North East South West
Some time ago my shutter release cable accidentally fused through a faulty mechanism to the port of my camera. It stayed like that for roughly two years, and my camera and its cable became known as one and the same. They would not part from each other; they were, as they put it, as thick as thieves. Over the years my camera, forever fixed with an arm of sorts, a strangely thin, dangly appendage, became content with its partner. Rather than viewing it as a nuisance, we—my camera and I—began to interpret this long arm as a gift; a gift that extends, dictates and facilitates a space of play: a play zone where photographs can be made. When ‘the work’ takes shape, most artists tend to set their own parameters for the game of making. But I’ve come to notice, if the artist is receptive, the work, or more precisely, the apparatus—the bridge to the work—is more than capable of taking the lead.
North East South West (2020/22) observes a farmer walking in a field from point A, to B, to C, and finally, to D. Respectively, these markers denote north, east, south and west; directions, as commonly found, in the points of a compass. The farmer, instructed and controlled by the 5m length of the shutter release, first walked clockwise, carefully strimming a line in the weeds as he went on his way. He stopped at each quarter point to take a photograph. Eventually, the farmer circumnavigated the camera itself, which sat in the centre of the field, and created a distinguishable outline of a circle on the face of the field. Next, the farmer, at the behest of the artist, continued to strim the remainder of the field, but only the field which lay, crucially, inside the area of the circle. The farmer grew accustomed to his crop circle, and began slicing and slicing at the pesky weeds, until he reached the earth.
The crop circle has a famed and colourful position in world history. The spectacle was first documented, allegedly, in The Mowing-Devil, an English woodcut pamphlet published in 1678, which tells the story of a Herefordshire farmer who, outraged at the cost of mowing his field, announced he’d rather the Devil appear and work the land. The very next morning, the farmer, repentant for his slurs, was stunned and terrified to witness the field cut; it was said to be executed with such acute precision, it would have taken “an Age for any Man to perform”. The ominous illustration accompanying the article shows the Devil with a scythe, expertly harvesting the crop in the shape of—you guessed it—a circle. Since then, the crop circle has grown in international consciousness. Whether attributed to pranksters, aliens or natural phenomena, baffling scientists, fanatics and investigators, the mythology of crop circles has become undeniable. It stands today as a powerful symbol of the unknown and otherworldly.
Historically, the crop circle has been camera shy; they were often created overnight, under the radar, to avoid detection. To photograph its making could be seen as the very undoing of its myth. North East South West is made not only with the camera in mind, but by and with the camera as the farmer’s accomplice. It is a quasi-crop circle, a rebel, one that overturns its own ontology in order to be witnessed. The crop circle here is not for agricultural necessity, but for materialising the enigmatic space of ‘photographic potentiality’. Although a grand and abstract term, put simply, it means any given space or area—due to the apparatus being fixed to a certain point on Earth—where photographs can be taken. Opposed to, say, a line or a triangle, it takes the form of a circle. A circle is like the sun; a circle is like a lens; and a circle is like time looped back upon itself, endlessly repeating—all things which, I might also add, are inherently photographic. North East South West is an ephemeral sculpture for photography. One that challenges my understanding of the image world, and the way we inhabit, roam and negotiate its boundaries.
A few weeks passed by, and the farmer and the artist returned to the field, but to their dismay the crop circle was nowhere to be found. Together, they were adamant they knew where they’d left it, searching for a while amongst the tall weeds. How could such a thing ever be misplaced? It was as if the crop circle, under all its might, pushed and pulled itself up into the air, and defiantly rolled out of the field. Much like a wheel, on the side of a motorway, running away from a car. Its image is all that remains. Somehow, that felt right for the farmer and the artist; the crop circle, as we’ve come to learn, has always been a fugitive of sorts.
North East South West: The Farmer and the Crop Circle was commissioned by Hapax Magazine, Issue 3 (2022/2023).