On Living Stones and Reaching
On Living Stones and Reaching
How to Plant an Image: Growing, Photographing, Writing
An introduction to On Living Stones and Reaching by Jonathan P. Watts.
Photo-graphy, grafted. Individually these two words derive, according to Wikipedia, from the Greek meaning ‘light’ and ‘drawing’. And yet it is ‘Words of light’ – straitening the difference between drawing and script – that William Henry Fox Talbot named photography in notebook ‘P’ on 3 March 1839.
Botanical specimens were one of Fox Talbot’s most repeated subjects of the early ‘photogenic drawings’ and is said to have inspired Anna Atkins’ taxonomical cyanotypes of ferns and algae. The early abundance of contact prints using flora and fauna, requiring sun and water for processing, has led some to suggest that photography was ‘born in the garden’.1
Elsewhere in notebook ‘P’, methodically kept throughout March and April of that year, photography is understood as an occult medium for the automatic self-portraiture of nature: ‘magic pictures’ and ‘nature’s marvels’ appear among spring’s unfurling leaves.2 Propagated on paper, images gestate and grow; are cultivated and shared.
To behold Fox Talbot’s later folio of lens-based calotypes, The Pencil of Nature (1844), is, writes Jean-Christophe Bailly in The Instant and Its Shadow, to be:
at the source of a new art, and what The Pencil of Nature allows us to hear or grasp is indeed the sound of that source, at the place where it is wholly originated, if not regulated by some scheme of nature at work, functioning directly in the darkroom and in the fixing of the image on the paper.3
Alexander Mourant’s body of work On Living Stones and Reaching (all works 2020) returns photography to the garden from which it came. It returned Mourant, too, to the garden from which he came. Produced over three months in and around an acre field in Trinity, Jersey, on the land where Mourant’s family have farmed the Jersey Royal potato for 140 years, sixteen works across analogue lens-based photography, cyanotype contact prints, Super 8 moving image, co-ordinated performance and writing amount to a laborious attempt at hearing and grasping photography’s source.
Once the field had been ploughed and furrowed (How to Plant an Image), Mourant, working over a period of five gruelling days, hand planted 30,000 potatoes across 52 furrows of earth. He did so, he explains, ‘with the intent of reaching one image, 83 days later, of the field matured, and ready for harvest’.4 The crop, sensitive to light energy and water, is the image and the field is the frame. Portrait of the Artist Repeating Himself (Days 1–5), a sequence of 26 self-portraits shot at the end of each two rows of planted furrow, is the basis for stages of cultivation – growth, harvest, circulation and consumption – that are the pretext for further works in the series.5
How, as a 21st-century photographer, does one remain alert to what photography proposes? Bailly identifies in Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature ‘a kind of exclamatory joy linked to a climate of absolute opening’, which, I think, Mourant recognises too. Mourant seeks the absolute opening to, as he puts it, ‘expand’ photography, to ‘unlearn’ what he thinks he knows about photography in order to ‘derestrict’ it. At the place where it wholly originated, photography could still be anything.6
On Living Stones and Reaching is a procedural body of work and the serial presentation of individual works such as Portrait of the Artist Repeating Himself, Teaching the Camera How to Carry, and Five Sketches Running for Two Hundred and Ten Seconds or Five Furrows evokes Euro-North American land art of the 1960s and ‘70s. Unlike much of this work, which often regarded the photograph as a secondary, lesser souvenir of the action and site, Mourant labours in the field for the sake of the image alone.
Of the land artists who planted crops – among them, famously, Agnes Denes and Hans Haacke – it is Dennis Oppenheim’s two works Directed Seeding and Cancelled Crop (1969) that Mourant is most compelled by. In the latter, Oppenheim harvested the form of an ‘X’ across a wheatfield. ‘Planting and cultivating my own material,’ he wrote:
is like mining ones [sic] own pigment (for paint) – I can direct the later stages of development at will. In this case the material is planted and cultivated for the sole purpose of withholding it from a product-oriented system. Isolating this grain from further processing (production of food stuffs) becomes like stopping raw pigment from becoming an illusionistic force on canvas.7
Figuring the wheat as an artistic medium, linking it to extractive capitalist processes of mining, Oppenheim withholds the grain’s entry into the system of commodity exchange and circulation, questioning the relationship between artistic labour of production and agricultural labour of production. It is Mourant as ‘artist’ and not ‘labourer’ who is portrayed repeating himself.8 How, thinking with Mourant’s work, are the processes of photography analogous to the processes of farming?
Mourant’s attitude to photography connects with Fox Talbot’s understanding of it as an occult medium for the automatic self-portraiture of nature. There is a sense throughout the work that the camera is not a tool operated to frame the world, but, rather, a more agential recipient of nature’s marvels. Crop in the field, conceived as an image, is living and growing and reveals itself by its own vegetal duration. Mourant is alert to the way a contemporary posthumanist philosophy of photography, critical of human-centric frameworks and discourses, is already at the source of the medium.9
The very day after planting, 2 April 2020, Mourant commenced a daily methodical (gruelling) practice of writing, described as a ‘durational text’, that was completed on 23 June 2020, the day before harvest. Titled The Wilderness of Words, this experimental text ranges between writerly voices, registers and positions, speaking with the image in the field. Reflections on the experience of planting the field merge with the stories Mourant told himself as he planted – a body performing mechanical gestures. Direct quotations of others appear in italics. Writing of the self is opened up to fiction, suffused by the cacophonous voices of others.
Writing is at photography’s source. ‘Photography,’ writes the philosopher Eduardo Cadava, ‘is nothing else than a writing of light, a script of light, what Talbot elsewhere called “the pencil of nature”.’10 Cadava plugs Talbot into Walter Benjamin who believed that without the event of language, without the corresponding emergence of an image, there can be no history:
Words of light. This phrase also names the relation between language and light, between language and the possibility of lucidity, and of knowledge in general.11
Words of light, in the example of Talbot, are inseparable from the act of writing and naming in notebooks. If the field is a kind of cultivation, the writing is, for Mourant, I think, a wilderness. Whereas a seed, such as a potato, anticipates a future crop that is more or less knowable, writing, whatever else it is for Mourant, is elucidated in the act of doing.
Writing in her recent gardening column for The New Yorker, Jamaica Kincaid differentiated between agriculture and horticulture. ‘[T]he Tree of Life is agriculture and the Tree of Knowledge is horticulture.’ ‘We cultivate food,’ she writes:
and when there is a surplus of it, producing wealth, we cultivate the spaces of contemplation, a garden of plants not necessary for physical survival. The awareness of that fact is what gives the garden its special, powerful place in our lives and our imaginations.12
Horticulture of a garden is not agriculture of a field. Discussing Artist’s Sister Amongst the Image, Mourant proposes an equivalency between the plant and the pixel, as Oppenheim equates grain and pigment. The plant is the material substrate, but one pixel in a matrix of pixels that make up the image.13 Agriculture, as Kincaid suggests, is a calculated process of surplus production required for physical survival. The garden fuels the imagination. Because the garden is not necessary for survival it is cherished even more. Mourant’s crop speaks to ideas of heritage, family, land, necessary work and survival. As artwork, the crop opens up a space of contemplation.
For the final work in On Living Stones and Reaching, The Image Begins Anew, Mourant posted the Jersey Royals that he grew – the material substrate of the image – to his friends, the artists Victoria Louise Doyle and Krasimira Butseva. Planted or boiled, contemplated or eaten, the image is cultivated and shared, and begins anew.
— Born in Great Yarmouth, Jonathan P. Watts is a contemporary art critic and editor who lives in Norwich.
1 Larry J. Schaaf, Sun Gardens: The Cyanotypes of Anna Atkins, Prestel, 2018.
2 Larry J. Schaaf (ed.), Selected Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot 1823–1874, London: Science Museum, 1994.
3 The Instant and Its Shadow: A Story of Photography, Fordham University Press, 2020, p.6.
4 Author in conversation with Mourant, Friday 25 March 2022.
5 The early colour photographic process known as the ‘autochrome’ was developed by the Lumière brothers by coating a glass plate with a wash of potato starch grains. This curio is missed by Rebecca Earle in the book potato (ObjectLessons, Bloomsbury, 2019), which opens with Kevin Abosch, an Irish artist who produces photographic portraits of potatoes ‘as a proxy for the ontological study of human experience’.
6 Author in conversation with Mourant, Friday 25 March 2022.
7 Artist’s statement in Tate summary. Accessed at tate.org.uk, Monday 4 April 2022.
8 See Leigh Claire La Berge, Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art, Duke University Press, 2019.
9 Joanna Zylinska, Nonhuman Photography, The MIT Press, 2017, p.3.
10 Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History, Princeton University Press, Princeton University Press, XVIU.
12 ‘The Disturbances of the Garden’, The New Yorker, 31 August 2020.
13 Much of everyday instrumental photography of the land has become a drone’s eye view of a topographical quanta. Electronic and digital images open up any image as a multitude of scales of references, zooming in and out, across pixel spaces, a multitude of combinatorial possibilities. Data for harvesting. See Jussi Parikka and Tomáš Dvorák (eds.), Photography off the Scale: Technologies and Theories of the Mass Image, Edinburgh University Press, 2021, p.14.