For 10 years until 2017, Sophie Morrish was a familiar sight to many of the 1200 inhabitants of North Uist, the remote island in the Outer Hebrides and one of the most bio-diverse places in the UK. It’s a windy place where the calmness of the top image, Evening light from Kyles Beach, 2013, is an all-too rare occurrence for more than a few days at a time.
As a self-confessed obsessive, Morrish would walk the beaches of the 100 square mile island, observing, finding, photographing and collecting some of the remains of the fauna washed up on the shore.
As an artist rather than a scientist, she’s not concerned with taxonomy, the technique of categorising items into organised groups. What interests her is the individual and the circumstances of what has happened to it. This exhibition at the Bermondsey Project Space contains some of the ways she has used art to show off the richness of life on the island and to reflect more deeply about our relationship to the natural world.
In a series called Violent Beauty, she has produced collages of feathers, arranged in a horizontal grid and pinned to a canvas. Each bird from whence the feathers came, whether a snipe, a guillemot, a lapwing, a rock dove, a raven or whatever – she can identify them all – has been killed by predators, usually raptors. Predators can also be prey. The work is a presentation of nature rather than a representation, showing how interconnected the natural world is.
“What I’m trying to do,”, she tells me, “is employ aesthetic sensibilities and ideas to draw people towards a feeling of wonder or concern or in feeling some sort of inclusivity.”
The exhibition’s curator, art writer and historian Mel Gooding, places Sophie Morrish in that tradition of artists that includes such as Herman de Vries, Richard Long and Chris Drury, who, since the 1960s, challenged the orthodox view propounded by Descartes, that man could possess and master nature.
“Artists concerned with nature began to move into the landscape so to speak”, he tells me. “Instead of looking at, they were experiencing, and this is entirely in line with the modern scientific view of things which dissolves that distinction between man and nature. Deep down, this work belongs in that train of work and thought that has finally taken issue with the Cartesian duality that man is superior to everything else, that everything in nature is in a sense at the service of man.”
One of the more dramatic works on show, Constellation (After Fire), consists of bones collected not by the artist but by a scientist who, no longer in need of them, left them in boxes. Asked to dispose of them, Morrish made a funeral pyre but lots remained intact. “I thought if they survived the fire they were asserting themselves of their right to be seen in the world.” The collage is an extraordinary array of tiny bones, arranged with due regard for colour, size and shade, symbolically liberated from their taxonomic construct.
Here, Sophie Morrish explains how her works are rarely planned from the start.
Morrish moved to Scotland in the 1990s after studying at the Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art. She’s taught art in as diverse places as Glasgow, China, India and Brixton where she taught in the prison there.
None of these locations are quite as wild and remote as North Uist. At times when the weather behaves itself, the fine sand on a particular beach produces intricate patterns and textures. Morrish has photographed them in a series that are presented as nature’s own drawings. “It’s all about rhythm, the rhythm of the tides and the climactic conditions but obviously they are also referencing abstract art and drawings, etchings”, she explains.
Despite the island’s remoteness, it cannot escape the plague of plastic waste that has become a worldwide environmental concern. On one beach walk, Morrish collected every circular piece of plastic waste and, before recycling it, turned the experience from a negative to a positive. “One of the useful or powerful qualities of art is to make something mundane into something else and beautiful.”
So she drew round every circular piece she found and produced 12 different drawings from the same material. She spent exactly an hour on each. This was in homage to workers in China whose average shift length is 12 hours, China being the country that currently produces the most plastic waste per annum. It also adds another layer to the exhibition’s title, Island Time.
Care for our environment is but one of the themes that runs through Sophie Morrish’s work. “It is an absolute concern for the way the natural world is represented, the way it’s treated, the lack of custodianship that is shown and we have so much technology promoting ourselves to ourselves that we need something to balance that.”
Island Time: North Uist Works is showing at the Bermondsey Project Space, 183-185 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UW until 1 September 2018
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.