Interview with Mike Perry

Ben Borthwick

The Land/Sea exhibition covers two bodies of work. The Landscape series Wet Deserts and your later photographs of found plastic objects, titled Môr Plastig. Can you start by telling us how you arrived at your landscape work.

I’d been involved with environmental issues well before I became a full-time artist, and when I moved from London to West Wales it seemed natural to make work about the rural environment. Prior to Wet Deserts I had made landscape work in both urban and rural locations. Some of these projects involved ‘using’ the surfaces of nature to make painterly abstractions. They were about space, light and repetition at a single location. Consequently they were flatter perspectives with little narrative beyond the surface details e.g Beach 1- 27 2002 and the Abereiddi 2003 series.

Other projects, for example, London Brownfields and Astral America were more contextual and involved narratives about human interventions in the landscape. For Sale, Hackney 2004  was about urban wildness and the ability of nature to reclaim itself in an area of urban decay. I also wanted to illustrate that there was now more biodiversity in our cities than huge chunks of the countryside. In Cactus 1 2003, I was using a rotting Cactus Forest in Saguara National Park in Arizona as a metaphor for the state of American culture. This was, after all, a few weeks before America bombed Iraq. These strange cactus structures, icons of American optimism and success were starting to show signs of decline due to warming temperatures and a dryer climate.

Perhaps the work that led to Wet Deserts was my Inland series taken in the Welsh and Irish uplands between 2004 and 2007. These works, taken in dull overcast winter light, are both formal studies of the land and work that hints at environmental issues i.e. poor biodiversity and unsustainable farming practice. At this stage though, my emphasis was still in flattening perspectives and making painterly monochromatic abstractions. Green Gorse 2004, for example, photographed from the coastal path here in Pembrokeshire, was both a statement about the poverty of the land caused by continuous sheep farming and a minimalist abstraction.  Donald Judd’s green painted horizontal steel boxes may well have been at the back of my mind. During this body of work I was always playing with the depth of field and trying to find a satisfactory balance between the form and narrative.

How did The Wet Deserts Project come about ?

After my Inland photographs, I decided to make a road trip around Scotland’s National Parks and explore how these landscapes would affect my work. I went at the end of October 2009 in biblical weather conditions. Driving rain, high winds and then sun followed by driving rain again. It was the worst possible conditions for 10 x 8 ‘ film work, which is normally only possible in still dry conditions. But with this wild weather came extraordinary skies and reflective waterlogged surfaces. I used the camper van to shield the wind, an assistant with a military-style umbrella, and brief breaks in the weather to capture what I could.

My attention was no longer focused on trying to frame monochrome slabs of colour, but to frame deeper more narrative based perspectives. The environmental issues were so evident, I wanted to make them the more dominant element of the work. So I made sure I was always slightly elevated or that the land was falling away from me to give the work the depth that I felt it needed.

When I arrived at Rannoch Moor the land looked ravaged. Not the untouched romantic wilderness I’d read about in Robert Mcfarlane’s Wild Places or had imagined based on the travel guides and colour supplements. The tourist route through Rannoch Moor appeared to go through what looked to me like a First World War battlefield. A flooded plain of cut down trees and rotting roots. The land was pitted and destroyed not from military apparatus but by landowners and forestry businesses removing every tree as far as the eye could see, without bothering to replant. I think many people think this is normal ‘wild nature’. They don’t think about the impacts of industrial scale forestry on the soil and habitats for wild life. Never mind the view.

One of the things you notice about this waterlogged land is that it’s so quiet. There is no birdsong. So I thought Wet Deserts was a suitable title. I was also keen to expose environmental issues here in Britain as so much environmental attention is focused in the more dramatic parts of the globe such as melting glaciers in the Arctic or the depletion of rainforests in South America and Asia. I wanted us to realise that we have our own deserts, and that the bulk of these are in our National Parks.

When I first saw the Wet Desert Images they were on a laptop but seeing them at their full size they become so much more painterly and remind me of the 18th century paintings of the sublime. Had you always envisaged them at this size?

Seeing the contact prints I immediately thought of those huge romantic oil paintings of the sublime in the National Gallery. I framed up several of the pieces at the largest size my printers could make them here in the UK, for an exhibition titled The Earth Only Endures with The Photographers’ Gallery in London and I was fairly happy with them. But having seen them at this larger size again for the Land/Sea exhibition I think they are much stronger. You feel you are in the landscape and the scale of the openness of these Scottish Highlands is echoed by the size of the print.  But also the larger size opens up the print and softens the grain making them feel more painterly.

I had been wary of making my photographs too large as the demand for huge pieces by the galleries and collectors has led to works being made oversize at the expense of the content. A Finnish Professor of Photography told me that he always made a slide of his photographs first before making an exhibition print. He projected the image against a white wall before committing to framing. I think this is a really good piece of advice. The large scale of the contextual pieces by Gursky, Struth and others makes perfect sense, and Tillmans’ huge monochrome abstractions are fabulous, but often when 35mm images are blown up for the trade shows it looks cynical and about profit only.

Can you talk about Loch Cluanie 2009 for a moment. It is the most abstract of the works and appears to have strange indecipherable streaks of colour that look more like the work of a paintbrush than a film process. It is very difficult to fathom out what is going on in places. Can you explain how this came about?

It was raining when I drove past what looked like a flood plain up in the north West Highlands of Scotland. The map suggested we were near a place called Loch Cluanie, known for its reservoir and hydro-electric power station. I couldn’t quite work out the lay of the land but it appeared to be terrain that had been flooded, perhaps as part of the reservoir system. It felt like I was standing at the bottom of a sea bed, after the tide had gone out. Something wasn’t right though. Like at Rannoch Moor, there was a silence and no signs of plant growth or life in the soil. It was another desert.

I liked the ambiguity between the strong streaks of colour and the sense of decay. It was drizzling and the fading light allowed me time for a final shot of the day. I quickly realised that I hadn’t given it enough exposure so I opened the shutter for a few more seconds.  Later when I had developed the film I couldn’t quite understand what had happened. Had I nudged the camera between exposures, had rain got into the lens or was it a double exposure from a previous similar location? I still can’t quite work it out, but I loved the result and the strangeness of the print definitely felt appropriate for this landscape.

Nowadays the sublime means beauty rather than terror. We talk about the sublime from an aesthetic sense. But of course when in 1757 Edmund Burke wrote ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’, the sublime meant terror or something that had the power to destroy us.  In what way do you think your pictures echo that terror again? It seems to me that you are bringing back this terror by capturing the devastation of nature?

Yes the sublime does now seem to be associated with beauty or man’s epic achievements rather than the terrifying powers of nature. We now seem to be in awe of huge new football stadiums with sliding roofs, massive glass cityscapes in the Far East or satellite images of ourselves here on Planet Earth. Even our natural history programmes have to provide extraordinary slow-motion shots of killer whales or tigers catching their prey in mid air in order to grab our attention. It’s starting to feel like ‘nature porn’ to me.  The recent multi-million pound series of Planet Earth made only a fleeting reference to climate change and the threat of species extinction. Its focus was more on amazing special effects rather than providing deep insights into the state of the natural world. Starving polar bears and environmental crises don’t pull in the ratings. But fancy camera work and ultra slow motion do. I heard the word sublime used many times in relation to this series.

So in a sense the Wet Deserts photographs are reintroducing an older notion of the ‘sublime’ to the landscape, but it’s a contemporary horror story made by humans rather than a threat from the unknown powers of nature. It’s a horror story that seems to go unnoticed as many people see our empty and sterile uplands as nature’s natural state. Daniel Puly refers to this as ‘Shifting Baseline Syndrome’, where the people of every generation perceive the state of the ecosystems they encountered in their childhood as normal. So all those children travelling through Scotland on their summer holidays will think these sterile acid landscapes are normal, how nature is and has always been. Even when I go walking in the hills in West Wales with friends, I’m amazed at how unaware they are of the state of the land. I suspect it’s just that open spaces after months in the city are appealing whatever they look and sound like. But what it does reflect is our dislocation from the natural world. As a society we don’t seem to be conscious of what we have done. And the implications of this are a real concern.

The environmental message is also a critical part of your Môr Plastig series. But this work seems to owe a lot more to the language of minimalism, the flatness, seriality, repeating of forms, and yet they are still connected to the landscape. Instead of going back to the 18th century there are more similarities with Colonial expressionism, Captain Cook, the Beagle, returning with botanical drawings and what we might expect to find in The Natural History Museum.

I have always been influenced by the minimalism of Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Yves Klein, Agnes Martin and so many others. And yes, the use of the grid and seriality to organise images. The flatness of my images and the employment of found industrial objects also echo the ideas of previous minimalist movements.

Perhaps the difference is that whereas much of the minimalism of the 1960’s was about form and materiality, there is a contemporary narrative inherent in these photographs. Which in a sense is what makes them landscapes, as you suggest, even though these photographs are not taken in the landscape.

After collecting pieces of plastic washed up on the beaches near where I live, I bring them back to the studio. I then photograph the objects one to one, straight on to camera and with flat neutral light. I try to be as objective* as possible, avoiding the dramatic and emotionally charged atmosphere often associated with environmental photojournalism. My intention is to reduce the objects to their pure formal states separating them for a moment from any meaning beyond their sculptural presence. The purpose is to make us think about the materiality of these objects, where they might have come from, how they physically break down into the food chain and how nature sculpts these man-made objects into strange new forms.

The project does have a pseudo-scientific element, both in the process of collecting the found objects (or specimens) and in their representation. Maybe this reflects influences from my parents. My mother was a painter and my father a biologist. I have strong childhood memories of being ‘lectured’ on the biochemistry of sea anemones and crabs when we were on beach holidays, and my bedroom wall was covered in all sorts of guides to ‘Life on the Seashore’. But to his disappointment I think I was always more interested in the aesthetics of the natural world than any real scientific understanding. I failed my physics O level, but drew a very nice mercury barometer!

In comparing the two sets of works I think there are similarities and differences. They both have ambiguity because they combine aesthetics with an environmental narrative. But the Môr Plastig work is less obviously emotionally charged and leans more to the materiality of the object and surface. Although I accept that sometimes a shoe or glove does reveal a human story that can prompt an emotional response. But both sets of works are ‘landscapes’. The Wet Deserts are large scale landscapes about mans’ impact on nature, whereas the Môr Plastig works are ‘micro landscapes’ about nature’s impact on the man-made.

* Acknowledging that objectivity is impossible as the artist projects rather than takes in the image. I am in effect generating the object as I think it should be seen.

Where do you find all this plastic ?

The bulk of the plastic comes from local beaches where I live in West Wales. I like the idea of keeping the project local as travelling around the world looking for plastic would seem at odds with the environmental message. The bulk of the plastic washes up on west facing beaches after big storms. Large junks break away from ‘plastic islands’ or gyres as they are known in the Atlantic. These gyres now exist in every ocean and are the size of small continents to give you some idea of the scale of the problem. The gyre in the Pacific is the size of Texas.

Increasingly, people are now sending me pieces from different parts of the world. My wife and I went to Cuba a few years back and found some ‘great’ shoes on Havana beach. They were covered in little white shells. I found out later that these crustaceans only exist in the Caribbean so when I find an object in West Wales with similar shells, I know that it has made its way in the currents across the Atlantic.   

The beach combing is an important part of the process. Although the sheer volume of plastic is distressing, I find the rummaging through the rubbish exciting. It’s like digging for gold as you never know what you might find. I normally fill bin liners of stuff I think has potential and then go through them more carefully in my studio. I have a barn full of plastic waiting to be looked at. At first I would look for the most unusual or dramatic pieces but increasingly I find that the blandest pieces can make the more interesting work. Perhaps the less obviously interesting objects require more input from the artist and thus there is a greater sense of alchemy. Some pieces are so extraordinary I can’t see how photography can add anything to the piece itself. And also it’s the everyday mundane household objects that most clearly tell the story of mass consumption and plastic’s ubiquity.

You clearly have a very strong environmental message and a strong formalist impulse. But only when you start unpeeling the grids and understanding more about some of the images do you get beyond the minimalism i.e the narratives become apparent. For example, the seagulls scratching the white foam piece thinking it’s food. How do you see this balance between the two?   

Artists working with environmental issues can have very different approaches or strategies in the way they reveal or address their concerns. Chris Jordan’s photographs of albatrosses with their stomachs full of plastic, for example, are heart wrenching and very powerful, and perhaps more in the Greenpeace category of being brutally hard-hitting and dramatic. Other artists poeticise the problem or make complex conceptual pieces that take longer to unravel. I don’t think one approach is better than another. They are just different strategies.  My approach has been to focus first on the object and then let the narrative reveal itself as the viewer discovers details or reads about the piece.

The grids that you refer to, influenced by Agnes Martin’s pencil drawn grids from the 1970’s, look fairly harmless framed and suspended against a neutral grey background. But these grids are deadly for seabirds that get their feet caught in the holes. Disposable barbecue grills left on beaches kill thousands of seabirds every year.

One of the plastic bottles I photographed, Bottle 6, has a very aesthetic black and white mottled patina. But when I opened the bottle, flies flew out into my face. And Bottle 7 looked like it was half full of a fizzy orange drink until I opened it and realised it was something even more unpleasant. Apparently trawlermen piss into plastic bottles and throw them overboard. Admittedly, in pure horror terms it doesn’t compare with Piero Manzoni’s cans of artist shit, but nevertheless it feels like these bottles were sending me messages about the state of our polluted oceans.

I’d always wanted to make a piece of work about the decline in seabirds off the Welsh coast and then I found this marble-like piece of white foam off the Llŷn peninsula in North Wales. If you look closely you can see scratch marks created by seabirds’ claws. I called it Pecked Foam and felt it was a powerful way of telling the story of how animals are now digesting plastic instead of food. It also references the dramatic fall in seabird numbers around the British Coast, down 73% since 1970 according to the RSPB, due almost entirely to the decline in fish stocks.

The balance between the formal properties of the work and the narrative varies by piece. I used to be concerned if the aesthetic properties were too dominant, or if my gallery only wanted to exhibit the more commercial aesthetic pieces. But now I think that as long as the context in which the work is presented is right, it’s fine to have a mix of work and feel I am just being honest by showing the pieces as they are. After all nature will sculpt these pieces into the forms it wishes, whether we humans are here or not.

You mentioned The Anthropocene, but there doesn’t seem to be agreement amongst geologists as to whether it has begun yet. What do you understand by the Anthropocene in relation to your work?

Well, I think the scientific definition implies it’s the point at which humans have more impact on the environment than nature itself. And if you look at the globe there really isn’t anywhere left that hasn’t got mankind’s footprint all over it. There is now plastic on every beach on the planet and marine biologists are even finding bits of plastic in the deepest canyons of the Pacific Ocean, 6 miles down. So as a landscape artist it is difficult to ignore the fact that nature has been so severely compromised. Nature is now ‘second nature’ shaped by ourselves. Consequently artists, and I would include myself, are increasingly looking for features that expose conflicts rather than simply expressing formal concerns.

What is so alarming is the speed of which things are changing. When Graham Sutherland made his Stories from the Sea works in Pembrokeshire back in the1940’s he depicted a rocky, spiky and hostile nature, a fallen world, rather than a garden created by god. It was a contemporary and shocking interpretation of the coastal landscape for the time. But his subjects, however dark, were still elements from the natural world. Seventy years on it is not interpretations of the natural world that shocks us, but the damage we have done.

In 2015, I attended an artist residency sponsored by National Museum Wales at Oriel y Parc in St. Davids. I showed my Môr Plastig photographs and lumps of congealed plastic found in Pembrokeshire, alongside Sutherland’s sketches, found objects and photographs of stuff from the sea. I think the two very different sets of ‘Stories From The Sea’ really emphasised the arrival of the Anthropocene. Or at least emphasised just how the material nature of the landscape has changed.

I also think of Roni Horn’s work in Iceland in the early 1990’s. She made a wonderful photographic book of lumps of lava rock as part of her To Place series.  They were for her a symbol of Iceland’s geological youth and very specific references to place.  My Plastiglomerates and ‘plastic stones’, photographed 25 years later perhaps suggest that we can no longer trust our local geology to confirm place. The plastic stones I’m now finding along the Welsh coast come in on the tide from unknown corners of the globe.

When I first saw your plastiglomerates I thought they were very exotic, like mini asteroids. But seen closer up they look very natural. Like nature and the man made have morphed together.

Plastic that has been in the sea long enough is mimicking nature. It is after all subject to the same processes of attrition that shape our beach stones. It’s not surprising that they take on similar forms. Like many beachcombers I used to bring back beautiful shaped stones and keep them on the mantelpiece until there were too many. Now my studio is full of these strange other worldly forms. The plastic stones don’t last long in the house because after a while you can smell the odour of chemicals.

When you walk on a stony beach now if you look hard enough you will almost certainly see these plastic rocks. Sometimes, if the morphed plastic is grey or black, the only way you can tell it is plastic is by its weight. The multi-coloured pieces can, as you suggest, look like mini asteroids or specimens brought back from another planet and often this is because they are conglomerates of different chunks of plastic. I’ve found lumps made up of bottle tops, toys, rope, a part of a toothbrush and real stones. It really feels like the remnants of a burnt civilisation. And given how long it takes plastic to decay, these plastic pieces will be part of our seashore for thousands of years to come.

At first glance your photographs look like found objects, but as you get closer you realise they are photographs. Can you discuss the balance you are looking for between sheer abstraction and the real object?

The issue of depth, the balance between form and context, has been a recurring theme that I have battled with throughout my landscape work. And to be honest I’m not sure whether I know what the perfect balance is with my Môr Plastig series because different pieces seem to require a different emphasis. If the narrative is strong I may err on the side of the object. If the piece is mainly about colour and surface I may focus on the abstractive qualities. But I don’t want either to dominate.

I do know that my early test prints were too flat and one-dimensional. They looked fine through the lens, but the digital printing process on Photo Rag paper was absorbing the image into the paper, resulting in a loss of depth. The objects lost their sculptural presence. It was really disappointing. They felt closer to illustration than photography. So I changed to a standard lens that replicates the focal length of the human eye, suspended the plastic objects further off a white board and built a soft light studio in the corner of my workshop where I could carefully control the quality of the light. I found a way of making the object ‘float’ and the grey background helped provide a ‘neutrality’.

At the other end of the scale, with too much shadow and depth comes drama, imbued meanings and sometimes a romance that I wanted to avoid. It is extraordinary how adding just a small amount of shadow changes the piece entirely. When I experimented with a black background, the image became all about the object and the abstractive qualities disappeared altogether. I didn’t want the objects floating in a space that mimicked the sea. I think the pieces that work best have something strange or unclear about them. They don’t reveal themselves too easily.

Like with Wet Deserts, the ambiguity between the aesthetic and narrative is an important element.  I want people to be intrigued and feel challenged that a piece of pollution can appeal aesthetically. It means that they will get up close and think about the materiality of the plastic and how it degrades. I also like the idea of taking rubbish that people would normally walk past and giving it a sculptural presence and status it wouldn’t have had on the supermarket shelf.  Increasingly, the blander the object the better. The back of a vegetable carton is more interesting to me than a multicoloured piece of computer with exotic shells growing in it. Somehow it better reflects the banality of our consumer driven world.

I think your question goes to the core of photography as a medium, both its strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand photography can perfectly replicate an object and its surface and it can constantly manipulate what and how to see. Each epoch brings new narratives and technology. But the quality of the print surface cannot change fundamentally, in a way that the surface of say paint or other materials can. When you look at Manzoni’s Achromes and Yves Klein’s dry pigment monochromes of the late 1950’s or Gerhard Richter’s Oil On Canvas paintings of the late 1980’s, you realise that photography struggles to compete with the sheer sensuality of these material surfaces. I recently saw one of Robert Ryman’s white square pieces in the newly opened Thaddeus Ropac gallery in London and felt slightly depressed that photography may never be able to achieve the sheer emotion I felt from this piece. Perhaps Wolfgang Tillman’s experiments with the ‘print as the medium’ have come as close as anyone to achieving this sensuality.

It is my view that despite all the new digital software that can mimic painterly and sculptural surfaces and the ‘magic’ that can be achieved in photoshop, photography is better off playing to its strengths if it wants to intrigue and create empathy. The limitations in surface sensuality suggest that at its core it requires a contemporary narrative to keep it fresh and relevant. Margarita Tupitsyn, in The Grid as a Checkpoint of Modernity 2009, suggests that ‘the grid’ can still be an effective device in radical art practices as long as it is not perceived as an escapist structure that does not address the topics of today. Although she is referring primarily to the grid I think her point applies to wider abstractive practice, whether it’s multi-dimensional sculpture or photography. And of course what better medium to address the topics of today than photography?

I believe you only shoot the plastic at their actual size. Is the scale important and if so why?

Because I’m dealing with real found objects I’ve always felt the photographs should reflect the piece as accurately as possible and so to date I’ve mostly kept at a one to one perspective. I want the viewer to find something of significance with what is a real piece of rubbish and not rely on making the photograph entirely about the blown up surface details. This feels like it would be an abstraction at the expense of the object. And an intimate feel for the object is an important part of the narrative.

I did blow up a piece called Chinese Flour Sack 2015 which I found on my local beach, Aberbach, in West Wales. Somehow it had made its way from China via the ocean’s currents and the curators of the Vita Vitale exhibition at Venice in 2015 thought it perfect for their exhibition as Venice is so much linked to the silk road from China. So they persuaded me to blow it up by 4 times its original size. Whilst it did have a greater presence, I felt uncomfortable because for me it had lost its authenticity. It felt more like a poster of the work than the real thing and since then I haven’t repeated the exercise. It doesn’t mean I won’t experiment again. I’m just more wary.

I was reading Roland Barthes’ seminal piece from Mythologies on plastic from 1957, and it has very utopian ideas that plastic could be anything. But I note that at the end of the essay he quotes how aggressive the colour of plastic is. What are you thoughts about this?

Barthes’ piece on plastic is both illuminating for its lucidity on the nature of this material whilst at the same time missing the second part of the tragic plastic story, its breakdown back into the environment as a dangerous pollutant. Whilst he eloquently describes plastic’s ‘infinite transformation’ into everything, he also describes plastic as a ‘disgraced material’ because ‘it embodies none of the genuine produce of the mineral world’. In referring to its colour he states ‘it seems capable of retaining only the most chemical looking ones’.

The early plastic products were bright and aggressive and mainly primary colours. Many of the 70’s minimalists employed brash industrial synthetic paints to contemporise and challenge painting of the day. It was the shock of the new and a way of de-romanticising colour. But after plastic has been in the sea for twenty or thirty years it does start to fade and become something altogether softer in tone. I was looking at Tony Cragg’s plastic sculptures made in the 1970’s and 1980’s and it’s interesting just how new and shiny the plastic pieces he collected look today. Fifty years on and much of the plastic that is still in the ocean has faded. Years of sun and sea break down even the most vivid polymers, even if the micro-plastic particles that disperse end up in the guts of the marine ecosystem.

The softer more faded colours of The Môr Plastig works perhaps give the work a more archaeological feel. They feel more like the battered relics we are leaving behind for future generations than symbols of a utopian future. Barthes was not around long enough to see how this material eventually adheres to the power of nature and slowly reforms into more organic shapes that mimic the natural world. But his concept of the ‘myth of imitation’ turned out to be more real than he could have imagined.

In fifty years time what will people make of these photographs?

Hopefully by then we will have found ways of cleaning up the mess that we have made on this planet, and then the photographs will have fulfilled a temporal existence. Perhaps they will be a reminder of the madness of the late industrial epoch. An era of Neo-Liberal economics where profit, growth and corporate power dominated any sense of living in harmony with the planet’s scarce resources.

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