In choosing not to discard materials that would, in other circumstances, have been quickly consigned to the rubbish bin, I also opened myself up to the influences that unsettled my sense of curatorial authority and allowed the material to ‘act back’ on me in unexpected ways […] With the dissolution of standards of value and significance, the sheer excess of eligible material mocked my attempts at recovery and rationalization.
Caitlin DeSilvey, Observed Decay, 2006
Writing on her experiences of curating at a ‘hard-scrabble homestead’ from depression-era Montana, DeSilvey describes the challenges that arise once we begin to take seriously the part of nonhuman materials in the making of cultural and historical sites. Having decided to include the material traces of animal, vegetable and material habitation and decay alongside human artefacts and intentions, DeSilvey was faced with the problem of what to keep in and what to leave out – the messy abundance of everything that slips into focus once the boundaries of the human are acknowledged to be porous and unfixed. The loss of clarity and direction that DeSilvey describes sits in tension with a sense of wonder at the intricate, intimate, and overwhelmingly complex interweavings of human and nonhuman lives that come together in the formation of a particular site.
Amidst all the lively complexity of the Huleh valley, I find myself caught in a similar tension between excitement and despair; a restless desire to capture absolutely everything, coupled with an equally agitated desire to touch nothing; to let be.
My working title and working principle for the process at play here is ‘found materials’. By taking up, reworking and colliding materials found in both field and archive, I hope to elicit a new and different understanding of how landscapes are ‘storied’ through material, cultural, and political processes. This, then, is my methodological starting point – to spend time foraging and collecting materials that in some way help to build a kaleidoscopic picture of the ecologies at play around me.
There is – of course – no shortage of materials. Each time I hitch a ride out of the village (and find myself sat between an Arab from Nazareth and a young Zionist woman from the settlements), stop to glance at the rubbish strewing the roadside (and find a hand-scrawled poison symbol on an abandoned plastic jerry-can), pick up a local guide book (published by the ministry of defence), stop to watch the (Thai) agricultural workers bump past in a trailer on their way to the orchards, another piece of the puzzle presents itself. And then, of course, everywhere I look there are the cranes – feeding, flying, foraging, calling – always present, but mostly just too far off to be seen clearly; too wary to stay and be drawn. The problem is one of selection – in a study that insists on including the messiness of lived experience, where do you draw the line between data and noise?
Nothing, it seems, can do justice to the sheer excess of layers, the multitude of encounters, the messiness of intersecting lives. This, precisely, is why I am here – to find a way to engage open-handedly with that messiness and depth. And for now I am caught in the familiar angsty space that like a mounting thunder-head precedes those brief moments of artistic clarity and production; caught, too, in the wonder of this valley that so far exceeds anything I could aspire to create. I move between anxious despondency and exultation. In MacGregor’s 1869 etching of the Huleh wetlands, the sky is riven by a dramatic storm front moving across the valley, undershot by the glow of bright sunshine. The image echoes the extravagance of a sublime-era nature painting, but the stark contrast and looming tension of the drawing reflect more closely than I like to admit my own internal landscape, and the sense of helpless foreboding excited by the strange contradictory violence and beauty of this troubled landscape.
I first came across MacGregor’s etching on a visit to Edna and Zev in 2011, on the same day that I shot this snap of a storm front moving across the Huleh Valley to the north of the nature reserve:
The light conditions here are consistently dramatic, shaped by the extreme topography, heat and a confluence of weather systems at the top of the Great Rift Valley. It seems only fair to point out that John MacGregor may not have been exaggerating, so much as selecting according to a particular taste.
DeSilvey, C. (2006) ‘Observed Decay: Telling Stories with Mutable Things’, Journal of Material Culture, 11(3), pp. 318–338.
MacGregor, J. (1874) The Rob Roy on the Jordan, Nile, Red Sea, & Gennesareth, Etc: A Canoe Cruise in Palestine and Egypt and the Waters of Damascus, J. Murray.