Letter from Lancaster 11

Horizon Line Chamber at Sunderland Point.

I cycle downriver. Wind turbines turn in perfect synchrony, like slow cartwheeling acrobats. High wires crackle on pylons striding across the wide estuary from the nuclear power station. The causeway to Sunderland, a village cut off twice a day, is a ribbon of muddy tarmac between flats of salt marsh grass from which convexes of shining mud, their sea-smoothed surfaces impressed already with the cuneiform of bird footprints, curve down to trickling water. A curlew flies by. Its bill curves down; its call curves up: you take your pick. A flotilla of swans, dazzling as yachts, far out. I walk across to the Morecambe Bay side. The high blue nobbled back of the Lake District dragon on the horizon curves down, long neck low, to the head at Barrow, ready to breathe nuclear fire. Offshore from the mouth a haze, like breath, churning, indecipherable until binoculars reveal a vast array of wind turbines, turning slowly.

I’m here to visit a new art work. It is next to Sambo’s grave (more on that in a later letter). Horizon Line Chamber, by land artist Chris Drury, is a drystone, corbelled beehive, beautifully constructed, that looks like a high-spec hermit’s cell from an Irish island, or a reconstruction from Skara Brae. Odd, this heap of stone in a landscape of grass, mud, water, air. And deliberate, the sugarloaf hump that holds the eye that habitually sweeps across, following birds or carried on the prevailing wind. It is designed to stop, to still the restless eye. Perhaps to still the restless spirit. An oratory.

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Inside, in the darkness, within the density and thickness of stone, isolation. Except, on the wall, a circular image, dark above light. This cell is a camera obscura. A lens in the west wall draws the image of outside in, inverted (as the eye experiences images, which the brain then inverts – I’m seeing as the eye sees), and projects it on the east wall. Still as a photograph – and then birds fly across, the light changes as a cloud passes. I imagine watching the equinox sun setting. And yet. I feel like Plato’s man, his back to the ‘real’ world, experiencing only flickering shadows cast on a wall. I want to burst out, into our ‘real’ world! And yet. There is in confinement, in concentration, in single-point focus, an intensification of experience. As I leave I wonder if I will come to terms with it. I will return.

3 thoughts on “Letter from Lancaster 11

  1. That’s wonderful Keith. I went up to a camera obscura in Aberystwyth years ago, and found the images so compelling. I’ve got a book called ‘A History of pictures’ by Hockney and Martin Gayford, and they talk about how Old Masters created them, among other devices, for painting. Terrific writing as ever.

  2. Thanks, Lesley. Yes strange, to us (with our desire to be absorbed into the landscape, and vice versa), to paint it with one’s back to it! And the curious parallel with Plato’s image. Ruskin, of course, hated Claude glasses and the like – as I’m sure did Turner.
    The contrast between being inside the Chamber and outside is so great, it will interesting to see how my relationship with it develops.

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