“The Photographs” Dominant Wave Theory, Dr Christopher Short
Across the body of photographs contained in the present volume, we may identify three dominant issues, each of particular importance to Hughes’s encounter with West Cornwall in general and St Ives – Hughes’s home for nearly a decade – in particular. The first is the formal, aesthetic engagement of the land and sea that was so important to leading British modern artists in and around St Ives from about 1930. Hughes describes his relationship to this tradition as ambivalent, at one moment developing in relation to it, at the next seeking to avoid it. The second is the remarkable increase in tourism in the area in recent years, fuelled not only by the beauty of the land and sea but by the extraordinary success of Tate St Ives in bringing tourists – cultural and recreational – with money to the area. This has impacted most importantly (in the present context) on the quantity and quality of art produced in and around the town, for sale in the town’s innumerable galleries. As a contemporary artist living and working in the area, it is inevitable that Hughes has developed a critical relation to such practice. The third is the beach itself which, for both “local” and visitor alike, serves as a site of escape from the pressures of commercial life and, at the same time, as a site of contamination, as the place where the excesses of that commercial life – food wrappers, drink containers, sewage – get washed-up. As a surfer and frequent walker of the shorelines in and around St Ives, the beach forms an important focus for Hughes’s recreational as well as professional activities. The following will attend to each of these issues in turn, exploring the ways in which it impacts upon the photographs.
The story of art’s importance to St Ives begins at least as early as 1811 when Turner visited, but it was in 1877 that the Great Western Railway arrived in the town, facilitating development of tourism and bringing with it an influx of artists. In 1883-4, Whistler and Sickert visited the town and about this time, the Newlyn School was founded eight miles south of St Ives. The town’s first full-time studios were established in 1885 and in 1888, the St Ives Art Club was founded. As the town’s fishing industry fell into decline, then, a new economy began to develop, one based in tourism and which brought with it an art community that would, in time, become increasingly important as an object of tourism itself.
The permanent collection of Tate St Ives gives a clear indication of the kind of art which came to be produced from the late 1920s, the beginning of St Ives modernism. While a variety of styles is evident, much of the painting and sculpture tends toward the abstract while remaining rooted in nature. Popular accounts of such art describe the use of colour and form as direct products of the particular quality of light that is apparent in and around the town, the extraordinary colours of the sea, the forms of the granite outcrops and cliffs, and so on.
Those accounts that highlight the importance of such natural forces of the country and seaside are, in part, accurate. For the artists, the move from city to country was a kind of return to nature, a recovery of a more authentic existence that would be embodied in their art. This was accompanied by an interest in the primitive, the quest for which led to the painters Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood “discovering” and learning from the naive paintings of the retired seaman, Alfred Wallis. Place and art, then, configured as a retreat from the decadent forms of the city and corrupt civilisation, as a primitivism shared with much of modern art. Throughout Europe and North America, such artists’ colonies arose as alternatives to perceived social and cultural decay. But set against this quest for the primitive and the jettisoning of convention, stands evidence of considerable learning, the antithesis of the primitive as it was conceived. Without a knowledge of Cubism, there could be no Nicholson; without a serious engagement with international constructivism, there could be no Barbara Hepworth; without the precedents of European and American Expressionism, no Patrick Heron. St Ives modernism is important not merely as an escape from the horrors of modernity, but as a radical and important part of the history of the development of British and international modern art.
In conformity with much international constructivist art, Hepworth described how the formal concerns of such abstract art could assume social and political significance:
A clear social solution can be achieved only when there is a full consciousness in the realm of thought [… The artist’s] conscious life is bent on discovering a solution to human difficulties by solving his own thought permanently […] formal relationships have become our thought, our faith, waking or sleeping – they can be the solution to life and to living. This is no escapism, no ivory tower, no isolated pleasure in proportion and space – it is an unconscious manner of expressing our belief in a possible life.
Hepworth goes on to write of the emancipation of people from all social classes in attainment of freedom. It is clear that such concerns are thoroughly embedded within the formal ambitions of her abstract art. In contrast, the commitment of a number of other important St Ives moderns, such as Heron, was purely to the formal and compositional development of abstract art. Thus, Heron wrote of the importance of art’s autonomy precisely from such socio-political concerns, and in favour of a radical, purely artistic programme.
At first glance, the realism of Hughes’s photographs is quite remote from the economy of Hepworth’s constructivism or the colourism of Heron. What could be further removed from such formalism than a crumpled plastic bottle lying on a beach? Yet it is also clear that, for example, the photograph entitled Bluebird converts a lowly bit of detritus into a monumental, sculptural form, one in certain respects reminiscent of precisely the sculpture of Hepworth. The photograph undermines the object’s status as a bottle: the extraordinary angle from which it is photographed which suggests the enormous scale of the object; the intense light and thus tonal values; the deep saturation of colour. All combine to remove from the object its previous function and attribute the piece of detritus a purely formal status. It becomes abstract art.
The same is true for very many of the photographs contained in the present volume. For example, the formal beauty of 14. A perfectly articulated yellow line cuts through the sand-coloured foreground, and the tonally graded blue sea and sky. A straw, the line is nonetheless first and foremost an element of formal beauty, its shadow merely an index of the source of such intense colours. Contradicting the rectilinear form of the yellow line in 14 is the caprice of the blue line – actually, discarded wrapping tape – in 25. The energy of the line is quite different from that which dominates 14, but it is a line that configures in relation to its environment no less beautifully than the yellow straw. Repeatedly, we are presented with images which call attention to themselves as primarily arrangements of form and colour.
Repeatedly, though, the previous identity of the objects depicted threatens to return, to destroy the purely formal quality of the work. Unlike Hepworth’s social message that remains buried within the form of the work of art, Hughes’s photographs speak with two, apparently contradictory voices. The aesthetic dimension of the photographs is challenged the moment that each object, as waste, speaks. The voice with which it speaks is social and political: it speaks of responsibility, of economic excess, even of destruction. This conflict between “pure form” and political content, though, is not a relationship of “either-or”; the tension between the two is precisely what is at stake. In these photographs, pure form couples uneasily with the pollutants of an industrial society.
More troubling is what happens when the “escapism [… and] isolated pleasure in proportion and space”, against which Hepworth warned, is isolated from St Ives modernism’s radical artistic (sometimes social and political) ambitions and serves a merely economic one. This is precisely what has happened in recent years, as art has become a leading commodity within the tourist trade of St Ives. Thus, we arrive at our second issue of importance to understanding Hughes’s photographs.
As one walks along Fore Street, St Ives and explores the alleys leading to and from it, one is presented, apart from the pasty and surf (clothing) shops, with a series of “galleries” and art shops selling images and constructions, most of which relate to the town and its surrounding country and seaside. From postcards depicting views and fishermen made of shells, to reproductions of paintings, original paintings by unknown artists and paintings by known artists, the variety of stuff – with prices to match every pocket – is extraordinary. Within these latter artistic forms, we identify the development of a kind of “house-style” of “original” painting, one which depicts the land and sea but deploys a near abstract manner. In such works, the radical ambitions of St Ives modernism, which had probably run its course by the early 1960s, are reduced to a completely formulaic enterprise. Thus, the only value attached to the objects is one of exchange, the imagery is reduced to pure surface that simulates art, that generates nothing other than profit. It is what one of modernism’s foremost critics called “kitsch,” ersatz culture to placate the masses and to ensure that their meagre incomes are returned to the privileged minority.
Such art feeds off the tourist trade and, at the same time, becomes a tourist attraction. The broader effects of tourism are still more profound. Those who travel to St Ives bring much needed money to the region; the bi-products of that spending are far less desirable. Through the summer months, vast quantities of food are consumed and converted into effluent which finds its way into the sea and, sometimes, the guts of swimmers and surfers. Other stomach-churning waste also finds its way to the sea via underground sewage pipes; thus the ubiquitous condoms and panty-liners that grace the shore. Like the beautifully described yet amorphous patches of white, cream and bright orange within the central orb of 91 – forms simultaneously reminiscent of bacterial growth and vomit – such waste suggests putrifaction and provokes a sense of abjection. Arriving more directly on the beach are fast-food and drink wrappers left after days in the (occasional) sunshine; plastic bottles, cardboard packages, tin cans and crisp packets. Residues of the residual fishing industry – broken nets, ropes, floats – contest this space; at least they have a rustic charm and seem to “belong”.
All appear in Hughes’s photographs. They are, as it were, the visual culture of contamination, a culture that recurs in less visible form in the water and air as the pollutants of an advanced capitalist economy. Such culture would appear to be the complete antithesis of that which the town and country around St Ives is known for: man living and working in harmony with nature. Like the spectrum of light created by oil on water, as we touch that which seems most beautiful, we destroy it. In their sinister beautification of the visual culture of contamination, Hughes’s photographs constitute a critique of the pollutant outcomes of our commodity culture. As representations of beach, sea and landscape, the natural beauty they offer is a spoilt one and thus, the photographs also constitute a critique of the purely aestheticising house-style of St Ives which contributes to the commodification (and thus destruction) of the landscape.
The beach as a site simultaneously of escape and of contamination, our third issue of importance to understanding Hughes’s photographs, is clearly to be seen in relation to the second, and the first. People go to the beach to escape the pressures of the urban lifestyle. The beach at Gwithian, at which many of the photographs were shot, round the corner from St Ives, is massive compared to those adjoining the town. It is a place for romantic escape and return to nature and natural forces. Few clues to these forces are offered explicitly in the photographs. No crashing waves, no vegetation bending in driving winds, the sort of weather common to such open beaches. Rather, nature’s forces make themselves felt more covertly.
Hughes ensures, through composition, scale and lighting, that each of the items photographed is the principal focus of the viewer’s attention. But that attention is always informed by the ground – beach, sea, sky – against which each item stands. From the tiniest of grains of sand in the greatest of detail to the greatest of celestial bodies in the most uncertain of detail, the vastness of nature is always present to these photographs, and it is against this that each object, as figure, appears. Consider 84. A plastic ball stands on the beach, set against a deep, dark sky. The apparently infinite regression of space from fore to background brings with it a sense of awe, and of the awful. Such space completely exceeds our understanding, and is beyond anything we can fully picture. Thus, the ground in 84 creates in the viewer not only the feeling that something much greater than ourselves is “out there”, but that that something threatens to overwhelm us. In the photograph, the infinite becomes a dark, sinister presence which speaks of the invisible force of nature, the natura naturans, that can only make itself felt as a mysterious absence. Set against and in complete contrast with this, the sphere, as figure, is quite finite. It nestles into the landscape, yet conflicts with it fundamentally. Paradoxically, it dwarfs the infinite; its size and position dominate nature and confront the viewer. Its finite form enters into conflict with the infinite force of nature. Thus, space (nature) and scale (culture) combine to provoke awe and threat.
In these photographs, the object of detritus appears like a lone wanderer, a solitary figure set against the vastness of nature. In this, the photographs are oddly reminiscent of certain of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings in which man’s encounter with nature is couched in terms of the sublime: threatened by the vastness of nature, instilled with a sense of terror and awe before its infinite magnitude, man nonetheless, through the reassertion of reason, gains pleasure from this encounter. The pleasure born of pain. In Hughes’s photographs, waste displaces man. Yet each item becomes curiously animate as the now dead commodities are resurrected and, set against nature, they are not merely that which nature threatens to overwhelm, but also that which threatens to overwhelm nature. Beneath the beauty of the photographs, then, lurks something sinister, something threatening. The pain born of pleasure.
The three issues raised as of importance to the photographs in the present volume have been related to three concepts. From the universal harmony that underwrites a Hepworth sculpture to the formal unity of grains of sand, some discarded tape and the horizon; from indices of vile taste on Fore Street to the putrified residues on the base of a drink container; and from the awesome forces exercised between land and sea at Gwithian to the infinite regression of space in a photograph: abstract art, the effects of tourism, and the beach can be aligned with the beautiful, the abject and the sublime. The truth of St Ives, of course, is that art, tourism and the beach are inextricably linked; that beauty, the abject and the sublime will stray across these fields.
In relation to this truth, what makes the photographs in the present volume so important, is the ways in which responses described by these concepts coincide variously within individual photographs. Thus, an image of great beauty is simultaneously threatening; a dramatic, exciting formal arrangement is curiously disturbing, even sickening. Such aesthetic responses combine to reinforce the politics of the photographs; they are the secret messages of that which has become so familiar as to be, so often, overlooked.
Ⓒ 2006 Dr Chris Short
By Andy Hughes
Edited by Martina Heintke
Surfboard under arm and walking along the sand dunes back to my car after surfing at Sker Point, South Wales, I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my left hand. I noticed that some sort of splinter had embedded itself into the palm of my hand. While it hadn’t bothered me while out there, concentrating on catching that wave, it was really starting to bother me now. After a long soak in a hot bath I had a go at digging out the offending article with a fine needle. And when the tiny fragment finally made it to the surface I still couldn’t quite make out what it was. As is always the case with splinters, they make you take a really close look, don’t they? You’re only wondering how anything so tiny can cause you so much pain. But much like an alien implant as often discussed in ufology, I found it difficult to determine what the hell this thing was made of. After very close inspection it turned out to be ‘just’ a small shard of plastic.
Isn’t it kind of peculiar, how such a ‘non-event’ – and it really is not worth writing home about in the greater scheme of things – can embed itself into one’s mind. A minor incident stored forever in the personal memory bank, popping back up into conscious thought decades later as the bigger picture emerges: the world’s oceans have become even more littered with man-made plastic waste.
But pollution and floating waste is nothing new or particular to the 21st century. My own experiences as a young surfer in the late 80s surfing at Sker Point, a small rocky outcrop just a few miles from the Port Talbot Steelworks and the local’s surfing location of choice when other, better spots weren’t working, gave me an early awareness of human/consumerist detritus and the problems inherent in it. Sitting astride the board in the brown dirty sea waiting for the right wave, it was not uncommon to see all manner of unpleasant things floating past: the odd panty-liner or condom, even excrement – you just had to block it out of your mind.
Regular surfers would often suffer from a host of different infections – no doubt caused by all sorts of pathogens present in the seawater. This part of the Welsh coastline, and indeed many other parts of the British Isles, was suffering heavily from ocean pollution. The invention of the flush toilet and the sewage system during the later stages of the 19th Century obviously had a lot to answer for. And then in the 1980s and 90s another pollution threat made headlines: many European countries labelled Britain ‘the dirty man of Europe’ for its air pollution, as industrial power plants emitted high levels of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. Carried away by the wind these emissions would come down on other, mostly Scandinavian countries as acid rain, destroying trees and aquatic life further afield. The arrival of the environmental age and the realisation that pollution knows no boundaries.
Learning to surf as an art student aged just twenty-two certainly opened my eyes to environmental pollution as I witnessed its effects on Sker beach first-hand: large amounts of coal particles washed up from the nearby steelworks interspersed with other debris. The coal tended to render the beach black, which made the usually brightly coloured plastic waste stand out like jewels presented on a black velvet cushion. Having grown up in a blue-collar mining community in Yorkshire I had been accustomed to industrial pollution and how detrimental it can be to human health. My grandfather was a coal miner and died aged 63 of emphysema as a result of breathing and ingesting coal dust. Slag heaps, power station smoke stacks and cooling towers were the backdrop to my youth. The coast on the other hand had always appeared to me to be a place of unadulterated beauty, pristine air and waters, a place to go on holiday, rejuvenate and rejoice. But maybe I had to venture farther still, away from anywhere industrial.
And in 1995 I did just that. I moved to Cornwall, coined the “Cornish Riviera” as it is warmed by the Gulf Stream and boasts a very temperate microclimate where even some palm varieties are able to grow, where the sand on the beaches is white, the seas are clear blue and where millions of holidaymakers flock each summer to enjoy sand, sea and surf. And since the days of Whistler and Turner holidaying and painting in St. Ives at the beginning of the 20th century, followed by artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo and Mark Rothko, art practice has been an important aspect in this part of Britain. But once there, I quickly found that all was not as pristine as it seemed. Local surfers had started a campaign called “Surfers against Sewage” as they found themselves contracting viral illnesses. So here I am, living in a place where people pay to come on holiday, and yet, during my daily walks along the beaches near my home I came across the same flotsam and jetsam that I had encountered before. Washed up waste, plastic waste mainly.
My own ‘journeying’ across the dunes and beaches at low tide all follow a certain pattern: short walks, long walks, walking the dogs, and so on. Land and sea appear like a curtain in continuous motion. During these walks it is not the organic forms, or shells, nor seaweed or other organic matter that stands out for me, it is the abject matter of humanity that punctuates the experience of the walk for me, leaving a lasting impression. The object – first made, then desired, and finally rejected by man/woman – within its natural setting, the place where it finally came to rest by sheer happenstance. In my photographs rubbish is rendered as part of the contemporary sublime. The use of scale and saturated colours help to draw the eye to the subject (or object/abject). The viewer’s response is one of ambiguity: in the first instance the mind is seduced by a beautiful aestheticism absolved from contextual meaning (i.e. “This is a beach and this rubbish should not be here.”), followed by the secondary reaction of repulsion, when the mind realises and computes the contextual meaning as “This is a beach and this rubbish should not be here”.
Wherever we go in the world – waste is all around. But as waste is transported on large container ships away from one nation or continent to another to be treated, utilised, and ultimately manufactured into new waste, the oceans’ currents do their bit to transport all other ‘unorganised’ waste streams around our planet to wash up where it will. There isn’t a place on this globe where traces of plastic cannot be found. No longer a mere local problem, but a huge global problem. Plastic waste seems to me to be the ultimate Kristevian abject matter – once desired, then discarded and reviled. What we can’t see may not bother us, but just imagine the ultimate effect of plastic flotsam for a minute: with nature exerting its abrasive forces plastic items will break into smaller pieces over time – as my splinter story so aptly demonstrates. Personally, I fear that the toxic elements of plastic will enter the food chain, climbing all the way up to the top, where ultimately it’ll be ending inside my body. Embedded once again.
Convergence Zone: The Aesthetics and Politics of the Ocean in Contemporary Art and Photography
By Abigail Susik
Published in Drain
Drain is a refereed on-line journal published biannually. The journal seeks to promote lively and well-informed debate around theory and praxis. Each issue of Drain will have a specific concept that it explores. We are especially keen to publish pieces that connect the conceptual framework of each issue to themes such as globalization, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and new technologies, as well as ethical and aesthetic concerns.
One artist working in this vein is the British photographer Andy Hughes, who photographs beach trash at his home of West Cornwall as well as at beaches internationally. In Hughes’s hands, the familiar beached flotsam takes on a strangely monumental identity, not entirely unlike its precursor in Haacke’s monument to beach trash (Fig. 8). Looming large in the frame, and exquisitely lit, these cast-off commodities become ironic monoliths of this age of humanity, the plastic era. As if seen from the distant future, Hughes depicts them as melancholy relics of a lost culture that consigned itself to doom through overproduction.
Book Review of Dominant Wave Theory
By Tim Smit (co-founder and CEO of The Eden Project)
When you run a place like the Eden Project you have the privilege of receiving presentations and meeting literally hundreds of artists who either want to get involved on the ground or who simply want a space in which to exhibit their work. After a while you become blasé because in truth most of what you see is good but derivative of something else. Andy Hughes is something else entirely. I first came across his work on a calendar for Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), the campaigning organisation to clean up our seas and beaches. The pictures were startling because they forced you to look at familiar things through a different lens.The commonplace, the unwanted detritus of everyday life was here given its moment in the spotlight, a dignity returned. In an elegant way the camera caused a transformation from trash to art and, in so doing, stimulated the imagination to consider the nature of waste and even consumption itself. In Andy Hughes’ hands a discarded water bottle can have the visual impact of a Dale Chihuly glasswork. In a sense, the knowledge that these pieces have been abandoned lends them a mystique and melancholy that objects of desire could only dream of having. Andy Hughes is a singular voice showing us something uncomfortable yet sweetened by the beauty of the image. This is something most great artists aspire to and Andy is, in my view, well on the way to carving an important place for himself in the top rank of photographers. Enjoy this book – I guarantee that many of the images will linger long in the imagination.
Art Now Cornwall
The images in this exhibition come from Dominant Wave Theory, a recently published book of photographs made on various beaches around West Cornwall, Scotland and the USA over the last six years. An active member of Surfers Against Sewage, his photographs consider the epic and the everyday in the detritus washed up on the region’s shorelines. These are not ordinary photographs but express the latest twenty – first century developments in mass market colour photography – plastic on plastic you might say. In terms of subject matter and approach, some of these images recall the work of Keith Arnatt and his exhibition Rubbish and Recollections 1989. Originally a conceptual sculptor in the 1970′s, Arnatt placed his photographic work firmly in the British Landscape tradition with his Polythene Palmers 1987, photographs which ironically depicted Arcadia as described by Samuel Palmer in his utopian visions of landscape. Whilst Hughes’ images of plastic depicted in heroic scale may give us some concern about waste material and its impact upon a sensitive maritime environment, there is another side to these intelligent images. Hughes presents us with not only an ecological message but a knowing heady rush through artistic strategies using the power of photography’s saturated colour to highlight, frame, and play with scale, in an irreverent awareness of art historical practices. Using technical aspects of the medium to portray a tiny object as something of heroic scale is a favorite trick of photography as is is the careful crop and use of the rectangle to suggest something beyond the the picture plane [ for example, an extensive landscape]. In the context of the St Ives school, the artist knowledge has influenced a number of these images. But it is the distinctive nature of the medium that has been exploited all too often; photography has the capacity to picture the world in a most mysterious manner. It is as if the technology had a direct connection with the artist’s Id, where the collective experiences of his physical and cultural landscape have soaked into his mind reside. Perhaps this is why some of the objects portrayed here remind us of other things, suggesting a transformation has been made by the processes that govern photography. Why is it that a shard of plastic looks like a crashed UFO ? How can it be that that piece of foam looks like a bit of Robbie the Robet circa 1951 or a monster ( depending on which way you look at it) ? And how stunning is that landscape which jas the look of granite and stitching at the same time as it shocks you into realizing that it is the chain-mail gloved hand of a resting Saracen Knight ?
© TateGallery 2007 / Susan Daniel-McElroy
The New Landscape, Dr Harriet Hawkins
The more normal ‘rubbish aesthetic’ is to understand it as a symptom of a hysterical, histrionic reaction to an over consuming world. This is not the aesthetic of disposal that we find here. Rubbish has a rich, if not well studied, art history, both as art’s subject and its material. For many cultural theoreticians rubbish owes its criticality to the fragmentary aesthetic of Walter Benjamin and the modernist theorisations of Theodore Adorno and the Frankfurt School. For Adorno rubbish was base failure, the low point of civilisation to be set against ‘art’. For Benjamin, the fragment’s break down was the site of a critique of consumption. Contemporary critic Julian Stallabrass extends this to understand trash as the betrayal of the ‘capitalist’ wish symbol.
However, these understandings are of limited help in understanding Hughes’, or [Shanahan’s] work. In Hughes’ powerful images, rubbish is much more than the out of place detritus of daily life. Rather, the close-ups give us a monumental beauty in the texture and colour of these forms. In Hughes’ images, rubbish becomes part of the contemporary sublime, playing on the tensions of high and low that sit at the heart of this aesthetic. Hughes’ striking images offer a poetics of seaside trash; a detritus of a throwaway society amidst the detritus of nature. Across the suite of his images, our attention is drawn, through the large scale and saturated colours, both to the surprising beauty in these different rubbish forms, but also different sand grains upon which this man-made detritus sits. Sand that is after all the by product of the ocean’s own destructive tendencies.
If Hughes’ images form part of a contemporary sublime, then Shanahan’s work forms more of a contemporary picturesque. Tailing’s Dam, Goongumpas, 2008 (picture below) depicts a common scene of the post-industrial landscapes of Cornwall. The abandoned site becomes a place of calm beauty where the ruins of past productive landscapes become sites of aesthetic appeal. Shanahan’s image deploys the picturesque’s romantic reframings of ruination and decay in the post-industrial landscapes of Cornwall. The poignant reflection of the mine engine room reflected in the still water (a reminder of the absences of function and utility that would once have animated these sites), together with colours of mineral wash and the strewn debris of industrial activity, are here enrolled in a image of peaceable beauty. A rather different aesthetic informs the second of Shanhan’s images, Child’s grave, United Downs (2008). Here, reclaimed material (old chairs and plastic toys) come to form an impromptu, but not less emotive, memorial. In a powerful re-fetishisation, once discarded commodities form unlikely talismans and grave objects. Rather than meaningless, these objects hang heavy with absent presences; of the personal meanings these objects are imbued with and of the child.
The New Landscape, Royal Cornwall Museum
© Dr Harriet Hawkins, University of Exeter
Book Review by Stephen Brigdale
This forward thinking photography book features over 150 photographs by the artist Andy Hughes made on different beach locations from California to Western Cornwall. The book explores and examines the relationship of beach waste as both an object of visual enquiry and as a reference to the global environmental crisis. “Dominant wave theory”, we are told, ” is loosley based on a scientific term used in the prediction and observation of wave models”. The book sets out to parallel this idea visually through the observation of the beach as a local site for the interplay of nature and consumer culture.Through extraordinarily focused colour photographs of found waste objects, the reader is offered tangible stilled moments of reflection on the nature of these objects and left to ponder their place in the world now that their original purpose has been washed (eroded) away. This extensive archive of images forms the core of the project with the design and development of the book by David Carson working to heighten the visual scope and pace of the work. This is apparent in the scale, ordering and pairing of the images, creating thoughtful and revealing relationships throughout the book.The photographs are complemented by a collection of essays by five eminent writers, who are here linked through the common thread of the project but coming from a wide range of perspectives. They discuss ideas connected with the beach from eco-activism through to cultural theory and marine biology; their contribution extends and puts into context ideas initiated within the photographs.
The essays open with a discussion by Dr Christopher Short, of the visual context of Hughes’s work as a contemporary art practice. The wider implications of these photographs, in terms of art history through formalism and the development of modernism in St Ives (Hughes is based in West Cornwall), are speculated upon together with tourism in this locale to draw anthropological perspectives. The political dimensions of environmental activism; the tackling of waste and changing our relationship to waste generation, are developed in writings by Chris Hines and environmental advocate Joshua Karliner. The latter in his essay, discusses ecological and industrial development and counters with alternative futures. In contrast, the existence of the beach as a physical and metaphorical site are explored and linked with histories and archaeologies in the essay “The Beach as Ruin”. Here Lena Lencek makes wide ranging connections that play histories into the present and focus Andy Hughes’s work inhen time: as both representative of the present while simultaneously prophetic of possible dread futures. No less prophetic is the discussion, by Dr Richard Thompson, of scientific marine data, gathered about the effects of plastic debris in the world’s oceans; the scale and persistence of which makes shocking reading.The photographic work produced in this book creates references that allow a wide cross comparison between the images; this is carried through into the page design of the appendix which acts as both a catalogue of all the images and locations as well as an accumulating visual glossary of beach waste. The structure of this book is striking visually, defined by the everydayness of the objects and the uniqueness of their depiction.The breadth of ambition of this book is wide and the issues that are addressed of contemporary significance. Visually it deals with these in a thought provoking and seductive way; the essays extending these images into far reaching debates, the whole work culminating in an important contribution to the ecological paradigm.
© Stephen Brigdale 2006
Stephen Brigdale is Senior lecturer in Photography and Visual Arts at Southampton Solent University. He is an artist and teacher working in the fields of photographic and moving image production.
Dominant Wave Theory – Extract From Book Essay by Lena Leneck
Andrew Hughes’ photographs of rubbish at the beach speak to this dread. His monumental photographs of the banal relics of our evermore super-sized and disposable lifestyles intimate the hidden depths that lurk beyond the superficial disgust with which beach junk fills us. We are dismayed by the desperate irony that the very beaches we seek out as physically and psychically restorative refuges are as irretrievably polluted as our toxic hinterlands’.
Library Journal Review |Deborah Miller – USA library Review
Hughes has been doggedly photographing human society’s flotsam on beaches for ten years. As a surfer, his relationship to the coastline is intimate, and his view is close and dramatic. He creates confounding magic from washed-up trash, plastic bottles, disposable beverage tops, tangled fishing wire, and deflated beach toys-just some of the objects he has captured in England, Scotland, and the United States. The statuary images he finesses from them are at once majestic and insidious. Starkly positioned where found, the human-manufactured items look dangerous, lonely, and strangely monumental, their presence a distress against such lovely backdrops as sand, sea, and sky. Blending artistic beauty with environmental exposé, Hughes is successful in making the viewer wonder how garbage affects our oceans and beaches. Five essays contextualize the work in artistic and environmental terms and call attention to the immense ecological problem these objects present. Finely designed (by David Carson) and printed, this is an excellent first book for the photographer. Recommended for large public and academic photography collections.