November 2018 A Foreign Body: Absence a Denial of Presence; transplanting a Sitka spruce tree. Tælavåg. Video work



above: video record of fieldwork at Tælavåg and KMD, November 2018

I can identify a series of significant moments in the development of my research. Typically, these are characterised by the presence of some catalyst, which either highlights an underlying problem or contradiction in my what I’ve been doing and / or suggests a new and helpful way of thinking about the objects of my work.


These moments tend to have the character of an avalanche: a small event or shock of recognition, creating the gathering momentum of a landslide, which changes the landscape of my work, revealing it differently.


Quite often, acts of speculative making have been at the heart of these developments, illustrating my practice’s constructive and immanent role in my research, though it is often some unexpected or apparently incidental aspect of that making, which becomes decisive in progressing my research. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the example of my field-work with CCFT, at Tælavåg, in November 2018.


Tælavåg, a small village, on Norway’s Atlantic West coast, is historically significant for its part in the operation of the “Shetland Bus” during World War II and as the site of the subsequent war-time “Tælavåg Tragedy”. My work there, however, focused ostensibly not on the tragedy itself, but on the area’s ecology. I became interested in the landscape of the area and specifically the story behind the introduction of the Sitka spruce trees which are now such a ubiquitous feature of that landscape. I discovered that these spruce trees, originally introduced to Norway from Alaska, in the nineteenth century, had now been designated an invasive foreign species by the authorities in Norway and that Norwegians were actively being encouraged to eradicate these unwanted “foreign” bodies.


Something about this story; its collision between natural and cultural history, and the notion of policing foreign-bodies, connected in my imagination, to my then still nascent work at Bergen’s Natural History Museum (then closed to the public); to its unoccupied galleries empty of visitors and its ranks of empty vitrines, awaiting specimens, but also to the story I’d been told, about the colony of dermestid beetles infesting one of the museum’s few remaining specimens, the Blue Whale skeleton. As part of my fieldwork, I hatched a plan to transplant one of the Sitka spruce trees to the museum. Sharing this plan with the museum elicited the following wonderful response:


‘it is absolutely not allowed to bring living natural material into the Natural History Museum building.’


The perfectly reasonable concern underlying the museum’s rejection of my plan was that in carrying it out, I might unwittingly introduce not only the “foreign body” of the Sitka into the museum, but also further unwanted foreign bodies of pests and infestations.


In the light of my work with the Sitka spruce and the museum’s response to my plans, the situation that the institution presented, far from seeming best comprehended in terms of the absences of specimens and visitors, which had first attracted me to its secluded spaces as a site for work, appeared better understood in terms of a relationship between the institution and those ordinarily unacknowledged, “illegitimate” bodies of pests and infestations in its midst; which it sought to eradicate and whose presence was “masked” by the gross absences most noticeable an initial encounter with the site.


In a blog post from 17th November 2020 about the wider significance of my work with the Sitka spruce, under the heading ‘Absence, A Denial of Presence’, I wrote:


‘Through my work, I have been thinking a good deal about absence and have begun to regard the notion of absence – like that of silence – as being often in fact potentially a denial of presence; a construct and an anthropocentric one at that; a construct that says most about what is of value to the person making the determination of what needs to be recognised as present and what may be ignored. In particular, to talk of absence as the defining characteristic of a space or a moment, is almost certainly be to deny the presence of someone or something, just as to talk of silence, may almost certainly be to deny the voice of some-one or some-thing.


It is arguably a short leap from the act of denying the presence of a person or a thing – encompassing its absence – to giving agency to such a denial: making decisions about what may be included or excluded; what is licit, what is permissible, in any given place. Sooner or later, acts of acceptance or denial; decisions about inclusion or exclusion impact on a specific body, which may be that of human or of an object [or I might have added, that of an insect].


What, I wonder, might a practice reveal, which sets out to engage in the task of attending to the wilfully overlooked objects, “the bodies”, the voices, deemed to be unworthy at any given site.’


and I added:


‘The potential of foreign bodies (such as the Sitka Spruce) to “contaminate” the environments they inhabit and the [perceived] need to police their presence; to exact control upon their bodies, extends beyond the hillsides of Western Norway, to include its institutions, too. The fear of contamination from the “wrong-bodies” takes many forms.’


‘Museum curators as well as environmentalists and ecologists are concerned about the potential contamination threatened by the presence of the wrong kind of body in their midst.’


I’ve retained an interest in the significance of the ‘absence’ or the ‘gap’, in my work and indeed in the notion of silence, but not the phenomenal “silences” that had earlier interested me; those addressed by for example, John Cage’s work and which I began to explore in my July 2019 work for Berlin’s Lausitzer Platz and my May 2019 installation for HKS, Bergen, rather the silences and the gaps created by things withheld, unacknowledged, repressed or disavowed, whether these be institutional or interpersonal in their context.