Prospect & Refuge: Rob Fairley
In his 1975 monograph The Experience of Landscape the Geographer Jay Appleton writes, at both human and sub-human level the ability to see and the ability to hide are both important in calculating a creature's survival prospects. Where he has an unimpeded opportunity to see we can call it a prospect. Where he has an opportunity to hide, a refuge . For Appleton, this survivors eye extended to our looking at images of the landscape. As our gaze busily responds to all the nuances of the landscape painting or photograph, we instinctually draw pleasure from the affordances of the land.
Appletons account of the appreciated landscape is compelling and clear, but I have always been struck by the nuance of his terms, prospect and refuge. Evocative as they are of the opportunism of our animal past, I cant help but also consider the human and metaphorical aspect. As Shakespeares erstwhile Steward Malvolio asks in Twelfth Night, What can be said? Nothing / that can be can come between me and the full / prospect of my hopes. Prospect evokes a sense of hope for the future, refuge the sense of a precarious present. It is the difference between hoping and coping -- two very real, very ordinary sentiments that underpin our appreciation of the land and its depiction.
The Scottish artist Rob Fairley is concerned with the expression of the landscape; expression conceived as a landscape. Through a varied body of performance works, sculpture, land art, drawing, painting and pedagogical experiments, Fairley has with typical modesty and considerable stealth articulated his sustained position in contemporary art. Fairley offers a view that is uncompromising, innovative, and recalls the philanthropic spirit of a previous age.
This essay is a statement on the work of contemporary artist Rob Fairley. It is something of an inside view, told from the refuge of memory, of my time in the Scottish Highlands spent learning from Fairley, who like Joseph Beuys, makes an art of his pedagogy as much as the images and performances he creates. Im working from Melbourne Australia; time and space might diminish the memory of that Highland retreat. Like prospectors gold, Fairleys artistic and cultural philosophies given to me remain just as vivid.
In the early nineties my chaotic family relocated from one precarious patch of British coast to another. We left a bucolic provincial life on the northern edge of Devon and obediently followed my fathers search for work to a new life in Scotland. The Roshven estate where we lived seemed like a wholesale inversion of the Westcountry; soft grassy lumps had transformed into sheer Highland granite stripped bare by worry and ice. My four siblings and I pecked one another, nervously perched in the aerie of a remote Highland estate, where my father worked as a postman, gamekeeper and odd-job man. To dull my protests I was dropped in at the deep end of the loch, straight into school at Fort William. Fairley was one of our closest neighbours, his remote cottage wedged in the cracked heel of Mount Roshven.
My father had spoken with Fairley about my active interest in art, and an arrangement was made that I would commence an apprenticeship with him. I put the term in quotes to illustrate that, at the end of the twentieth century, the tradition of the artistic apprenticeship had been thoroughly dismantled in the collective imagination. The wholesale separation of hands from minds and the deliberate creation of respective labour and academic classes has distorted and divided creative practice, particularly in art schools and tertiary education. The Thatcher government in the 1980s, and shifts toward conceptualism and cultural theory in art practice, generated a tacit hostility for the slow percolation of ideas and respect for manual skills that define the apprentice experience.
There was no skepticism to Fairleys approach, inspired by his tutor Sir Robin Philipsons assertion that the artists apprenticeship was the best circumstance in which to develop young artists ability. During my time with Fairley, it was hard to come to terms with the life-changing philosophy he was advocating. I remember feeling strongly that the Englishness that had previously engaged me amounted to a relatively thin skein of habits and mannerisms, in contrast to the Scottish identity which seemed to me to be intensely powerful and robust. While this insecurity seemed to shape my day-to-day life, my time at Fairleys cottage studio would permit me to peek out above the cloud layer of highland life and consider my prospect as an artist.
Fairleys art has to be understood as a continuum, from introspective remote land works to pedagogical ambitions that explore the limits of artistic generosity. I suspect the few that have had the opportunity to apprentice with Fairley each feel, in some way, that they are a work themselves, embodying the persistence of his idea that art as anticipation, cultivation and recognition, to be understood alongside his precisely timed land works and meticulously painted images.
To summarise our encounter; at the time I was sensationally failing my standard grade Mathematics in the local Comprehensive, Fairley had already been working in this remote region for 20 years, producing sensational land art works and performances that echoed and anticipated those happening internationally. While I was struggling to find my coordinates, Fairley was establishing an international experimental art education network, from the thirteenth room of a local primary school. During our time together we were painting and drawing, talking, listening to music and watching videocassettes. In retrospect this time created a singular philosophy that still drives me today; the best recipe for an artistic life is a balance of curiosity and perseverance.
What is Scotland to England other than a source of derisive humour, and internalised cultural clichés? The real Scotland exists comfortably behind the murmur of these tropes, setting its own pace in culture and the arts. I see much the same from my current Australian home. The energetic Aussies, like the Scots, thrive in the non-represented space set beyond false impressions. The art produced by the Scottish, and in particular that made by and of nervy Highlanders, provides a deliberately tricky account of what it means to be living there. From the Victorian transpositions of city and country of Sir James Guthrie, to the romance of Alexander Nasmyth, and the nature studies of Jemima Blackburn, each gently softens the broken back of the mountain and quietly exterminates the midge, expressing Rural Scotland as a world of soft gradations rather than harsh juxtapositions.
Rural Scotland exists behind a series of obfuscating layers. The picturesque and monumental aspects of the landscape belie a complex and contradictory tradition of being in the land that is quite unique, and certainly different from the English agrarian experience propagandized by the Victorians. Punishing and rewarding, warmth and rejection that is the Highland experience I know, certainty of constant push and pull. The glim of midges and the hard dark winters, the incredible summer light. The place primes you and trains you to grow according to its abrupt contours, such that when you move away you take it with you, that subtle appetite for extremity.
After graduating from Edinburgh College of Art in 1975, Fairley relocated to the Scottish Highlands, to the fishing town of Mallaig, where he made his lonely commitment to being an artist. His landscapes produced while a student had established him to be a quintessential graduate of the Edinburgh Painting and Drawing programme, and he excelled at producing that particular Scottish idiom to great effect. After a brief period of doubt and reconfiguration that rightly hits most academicians-by-training, Fairley relocated to a rural island south of Mallaig, Shona Beag. There he begins to produce a body of sculptural work that continued the tentative progress made in land art pieces created while at college, and on the Isle of Skye. While I dont want to drift into the realms of künstlerroman and explicate each stage in Fairleys substantial career, the full meaning of much of his work arises from this initial departure into the land.
There are many formative resonances between the life of Fairley and the work he creates, and the practice of several other artists working in the Land Art mode defined by American Robert Smithson.
Jennifer L. Roberts has observed the critical importance of a similar departure from urban life to wilderness in the work of Robert Smithson , who in 1969 departed on a historic excursion to the Yucatán peninsula. She writes;
Smithson spoke often of his desire to be thrown out to the edges, and in nearly all of his most influential workhis Site/Nonsites, his eccentric Artforum travelogues, his far-flung earthworkshe used the act of expedition to establish a trademark dialectic between center and periphery.
Fairleys departure into the Scottish Highlands in 1975 resonates with the expeditions made by Smithson in America. But whereas Smithson operated from a position of skepticism and dissatisfaction with the sterile gallery presence of 1960s modernism, Fairleys trajectory is quite different, caught by a fierce and romantic momentum forward. His work is less about a dialectic with what was left behind, more about achieving an adequate synthesis with his new home, epitomized in the lives and ways of the erstwhile local farmers he admired.
In his enigmatic transcript of these early landworks, we can see the process through which Fairleys academic art education entered into an evolving dialectic with the conditions of being in the land. He begins, as any studious artist might, with an impeccable series of drawings of birds and fauna in the area. At the same time, other working processes start to enter into his practice. Fairley records one such performance;
Summer 1975Grass ring. Walk trampling grass with a ring made from grass taken from the centre.
From this early stage to the present, walking has played a major role in the development of Fairleys practice. Like British artist Richard Longs walk-based land art works (for example A Long Line Made by Walking England ), Fairleys walks are be defined by the apparent dictates of the land and a respect for nature. However, Fairleys walks are punctuated by some additional process of making. As with the Grass ring, where the harvested material is used to create an object (a finger ring), or sculptures created from 1974 that feature animal bones, walking and making become two intertwined grammars deployed by the artist in the creation of the work.
In these two facets we see the emergence of Fairleys continuing interest in language and the written word, as a ring of walk-flattened grass demarcates the grass that is then used to create an instantiation of the word, ring, as object. This elliptical and poetic conceptual turn builds to one note what is a ring? In similar ways, Fairleys later painted works often ask What is a child? or What is a landscape?. He achieves this though the recreation of his own experience of looking and being, such that the work becomes a vehicle that takes ones awareness away from the subject and brings it squarely back to questions of identity, and more importantly, language itself. In this way, we can situate the titular central question from the well-known documentary (from 2004) on his teaching experiment Room 13 At what age can you start being an artist?
Through his interest in the performativity of language (as inscribed words, as puns or wordplay, as spoken word performance, as an active agent) Fairleys early work wriggles free from the strictest definition of Land Art. It stands out as a kind of embodied performance more akin to the work of European Joseph Beuys. Like Beuys, Fairleys work is infused with the principles and ambitions of magical and theosophical thinking, specifically of evocation through physical action, writing and ritual practice. Underscored by a keen desire to present an account of his life as an artist in a deeply authentic and semi-mythological framework akin to Beuys Lebenslauf/Werklauf (Life Course/ Work Course), Fairleys combined performance/landworks evoke a resurrected ritual life, dictated to the artist from the land, in something of a shamanistic dialogue. Likewise, in his pedagogic art, the students inherent qualities are responded to and channeled according to anticipated flows. The prevailing quality of this work is one of canny anticipation, in which the human faculty of measurement and planning allow for sublime moments of alignment to take place. For instance one record of a work reads:
March/ April 1976 First deer arch. Shona Beag. A series of silver birch wands built as an arch on a deer run through which hinds had to pass. The hinds flanks slowly wore the bark leaving it worn polished and impregnated with hair in lines which mirrored precisely the contours of the ground underfoot.
In works such as these there is a strong sense of the artists awareness of an élan vital in the landscape that, like a medium, might be channeled and shaped to produce an array of residues or effects significant to ones sense of time and place. Imbibing materials with lifes flow a stick felted with deer hair this acute focus on both the landscape and the living agents that constantly change and manipulate it bring both a mysticism and a realism to the fore in Fairleys works. Everyday life is a constant bustle of creation, activity, destruction and manipulation, something the academic traditions of landscape mute through their focus on proper form.
In his paintings of people from Nepal, India and Kathmandu, the same sentiment of people as landscape (of lives in process) is captured, through his particular mix of extremely intimate portraits juxtaposed against works in extreme long shot reminiscent of the photographic works of Andreas Gursky. In works such as Der Tod Und Das Madchen (1999) we stare into a sea of people, whose observed movement and placement are translated directly to the image, such that one gets a strong sense of the collective soul of people, rather than the meandering of individuals in British cityscapes. The striking draughtsmanship that characterises Fairleys work in many media (from pencil to oil, to tempera and water media) takes on the same significance as the act of walking in his sculptural land works of the 1970s. Perseverance and the journey are captured in the acutely controlled draughtmanship as a self contained philosophy, reminiscent of Lucian Freuds comment that he only sought to paint that which he could not challenging impossibility as its own end.
The incredible lucidity Fairley captures in his painting transmits that sense of the élan vital (though I experience this more through composition in addition to draughtmanship) but also conveys the need to maintain something of the physicality of his previous work in his endeavours in the picture plane. His lifelong passion for rock climbing and mountaineering, while coming as no surprise, provide a mechanism to take the generative performativity of his earliest work to new places. Creating vertiginous landscapes of the Himalayas seen from his mountain top base-camps, in his signature hyperrealistic and lucid style (in epic paintings such as The Burning of Tyngboche Monastery 1995) Fairley continues to ask what is a landscape? Situating the viewer in the position of the adventurer-artist, we look at the mountain and it embodies the notion of challenge in all its dimensions. Likewise, in his paintings of children, many of which are the students from room 13, the same prevailing notions exist when we look at one of his children we see a challenge (one we have culturally become skeptical of, like our lost appreciation of the land), and we consider those dual dimensions of prospect and refuge through a powerful humanism.
Where are these children going? Where have they come from? Fairleys work leaves us with a sense of the proximity between the work of the artist and that of the teacher, and also the adventurer whose myth inspires both. As an artist, Fairley embodies a remote and rarely achieved capacity to operate out at those edges of experience as Robert Smithson fantasised about. He shows us that such an edge can be found in the remote mountains of India, and that it can also be documented, captured and exhibited. But, like Beuys whose appreciation for art objects diminished over the course of his career, Fairleys work identifies that those precarious edges exist in the lives of the people amongst whom we live and work, edges that can be mapped and explored like the sharp lines of the Highlands.
The Man, the Mystery and the Miracle Claire Gibb
A painting by Rob Fairley is nothing short of a miracle. Those who are familiar with his work will know that he takes a perfectionist, almost mathematical approach to the structuring of a picture, employing rigorous, often painstaking techniques to construct an image of breathtaking clarity. Viewers are seduced into admiring Fairleys immaculate aesthetic technique, while accepting the subject matter at face value. Nothing that will trouble the eye is ever to be found in a work of Fairleys.The mind however, is another matter.
Beyond the cleanliness of the perceived image, rich undertones ripple beneath the surface, or else loom large in the conceptual space the image has been created to occupy. A landscape painted by Fairley harbours all that is strange and unsettling, or miraculous and uplifting about a place and that which occurred there. A portrait betrays the mysteries of existence with the intensity of its gaze. Only the typically enigmatic title might offer a hint as to the greater resonance of the piece. Rob Fairley entered Edinburgh College of Art in 1971, defying the predictions of his art master at George Watsons who told him he hadnt a snowballs chance in hell of getting in. His decision to study at Edinburgh was largely based on the presence of Robin Philipson as head of painting there. Under Philipsons tutelage, Fairley evolved the conviction that paintings are to deal with Big Stuff and as such the artist does not shy away from tackling the political and the spiritual on top of all manner of life, the universe and everything in his work. Among it all was his search for the essential mystery of the environment. This, increasingly, becomes the point on which his work turns. Shortly after graduating from Edinburgh College of Art in 1975, Rob Fairley took up residence in Mallaig. This windswept fishing village at the bitter end of the West Highland railway line, just a stones throw from the Isle of Skye and at the edge of what is still one of the largest wilderness areas that remains in Western Europe, might seem like an unlikely choice for a young arts graduate. In fact, he had long found himself drawn to this remote and rugged region.The decision to settle there is one that he can trace to the year 1968. This was the year that a life-defining school trip to St Kilda prompted two momentous decisions: first to study at Edinburgh College of Art and thereafter to live in the West Highlands.
Such conviction and commitment to purpose from this early age is typical of Fairley, who makes much of his Scots Presbyterian upbringing and requisite work ethic. Combined with his dual passions as painter and climber, this bore him an affinity with the land and inspired in him a need to investigateand experience the land in its purest sense. From 1976 1979 Shona Beag; The Island; was home and haven to a young Rob Fairley and itself acted as both canvas and collaborator to a little known body of the artists early work. For nearly four years as the sole human inhabitant of this remote island, the circumference of which can be walked by a fit young man in half a day, the man Fairley immersed himself in a hermetical lifestyle, utterly attuned to the land and its creatures. In this environment he was afforded the space and freedom to embrace an exploratory and experimental approach to art making; merging thought and action in a lived work of truest philosophical unity.The deliberate seeking of solitude was an attitude which was to remain consistent even following his years on the island. In spite of this, Fairley himself is not immune to community. Tales of the lives of the
people who inhabited the now near-deserted regions in the remote peninsula of the West Highlands are collected avidly by Fairley and retold with a fascination. Clearly he is influenced by a deep rooted respect and reverence toward his forbearers. Fairley sees man as a creature of the land, and his work is as concerned with what it means to be human as it is with the intricacies of nature's cycle.