Portfolio Categories: work

End of Ash 2020

A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash:
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.

W H Auden 1952 (Bucolics, part II, “Woods”)

Most extinctions go unnoticed. But last night the moonlight lit up the dead branches of the Ash trees that overlook my studio here in West Wales creating an eerie scene. It’s a landscape that is becoming familiar all over Britain and a stark reminder of the state we are in. You don’t have to go to the Arctic to see environmental collapse. It’s here on our doorsteps, in our lanes and hedgerows. And it’s happening now.

Chalara or ‘Ash Dieback’, as its commonly referred to, seems to be the pandemic no-one is really talking about. With all the media attention on the human and economic impacts of COVID-19, there seems to be limited space and time given to highlighting the tragedy taking place in the countryside. Huge numbers of species are quietly becoming extinct whilst politicians obsess over the economy and getting things back to ‘normal’. But it is ‘business as normal’ that is causing the problems in the first place. Lyme, Ebola, AIDS and now COVID-19 all jumped into human populations after we started destroying habitats and ruining ecosystems.

Unlike COVID-19, Ash Dieback doesn’t seem to discriminate between individuals. This fungus appears to kill trees whether they are young, old, healthy or whether they inhabit common ground or private estates. The mortality rate is near 100%. No tree is safe. And yet there still seems to be little concern for the plight of this tree that is so rooted in Celtic mythology and the British landscape. This lack of interest clearly reflects our disconnection with nature.  We don’t see ourselves as part of nature anymore with a responsibility to ensure its welfare. And we don’t understand that our health is dependent on the health of a wider ecological system. Or what James Lovelock calls Gaia.  

For many, the Ash tree is simply an ‘invader’ species and consequently it doesn’t have the status of the grand old Oak tree or the sophistication of the exotic tree that now dominates the suburban garden.  Ash saplings are cut down as weeds by farmers and like immigrants are left to settle in the margins.  Which is why they tend to end up in the hedgerow or on ground no one wants and why there is no army of pharmaceutical companies racing to create a vaccine. Why would they ? After all they are only trees. But this soil enriching ‘invasive’ has a beauty all of its own. Beyond its elegant leaf structure and the unique sound that it makes when a breeze rustles through its tiny leaves, it supports hundreds of different species of fungi, invertebrates and lichens, not to mention all the birds that rely on it for cover. And it’s unique airy canopy provides light for woodland flowers like snowdrops, bluebells and summer wildflowers. It’s a ‘partner’ tree that allows others around it to thrive.

So will the disappearance of over 150 million Ash trees here in Britain wake us up to the dystopic mess we find ourselves? The jury is currently out. A new ‘rewilding’ movement maybe emerging but it doesn’t yet occupy the popular mainstream which is dominated by the rhetoric of neoliberal economics, uninterested politicians, and a xenophobic tabloid press.  And the restricted access to our countryside prevents large numbers of citizens from experiencing nature for themselves and getting a sense of collective ownership. And as usual it’s the poorest and the most disadvantaged that are excluded from this debate. Those who already suffer most from the impacts of pollution and will be effected most by climate change. No wonder they are disengaged. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that we desperately need our green spaces and a ‘democratisation of our landscapes’ where wider groups of stakeholders are involved in the decision making. Not just Tory donors who want subsidies for their private shooting estates or the Monsanto’s of this world who lobby hard to sell us technology that we don’t need. We require the input of imaginative thinkers, ecologists, wise farmers who care about the biodiversity of their land and all those with interests beyond mere commerce. The more diverse the input the smarter and more sustainable the solutions will be.

Hopefully art can also play its part in this change. But as I photograph and record the Dieback that’s taking place around me here in Wales, I am aware of its limitations in changing politics and culture. Beautiful and insightful as it is, W.H Auden’s 1952 poem ‘Woods’ failed to save the woodlands he so wanted to protect. And looking back over history I can’t find many examples of art bringing down governments or radically changing behaviour. Despite its power, Picasso’s Guernica went unnoticed for years after the Spanish Civil War and I doubt Ai Weiwei’s sculpture Law of The Journey, a long black rubber raft highlighting the plight of migrants, will change the geopolitics of globalisation. It’s a beautiful and important work but will it stop the rage that is behind Brexit?

Perhaps what art does best is bear witness to what is going on and what it means to be human at any particular time. And that in itself can help us reflect on what we have done and help others make wiser decisions. Philip Guston, the American painter, said that art must be involved with the world. “It can only get its energy and potency from involvement with the conditions of the world we live. The real world , the political world”. Living here in rural Wales, so decimated by monoculture and unsustainable farming, I am trying to record both the beauty and the contradictions that inhabit the land around me. But increasingly being in nature fills me with meloncholy. Not the meloncholy of nature’s indifference, but the feeling that all is not well and it is only a matter of time before we lose more precious species. By photographing the dying Ash trees and replacing them with a diverse mix of young saplings, maybe I can play a small role in that transition to a better future. A future where we get the woods we all need.

Mike Perry June 2020

Untitled 2018 – Ongoing

In his series, Untitled, Mike Perry continues his interest in minimalism and the found object as a source of aesthetic contemplation and contemporary narrative. The source of his material, however, is no longer the beaches of West Wales where he collected and photographed toxic pieces of plastic for his series Môr Plastig (Plastic Sea). The environmental narrative is replaced by a sense of introspection as the viewer is invited to respond to highly detailed surfaces of seemingly mundane objects he finds around his home and studio. Plastic pollution is replaced by pieces of cardboard and packing foam, materials given a new lease of life by the world of online shopping and home deliveries, and seemingly unrelated found surfaces. Perry has photographed cardboard covered in spilt gesso, a used cutting matt, Jiffy Bags and the covers of sketchbooks. In these works, the soft monochrome surfaces appear to float in the space they occupy giving them a strong sculptural presence. Perry is clearly interested in ideas relating to the hierarchy of materials and re-exploring the medium of photography in it’s relation to sculpture and drawing. Using very large digital files for extreme detail, Perry is creating ‘hyper real’ images that were not feasible with the traditional film negative, although his focus is less on the ‘magic making’ potential of Photoshop and more on the potential of different surfaces to reflect light and create an intimate dialogue with the viewer. This new body of work also suggests a desire for ‘slow making’ in a world increasingly dominated by Instagram and ‘social media’.

Artist Statement

Underside Of White Cardboard Box, 2018

Art Made Now, Gallery VIII, Royal Academy of Arts, 12 June – 19 August 2018

Perry’s one to one photogragh taken with soft ‘neutral’ daylight focuses our attention on the surface of cardboard and the subtle markings made by the pressing machines that turn out these boxes by the thousands. In White Cardboard Box, 2018, the vertical shadow line, created by the gap in the carboard flaps, entices the viewer to a glimpse of an empty interior and in some way echos the ideas developed by Lucio Fontana in the 1950’s.  In his series Concetto Spaziale, Fontana made vertical cuts in white canvases in order to explore the relationship between surface and dimensionality. By slashing the canvas, Fontana re-energised a flat painted surface turning it into something sculptural. But in Perry’s case, the art is not gestural but in his choice of subject and the forensic way in which he takes the photograph.  His approach remains resolutely open and ambiguous allowing the viewer to either feel a sense of the sublime or be left staring into a black void wondering what all the fuss is about.

Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, Attesa, 1960

Môr Plastig 2012 – Ongoing (Single Works)

Perry’s photography is not concerned with the campaigning rhetoric of straight environmental documentary. Rather it poetically alludes to what we might be leaving for future generations. – Skye Sherwin

Môr Plastig, welsh for Plastic Sea, is a forensic photographic study of plastic objects that have washed up on the west coast of Wales, and more recently further afield. I photograph the objects one to one, straight on to camera with flat ‘neutral’ light. My intention is to be as objective as possible* avoiding a dramatic emotionally charged atmosphere.

My aim is to reduce the objects to their 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 new forms.

I use the highest resolution camera possible in order to capture the surface detail.  This allows the viewer to read the objects markings and scars created by months or even years in the ocean. This detail often provides clues to the origins of the plastic and in some cases the remains of a logo, bar code or opening instruction will indicate the country of origin. I have photographed flour sacks from China, soap dispensers from Brazil and fizzy drink bottles from Japan.  All washed up on our local beach.

The ambiguity between the aesthetic and narrative is an important part of the work.  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 more deeply about the materiality of this plastic and how it degrades. I also like the idea of taking rubbish and stuff that people would normally walk past and giving it a sculptural presence and status it wouldn’t normally have had on the supermarket shelf. So, in addition to seeing these pieces as symbols of over consumption and a disregard for the environment I also see them as evidence of the beauty and power of nature to shape and sculpt our world.  Whatever we throw at it, the planet will impose it’s own supremacy, no matter what the implications for us humans.

I present some of the objects as grids (e.g bottles, shoes, stones, gloves ) or in line sequence emphasising the infinite choice ‘offered’ by our consumer culture and to provide an aesthetic framework where colours and forms can work off each other. This approach may give the project a pseudo-scientific or contemporary natural history feel.

Environmental photography is often expressed at ‘Gurskyesk’ scale.  Polluted spaces on the ‘macro scale’. But sometimes small found objects can also tell a story in a poetic and engaging way.  I see these photographs as ‘micro landscapes’. Landscapes that record both ‘mans’ impact on nature and natures impact on the ‘man-made’.

* accepting of course that objectivity is impossible

Môr Plastig – Essay by Skye Sherwin (from Land/Sea Catalogue)

Interview with Mike Perry (from pg 41 in Land/Sea Catalogue onwards)

Môr Plastig 2012 – Ongoing (Multiples)

Perry’s photography is not concerned with the campaigning rhetoric of straight environmental documentary. Rather it poetically alludes to what we might be leaving for future generations. – Skye Sherwin

Môr Plastig, welsh for Plastic Sea, is a forensic photographic study of plastic objects that have washed up on the west coast of Wales, and more recently further afield. I photograph the objects one to one, straight on to camera with flat ‘neutral’ light. My intention is to be as objective as possible* avoiding a dramatic emotionally charged atmosphere.

My aim is to reduce the objects to their 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.

I use the highest resolution camera possible in order to capture the surface detail.  This allows the viewer to read the objects markings and scars created by months or even years in the ocean. This detail often provides clues to the origins of the plastic and in some cases the remains of a logo, bar code or opening instruction will indicate the country of origin. I have photographed flour sacks from China, soap dispensers from Brazil and fizzy drink bottles from Japan.  All washed up on our local beach.

The ambiguity between the aesthetic and narrative is an important part of the work.  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 more deeply about the materiality of this plastic and how it degrades. I also like the idea of taking rubbish and stuff that people would normally walk past and giving it a sculptural presence and status it wouldn’t normally have had on the supermarket shelf. So, in addition to seeing these pieces as symbols of over consumption and a disregard for the environment I also see them as evidence of the beauty and power of nature to shape and sculpt our world.  Whatever we throw at it, the planet will impose it’s own supremacy, no matter what the implications for us humans.

I present some of the objects as grids (e.g bottles, shoes, stones, gloves ) or in line sequence emphasising the infinite choice ‘offered’ by our consumer culture and to provide an aesthetic framework where colours and forms can work off each other. Some observers suggests this gives the project a pseudo-scientific or contemporay natural history feel.

Environmental photography is often expressed at ‘Gurskyesk’ scale.  Polluted spaces on the ‘macro scale’. But sometimes small found objects can also tell a story in a poetic and engaging way.  I see these photographs as ‘micro landscapes’. Landscapes that record both ‘mans’ impact on nature and natures impact on the ‘man-made’.

* accepting of course that objectivity is impossible

Môr Plastig – Essay by Skye Sherwin (from Land/Sea Catalogue)

Interview with Mike Perry (from pg 41 in Land/Sea Catalogue onwards)

Outcasts 2017 – 2020

“Ever since Genesis decreed ‘thorns and thistles’ as long term punishment for our misbehaviour in the Garden of Eden, weeds have seemed to transcend value judgements, to be ubiquitous and self-evident, as if, like bacteria, they were biological, not a cultural, category”                        

Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defence of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants

Conventional wisdom suggests Ancient Britain was dominated by dense Hansel and Gretel style forest. But the myth of the dark scary woods is being challenged by new research that suggests large swathes of the landscape supported open ‘savanna like’ grasslands and thorny scrub trees. ‘Scrub’ trees that have become ‘cultural outcasts’. Outcasts because they don’t comply with the economics of agribusiness or the aesthetics of the landowner, ‘Middle England’ or town planner.  Our Hawthorns, Blackthorns, Wild Pears, Goat Willows and so many more beautiful invader species have been forced to the margins. Confined to hedgerows and pockets of land no one wants and described as ‘invasives’ like unwanted immigrants. And yet, these trees and plants create the richest most diverse habitats for birdlife and insects and may offer the best hope of coping with the increasing impacts of climate change. Isabella Tree suggests in Wilding: The return of nature to the British farm, 2018, ‘we have become a nation of gardeners, more interested in exotic flowers than native trees’. Whilst this may be true in our cities and towns, our national parks and industrial farms have become biodiverse deserts through monoculture and the reliance on pesticides to keep out the unwanted invaders.

Here at Ffynnonofi, where I live and work in West Wales, the Hawthorn is one of the defining trees. Described by my Italian friend Hugo as ‘the olive tree of the North’, this hardy species has endured the salty winds that come off the sea for centuries and is at the heart of Celtic mythology. Their twisted and distorted trunks often defy gravity and tell us everything we need to know about the power and direction of the prevailing winds. Their tight foliage provides cover and habitats for numerous species. In late April, the trees become covered in white or pink blossom. It is the sign that spring has turned to summer.  And in late autumn the tree is a mass of red berries providing food for birds. In recent years the berries have become more abundant. This isn’t just due to our warmer summers but more to do with the fall in the number of birds. According to the RSPB, many of our native bird populations have declined by over 80% since 1970. These untouched berries reflect an increasing confusion in nature as climate change and species loss creates havoc in the hedgerow.

I decided to make a photographic record of the Hawthorns as a way of making work about place and to leave a record of the landscape I remember for future generations. I have decontexualised them from their surroundings, like Bernd and Hillar Becher did with their industrial structures and presented them in a grid in order to emphasise their wild sculptural forms.  Just as the Bechers wanted their work to encourage the preservation of the industrial relics they photographed, I’m keen to record our natural living architecture whilst it still exists. It’s as much a topographical inventory as it is a pictorial document. I also made a grid of sixteen wild willow trees that thrive in the wetter parts of the lower fields. They are the complete opposite of the angular fierce Hawthorns. Something attracts me to these sensuous delicate leaved bog lovers. Maybe it’s because they are regarded as ‘weeds’ by many farmers and gardeners, or maybe it’s their pale green semi symmetrical round forms that appeal to my minimalist tendencies. Richard Mabey, in his book Weeds : The Story Of The Outlaw Of Plants 2012, talks of the extraordinary benefits and properties of weeds and what he describes as ‘outlawed’ species. Willow bark, for example, contains natural aspirin and was used for aches and pains and inflammatory conditions by our ancestors.

This project reflects an interest I have developed in these ‘outcast’ trees and a desire to record their presence in a time of uncertainty in the natural world. Nature has always been in a state of transition but the transition we are now talking about looks increasingly like extinction for many species.  As Olafur Eliasson demonstrates in his serialised images of Iceland, the grid doesn’t have to be a form of urban order. It is also a way to express ideas of time, place, change and potential loss in nature. I’m also interested in giving significance and a presence to the stuff that culture marginalises, rejects or simply doesn’t notice. Depictions of forests in the European art tradition have mainly emphasised verticality, denseness or in Thomas Struth’s case, ‘Paradise’ is somewhere far off in exotic rainforests. For me, these scrub trees in West Wales, which light up the hedgerows for a few weeks every year provide a sense of optimism without pointing to any utopian solution.

Elan Valley 2015 – 2016

Arts Council Wales Research Residency

As a photographic artist, one can’t help being affected by this dramatic, awe inspiring location with it’s sublime vistas and jaw dropping engineering. But as we know, our rural landscapes are imbued with multiple meanings as industry, agriculture and culture play their part in turning our ‘untouched wilderness’ into something else. Here at Elan Valley, the human impacts are profound and for me the task of unravelling this ‘landscape’ was both rewarding and concerning at the same time.

This wasn’t my first experience of mid Wales melancholia. Much of my childhood involved driving from our family home in Birmingham to West Wales via Rhayader and the Cambrian mountains. I have powerful memories of empty hills covered in sheep and grey pebbledash farmhouses, and saying to myself ‘I couldn’t live here for a year, even for a million pounds” And more recently, I have been documenting ‘Wet Deserts’ in Britain’s Western uplands, which has immersed me in the debates on what constitutes ‘unspoilt wilderness’, often simply summarised as wide open empty grasslands versus re-wilded native forests. So I entered the Elan Valley Nature Reserve with both a sense of awe and an awareness of some of the environmental issues facing rural Wales.

Pretty soon into the residency I felt there was a ‘tension’ overhanging the Valley. A tension between a positive culture of conservation and regeneration set against a backdrop of commercial deforestation and destructive sheep farming. The replanting of native trees, wildflower meadows and the creation of sanctuaries for birds and wildlife, in the shadow of empty grasslands, poor acid soil, silent pine forests and low biodiversity. Certainly, you only have to rise a few hundred metres from the Valley floor before you encounter wide open grasslands dominated by sheep and nothing much else. One afternoon I walked around Claewen reservoir and didn’t see a single tree or hear a single bird. Although it was mid July it felt like mid winter, bleak and cold.  George Monbiot’s quote, in his book Feral, immediately came to mind….

‘We live in a shadowland, a dim flattened relic of what there once was, of what there could be again’

The book is a powerful critique of the state of the Welsh rural landscape and an argument for replacing monoculture farming (essentially sheep farming) with multi- species habitats including the re-introduction of key wild animals. He calls for the ‘rewilding’ of vast swathes of upland Wales in order to reconnect us with the natural world.

As the story of Elan Valley and it’s water is intrinsically linked to the surrounding landscape, this ‘tension’ is I believe an important area for reflection, critique and dialogue. This landscape harbours important contemporary issues such as how to conserve and rebuild our threatened natural habitats, how to challenge mono culture farming practice, the politics and meaning of water (the new Oil), how to culturally reconnect a generation with nature, and how to plan and manage our rural land in the context of climate change and global population growth. 

My conclusion was that an artist residency programme here at the epicentre of the Welsh landscape could become a vibrant destination for artists wanting to contribute to these challenging issues at a time when so much land management is dominated by the miserable ethics of agribusiness and unsustainable farming practices. Whether we favour the romance of the rewilders ‘eco nostalgia’ or completely new ideas of high biodiversity regeneration, what is clear is that there is an opportunity here for new thinking. New thinking that is not coming from the main political parties or the corporate world.

As a ‘not for profit’ organisation, Welsh Water, the ‘steward’ of this land and sponsor of this residency, is ideally placed to create a visionary and sustainable future for The Elan Valley that couldn’t come from a solely commercially driven organisation. Whether or not it commits itself to a truly enlightened approach to this land will depend on the ambitions and energy of the management. Although artists and their institutions don’t have the financial clout to make a difference, they may just be able to stretch the possibilities and inspire in a way that the financial shareholders cannot. If nothing else they will expose truths that can inform and enrich decision making.

Tributary 2016 – Craig Goch

During my residency I kept returning to this small segment of land to the west of Craig Goch reservoir. Something was going on that I couldn’t figure out. It didn’t have the regimented feel of replanted native woodland nor did it have the decimated feel of sheep pasture. There were old tree trunks lying on the ground alongside new healthy birch saplings. There were young natives and conifers lining the small tributary and fox gloves poking through the long grasses. What looked like a christmas tree was growing on the bank of the road. Had someone dumped it from the boot of their car when no-one was looking ? The overall lushness made it look more like a plantation in St Lucia than native woodland in Powys, Wales.

Eventually, I established that a few acres had recently been fenced off from sheep to protect a rare species of orchid. It didn’t feel planned or rewilded in a planted sense. Instead nature was reclaiming the land at its own pace and in a random manner that felt oddly ‘natural’. Early birch (the invader species) look so beautiful when they choose their own spot.

Of course nature is always in a state of transition and eventually dominant species can take over if there is no balancing mechanism in place. But this odd patch of land made me think of the importance of human interventions and how quickly nature can reclaim land decimated by sheep farming or land exploited for short term profit.

Wet Deserts 2009 – Ongoing

David Drake (Ffotogallery) – Land/Sea Catalogue Introduction 2017

Mike Perry’s landscape photographs in the series Wet Deserts are realised on a grand scale. His work, however, differs markedly from the cadre of photographers such as Edward Burtynsky who have made their name by creating large-scale works that record manufactured landscapes and environmental catastrophe. Perry eschews their need for elevated platforms (and more recently, aviation), to reveal the breadth and depth of these man-altered landscapes. Whereas Burtynsky travels the globe to document extreme human impact, Perry focuses his gaze on mundane and typically overlooked locations here in Britain, often in places commonly referred to as areas of natural beauty, our national parks. Thus he does not offer us dramatic aerial vistas of oil polluted landscapes, but low-angle, near distance images of charred scrubland and landscapes left barren from tree-felling or over-intensive sheep-farming. As Skye Sherwin observes “Perry’s photography, is not concerned with the campaigning rhetoric of straight environmental documentary. Rather it poetically alludes to what we might be leaving for future generations”.

Using a large format analogue camera and combining painterly aesthetics with a hard edged environmental narrative, the photographic images in Wet Deserts shed a very different light on the health of the upland landscape than one is accustomed to seeing in tourist brochures or romantic paintings and landscape photography.

Professor Gill Perry – NextLevel Magazine, Collectors Issue, Edition 19, Oct 2009

Loch Cluanie lies shielded by Highland mists at the south east end of Glen Sheil. A huge reservoir stretching for nearly 680 metres from west to east, it is contained by the Cluanie Dam constructed in the 1950s as part of the Glenmoriston hydroelectric project. Tourist shots of Loch Cluanie show spectacular, panoramic vistas, suggesting the elemental, epic landscapes of natural Scottish lochs. In contrast, Mike Perry’s large scale series of photographs of Loch Cluanie present the viewer with a puzzling – at times indecipherable – epic landscape genre which explores and indulges the uncomfortable margins of such tourist sites.

Part of a series of inland photographs shot on 10×8″ format while driving around remote locations in Wales, Scotland and Ireland in 2005-2008, these images appear both painterly and visually complex. Misty, barren landscapes with high horizons and speckled, muted colours can deceive as shallow surface abstractions, replete with formal effects that mimic paint on canvas. But on closer inspection they can also evoke more troubling narratives on the relationship between ‘nature’ and the effects of human intervention on landscape, water and geology.

Works such as ‘Cross, Rannoch Moor, Scotland, 2008’, ‘Burnt Gorse, Preseli Hills, Wales, 2005’, ‘Clearing, Preseli Hills, Wales, 2007’, ‘Fence, Kerry, 2007’ offer bleak, dehumanised vistas of scarred or ravaged nature, prompting musings on unpredictable weather changes or irresponsible depletion of natural resources. At the same time, Perry seems to revel in the painterly and poetic opportunities offered by muted winter light and monochromatic tones, grey mists, waterlogged bogs and austere, treeless moors.

He has expressed pessimism about climate change and the future of the planet. Yet his photographs tease the viewer with more ambiguous meanings. They are suggestive ‘documents’ which seem to hover uneasily between recording the effects of climate change (or simply the elemental ravages of nature) and seductive, painterly surfaces. Perry’s ‘Wet Deserts’ are less iconic than melting glaciers. Yet they invite reflection on what these uninhabited, marginal landscapes might signify in an era threatened by ecological disaster.

Gill Perry
Gill Perry is Professor of Art History at the Open University. She has published books and articles on modern and contemporary art and is co-chair of the conference Radical Nature at the Barbican on 12 September, 2009.

The Earth Only Endures – Skye Sherwin

Interview with Mike Perry – Ben Borthwick

Pantmaenog Forest, Mynydd Preseli, Wales

Pantmaenog Forest is not really a forest at all. It is an area of the Preseli Hills in The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park allocated for the ‘manufacture’ of Sitka Spruce, a fast growing north American soft wood tree used for construction and commercial building. The trees are planted a few feet apart and once mature create a dense silent vertical mass that prevents very little light from entering the forest floor. The result is very little biodiversity at soil level and virtually no birdlife in the upper canopy. Any carbon sequested from the growth of these trees is outweighed by the loss of carbon in the growing process, as it requires draining the land first which in turn causes the soil to dry out and release carbon into the atmosphere. This form of monoculture dominates uplands throughout the UK and is not only harmful to the environment but has few wider benefits for it’s surrounding communities. The owners of these ‘business assets’ often live far away and rarely visit the land to observe the bleakness they have created. 

In Clear Felling, 2017, I wanted to capture the devastation caused by the ripping out of the trees from the soil. This ‘harvesting’ happens in 30 year cycles and leaves some trees stripped but still standing creating an horizon and atmosphere reminiscent of a first world war battlefield. In Bog Cotton 1 and 2, 2019 my interest lies in the way the disrupted ground fights back, sprouting green shoots, mosses and wild flowers. A ‘temporary garden’ emerges as the ground previously starved of light rewilds itself. Unfortunately, this revitalised surface only lasts a few years as the new Spruce saplings turn into mature trees blocking out the light again. Slowly the forest floor returns to a dark lifeless empty place.  

In recent years, parts of the forest appear to have benefited by the thinning of the Spruce in favour of native broad leaf trees and the invader species so vital for biodiversity and adaption to climate change. In late August 2019, I walked through the lower southern parts of the forest picking blackberries and listening to the abundant birdlife that that was benefiting from this new mixed woodland approach.

White Gold 2010

Extract from The Earth Only Endures by Skye Sherwin

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.

Christie’s Garden Commission 2012

Robert Smithson suggested that ‘art degenerates when it approaches gardening’ and it was with some unease that I accepted the invitation from Christie’s of London to participate in a photographic commission of Britain’s ‘finest’ historic gardens.  I’d always felt there was something sinister about ‘quality’ gardens or ideas of paradise within the tranquil confines of the walled garden and as Smithson reminds us ‘dreadful things happened in half forgotten Edens’.

Christie’s Press Release

At the beginning of the Summer, a group of photographic artists were invited to take part in a competition to celebrate 25 years of the Garden Of The Year Award. The photographs were judged by a panel of experts for their originality and beauty, and measured by their success at capturing the essence of each garden in its historic setting. An inaugural exhibition at Christie’s of the photographs, including the winning entries will continue until Wednesday, 18 November 2009, and reopen at Christie’s King Street again in January. The exhibition will then be transported to Blenheim Palace, the most recent winners of the award itself, where it will remain for the first month of their visiting season.

Ricky Roundell, Vice Chairman, Christie’s said, “There is an exceptional degree of innovation and an extraordinary variety of approach illustrated in the photographs submitted for the 25th anniversary Garden of the Year Award photographic competition and exhibition sponsored by Christie’s and the Historic Houses Association. The photographers have produced a wonderful array of concepts from wide views to close-ups, beautifully capturing the diversity displayed in these famous English gardens. The exhibition is a great testament to the dedication and enthusiasm of the gardeners and owners of each Garden of the Year Award winner from the last twenty-five years. The public exhibition of photographs at Christie’s King Street is the perfect celebration of twenty-five years of the award, of the gardens, and the photographers who have captured their spirit and beauty so well.”

Philippe Garner, International Head of Photographs and 20th Century Decorative Art & Design, Christie’s said, “We decided to invite a number of photographers who weren’t necessarily garden photographers, but whom we felt we could trust to tackle the subject with confidence and express a very personal perspective. We wanted variety: photographers who work on an ambitious or heroic scale and also those whose approach would be more intimate; we wanted colour but also black and white. The aim was to achieve a group of works that would surprise and stimulate, and I have found the outcome immensely satisfying. Christie’s business is in selling works of art that already exist, but there is something special and exciting about bringing new works into being.”

E9: An Anatomy of An Area 2004

Alex Michon

Mike Perry has taken Joel Sternfeld’s Walking the High Line as the inspiration for his photographs of the industrial brown fields that skirt the eastern boundaries of E9. Sternfeld photographed an elevated derelict railway running along the western edge of Manhattan for just over a mile, focusing on the wilderness that had now overtaken the tracks. But whereas Sternfeld’s purpose appears to be a comment on nature’s abiding reclamation of the urban environment, Perry’s photographs show the early encroachment of redevelopment. However, when Perry photographed the weeds and wildflowers at the Marshgate Industrial Estate (For Sale, 2004), little did he know that 8 years later this would be the centre of the Olympic Stadium. 

Perry’s is a contemplative gaze. In Lea Navigation, Hackney 2004, he evokes a sense of illusionary stillness. The blurred, liquid languid reflections of the buildings murky canal, the puff of smoke in the background and the incidental verdant flashes of greenery belie the seediness of the surroundings.

These beautiful, tranquil photographs show an area in waiting and are a unique record of it’s transitory nature before it is swallowed up by re-urbanisation. The strange nuanced loveliness is all the more powerful because of it’s site in this back of beyond, watch you don’t get knifed mate, wasteland.

Craig Burnett suggests that Perry’s previous project – photographs of the coastline around Sussex and Dungeness – ‘offer a sustained mediation on the visual experience and a mental space for emotional and imaginative play’. The badlands of Hackney are a long way from the flasks of tea and sandwiches and trendy away-days of the south coast, and yet even in glorious seedy old Hackney, Perry manages to capture the restorative power of the landscape.