Curator and Producer, Melissa Hinkin, responds to Rebecca Chesney’s PEAK residency in the Black Mountains.
‘Let the scent of fresh mountain dew and white floral blossoms transport you to the striking hills of the Brecon Beacons’ – Air Wick
How will Rebecca Chesney PEAK’s first Artist-in-Residence respond to the red sandstone landscape which dominates the Black Mountains? Her approach she explains, is like any of her other commissions: to grab a collection of maps and a pair of well-worn hiking boots. Over the 6-week residency (split in intervals between November 2015 and January & March 2016) walking became her central research tool, from traversing the topography of the well-trodden mountain trails to the routine journeys taken to meet with local residents.
Chesney fondly recounts speaking to writer and lecturer Rosemary Shirley (who’s research focuses on visual culture and rural contexts) about The National Park collection, Air Wick’s range of specially blended fragrances inspired by ‘the spirit’ of a collection of National Parks including the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, Peak District and the Brecon Beacons. The collection was especially designed to ‘capture, celebrate and promote Britain’s breathing spaces’, its Brecon Beacon scent encouraging consumers to ‘Let the scent of fresh mountain dew and white floral blossoms transport you to the striking hills’. Our sense of smell is strongly linked to memory yet it is questionable whether this scent alone could truly evoke the spirit of the soft slopes of South Wales’ dramatic mountain range. As the writer Lucy Lippard notes ‘All places exist somewhere between the inside and outside views of them’  (Lippard 1997: 33).
The act of surveying and mapping is central to Chesney’s practice; for one of her earlier residencies at Grizedale Arts, Cumbria in 2005/06 Chesney created ‘map. volume 1, coniston’, a series of abstract linear maps where she painstakingly researched, plotted and mapped the ownership and classification boundaries of 45 organisations, associations and authorities, each revealing the invisible boundaries delineating areas around Coniston in the Lake District. Whereas the static contours on topographical maps remain fixed Chesney’s maps provide a snapshot of various complications that exist beneath the façade of the landscape – revealing social deprivation, habitat loss and land ownership. In a later work ‘I’m blue, you’re yellow’, Chesney together with a team of volunteers, sewed two acres of meadows on Everton Park in Liverpool: one entirely made of blue flowering species and the other yellow. Each summer the meadows erupted in striking primary hues, the perennials attracting an assortment of wildlife including local bumble and honey bee species. Chesney’s practice is underlined by the journeys and collaborations she develops with experts, professionals and members of the public. In this respect her ‘systems-orientated aesthetic’ aligns itself with the environmental lineage of Agnes Denes – best known for Wheatfield – A Confrontation, 1982 – and the artist duo Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison with their Survival Pieces series of 1970-2, including Portable Fish Farm and Portable Orchard.
During her residency Chesney systematically documented her immediate environment: taking photographs of lichen, silage bags, craggy peaks, elements of the sky, rotting sheep carcasses, half buried and partly rusted farm machinery; and also includes images of the rare Ley’s Whitebeam tree (which can only be found in the wild on one hillside in the Brecon Beacons) and the lesser horseshoe bat. After some time it became clear that these recorded observations were also samples: a collection of abstract and distinct images developed under precise environmental and historical conditions, creating a colour pallet which in its entirety can only be matched to the Brecon Beacons. Over the next few weeks Chesney will carefully select one hundred colours to feature on a printed colour chart. Adventurous homeowners can choose from the warm hues of ‘Hedgerow Bunting’, cool shades of ‘Frosty Bracken’ and ‘Packamac’ and the stark tones of ‘Shot Fox’ and ‘Joyride’. Lucy Lippard comments that ‘A sense of place is a virtual immersion that depends on lived experience and a topographical intimacy ’. Whilst Air Wick’s aim is to preserve the ‘spirit’ of the Brecon Beacons by transporting people from their homes to picturesque and untouched landscapes, Chesney subtly confronts and challenges the complexities of the social, cultural, and environmental perceptions of this rural environment by bringing these realities into the home.
– Melissa Hinkin, curator and producer.
Exhibitions Officer, Artes Mundi.
1. Lippard, L R. (1997) The Lure of The Local: Senses of place in a multicentered Society. New York: The New Press, 33.
Photo credit: Toril Brancher