Ecology and Art, Royal Society of the Arts 

October 2008
Burnt Gorse 1, exhibited RSA, London
Ecology and Art Programme

While Mike Perry’s large-format landscape photographs are on a scale to rival romantic painting of the 19th century, they hardly echo the rapture artists have traditionally conjured from mountains and trees. Nor are his preferred sites those now familiar from the pages of Sunday supplements. In place of the iconic shots of diminished glaciers or devastated rain forest, he gives us the overlooked scrublands of Britain and Ireland’s rural fringes. Strewn with weeds or rotting timber, they’re not exactly settings likely to move someone to spontaneously pull over in their car, jump out and take a picture. Frequently though, this is precisely Perry’s method. Rather than places of specific environmental interest, let alone beauty spots, his locations are often unplanned, found when driving around on the hunt with his camera.

The four works from his series Wet Deserts are a case in point. Unlike the tourist brochure images, shot from on high, of dramatic mountain vistas swooping down on a stretch of blue water, Loch Cluanie, Western Highlands, Scotland, November 2008, is taken from a low-angle, up close. Streaks of black, boggy earth, green and gold weeds and only the occasional smear of slate great puddles move up the surface of the image, towards a dull off-white strip of sky.

Certainly, this dark morass is a long way from some tumultuous evocation of the sublime in the face of ineffable nature. So many decades have passed since any corner of the Earth could be thought of as some unfathomable mystery; now it’s our own ingenuity, writ large from space stations to sports tracks, which leaves us awe-struck. In this sense, if it impresses at all, nature is but one more conquest in our ceaseless development, often forced to bear the brunt of the aftershocks of industry.

Yet, realised on a large scale, with an 10×8″ camera, in the more sensitive tones of winter’s low light, something happens to this landscape that we might otherwise write off as forgettable and mundane. Here the detail of muddy pebbles, spear grass or squelching soil is so intricate that surface textures take over. This mix of rough, repetitious marks and smudges with smooth, washed-out expanses, plus the daubs or fields of colour, brings Perry’s work closer to abstract painting than documentary photography.

Burnt Gorse, Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, Wales 2005 a similar transformation takes place. The scene is a charred hillside in a national park, where a wilderness of gorse has been torched to allow grass to grow the following year. The photograph divides this landscape between a monochrome band of black earth and white sky. Up close the burnt gorse is a mess of inky, snaking calligraphic lines, which fade into the soft, With hazy spray of cloud. The shifting shades of Ad Reinhart’s black paintings, Cy Twombly’s graffiti scribbles and Agnes Martin’s muted palette all comes to mind.

This fresh aesthetic potential is what Perry’s photography tease out of the neglected countryside. Green Gorse, with its distorted scale turning the tangled growth on a Welsh mountain into an emerald jungle that could rival Alex Hutte’s dramatic aerial photography of Germany’s black forest, is a perfect example. However, while these images pursue an alternative beauty they are not without import when it comes to environmental concerns.

If, on the one hand, Perry’s interested in the formal qualities of landscape, at the same time his locations almost always tell another story, be it of the effects of intensive farming or climate change. With its sodden expanse littered with skeletal timber, Cross, Rannoch Moor, Scotland, November 2008 could be an abandoned battlefield: it’s what’s been left by private land owners who’ve harvested fast growing pines, and then let the soil become acidic and infertile. Similarly the gorse coating the Welsh hills is the result of a lack of biodiversity brought about by continuous sheep farming.

This environmental narrative is perhaps most explicit in the series White Gold, Perry’s photographs of marble quarries in Germany’s South Tyrol. Here, instead of sidelined Celtic backwaters, he gives us the drama of a heavy, luxury industry where the unusually pure white stone, destined to be fashioned into bathroom tiles for the world’s super rich, has been mined rapaciously. In White Marble Scree, Cava di Marmo, Weisswasserbruch, Jennwand, Sudtirol Oct 2010 the veins of a waterfall trickling down the side of a mountain is parodied by discarded marble rocks, spewing in a great triangle across the water’s path. With White Marble Face, Cava di Marmo, Wandbruch, Weisswand, Sudtirol Oct 2010, the quarry itself becomes a haphazard grid of angry black lines cut into the precious white commodity.

More generally though, what Perry photographs aren’t necessarily spots he’s singled out for their relevance to global affairs. He doesn’t have to. They bring home the sense that environmental issues are now so all-encompassing you don’t need to journey to the Arctic to discover man’s impact on the eco system. The effects are everywhere. In spite of their melancholy ambience though, it would be hard to see these photographs as fatalistic. The different kinds of beauty Perry evokes also invite us to be open to the unknown possibilities of change.

Burnt Gorse, Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, Wales, 2005
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