The Liveliest of Elements, an Ordinary Extraordinary Material

Laura Harrington

The Liveliest of Elements, an Ordinary Extraordinary Material, 2014-2015

The Liveliest of Elements, an Ordinary Extraordinary Material is an exhibition of work formed from an elongated period of research into upland peat landscapes. Specifically Moss Flats, a bare peat flatland, approximately 50 miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne in the North Pennines, a landscape that gave Harrington an insight into the substance of peat as a dynamic and changeable material. Working with specialists from both artistic and scientific fields she has mapped this environment through works both portrait and facet, expansive and intimate, cultural and clinical.

The title of the exhibition was inspired by artist Joseph Beuys who once described a European bog as ‘the liveliest of elements’ and scientist Noel Hobbs who referred to peat as an ‘ordinary extraordinary material’ due to its unusual characteristics and behaviour as an earth surface material. The work was developed in collaboration with geomorphologist Jeff Warburton from the Department of Geography, Durham University during a Leverhulme Trust Artist Residency. The work was installed and realised in two distinct and contrasting places – The Norman Chapel in Durham Castle and then in a disused ventilation shaft in Woodhorn Museum (a former colliery near Ashington).

Liveliest of Elements is a new film with four channel spatialised sound intricately
 exploring Moss Flats. The film goes beyond the view of such a landscape as a seemingly mundane and passive environment and reveals this supposed nothingness in its entirety. While the image maintains a human focal length the sound shifts between a wide expansive field and intensely focused micro movements and vibrations. In doing so the film speaks of the scientific precision necessary to study such a place while balancing an emotional connection with it, the frenetic beauty of the micro with the haunting expanse of the macro.

The work is a particular experience and comes from collaborating with both sound
 artist Lee Patterson and renowned field recordist Chris Watson – individuals who whilst equally fascinated by sound, in this instance occupy quite distinct spaces. The film, deploying these differences in tonality increase our awareness of the layered nature of our relationship to landscape, our expectations and connections, and within that also the multifaceted reality of a place, expansive and vast across all scales. Harrington speaks of upstream consciousness, a desire for the viewer to look towards the source rather than its effect.

An intrigue constructed out of variance between layers is found again in the four channel sound work dis/sonance, a composition of five voices recorded as a single take whilst on Moss Flats, utilising lines drawn from aerial photographs of the landscape surface as the score. Each voice takes a position of the compass, the rigour of measurement attempting to align a non-linear landscape, with the fifth voice occupying the place of earth, of depth, the unyielding tone of mass and richness.

As with the film, collaborators were carefully chosen, with differences in approach capturing the layered reality of the place. Likewise Harrington’s decision to record the piece as one take – taking a sidestep away from a soundtrack as a response to the landscape, instead embedding itself directly within it. As each voice morphs and wraps into the next, building layer upon layer, the work doesn’t reflect the process of peat composition but becomes it.

Haggs and High Places is an artist publication that through words and drawings provides an insight into some of the research and ideas behind this new body of work. During her residency Harrington invited poet and shepherd Josephine Dickinson, who lives in the North Pennines, and who writes about landscape so vividly and distinctly to collaborate with her – an invitation to produce her own response to Moss Flats.
 An entirely contrasting take on place – a new layer of thinking – perhaps even
 a mythological view sitting within this scientific and artistic collaboration.




The Liveliest of Elements
‘The Post-Fossil Show’, HIAP Gallery Augusta, Suomenlinna, Finland. (2020)
[image credit: Juha Huuskonen]

Laura Harrington