Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues17Sentinels of the Shore. Reconcili...

Sentinels of the Shore. Reconciling Art and Science

Anne Hellegouarc’h-Bryce

Abstracts

The sea and coast feature prominently in the cultural identity of the Breton and Scottish people. As the maritime environment finds itself increasingly under threat, initiatives to explore ways for coastal communities to adapt and weather the coming changes take more hybrid forms, rejecting the old compartmentalising of disciplines to favour a more constructive cross-pollination. There is evidence of this synergy of art and science in the artistic production of several artists working in Scotland and Brittany, who borrow the tools and methods of science: data and modern technology are used to draw attention to rising tides in low-lying areas of Scotland, and installations made of stranded debris, organic for some, plastic for others, document the extent of pollution and current changes in a new coastal taxonomy of the Anthropocene. In Brittany, the same painstaking, meticulous collecting process yields other weathered, sea-rolled relics of human impact on the sea, which question provenance, history and fate when displayed as ‘memorial fabrics’, or put us face to face with the denizens of the 7th Continent – inciting us to see in these human hybrids what lies ahead for humanity. Science-informed art, science in an artistic guise: today different disciplines have much to gain from feeding from one another: combining different perceptions and means of expression, apprehending the world through multiple prisms, enables us to better apprehend what is threatening it. This paper explores the context that gave rise to such ‘science-infused’ artistic initiatives in Brittany and Scotland.

Top of page

Full text

1In his study of ecological art and the anthropocene, History of Art lecturer and curator Paul Ardenne explained that his aim had been to document “attempts to alert us, instances where artists act as watchers, and initiatives where solidarity, fraternity and humanism play a leading role, resulting in artistic production whose central theme is the preservation of humankind and the environment it depends on” (Ardenne 2019:12). This paper will focus on just such creative initiatives, more specifically on those in which a synergy of art and science is in evidence or where an artistic approach is informed by science, with the resulting works questioning the resilience of threatened coastal environments and the communities whose culture they have shaped and continue to shape, in Brittany and Scotland.

2Cross-pollination of art and science is a trend that has been developing in recent years as artists and scientists are increasingly inclined to throw bridges across their respective disciplines. Many examples of such mutual informing come to mind, arguably the most striking one being Ice Watch, an installation by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson consisting of 24 gigantic blocks of (quickly melting) glacial ice detached from free-floating icebergs in Greenland. The blocks were shipped over to London in 2018, to be placed in two sites: outside Tate Modern, and outside the London headquarters of Bloomberg Philanthropies. 

Figure 1. Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, Ice Watch, 2014

Figure 1. Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, Ice Watch, 2014

Ice Watch, 2014, Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, supported by Bloomberg. Installation view: Bankside, outside Tate Modern, 2018

Source: https://olafureliasson.net/​artwork/​ice-watch-2014/​ Photo credit: courtesy of Charlie Forgham-Bailey. Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 2014 Olafur Eliasson

3Although this was an art installation, it was announced by the BBC Website in its Science and Environment section and was created in collaboration with the geologist Minik Rosing. The London display was the third Ice Watch installation and each one had been planned to have its opening coincide with an event linked with climate change – in this case, the 2018 COP24 climate change conference at Katowice in Poland (hence the number of blocks forming the work outside Tate Modern). Ice Watch was an example of artistic production that aimed to contribute to scientific knowledge. Other interdisciplinary initiatives increasingly blur the boundaries, casting artists in the role of ethnologist, anthropologist or historian – climatologist even, in the case of Ice Watch. The blue humanities seem particularly conducive to a creative convergence of art and science.

4Whether the production resulting from such initiatives should be seen as art, science or perhaps as both is a complex question which will not be discussed here: it is not the nature of the work but its relevance that the present paper is concerned with. Its aim is to draw attention to the work of artists whose practice can be seen as relevant both to art and science and has a strong connection with the coastal environment of Scotland and Brittany, two countries where the creative collaboration between artists and scientists has been gaining momentum in recent years. In Brittany, the Roscoff marine biology institute regularly hosts artist residencies, while the RESSAC festival in Brest is devoted to bringing together artistic culture and scientific research. In Scotland, a similar aim to bring together rather than oppose science and art was at work long before the country declared 2020the Year of Coasts and Waters”, as will be seen.

Walking the high-tide line

A site-specific installation set up in 2018 in the Outer Hebrides provides a particularly apt example of art generated by a scientific desire to inform – quite literally in this case, enlighten – the viewer, about the urgency of reversing climate change. For this work entitled Lines (57° 59’N,7° 26’W), photographer Pekka Niittyvirta and visual artist Timo Aho, both from Helsinki (Finland) created an interactive, light installation, set up in several low-lying locations along the shore of North Uist threatened by rising sea levels. This consisted in placing three sets of LED lines and captors on three shoreline sites, at the invitation of the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art Centre in Lochmaddy. When the tide came in, the captors would light up the LED lines, showing the level the sea will reach by the close of this century. Niittyverta captured the disastrous impact of future sea level rise in a set of photographs.

The Lines (57° 59’N, 7° 26’W) installation is ingenious and visually dramatic: triggered by the rising tide, the lights become visible after dusk only, forming horizontal white lines in the night sky which make the threat climate change now represents for them blatant for coastal communities. Beyond its artistic significance, Aho’s and Niittyvirta’s collaborative work is informed by scientific reasoning and the two dimensions combine to make this a truly environmentally relevant work: the two artists based themselves on up-to-date data and scientific projections to carefully place the LED lines at a precise height on the facade of the buildings. Among those buildings was the art centre hosting the installation, Taigh Chearsabhagh, and in an ironic reversal of roles, in this instance the artwork showcased the venue by drawing attention to its inevitable disappearance: it showed very clearly (fig.2) that Taigh Chearsabhagh will itself be submerged by rising sea levels – indeed, because of this an alternative site will have to be found and the Museum and Art Centre will need to be relocated.

5Just as Ice Watch made the melting of the glaciers tangible (and even audible) as the 3-ton blocks of ice gradually melted away under the eyes of passers-by, the Lines (57° 59’N, 7° 26’W) installation in North Uist did not only help visualise something that is difficult for us to imagine, it made rising sea level palpable – materialised through the physical presence of the LED lights. Through this artistic project, viewers could see precisely which buildings would be under water and physically experience whether they themselves would have water up to their shoulders or their head in the not so distant future. Lines effectively placed them in a dystopian North Uist to experience the extent of the damage to their own environment, implying the loss of far more than just land and space. 

The installation was striking in all respects: visible from a distance, interactive and, rather disturbingly, eerily beautiful, all things which made it a particularly powerful work of art, with immediate impact – and much more thought-provoking than reading arid scientific reports. As the two artists themselves noted, with art, it is possible to express complex scientific concepts and data that would be difficult to put into words. Here as in Ice Watch, art enables the viewer to witness something they could not possibly see otherwise; by affording them a view into the future, it enables them to experience the unfathomable. These art installations exemplify the ways in which art can be a valuable asset for science.

6The issue of rising sea levels is also the focus of recent work by Edinburgh-born visual artist David Cass. His work too was displayed at the water’s edge in Lochmaddy, and again with the very same concern in mind: to make the rise visible, hence real, for people. Cass has long been concerned about the impact of climate change and this is reflected in the form and themes of his work – in particular his consistent focus on the sea as the main subject of his work. Through his choice of found and salvaged materials and objects to paint on, he expresses his concern for sustainability, but also perhaps comments on the pervasive material legacy of the anthropocene.

7David Cass’s work is very much about watching, in the very real sense of keeping a watch over the tideline, the rising sea and horizon lines, as a long-term artistic monitoring process to alert and warn us. In Series III – 365 days, fittingly exhibited at the 2022 Venice Biennale, Cass took on the role of a committed and patient sentinel. By displaying together 365 painted seascapes, he did not simply record the infinitely varying hues of sea and sky but symbolically documented a year of daily changes in the sea level, thereby inviting the viewer to ponder the causes and consequences of the phenomenon and its ultimate effect on the coasts and communities living along them.

Figure 4. David Cass, 2017, Series II, 365 Days

Figure 4. David Cass, 2017, Series II, 365 Days

David Cass, 2017, Series II, 365 Days, mixed media: paint on found antique metal tins, part of the Where Once the Waters installation project, exhibited (below) at the 59th Venice Biennale, April 19th-May 24, 2022.

Source: Photo credit: David Cass, https://davidcass.art/​whereoncethewaters.

8Another work dealt just as explicitly with the consequences we must now prepare for: displayed at Taigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy in Uist, Horizon Rising can be described as virtually immersive: the viewers surrounded physically (outside) as well as symbolically (on the gallery walls) by the sea were made more aware of the threat its inexorable reclaiming of the coastline represents, not least for the local communities.

Figure 5. David Cass, Horizon Rising exhibition

Figure 5. David Cass, Horizon Rising exhibition

David Cass, Horizon Rising exhibition at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre, North Uist, Jan 11- Feb 29, 2020.

Source: Photo credit: David Cass, https://davidcass.art/​horizon

9Cass’s work is an example of cross-pollination: it is both informed by science and aimed at making scientific findings more understandable by mediating between scientists and viewers (although a disclaimer warns the viewer that the work should not be taken as providing scientific guidance). At the opening of the Rising Horizon show in Edinburgh in January 2019, after the artist introduced his work and mentioned sea-rise as the “serious concept behind it”, an allocution was made by Dr Dave Reay, Professor in Carbon Management. It is not so common to have a scientist talk at the opening of an art show, and Dr Reay’s very enthusiastic response to the artwork seems to confirm the new synergy at work, with art and science working towards a common goal instead of looking in opposite directions. According to the carbon specialist, the public’s positive reception of David Cass’s work did not simply reflect an aesthetic and emotional response but an appreciation of its sustainability. That Cass’s work and approach have resonance in the scientific field seems further confirmed by the artist’s involvement in the Climate Change Creative at the COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, and by his work (in film) being screened as part of the curated program Art Speaks Out at the following year’s COP27 UN conference on climate change held at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt.

Stranded memories – scavenging the shores for the unseen and overlooked

10David Cass is one among a growing number of artists who act as sentinels for our shores. They walk the shore and see its changes, picking up debris which they use to draw our attention to what we otherwise might not see or want to see. Material detritus on the shoreline (whether it be organic, plastic or other) documents changes in our environment (changes in patterns), reflecting the observations made in several scientific fields (climatology, marine biology, oceanography, environmental studies, etc.). The debris washed up on the high-tide line can yield useful information about currents, tides and meteorological events that caused an object discarded thousands of miles from here to cast up on a Scottish shore, about its origin, its resistance or biodegradability, its impact on the environment, animal life – many factual, scientific conclusions. But beyond the factual and scientific, there is also more subjective conjecture, the symbolic associations which a long-travelled piece of driftwood or weathered whale vertebra will conjure up in the finder: found objects, and particularly perhaps the eclectic mix of flotsam and jetsam randomly washed up on the shore, are a potent symbol of – and receptacle for – scientific and artistic interpretation. When a work of art elicits both these interpretations or readings, the result is a very powerful work and this is most definitely the case for the work of Robert Callender (1932-2011), who is surely the epitome of the ever-watchful sentinel. Callender chooses to draw attention not so much to the threat the sea represents for us, as to the threat human activity constitutes for the marine ecosystem. Quite obviously the two point to the same dismal consequences since the danger the sea now represents is directly increased by human activity: whichever aspect of the problem different artists choose to draw attention to, they are all pointing to one and the same irreversible damage of an ecosystem.

11Callender was aware of the damaging human impact on the marine environment very early on, long before the general public eventually woke up to it, and a great deal of his work sought to draw the latter’s attention to it. This made him a pioneer, later joined by a growing body of artists whose work involved recording the changes they witnessed as careful watchers and walkers of the shore. Callender was an indefatigable collector of driftwood, and as such, could not help but notice that the quantity of driftwood washed up on the strand, once bountiful, was dwindling to the point that it is becoming a rarity on the shoreline where more often than not plastic waste has replaced it. Callender spotted this alarming mutation in the nature of the flotsam and jetsam stranded on the coast of the North-West of Scotland very early on, and his painstaking mixed-media and papier-mâché reconstitution and arraying of material (mostly plastic) found on the beach now stares us in the face as blinding evidence of something we took too long to pay heed to. Beyond its artistic purpose and significance, Callender’s work could also be seen as akin to that of naturalists who year after year painstakingly collect samples of a migratory species to document the evolution in its migratory routes, diet or state of health.

Figure 6. Robert Callender, Coastal Collection (1995-1999)

Figure 6. Robert Callender, Coastal Collection (1995-1999)

Robert Callender, Coastal Collection (1995-1999), paper, card, mixed media (collection of 500 handcrafted pieces)

Source: Fife Contemporary, https://www.fcac.co.uk/​2020/​06/​on-this-day-robert-callender-a2b/​, photo credit: Fife Contemporary /Arlene Brown; A2B

12The migratory species Callender collects is plastic, but what determines the way the replicas he crafts of each sample he collects are arrayed is an artistic rather than a scientific process and purpose. Yet one could almost argue that there is a form of scientific interest in the resulting works (Coastal Collection for instance) in that they document the changes in the provenance of stranded objects, in the frequency of their occurrence, their biodegradability – or otherwise – and reflect changes in marine currents and what they have been carrying with them and discarding on the shores of West Sutherland over several decades. Robert Callender’s work over the years provides us with striking (and indicting) snapshots of the anthropocene’s impact on the Scottish shoreline and natural habitat – and ultimately culture and communities. It is a work of what one might call “terrible beauty”, following Yeats.


Figure 7. Robert Callender,
Plastic Beach (2003-2008)

Figure 7. Robert Callender, Plastic Beach (2003-2008)

Figure 7. R. Callender, Plastic Beach (2003-2008) assemblage of re-created plastic objects: mixed media, paper.

Source: Photo by Lateral Lab, https://www.laterallab.org/​robert-callender

13Plastic Beach generates an uneasy blend of pleasurable and painful feelings in the viewer. We are deeply disturbed by the damning evidence of our responsibility in the scene that confronts us but are simultaneously attracted by the visual impact of the colourful work arrayed before us. And upon realising that the 500 or so pieces displayed on the gallery floor are not in fact made of plastic at all, we cannot but stand in awe at the incredible craftsmanship that went into making these replicas. The power of Coastal Collection and Plastic Beach lies in the fact that both works affront and compel at the same time: they are a terrible indictment of human impact on the environment as much as they are works of fascinating beauty.

14The work of Sophie Morrish also takes the form of arrays – though with a notable difference: whether exhibited as physical installations or photographed, her arrays are not of man-made objects, but most often mineral relics of animal life: bones (Biomass, 2015 (fig.8); Constellation, 2018, (fig.9), crab moults (The Quarters of the Moon, 2014) or feathers (Violent Beauty, 2017, fig.10), for instance.

Figure 8. Sophie Morrish, detail from the Biomass installation at Taigh Chearsabhagh, Lochmaddy, North Uist, 2015

Figure 8. Sophie Morrish, detail from the Biomass installation at Taigh Chearsabhagh, Lochmaddy, North Uist, 2015

Sophie Morrish, detail from the Biomass installation at Taigh Chearsabhagh, Lochmaddy, North Uist, 2015, commissioned by Atlas Arts. Assembled found animal bones.

Figure 9. Sophie Morrish, Constellation (After Fire), 2018

Figure 9. Sophie Morrish, Constellation (After Fire), 2018

Sophie Morrish, Constellation (After Fire), 2018, burnt animal bones on board, 122 x 181.5 cm 

Source: Sophie Morrish website, https://www.sophiemorrish.net/​island-time

15There is very little (if any) plastic to be seen in Morrish’s work, yet in both her work and Callender’s we find a similar painstaking and aesthetic arraying of flotsam and jetsam – overlooked detritus which takes on significance by being displayed and given to us to not just notice, but contemplate in all senses of the word. In both cases the experience is as compelling and moving as it is unsettling. All the relics – ‘objects’ – combined by Morrish in her arrays were collected on the shore. They had initially been discarded, dismissed, ignored as debris, yet each and every one of them, from the large whale skull or vertebra down to the seemingly insignificant bone of a rabbit or mouse, holds significance and could yield scientific information. Indeed, if we care to look (as Sophie Morrish did every day on the same stretch of coastline), what she scavenged and has arrayed for display reads like a careful and sensitive record of the state of the shore: the impact of currents, storms, migrations, pollution, biodiversity. Every piece the array is made of is a part of a dead creature, the cause of all the deaths unknown and inviting conjecture: are these bleached relics those of disoriented storm casualties? Of animals that died of disease? Or starvation? Were they killed by predators? Or were they victims of pollution? By-catches of the fishing industry? The titles given by the artist sometimes give clues to the cause of death: Violent Beauty, for example, is an array of the feathers of prey killed by predators, and the oxymoronic title aptly illustrates the reason for the mixture of emotional responses elicited by Morrish’s work, as by Callender’s, as we saw: what we are responding to is a form of poignant beauty born of destruction – natural destruction (by a bird of prey) but also, and on a far more alarming scale, human-induced.

Figure 10. Sophie Morrish, Violent Beauty (II), 2017-2018

Figure 10. Sophie Morrish, Violent Beauty (II), 2017-2018

Sophie Morrish, Violent Beauty (II), 2017-2018, Feathers from predated birds, steel pins, graphite on canvas, 81 x 120cm

Source: Photo credit: Sophie Morrish

Arraying against the tide, blurring distinctions and boundaries

16Morrish’s arrays could be seen as a synthesis of still-life, photography, cabinets of curiosity and assemblage, and as such, they constitute snapshots of sorts, moments frozen in time, rather as Callender’s arrays do, but with a different focus. These  are snapshots of the diversity, beauty, and fragility of species inhabiting the Scottish coastline and waters, many of them unsuspected (rarely seen alive), or perhaps not local wildlife at all but blown off course by a changing weather and current pattern. The Quarters of the Moon (2014) is a photograph of the array made from all the shore crab moults Morrish picked up on a same stretch of beach during the lunar phases, which led her to notice that the lunar phases seemed to have an incidence on the size and quantity of crab moults found on the shore. Likewise, Critter List (2015), which accompanied the Biomass installation in Lochmaddy, is an enumeration of all the species used in the works, in English and Gaelic, which mirrors the arrays, in that instead of being arranged according to scientific taxonomy, they were listed in an order dictated by the poetic effect and rhymes that reading the list aloud would create. There is therefore a certain scientific value to Morrish’s arrays, even if her juxtaposing of feathers, bones or skulls does not obey scientific methodology or traditional taxonomy. Yet as an artist rather than a scientist, Morrish did not set out to follow any kind of scientific classification, instead following an aesthetic or perhaps instinctual inkling to assemble her finds and responding to shape, colour, tone, contrast… This is at odds with what dictates scientific taxonomy and it contributes to throwing the viewer off balance: from a distance, the resulting arrays look deceptively like abstract patterns, yet what could be more material than skulls – mineral relics bleached by the sun and the sea? This visual deception (with viewers realising what they are actually looking at only as they move closer to the piece) is one of the subtle facets of the arrays that make them deeply distinctive and thought-provoking works. 

17The vital significance of the organic ecosystem for coastal communities is also suggested by the place given by the artist to the Gaelic language, which dictates the order adopted in Critter List, and we find similar echoes of the interdependence of Highland communities and the natural environment and landscape they were a part of in many of Will Maclean’s works, notably his assemblage boxes. Here too, there is a careful choosing and ordering of highly symbolic elements, often natural (wood or bone for instance) – and as is the case for Morrish, in Maclean’s work the ordering is not determined by scientific criteria reflecting a hierarchy established between species, but by deeper, more subtle and meaningful ones: this is a taxonomy of a different, far more subjective and personal kind.

18In Mariner’s Museum / a Taxonomy of Tides (2014) for example, Maclean draws on the collective memory of Scottish seafaring communities (whaling, fishing). It is as though the boundaries marking the limits of the two worlds between which the mariner travels (land and sea) were blurred in this work, and both worlds, melded into one. In the central section of the work, the ethereal, bone-like profiles of ships’ hulls mirror the spectral silhouettes of the fish or whales crafted by the artist, to the point that the boat-hulls look like sea-creatures and the latter, like the silhouettes of boats. Likewise, the pieces of wood encased in the boxes at the bottom of Mariner’s Museum evoke the silhouette of marine creatures as much as they do driftwood: liminality is everywhere emphasized in the work. Both worlds (land and sea, human and animal) are brought together by being integrated in the work in the form of crafted symbols, which the artist has whitewashed to a bleached bonelike state, as if to further emphasize their memorial quality. Indeed, they are fixed in the work in a common, boxed space and static state, like so many mineral relics in this personal museum. 

Figure 11. Will Maclean, Mariner’s Museum/Taxonomy of Tides, 2014

Figure 11. Will Maclean, Mariner’s Museum/Taxonomy of Tides, 2014

Figure 11. Will Maclean, Mariner’s Museum/Taxonomy of Tides, 2014; mixed media construction; 123 x 108 x 9.5cm; private collection. 

Source: Gleaned and Gathered exhibition catalogue, London: Art First Ltd, 2014, photo credit: Will Maclean

19With its simple, even sparse, pristine quality and solemn purity, Mariner’s Museum/Taxonomy of Tides evokes a reliquary as much as a museum – and indeed, many of the assemblage boxes crafted by Maclean have such an elegiac quality. Significantly, all the elements are the same scale and arrayed in boxes like so many specimens, which further emphasizes the liminality of seafarers’ and coastal cultures’ lives. For the viewer, this also contributes to blurring the familiar and expected distinction between the two worlds: are these ‘finned’ boat hulls not in fact the silhouettes of whales? Is what at first sight seems to be the carved representation of a whale in fact a piece of wooden rudder? And in the end, does it matter which is which? In this work, boats and whales or fish are indissociable elements of the mariner’s experience, of the artist’s personal narrative – but perhaps also a way for Maclean to evoke the memory of a way of life (whaling, fishing) on which Scottish communities depended. 

20The interconnectedness of the human and the natural world is stressed throughout Maclean’s work, whatever the medium used. In the 2013 sculpture entitled Mariner’s Museum n°2, Polar Azimuth, a crafted piece embedded in the centre of a nautical compass evokes the vertebra of a fish (a recurrent symbol in the artist’s work) while the figures and measures on the face of the compass gradually blend into a scrawled pattern of fish scales, itself mirroring the scribbled handwriting that makes up the background. Organic, animal elements blend into man-made, geometrical shapes and narrative signs and symbols, to the point that it is difficult for the viewer to tell them apart. This is compounded by the fact that here as in many other works, Maclean has not only assembled symbols evoking the human and the natural worlds: he has deliberately placed them – and thereby the two worlds – on one and the same level of relevance

21Maclean’s idiosyncratic arranging and assembling impresses upon the viewer the idea that the elements brought together for display in the work are all essential and indissociable parts of one and the same environment – the sea, upon which all the lives indirectly evoked in the work (human and animal) depended. Morrish’s arraying seems to proceed from a similar reasoning. Yet for all the echoes one finds in the works of both artists, there is one notable difference: their reference to the human element – the presence – or otherwise – of people. 

Life in absence, phantom presence

22Even if, as in very many of Will Maclean’s works, there is no actual, direct human representation in Mariner’s Museum, the title, however, refers directly to a human community that held strong personal significance for the artist. The reference to people (be they identified individuals or wider communities) runs like a constant yet subtle thread in the work of Maclean. People may not be physically represented in the work for the viewer to see, they may only appear as ghostly outlines or silhouettes without identifiable faces, yet they are nonetheless subtly evoked and their presence is keenly suggested (sometimes all the more keenly through the absence of physical representation). Upon looking at the body of work of Will Maclean, one cannot but feel that human communities and culture and their interplay with the sea is its essence. One only has to look at the titles for evidence of this.

23In Maclean’s work, indeed, the human reference is very much rooted (in Highland communities, in his own family background…) and empathetic: the people evoked are his people, often named (Portrait of Angus Mackenzie (Macmillan 1992: 36)), recalled through objects that symbolised and identified them (Abigail’s Apron (1980, cf Macmillan 1992: 34)), and most long gone (Skye Fisherman: in Memoriam, 1989, fig.15 ), Sabbath of the Dead, 1978 (fig.16). 

24In the recent work Sophie Morrish produced in the North-West of Scotland, one does not find any humans, in fact they are at first sight conspicuously absent from the picture, so to speak. Yet her work often points to the anthropogenic impact (actual or potential) on the life – and perhaps death – of the creatures whose remains are collected here, making the human imprint nearly tangible at times. Our species is very much present in the background of the arrays, but essentially as one among other animal species: her arrays and series of photographic work seem to place Morrish as an observer considering a wider drama unfolding in nature on a large scale, recording phenomena that might have otherwise gone unnoticed and calling our attention to them through her art: “Art is the means by which I transform this direct experiencing of nature.ˮ (Morrish 2020: 15). 

25In Morrish’s Island Time: North Uist Works, the viewer is instead struck by the absence of actual life altogether, or what could perhaps best be described as the representation of life ‘in absence’ (life that is gone and which the viewer is left to imagine). In this varied body of work inspired by daily walks along the Hebridean shore, an empty space or shell suggests the former presence of animal life: birdskulls, sheepskulls, whale vertebrae and crab-claws are used to symbolically evoke the life that once inhabited them, more simply put, the ‘former occupants’. And interestingly, one finds a striking parallel in the work of another artist who also gleans and beach-combs as part of her artistic practice: Breton artist Cécile Borne, based in Douarnenez, in Southern Finistère. 

26Cécile Borne is also an artist working in a wide variety of media (which seems to be a characteristic common to most of the artists reviewed in this article): she trained as a choreographer and dancer and this has undoubtedly informed her later artistic practice, for her installations feature the human body: its moves, its impact and the traces it leaves behind. Indeed, like Morrish’s Uist work, Borne’s installation work (based largely on the use of gleaned textiles) draws attention to spaces and traces left by former occupants, with this difference that in Borne’s work, the now-empty space is not a shell or a skull, but a piece of clothing or another object (a suitcase, a book…) which implicitly evoke their former occupants or owners. The latter were fishermen (their presence recalled in the artist’s use of oilskins dug out of the sand as her main material) or migrants (evoked by the display of clothes, bundles, but also plaster casts of torsos). One is never given to see faces in Borne’s work. The people whose lives (and possibly deaths, at sea or elsewhere?) are evoked here are faceless, anonymous and now immaterial, unlike their clothes: like skulls, clothes live on after the occupant is gone. Material is at the centre of Borne’s work: material traces of work, life, travel, but also material in the sense of fabric, since pieces of weathered fishermen’s oilskin jackets or trousers is what she salvages and uses most in her installations and assemblages. And significantly, material as narrative – this is the meaning of the play on words in the title of the Vestiaires – cirés-récits exhibition: ciré refers to the oilskin jackets and overalls worn by fishermen, but phonetically, when the syllables are inverted, one gets the word récit, meaning a narrative, in the plural here for Borne’s Vestiaires installation evoked many of them, each piece of salvaged clothing acting as ‘memorial material’ and telling a story.

source: (left) Métamorphose installation at La Roche-Jagu; (right) La Manufacture, Roubaix, press release for the Tissus Mémoires exhibition, Roubaix Tourisme, 2018. Photo credit: Cécile Borne (left) ; Lionel Flageul (right)

Figure 14. Cécile Borne, Cirés-Récits, Vestiaires exhibition at the Port-Musée of Douarnenez, 4-20 Sept. 2015

Figure 14. Cécile Borne, Cirés-Récits, Vestiaires exhibition at the Port-Musée of Douarnenez, 4-20 Sept. 2015

Cécile Borne, Cirés-Récits, Vestiaires exhibition at the Port-Musée of Douarnenez, 4-20 Sept. 2015.

Source: Vestiaires, cirés-récits, Cécile Borne, exhibition catalogue, Douarnenez: Port-Musée, 2015. Photo credit: Lionel Flageul

27There is a solemn, memorial dimension in the work of Morrish and Borne, which is also very much present in the work of Maclean where, as we have already mentioned, reliquaries, requiems, shrines, altars and elegies feature prominently (both in the artworks and their titles: ‘Emigrant’s Voyage’, ‘Memorial for a Clearance Village’…). In his work as in that of Cécile Borne, elements of ethnology, anthropology, genealogy, archaeology and traditional craftsmanship all combine to emphasise a constant focus on the human experience of loss, memory and remembrance. The forlorn landscapes in some of the assemblages, paintings or etchings may appear bleak and physically empty but are filled with the sorrow of the cleared populations, present in essence, and whose memory and legacy lingers throughout Maclean’s work just as it lingers in the land and landscape. 

28There is an undeniable archaeological quality in the work of Morrish, Maclean and Borne which is all about objects and traces left for the viewer to question and interpret. All three invest objects with the task of conjuring up the memory of an individual (animal or human), community (or species) or people. In Borne’s work, fishermen or migrants are anonymous.

Figure 15. Will Maclean, Skye Fisherman – in memoriam, 1989

Figure 15. Will Maclean, Skye Fisherman – in memoriam, 1989

Source: Macmillan 1992:57

29The sea plays an ambivalent part in this process of remembering and re-membering by piecing together fabrics, narratives and discarded fragments of memory. In Maclean’s work it plays a dual role: at once linking and dividing people, feeding men and taking lives – and also breaking the ancestral transmission of language and customs between the generations by facilitating emigration and dispossession, for if the sea made these communities, it also tore them apart by taking them away on the emigrant ships. The relics and fragments of everyday life incorporated and often sacralised in Maclean’s works are poignant reminders of absence, loss and the organic link between a people, its land and its culture that is now broken.

Figure 16. Will Maclean, Sabbath of the Dead, mixed media assemblage, 1978

Figure 16. Will Maclean, Sabbath of the Dead, mixed media assemblage, 1978

Will Maclean, Sabbath of the Dead, mixed media assemblage, 1978

Source: Macmillan 1992:38

Holding a mirror to humanity

30In the work of Morrish and Borne, the choice not to represent people but only suggest them reinforces the sense that humankind is only one part of a vast ecosystem in which notions of nationality, age, occupation or other such human distinctions have no meaning. The phantom people evoked in the works could be from any continent, they could have lived and died a few years, a few decades, a few centuries ago. Their individuality pales into insignificance when placed back into the wider timescale of nature – the sea, here, and its eternal rhythm. Does this account for the importance of what could be described as a weathering process in Borne’s work? Weathering is also an essential element of Maclean’s work, although in this case it talks more of the passage of time and links the work to a tradition of craftsmanship (much of the assemblage work involves crafting and weathering wood, this all-important material without which there would have been no boats, harpoons, tools, chests, barrels etc. to enable men to sail the world’s seas – in a word no centuries-old seafaring tradition.

31Whether natural (weathering by sea, sand, time) or created through a painstaking technical process (the layering of patina in Maclean’s assemblages), in the work of both Borne and Maclean, the heavy wear and tear caused by the elements makes the imprint of time tangible and imbues the work with an almost archaeological quality: the story of the wearer, owner, is etched into the object, through marks of abrasion, faded colours, bleached skulls (Morrish), and the creases on the sea-worn oilskins in Borne’s work act much like wrinkles on a face, ageing the textile remnants and telling a story. This strongly emphasizes the impact of the environment on us humans, and so serves to remind us of something which the term ‘anthropocene’ tends to play down, namely that the influence works two ways – no matter how much we humans affect our environment, we nonetheless remain utterly dependent on it, something these artists are only too aware of. Throughout Borne’s art there is a very strong reminder of the ultimate insignificance of human life, which the sea can erase all trace of. The disappearance of the fishermen who wore the oilskin jackets that feature, whole or as weathered fragments, in her work, will not be recorded or change the course of things. Yet for all the fragility of each individual’s life, humankind as a species has an impact on the world it inhabits, and paradoxically, if the material presence of an individual soon fades into nothing more than mineral fragments of bones, the consequences of humankind’s impact on the living world endure – and in C. Borne’s as in R. Callender’s work, plastic is the ultimate symbol of this. Les Indigènes du 7e Continent confronts us with a sobering vision of what we are at risk of becoming as plastic insidiously takes over not simply beaches, not simply the oceans, but our body tissues in the form of the nanoparticles now present in the food chain, rainwater, down to the very air we breathe. Such is the message also of Borne’s latest exhibition, explicitly entitled Homoplasticus, in which

abandoned fragments, these traces of our activities, become a medium. The medium of a plastic ethnographic fiction – the birth of Homoplasticus. Should he be seen as a creature from the abyss, or an as-yet mythical figure of this planet’s future? The denizens of the seventh continent […] inhabit a world shaped by an aesthetic of abandonment. They invent new codes and new rituals on the altar of the great planetary disaster. Could their presence reflect our rampant over-consumption and inability to manage waste?

Figure 17. Cécile Borne, Les Indigènes du 7e continent - Bestia noire

Figure 17. Cécile Borne, Les Indigènes du 7e continent - Bestia noire

Cécile Borne, Les Indigènes du 7e continent - Bestia noire, at the Métamorphose exhibition at La Roche-Jagu, 2019

Source: https://oliviercome.wordpress.com/​2021/​10/​03/​cecile-borne-2/​

32All these artists sound the alarm through work which holds a mirror up to the viewer in an attempt to make us realise the extent to which the global ecosystem has been dislocated, very literally: what better illustration of dis-location than a beach where plastic has replaced driftwood, sand and pebbles, or a 7th continent of plastic in the middle of an ocean where no plastic should be?

Didactic dislocation

33By showing animal relics outside their natural environment (in boxes, on walls…) S. Morrish’s arrays further compound this dislocation: bringing the periphery (Uist) to the centre (London), making the peripheral central: when viewing the Island Time exhibition, visitors were made to focus on what may, initially, seem trivial (animal skulls), but disturbingly brought them back to their own transience, fragility and mortality, reminding them humans are animals after all. The same is true to a certain extent of the other artists’ work: very rooted work (in that it is site-specific, or produced in a specific cultural or natural environment) is dislocated when it is presented to viewers outside its immediate cultural context of relevance. This affords the latter an insight into the concerns and natural environment of communities that are remote, geographically and culturally (the Highlands and Islands, coastal Brittany) and draws attention to the fact that beyond the natural environment and human and animal habitat, there are little-known (and often previously overlooked or dismissed) cultures, immaterial heritage (minority languages, oral literature, music, customs, crafts, beliefs, rites, lore) that are also endangered by climate change.

34Much in the same way archaeological artefacts take on new and further relevance when unearthed and displayed in a modern setting or context, removing these found objects – whose presence on the shoreline is already incongruous in most cases – from their place of discovery imbues them with a new significance. While their intrinsic nature is unaltered, their status, that is the significance we attach to them, changes: from discarded detritus which was largely invisible among the tangled beach debris, through the work of the artists mentioned above, they become objects of attention, archaeological artefacts of sorts. The dislocation inherent in the artistic process transforms biological relics or plastic garbage alike into significant artefacts: showcased, spotlit and arrayed or displayed as photographs they become objects of attention and discussion. Here, we have a most significant impact of these artists’ work – just as the Ice Watch ice blocks that touch the viewer as much as the viewer touches them, such works bring knowledge and awareness of concrete, actual changes in (and consequent threats to) coastal environments. All the works of art aforementioned encapsulate and express the concrete reality of the changes under way more effectively than any scientific argument possibly could. 

35This is the case for the work of Sophie Morrish and Robert Callender where changing coastal ecosystems and their impact for human communities are concerned; it is also the case in the work of Will Maclean and Cécile Borne with a strong onus on the symbolic and the narrative. The work speaks of memory (of individual lives, of customs and ways of life, of human journeys), weathered and gradually erased by the action of time or waves. It speaks of displacement, dislocation and loss, with objects found on the shore acting as a permanent reminder of the dependence of human communities (Scottish, Breton here – but more generally universally) on the sea for survival. This is the ultimate message of C. Borne’s ‘Native Denizens of the Seventh Continent’ – who are no longer human, but mutants, which seems to imply that the already monstrous plastic continent will eventually be a hostile and sterile one for all forms of life, ours included. In this work as in other works of Cécile Borne that evoke the journeying of humans, be they migrants or fishermen, with remnants of the clothes they inhabited washing up on the shores long after their occupants have disappeared, the viewer is left to ponder over the identity of the occupants, what has become of them and why.

36The work of Morrish, Callender, Maclean and Borne stresses the fact that Scottish and Breton communities depended on their organic connection to the coast. The sea defined every aspect of their identity, shaped their culture, way of life, even seeped into their religious practice. The connection of course helped communities to survive through fishing, trading, kelp-gathering but could just as easily mean loss and dispossession, not only by claiming lives but by providing a convenient way for landlords to clear the land of its people by shipping them across the Atlantic.

Conclusion

37By making very much visible, even tangible, what is for the moment a projection of problems likely to occur (rising water level), or by exaggerating the effect of human activity to propel us into a post-human future in which plastic has invaded our environment and become so all-pervasive that it is the material ‘we’ are made of, these artists speed up our awareness of what all fields of science are now pointing to. Ice Watch is the ultimate in art intervening on the environment in that it actually dislocates, displaces, the ice floe. For their part, the four ‘beachcombing artists’ (Callender, Mac Lean, Borne and Morrish) do not focus on making the artwork part of the landscape, but on making elements of the environment part of the artwork: it is not about adding art to the landscape but about removing detritus (artistic material) from it. All of them however, bring the environment into our human space through the urgency of addressing climate change. 

38Aho and Niittyvirta intervene in a way more akin to ‘land art’ – by installing LED lines in the landscape – yet in a way, they are only materialising something that exists in virtual form (scientific data), making it visible; they are not changing the landscape but the way we perceive it and will experience it. Will Maclean’s assemblages subtly express the intrinsic bond and immemorial interdependence between communities and the sea, by integrating found objects into highly symbolic works of an intensely organic nature or appearance (almost always wood, bone, paper, or where man-made materials, weathered by time and sea), and his more monumental works are also symbols of the symbiotic and spiritual relationship of human communities with the coasts and sea they live by and from. 

39Like the environment that gave rise to them (a liminal, in-between space, neither quite land nor sea), the body of work produced by all the artists mentioned in this paper is in many interesting ways hybrid, shifting and resists attempts to define or characterise it : work that is at once strongly rooted, as we have seen, and adrift (free-floating ice floes, driftwood, travelling plastic waste, uprooted migrant populations…) material and immaterial, profane and religious, artistic and scientific, real and contrived. Virtually all these works involve forays into experimental combinations of different media, the artists resorting to photography, dance, writing, video, painting, assemblage to better express their own idiosyncratic creative mode – as if there were too much to be expressed for it to be confined to one mode or medium.

40Whatever their method or approach, these “sentinels of the shore” all confront us with what we know but have not really wanted to see and put us face to face with what is fast becoming not just a projection but the actual environment we will have to live in. This can perhaps help serve as a timely wake-up call to an overly materialistic society and draw our attention to the fact that the immaterial wealth we stand to lose is just as irreplaceable and vital to our humanity as all the material, more spectacular aspects the media daily draw our attention to.

41Ardenne, Paul. Un art écologique – création plasticienne et anthropocène. Lormont: Éditions Le Bord de l’Eau, collection « La Muette », 2019. 

42Borne, Cécile. VESTIAIRES, cirés-récits, presentation of the exhibition held at the Port-Musée of Douarnenez, July 4-Sept.20, 2015, http://cecile.borne.free.fr/​installations/​vestiaires.pdf.

43Borne, Cécile. Vestiaires, Cirés-récits, Cécile Borne. Douarnenez: Le Port Musée, 2015.

44Cass, David, with contributions from Patricia Emison, David Gange and Kate Reeve-Edwards, Where Once The Waters, 2022.

45Eliasson, Olafur. “Ice, Art and Being Human.ˮ https://res.cloudinary.com/​olafureliasson-net/​image/​upload/​pdf/​ice-watch-essay-oe-mr-pdf_1691.pdf.

46Eliasson, Olafur & Rosing, Minik. Ice Watch London, Dec. 2018, Ice Watch London project description: https://icewatch.london/​.

47Gooding, Mel. “Sophie’s World: Listening to the Song of the Earth”, essay in Morrish, S. Island Time – North Uist Works, 2018.

48Macmillan, Duncan. Symbols of Survival, the Art of Will Maclean. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1992.

49Macmillan, Duncan. Symbols of Survival, the Art of Will Maclean. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2002 (augmented edition).

50Morrish, Sophie. Island Time: North Uist Works, Projectroom2020 edition, exhibition catalogue published online by Art North Magazine via the Projectroom2020 website. https://projectroom2020.org/​ (May 2020).

51Patrizio, Andrew. Will Maclean – Gleaned and Gathered. London: Art First Limited, 2014.

52Patrizio, Andrew, The Ecological Eye: Assembling an Ecocritical Art History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019.

53Uist Film/Taigh Chearsabhagh. David Cass, Horizon Rising, promotional film, Lewis: Taigh Chearsabhagh Art Centre, 2020. https://www.taigh-chearsabhagh.org/​events/​david-cass-horizon-rising/​.

Top of page

List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, Ice Watch, 2014
Caption Ice Watch, 2014, Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, supported by Bloomberg. Installation view: Bankside, outside Tate Modern, 2018
Credits Source: https://olafureliasson.net/​artwork/​ice-watch-2014/​ Photo credit: courtesy of Charlie Forgham-Bailey. Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 2014 Olafur Eliasson
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 174k
Title Figures 2 & 3. Timo Aho, Pekka Niittyvirta, Lines (57° 59’N, 7° 26’W), outside the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art Centre, Lochmaddy, North Uist, 2018
Caption Timo Aho, Pekka Niittyvirta, Lines (57° 59’N, 7° 26’W), outside the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art Centre, Lochmaddy, North Uist, 2018
Credits Source: Photo credit: Pekka Niittyvirta, https://niittyvirta.com/​lines-57-59-n-7-16w/​
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 39k
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 7.0k
Title Figure 4. David Cass, 2017, Series II, 365 Days
Caption David Cass, 2017, Series II, 365 Days, mixed media: paint on found antique metal tins, part of the Where Once the Waters installation project, exhibited (below) at the 59th Venice Biennale, April 19th-May 24, 2022.
Credits Source: Photo credit: David Cass, https://davidcass.art/​whereoncethewaters.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 104k
Title Figure 5. David Cass, Horizon Rising exhibition
Caption David Cass, Horizon Rising exhibition at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre, North Uist, Jan 11- Feb 29, 2020.
Credits Source: Photo credit: David Cass, https://davidcass.art/​horizon
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-5.jpg
File image/jpeg, 42k
Title Figure 6. Robert Callender, Coastal Collection (1995-1999)
Caption Robert Callender, Coastal Collection (1995-1999), paper, card, mixed media (collection of 500 handcrafted pieces)
Credits Source: Fife Contemporary, https://www.fcac.co.uk/​2020/​06/​on-this-day-robert-callender-a2b/​, photo credit: Fife Contemporary /Arlene Brown; A2B
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-6.jpg
File image/jpeg, 89k
Title Figure 7. Robert Callender, Plastic Beach (2003-2008)
Caption Figure 7. R. Callender, Plastic Beach (2003-2008) assemblage of re-created plastic objects: mixed media, paper.
Credits Source: Photo by Lateral Lab, https://www.laterallab.org/​robert-callender
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-7.jpg
File image/jpeg, 136k
Title Figure 8. Sophie Morrish, detail from the Biomass installation at Taigh Chearsabhagh, Lochmaddy, North Uist, 2015
Caption Sophie Morrish, detail from the Biomass installation at Taigh Chearsabhagh, Lochmaddy, North Uist, 2015, commissioned by Atlas Arts. Assembled found animal bones.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-8.jpg
File image/jpeg, 96k
Title Figure 9. Sophie Morrish, Constellation (After Fire), 2018
Caption Sophie Morrish, Constellation (After Fire), 2018, burnt animal bones on board, 122 x 181.5 cm 
Credits Source: Sophie Morrish website, https://www.sophiemorrish.net/​island-time
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-9.png
File image/png, 1.4M
Title Figure 10. Sophie Morrish, Violent Beauty (II), 2017-2018
Caption Sophie Morrish, Violent Beauty (II), 2017-2018, Feathers from predated birds, steel pins, graphite on canvas, 81 x 120cm
Credits Source: Photo credit: Sophie Morrish
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-10.png
File image/png, 1.4M
Title Figure 11. Will Maclean, Mariner’s Museum/Taxonomy of Tides, 2014
Caption Figure 11. Will Maclean, Mariner’s Museum/Taxonomy of Tides, 2014; mixed media construction; 123 x 108 x 9.5cm; private collection. 
Credits Source: Gleaned and Gathered exhibition catalogue, London: Art First Ltd, 2014, photo credit: Will Maclean
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-11.png
File image/png, 891k
Title Figure 12 & 13. Two examples of Cécile Borne’s tissus mémoriels (memorial materials)
Caption Two examples of Cécile Borne’s tissus mémoriels (memorial materials): ciré jaune, left; untitled (right); found objects, mixed media
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-12.jpg
File image/jpeg, 73k
Credits source: (left) Métamorphose installation at La Roche-Jagu; (right) La Manufacture, Roubaix, press release for the Tissus Mémoires exhibition, Roubaix Tourisme, 2018. Photo credit: Cécile Borne (left) ; Lionel Flageul (right)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-13.jpg
File image/jpeg, 56k
Title Figure 14. Cécile Borne, Cirés-Récits, Vestiaires exhibition at the Port-Musée of Douarnenez, 4-20 Sept. 2015
Caption Cécile Borne, Cirés-Récits, Vestiaires exhibition at the Port-Musée of Douarnenez, 4-20 Sept. 2015.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-14.jpg
File image/jpeg, 24k
Title Figure 15. Will Maclean, Skye Fisherman – in memoriam, 1989
Credits Source: Macmillan 1992:57
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-15.png
File image/png, 279k
Title Figure 16. Will Maclean, Sabbath of the Dead, mixed media assemblage, 1978
Caption Will Maclean, Sabbath of the Dead, mixed media assemblage, 1978
Credits Source: Macmillan 1992:38
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-16.png
File image/png, 337k
Title Figure 17. Cécile Borne, Les Indigènes du 7e continent - Bestia noire
Caption Cécile Borne, Les Indigènes du 7e continent - Bestia noire, at the Métamorphose exhibition at La Roche-Jagu, 2019
URL http://journals.openedition.org/angles/docannexe/image/7296/img-17.png
File image/png, 289k
Top of page

References

Electronic reference

Anne Hellegouarc’h-Bryce, Sentinels of the Shore. Reconciling Art and ScienceAngles [Online], 17 | 2024, Online since 30 May 2024, connection on 13 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/angles/7296; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/11qj2

Top of page

About the author

Anne Hellegouarc’h-Bryce

Dr Anne Hellegouarc’h-Bryce is a senior lecturer in British Civilisation at the University of Western Brittany initially specialising in the issues linked to image and cultural identity, particularly representations and misrepresentations of Wales and the Welsh. Lately, her research has focused on studying the way cultural representations have been evolving in specific environmental and social contexts, and the factors explaining these changes in Wales, Brittany and Scotland.

anne.hellegouarch-bryce@univ-brest.fr

Top of page

Copyright

CC-BY-4.0

The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search