champagne apartment high up in the Price Waterhouse building.

Most recently the couple have been contributing to a project at the Kielder Water and Forest Park in North East England – the largest recently planted forest in Britain, planted after concerns about wood reserves in the aftermath of World War 1. The forest, in turn, surrounds the country’s largest man-made lake, or to be more parochial, reservoir, which supplies the entire North East. Kielder already has a well-regarded art-architecture programme, with a cluster of sculpturally informed installations crossed with structural and architectonic properties, using, in the main if not exclusively, timber, sited across its large lakeland basin of rugged Northumberland.

Now, as part of a new chapter at Kielder, this art-architecture hybrid is being brought to bear on working with Jane Darbyshire from Newcastle architects, JDDK. JDDK’s Derbyshire was approached by a disability charity, The Calvert Trust to develop a series of holiday centres to provide respite for families and carers who are involved in long term care of disabled people. Owning a 40 acre woodland within the larger Kielder Water area, a plan emerged for fifteen self accessible cabins, each with all ability facilities, for all kinds of families or group can take a break. “We’re not doing any drawings, just our sculptures,” says Ivan of the Kielder project. They are building at Kielder, “a sensible process towards the work and the form.” He notes that they’ve been able to bring their art background to the team, pushing aspects of the design, which others, namely architects, aren’t in a position to do. “Artist is the perfect category – they accept that we’re to come up with ideas. I can walk into a situation like that, and they’ll listen. You’re perceived in an equal way. They see and have the imagination that they’ll take us in.  Our involvement is a powerful tool for architects - and regularly, when the clients say, that it is too expensive, - our views backs up and legitimises the architects, who are already involved in the modern stuff.”

How far removed are these direct and permanent interventions in the built environment from the Morison’s earlier chapters of art actions with jack-knifed lorries or the overland long haul journeys down the dusty lost trails of sixties hippy arcana?

Ruth is stranger than Richard”, Robert Wyatt once sang. You cannot quite describe the Morison’s work as fiction or fantas. Rather theirs, you might say, is an art path that has sought to absorb the imagination of strangers. The Morison’s fascinations and fixations echo those of their 90’s generation, too late for the sixties day in the sun; Black Mountain College Buckminster Fuller, California dreaming Lloyd Khan, and on into Sci-Fi, Isaac Asimov’s H G Wells’ Time Machine, and the first and last things Olaf Stapledon. As avid cultural archaeologists they’ve mined this image bank of otherness. Yet in that mining, they refocus attention on the charge, reach and intensity of these visions, the emotional landscape of their work pales by comparison.

I’ve come away from the, admittedly relatively few, Morison’s projects I’ve experienced without a sense of emotional involvement or charge in either the historical, or living outer counter-culture stories. Rather the sense is of narratives incidentally grafted on to the striking, strange beauty of some of the physical work; the crystalline forms of Escape Island, or the taut, controlled structural explosion of Plaza, leave the impression of a mirror of surfaces absent of the dimension of depth. If there is playfulness in the cheesy titles, whimsy in the faux science and irony in the pulp fiction, set against the past, it can feel at times like defensive insulation from getting too close to the sheer emotional extremity at the heart of this narrative, apocalypse and its sisters.

But can the two actually be separated, though? Real world and false world dreams; are these separate categories? Fuller clearly didn’t believe so, nor Olaf Stapledon. Nor, even today Lloyd Khan. And maybe neither do the Morison’s. There are their private worlds after all. The road journeys across the continents, or, up to the present time, the arboretum seeded in their mid-Wales woods, which may one day turn out to be the site of the Morison’s deeper feelings, a place where hundreds of work hours of physical and emotional labour have unfolded, free from the cameras. Even if this does not turn out to be the case, the turning to the woods places the Morison’s art journey in a new, different light.