Soft Estate: an inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime

Soft Estate: an inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime

Edward Chell, Eclipse, Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus Repens)

Edward Chell, Eclipse, Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus Repens)

I’ve been to see the current exhibition at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Arts Centre.  Called Soft Estate, the title derives from a term used by the Highways Agency to describe the natural habitats that have evolved along the edges of motorways and trunk roads and which offer a refuge for wildlife and a modern form of wilderness in the midst of intense urbanisation and agro-chemical farming. The exhibition displays work by artists fascinated by the ‘edgelands’ – those familiar yet ignored spaces that are neither city nor countryside. Their works, like a walk through the edgelands, juxtapose beauty and pollution, wilderness and human despoliation.

The main focus of the exhibition is on the work of artist and academic Edward Chell who investigates contemporary motorway landscapes – quintessential examples of the edgelands, lovingly described in the book by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness (in a related event on 6 February the two poets will be discussing the book and reading their work).

Edward Chell, M2, Medway services eastbound, 2008

Edward Chell, M2, Medway services eastbound, 2008

In the first room are recent examples of Edward Chell’s recent work that take the form of large, almost ghostly paintings in cream and grey.  They look like that because Chell has incorporated into their making road dust.  They have titles like Motorway Intersection, 2010 and Motorway Island, M62, J3, 2013 – because they are the places explored by Chell (with official permission and wearing a fluorescent jacket) before being portrayed in these large works that depict flourishing grasses and wildflowers with the hard surfaces of the motorway visible beyond. They have been described as combining ‘bleak nostalgia and dirty romanticism’.

Chell has spoken of motorway verges as ‘strangely forbidden zones, Ballardian spaces’:

You’re not allowed to stop there – if you do you’ll be picked up by the police within ten minutes! These are amazing landscapes – full of wildflowers – just really beautiful. Motorways are extremely hard and loud and dangerous, and yet, running alongside them we have these pesticide – free strips which offer us one of the few ‘wilderness’ places in England. There’s something like forty thousand hectares of this land – it’s been described as Britain’s largest unofficial nature reserve.

In an essay entitled The Garden of England, Chell explained how he came to be inspired to explore motorway verges:

I regularly drive from London to Canterbury and back and have done so for the last twelve years. This journey to my workplace in Canterbury takes me down the A2/M2, driving through the middle of what King Henry VIII described as ‘The Garden of England’. My experience of gardens is as quite places of stillness and reflection. The motorway greenery by contrast fizzes rapidly past the windscreen of the car, punctuated by familiar landmarks, signs and intersections. Other people leave and join in ordered succession while the familiar places just pass by, rapidly recede then dissolve in the rear view mirror.

One day, while waiting in a traffic jam I suddenly became aware of how still and vibrant the wildflower ‘meadow’ of the verge actually was. The banks were a varied and lush carpet of greens, broken intermittently by small shrubs, swaying flower heads and the clicks and buzzing of insects. These motorway embankments, which are seemingly part of the despoliation of the landscape, in fact act as biological corridors for some endangered wildflowers and valuable zones free of chemical pest control. This encounter triggered a realization of how these green spaces could act as a primer for minimally painted landscapes which speak of the disjunction between the man made and the natural environment.

These paintings allow us to glimpse a place rich and alive with wildlife, evoked by Chell as one of restful stillness. he makes us aware just how separated and isolated we are from these wild landscapes that we hurtle past in our vehicles. ‘There is a dystopic separation from the land immediately around us’, Chell has remarked, while in Edgelands Farley and Symmons-Roberts speak of Chell being drawn to ‘its inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime in its infinity’, a wilderness ‘as difficult to reach as sea cliffs’.

Edward Chell, Eclipse

Edward Chell, Eclipse

In another room I find Eclipse, a series of 60 silhouette paintings of plants and weeds that inhabit the roadside verges, painted on shellac in a way that brings to mind 18th century silhouette portraits of loved ones carried in lockets.

Edward Chell Eclipse 1

Edward Chell Eclipse 2

Here are plants with wonderfully evocative names: from Angelica, Bindweed and Buddleia  via Dandelion, Fat Hen and Freverfew, to Tansy and Teasel, Wood Anenome and Wood Groundsel, to Yellow Rocket.

Edward Chell Eclipse 3

Edward Chell Eclipse 4

Edward Chell Eclipse 5

One commentator has contrasted the way in which Chell’s work recalls the rational, scientific impulse to record and classify the natural world according to Linnaean rules with the ‘fragile, fugitive, ever-shifting ecosystems on which our existence depends’; or as Chell puts it:

For me these present a fascinating paradox – the motorway network presents a nightmarish vision of the asphalting of our green and pleasant land, but the roadside habitats also amount to an unofficial national nature reserve.

George Shaw. The Gamble

George Shaw, The Gamble, 2012

I’ve written here several times of my admiration for the work of George Shaw, familiar with his paintings – executed in Humbrol model paint – that speak  expressively of the landscapes through which we hurry each day, their elements so familiar that they become almost invisible to us.  The Bluecoat exhibition doesn’t have any of those,  displaying instead a selection of lithographs that have the same subject – the ragged edges of the Tile Hill Estate in Coventry where Shaw grew up and which he explored in childhood expeditions. These are neglected no-place locations.  There’s a shed, abandoned amidst saplings that have grown up around it (The Birthday); the blank entrance to a pedestrian underpass (suggestively entitled The Gamble); and a lonely track through trees on the edge of the estate (The Other Side).

George Shaw. The Birthday

George Shaw, The Birthday

George Shaw - The Other Side

George Shaw, The Other Side

The black and white prints emphasise the contrast between areas of light and deep shadow which lend the works a sinister and ominous ambience. The uncanny atmosphere is heightened by the fact that all of Shaw’s scenes are devoid of human presence. This gives them a feeling that something is about to happen, or perhaps has just taken place.

Day Bowman, Weymouth Portland series

Day Bowman, Weymouth/Portland series, displayed during the b-side Festival,  Portland

Nothing else in the exhibition approaches the insight or achievement of these two artists.  Day Bowman’s work explores the landscapes of Weymouth and Portland that are, like the motorway verges in Edward Chell’s paintings,  passed through and ignored. These are landscapes that can be found on the edges of any city, seen in fleeting glimpses from a car or train window or a departing ferry where quay, wharfs and rusting hulks loom large.  During the Olympic Games, as part of the 2012 b-side Festival in Portland, Bowman’s work appeared on advertising  hoardings placed on the approach  to Weymouth Station.

Laura Oldfield Ford M6 Junction 9

Laura Oldfield Ford, M6 Junction 9, Bescot6, 2011

Laura Oldfield Ford’s drawings on watercolour paper, made in pencil and chalk with acrylic ink additions, represent, in her own words, an ‘investigation into the marginal, a process of burrowing under the heritage version of England to uncover the repressed psyche of a land’.  The works on show here depict the urban wasteland beneath and around the M6 as it has sliced its way through Walsall in the Midlands.  Her work is displayed near to photographs by John Darwell, going under the series title of An Alloted Space, that depict scenes on urban allotments.  I could see nothing special or significant about these at all.

Hind Land

Tim Bowd and Nick Rochowski, Hind Land

All this time I had been exploring the ground floor areas of the exhibition, with the monotonous roar of the motorway ever-present.  Ascending the stars to the first floor it became apparent that what I had been hearing was the sondtrack to a projection and sound installation by Tim Bowd and Nick Rochowski called Hind Land, the result of the two photographers surveying the pedestrian walkways beneath London’s Orbital M25 motorway.  Locating points at which you can pass underneath the motorway on foot, they became fascinated by the voids left by the motorway as it carves through the landscape. The motorway, they say, ‘divides the countryside in two, leaving a visible and audible rip in the environment above the ground, and a no-man’s land beneath’.

No Way Out

Jan Williamson and Chris Teasdale (The Caravan Gallery), No Way Out, Thurrock, 2011

At the top of the stairs was a photographic print by Jan Williamson and Chris Teasdale called No Way Out, Thurrock which I found an amusing commentary on consumerism (as George Monbiot wryly comments in the Guardian this morning, ‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores’).

Williamson and Teasdale are an artist partnership ‘interested in recording the reality and surreality of everyday life’.  They specialise in photographic essays which explore sense of place from a psychogeographic perspective and exhibit in their a mobile Caravan Gallery, as well as in galleries, empty shops and temporary spaces. Their Pride of Place Project aims to create thought-provoking exhibitions in collaboration with local communities.  Much of 2013 was devoted to Merseyside, with an exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.

Edward Chell Creeping Buttercup

Edward Chell, Creeping Buttercup

The final display of this exhibition once again showcases work by Edward Chell: a series of screenprints of wasteland plants that have been painted in oil and ‘micro-particulate matter’ or, as we might say, roadside dust.

Edward Chell Songbird

Edward Chell, Songbird, 2011

Finally there was Chell’s Songbird, looking like a motorway sign with words from a poem, ‘This Time of Night’, by Liverpool poet Andrew Taylor in white sans serif lettering on a blue background.

In an essay in the exhibition catalogue, Richard Mabey writes of how ‘nature’s irrepressible inventiveness – those wild, stretching limbs – invades the tidy plans of the architects’:

The un-treed stretches of motorway verges, apart from occasional scrub clearance and mowing for safety purposes, are pretty much allowed to develop as they will, and have turned into a great estate of feral grassland. A botanical survey of the M1 verges in 1970, ten years after it opened, found 185 species of plant had arrived of their own accord. In the following year, a colony of native columbines was destroyed during work on the extension of the M1 in Nottingham shire. Luckily the county naturalists’ trust had the foresight to collect seeds before the bulldozers arrived, and, with some poetic justice, got permission to grow them on in the grounds of a motorway maintenance depot. Later in the year the mature plants were transplanted to the motorway verges as close to the original site as possible. They are still there.

Mabey gives examples of the varied organisms whose habitats the motorways invaded but which have now become ‘part of the foreground of the motorway landscape’ – huge drifts of cowslips on the M4, Michaelmas daisies and golden rod, red kites, buzzards, rooks:

But it is a plant that provides a perfect parable of the motorways’ wild landscapes. it knits the traveller’s need for colour and structure at speed, and the opportunism of nature when faced with new, anthropocentric habitats. In the mid 1980s, colonies of a scarce coastal plant, Danish scurvy grass, began to appear along the edges of motorways and major roads, especially in the prophetically named ‘central reservations’. It’s a modest member of the cabbage family, but in late March these roadside colonies become so dense in places that they resemble a layer of deep and persistent frost. … Today there is scarcely a large road without it.

The only inland region it has failed to colonise is Ireland, despite the species being native to Irish shores. What is different about Irish roads is that no salt is added to the winter grit. There are many reasons for the plant’s spread throughout the UK road system – the turbulent slipstream of traffic whirling the seeds along; the similarity between its native strandline habitat and the stone edges of the road. But there is little doubt that the major factor is the saltiness of the modern road – that shoreline tang sprayed from gritting lorries on icy evenings even in the landlocked heart of Britain. Seen close to, Danish scurvy grass is an undistinguished plant. Streamed by at speed, it is a ribbon of dazzling white at the motorway’s grey edge, a traveller’s joy. I call it wayfrost.

Bluecoat preview of Soft Estate

See also