This page, written in late 2007, gives a detailed day by day account of how one of my large installations got made and finally exhibited. I hope you find this look behind the scenes interesting and entertaining (though I may not myself have thought so at the time) – as well as enjoying the end result!
“Flights of Fancy”, a large indoor installation based on the natural world.
It is inspired by the natural bird corridor running through the old farmland of Westcott Barton along its river valley- and includes birdsong recordings integrated with an extensive flight of sculptural pieces. The whole installation will be suspended from the rafters of a huge 70ft. barn, and running from one end to the other. Here’s some of the ‘work-in-progress’, ready for take-off.
… and here are some pictures of Westcott Barton that I took in the late spring. I had a lot more – but they have either been lost in cyberspace, or else were on the camera I recently had stolen. They were all my best photos too. Excuses, excuses….
No birds in these pics, but they were very much heard if not seen. I sat up in the sunshine in the long grass above Westcott Barton on a warm sunny day and enjoyed recording them. I may use this in my installation. Beautiful, all except for one bird that almost drove me nuts – repeatedly calling on the same piercing note the whole time I was there. I used to think birdsong was supposed to be soothing and uplifting – but now I have learnt better, since my encounters with the gull chick (see my ‘gull chick’ post), and this one-note-Chinese-water-torture-warbler….
23rd July – In the stone shed that I use as a studio, a slow repetitive process of pasting and drying – my mind slows down, my thoughts play around and dissolve, and I become just movement. I proceed with no clear idea of my purpose in doing this, whether or not it will be a good piece of work, or even whether I can manage to get it finished in time. Now it is taking up all my working days. My back begins to ache. I sit down to write notes. Wipe the glue off the cat’s tail. I am pasting layers of paper together, using plaster moulds that I have recently made – they are a sort of papier mache I suppose, except that I am drying the layers in between pasting – this takes ages – however long I blow-dry them, they always seem to be soggy in the middle. It has been raining hard for what seems like for ever. How can I get these dry? Where can I put them? I must rig up a contraption and put some sort of heater underneath…. Eventually staple chicken wire on to a couple of large frames, cut them in half, then bend them into a sort of roof shape. Just the job.
The pasting, the blow-drying and trimming the edges take on a rhythm of their own. From time to time I muse upon why my work nearly always seeems to contain this repetitive labour-intensive element. Why not just take up knitting? I tell myself it is because I am making visible the shifting shapes of nature and its infinite variety. This makes me feel better and vaguely noble.
24th July – Working hard up in the studio, the slow rhythm of pasting and the even slower process of blow-drying the paper layers – I am aiming for about 12 layers on each shape, but somehow I know as time goes on they are going to get less and less…. The tortoishell cat sits on the plant outside my open door, and tries to have a conversation with the gull chick. Screeching and screaming from parent gulls as people from neighbouring houses try to come out into their gardens. And always always accompanied by incessant infuriating chick squeaks.
It is strange that the pieces of work I am making are, in fact, sort of bird shapes. It is a long, quite tedious job that will take me weeks and weeks. But it is good thinking time. The gulls are making a tremendous noise outside, as the chick tries to fly. There is another one too, that has been wandering up and down the road at the front for days, and the parent birds are growing steadily more demented and aggressive, dive bombing anyone or any creature that dares come out in the garden. Have I brought down a bird curse upon myself, by making these shapes? Maybe I could hang my pieces up in the bushes and scare them all off….
But they are not really bird shapes – they are abstractions, and as much to do with the movement of air currents as they do with birds. I am making the movement of the air visible. Here they are, drying in the garden.
As I said, the work, which I am calling ‘Flights of Fancy’, was originally inspired by the the small river valley running through Westcott Barton, which is a natural bird corridor. I love the sound of the water running beneath the dark trees. And it fascinates me to imagine the multitudes of birds passing over the water and through the leaves and branches every year on their cyclical migrations.
These bird corridors are one of the features of our natural surroundings that has been eroded through our increasingly urban and materialistic way of life. It has reached the point where we must respect and actively preserve these age-old migratory passageways, if we are not to lose our traditional English bird life. What can we do about it? Some dedicated people are deliberately recreating suitable habitat in patches of land all over the country, giving the birds a place to rest and feed and breed, and a greater chance of survival. But many are not even aware of the problem, and would not see that it matters. Does it matter? What would happen if we lost masses of our indigenous birds through lack of food, and migrants from across the world were no longer able to find sustenance in our fields and valleys? I am not much good with answers, and know almost nothing about birds – but this much seems obvious to me – our souls would shrivel a bit, and there would be many unpleasant knock-on effects, on a purely physical level.
Maybe all one can do is to raise questions – and that, I would say, is one of the most important functions of art.
This is not to say that is my reason for making this work. I have yet to figure that out!
Down off my soapbox now – watching the baby seagull, desperately trying to fly, flapping its great wings and skidding down the roof, then struggling back up again. Can’t wait for it to go away – then maybe we can have a bit of peace and quiet – no more having to go out in pairs to hang out the washing – one to peg it out and the other to wave a broomstick about, fending off screeching diving parent gulls. No more cats’ toilet in the kitchen (they are frightened to go out). No more charging up and down to the studio at the bottom of the garden, more often than not in pouring rain, trying to carry my gear with one hand and fight off birds with the other…. That’s my dream!
29th July – Now in a slow rhythm of pasting and drying and trimming to shape. it is all taking much longer than I had anticipated. From time to time, I rush through the rain, into the house and upstairs, to try and photograph the seagull chick. It is about to fly. I don’t want to miss the moment.
I am averaging about one of these ‘bird’ shapes per day – then I have to get them dry, which is quite a problem in this continual rain. BUT… fine weather is forecast, and the chick is about to take flight. Hooray! There is light at the end of the tunnel.
I watch as the chick spreads its huge wings and jumps into the air, flapping furiously – falling over as it lands, and struggling up the roof again on its big flat feet. The tortoishell cat gazes transfixed through the window, and the ginger tom ignores the whole procedure.
Question: “Tell, me, given that you have a lot going on at home, are way behind schedule with your tasks and have an exhibition coming up in a few weeks – do you not have anything better to do with your time than watch seagulls and take photos?”
Answer: “No, I don’t”.
5th August Now on my third 1.5 litre container of pva glue. I am on a sort of mindless process of pasting, cutting and drying. I keep forgetting how many layers I have pasted on to the moulds. Work out how many shapes Iwill have by the weekend – fewer than I would have liked, but then I have to stop and go on to the next stage – which is pasting a collage of tree images on to their undersides. Listen to Radio 4 and Classic FM as I work, until I can stand it no longer. In the evenings, I am starting to let people know what is happening.
At last we are getting some sunny days, the chick has flown and the gulls are leaving us alone – so I can complete my drying outside. Family quite restrained as ‘bird’ shapes take over garden furniture and the ground gets littered with offcuts. Also the sofa and the sideboard indoors. I have burnt my arm with the hot air blower. I notice the plant (a clematis) by the studio door, where the cat sits, is now well dead.
12th Aug – Curses! I thought I had come to the end of my endless paper shape-making process – but I know I will feel a lot happier if I just make a couple more – just to be sure I have enough. Then I really must get on with the next stage. Two more days and I will be ready.
19th Aug – I’ve been pasting the tree collage on to the pieces – not sure what I think of it – but no time to agonise over decisions. Panic the three cats as I trundle backwards and forwards carrying large seagull-like shapes indoors to dry and trim. The shapes are gradually taking over the dining room, littering the floor with offcuts. One of the cats feels the necessity to attack the last remaining bit of decent wallpaper in the house. 5 more shapes to do, then I get to paint the tops gold.
That should be fun – maybe it will bring out the sun. Weather today has been filthy. Daughter and my husband went off to the Bideford Folk Festival, but soon came back, after standing in rain and wind, listening to a band who looked thoroughly fed up – probably because they had no tent or shelter from the driving rain, and the only other people in the audience were a few other performers waiting to go on.
Unfortunately they couldn’t really hear the band as the sound equipment didn’t work. I think it might have been something to do with the weather.
22nd Aug Tops all painted gold, looking brilliant in bright sunshine. Off to the peace and tranquillity of Wescott Barton on a perfect summer afternoon, to start installing the show. Got ladders. Got battens positioned in the barn across the rafters.
24th Aug A slow start. Missed a day yesterday. Much to do this morning – buying various necessities for setting up the installation, and collecting the Devon Art Works literature, which is magnificent! (Pic of brochure cover below).
Afternoon – With the help of Flash, acting as my assistant, we managed to get the battens wired on to the rafters safely, and trimmed at the ends… The work is slow and very careful – manipulating and climbing the enormous heavy ladder around the dark barn is far from easy. Under pressure of time, our progress seems excruciatingly slow. I wonder, not for the first time, why on earth I am actually doing this. Try not to think how we will manage to get the ‘bird’ shapes suspended from one end of the barn to the other. Aware that I had only about 4 more days to finish the job, I force myself to stay calm and highly attentive.
25th Aug Nightmare day. Today I hit that moment that must be familiar to many artists, especially of the installation variety, when I was teetering on the brink of dropping everything, abandoning the whole idea and just wandering off to the beach. Fell into a blind panic as Flash and I tried time after time to get the ‘birds’ hung from the battens. Getting continuallycaught up in a tangle of fishing nylon and large ungainly shapes, especially at the top of a 20ft ladder, is no joke. We tried and failed many times to hang the ‘birds’ – resorting to ludicrous techniques such as tying lumps of blue tack on the ends of the nylon and lobbing it over the rafters… I had especially chosen the thread so that it wouldn’t show up, so in the subdued light of the great barn it was pretty well invisible…. Stumbling about, looking for dropped threads, little bits of lead shot (for weight) and lost tools, I could see less and less, became more and more bad-tempered and disorientated… and when I stood on my glasses and broke them… that was not a good moment.
We went home (16 miles each way), fetched more lighting and interesting things to toss over the rafters. In the afternoon, we struggled once again to get the shapes hung up – still unsuccessfully. Flash, at the top of the ladder, desperately trying to tie a fisherman’s knot behind his back, at the same time holding a large bird-like shape and trying not to tangle the other threads, said ‘ It is no good, I just can’t see how to do it’.
We sat down to have a think, and I suddenly remembered the library book back home on the dining room table: “The Full Adventures of Richard Hannay” and a particular story called “Mr Standfast”. Mr Standfast wouldn’t give in, I thought. He would say ‘that’s the coward’s way out’, and would grit his manly teeth and see the job through to the end. So I made Flash go up the ladder again , and we managed to get one piece hung up… wrongly positioned – but up.
26th Aug My birthday! Standing in the dark barn as yet another good idea for getting the work hung up failed, I decided it was all far too dangerous and I would have to hire a scaffolding tower. I did not want to mark my birthday by killing somebody. But… it was Bank Holiday time… nowhere open! Now desperate about meeting my deadline, and on the verge of big-time hysteria, I discovered from Westcott Barton that I unexpectedly had 4 – 5 extra days. Dropped everything and took off for the Health and Harmony Festival, a beautiful and grand-scale hippie gathering at Tapeley Park, near to where I live. Had a brilliant time dancing, chatting and listening to music on the sunny lawns. Lots of stalls, people lying around, getting massaged in public, getting angel readings and runes read. Ladies knitting for a children’s hospice, belly dancers and a samba band, Tibetan bowls, climate change info and earth mysteries – all somehow very English, and very comforting.
28th Aug Scaffolding hired, and erected – with difficulty.
29th Aug Now things are beginning to move. Now we have the right equipment and have worked out a system. Working slowly and very carefully, in just one afternoon, we made as much progress as we had over the previous four days.
30th Aug Slow, careful and precise work – climbing up high, positioning the shapes, working with fishing nylon and tiny lead weights.
Hauling tools and ‘birds’ up to the top of the scaffolding by rope. Tangled threads. This job feels dark and dangerous, as I watch Flash carefully climbing the scaffolding. We are calm, silent and highly controlled…. but I feel the adrenaline surging in my gut and my palms sweating. The safety bars at the top of the tower are at just the wrong height. They collide with the rafters and battens. Every time we need to shift the tower, these awkward, heavy bars have to be removed – then we push, then reassemble.
31st Aug Almost finished. Up high on the scaffolding or the ladder – a combination of heavy labour and meticulous threading and tying. Intense concentration: moment by moment.
1st Sep Finished. As far as we can go before the Exhibition Opening next Saturday, anyway. The scaffolding is taken down and stacked outside. So far so good.
Next Friday, the day before the Opening, Westcott Barton is hosting a big wedding in the barn. From my point of view, this is a huge additional stress, and my imagination runs wild at the thought of the damage that could be caused to my work. A low-hung ‘bird’ has to be removed, and others have to be hoisted up out of reach on to the rafters. I cannot put in my lighting. As someone who likes to work in real life, I pride myself on dealing with situations as I find them – but I have to admit, this wedding might just be one situation too far.
But the people at Westcott Barton assure me they would keep an eagle eye on the more enthusiastic ‘leapers and revellers’, so I go home calm. On the surface, anyway.
2nd Sep Sunday, early morning – I walk out into the fields and woodland near my home – and remember what all this is about – the work, the stress, the expenditure of time and energy. I sit, gazing out across the estuary, where a few small speedboats are pulling water-skiers along, creating great swirling ripples across the still water. I can hear distant shouts of pleasure, as I sit under the trees among brambles, nettles and grasses. I am eating blackberries and watching butterflies and dragonflies in the sun. Leaves are falling all around me, and settling on my lap.
Much of the next few days is taken up with continuing background tasks: distributing posters and brochures; promoting the event by internet and email… and planning and making signage (Westcott Barton is buried deep in the countryside, and quite tricky to find).
6th Sep A crazy day in Barnstaple, as I receive mobile messages that ITV Sout West would like to interview me. They want to come – yes, of course – tomorrow, the day of the wedding! Desperately try to make calls between home, ITV and Westcott Barton as I move in and out of mobile reception, whilst carrying out various errands about town.
A trip out to WB in late afternoon, to sort out a dangling bird, by which time the interview had been arranged for 11am the next day. Plenty of time to get finished and gone before the wedding party arrived.
7th Sep didn’t start well, driving to Westcott Barton and picking up a message that the TV people might be a teeny bit late….
In fact, it turned out they were so late, it looked as though they were going to collide with the arrival of wedding guests. Apparently, after getting lost several times along the way, they got into complete and utter gridlock in one of Devon’s narrow country lanes, trapped in a convoy of caterers, flower arrangers, and other suppliers , who had been coming and going all morning.
They arrived. The cameraman blanched visibly, then reddened and broke into a profuse sweat, when he saw the dimly-lit barn, full of tables laid out for 120 guests – with prisitine white cloths, flowers and gleaming silverware – just a few feet below the work he had come to photograph. But within moments, with professionalism that I can only describe as awesome, he had got equipment, lighting and camera set up, ready to go. Waiters and staff, working flat out, had to stop in mid action, and stand poised in silence during the ten minutes or so that I was being interviewed. Then we all disappeared and the wedding carried on.
8th Sep Opening Day. Flung open the doors to clear away lingering beer fumes. Set up the lights and the audio. Moments before the exhibition is due to start, I am still setting it all up, and helping to clear away wedding debris. But the installation is intact…. is now safely up, and it is running. And as is my custom, I manage to find something fun to do this evening: Bideford Carnival. Yay!
9th Sep I step quietly back to review what I have done. Not many visitors. I spend quite some time taking photos to document the work – bringing me into a methodical and observant mood. I see that it is good strong work that I can stand by – so I am pleased.
10th Sep The TV interview was transmitted. Short, but the work was brilliantly photographed. I consider that man a genius.
13th Sep A couple of lines and a picture in the North Devon Journal. A call from the North Devon Gazette, and another from Arts Council South West. I have to write up my blog, send pictures, make phone calls, write emails….
The exhibition continues, and people come and go. I am pleased at the feedback from visitors. People understand it is about being a part of nature: feeling the connection. They hang around for a long time.
22nd Sep Today it feels different at Westcott Barton – it is not just that the bird shapes have been changing almost imperceptibly over time – there is an absence, a silence. I suddenly realise there are no swallows outside. They departed yesterday. It is still and very quiet. Outside there is only the wind in the trees, and a distant crow. This morning there was a lot of human activity – now it is quiet. I am alone with these traces of bird and branch.
The swallows have embarked on their long and important journey across the world, reminding me it is time to depart .
23th Sep I am sitting quietly in this centuries-old barn. Sitting quietly, growing peaceful as I absorb my surroundings: the walls of ancient stone; the sounddtrack of flowing birdsong – and the light flowing over my sculptural shapes, making them gleam like moonlight. The whole of nature seems to be encapsulated in this space. I can almost smell the fresh dark trees.
Later, someone tells me he can hear the beat of wings.
Flights of Fancy. Here are a few final pics. See more photos on www.lindagordon.org.uk .
“Thank you for bringing nature indoors.” Cathy C.
“It was a deeply affecting experience to wander around and even just to be still in the space of your work at the barn – it will be one of my most treasured memories of Devon Art Works and will stay with me for a long time.
How appropriate that the event finished with the departure of the swallows and the stillness of autumn…” Claire
… for more Devon artworks, see the sub-pages listed on the right…