South East England

The proposed theme of this exhibition was, we are told, “a journey through the winter landscape” and superficially this is evident but I cannot help but feel that time is the real subject. Bon Hiver, we are told, is a French greeting meaning “good winter” and it used on the day of the first snowfall. This, in itself, reminds me of the cyclical nature of time in nature, but I also found time recurring throughout the exhibition.

Olafur Eliasson’s excellent, and well know, The Forked Forest Path is made entirely from large sticks (or small branches) which are precariously propping each other up to form a forest in the gallery space through which visitors can walk. It looks as though it may fall over at any moment – and with the volume of visitors it was impossible not to occasionally brush up against some of the spindly twigs. The piece is as ephemeral as it is timeless: timeless in that the material from which it is made cannot be dated (and probably does not age very much either).

The forest path does indeed fork and to the left you are led into a room with a work by Joachim Koester that further evokes the notion of time through his use of antiquated machinery – a slide projector. The slides project images of a timeless landscape covered in snow, devoid of humans or any human intervention. We learn through text projected over the images that this is an expedition to the North Pole. Anecdotes give us glimpses not only of what the adventurers are up to at the time the slide was taken (resting, drinking coffee etc.) but also where we are and who we are with: “the Greenlanders refused to go any further”. I imagine that Greenland is ancient land, but then I recall the temporal nature of the North Pole itself – how it is made of ice, not rock and earth, and how it moves with the currents so that no two expeditions reach the same physical point: a flag mounted at the North Pole will simply drift away on its glacier. Is Greenland “ancient land”? It doesn’t really matter whether it is or not. The point is, the images recall ancient land – a land before humans – and yet at the same time make us think of their precious temporality as icecaps drift or melt.

Walking back through the forked forest path you arrive at a room on the right hand side. The most striking piece of work in the room is, perhaps, Mariele Neudecker’s The Sea of Ice. Neudecker has made a 3D replica of Friedrich’s painting of the same name and immersed it in a fish tank. The opaque walls of the tank (or perhaps the murky liquid that fills it) evoke mist: a mist that recalls Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. While instantly reminiscent of Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice (also called The Wreck of Hope) the opaqueness makes it somewhat difficult to get a good view. You walk around the tank peering in to get the best angle and as you do so you begin to appreciate the curious light that Neudecker has achieved and the optical illusions that you get with tanks of water – where as you turn a corner the image disappears for a second, only to reappear anew from a distinctly different angle. This reminded me of viewing a moving hologram. In this way you “enter” Friedrich’s painting, but you are able to walk around it too. Neudecker has created not only a 3D version, but also a sensory experience, in the same way that Eliasson created a sensory experience by creating a forest out of branches in the gallery space through which you walk. In a similar way, Koester created a sensory experience through his “full wall” projections and the noise of the clicking slides. The projector itself becomes part of the work and recalls expedition briefings (which might use such imagery, or such equipment). In this sense, in a way, you enter the work.

On the wall opposite The Sea of Ice hang two photographs by Kelly Richardson. In these works Richardson has taken Polaroid snapshots, scanned them and enlarged them to the point that the image breaks down. This creates something dreamlike out of something disposable something ephemeral, something fleeting? Is time also a factor in this work? By scanning the analogue prints Richardson digitises them, creating a sort of time travel: she takes a now antiquated medium and drags it into the 21st Century. In doing so she also pixelates the image which now mimics CCTV or grainy film stills but also looks like cyanotypes (perhaps a reference to photography’s relationship with nature or to its roots?).

To the left there is another piece by Richardson, a shaky handheld film of the moon. The image is distorted, we find out from the wall text, by “vapours”. The rustling, crackling sound makes us aware of ourselves and humans are made “visible” in yet another unpopulated “landscape” in much the same manner as Koester’s slide projector. The wall text goes on to explain that the sound is of popcorn cracking on a campfire (also the source of heat and the “vapours” that distort the image as they pass by the lens).

There is one more (back)room to this exhibition but this time we encounter older artworks: paintings by artists such as Eric Ravilious (whose picture is included in the gallery publicity for this exhibition). This room failed to achieve the sensory experience felt before it and left the whole exhibition somewhat flat. If you didn’t know better you could be mistaken for thinking you had finished the exhibition and entered the permanent collection (ironically it is Eliasson’s The Forked Forest Path is owned by the Towner). Curiously, time is still evident, but not in a good way. You feel a clash of eras as you drift from a contemporary art exhibition into something older.

Kelly Richardson’s photographs were part of her Supernatural Series. Supernatural etymologically means above or beyond nature. The clash of times in Bon Hiver is augmented as you literally go above nature (above this exhibition) to Kelly Richardson’s solo show upstairs (2 February – 14 April 2013 Richardson’s HD films are digitally projected and incorporate animation. Sci-Fi trees made out of light appear and disappear on a lunar-esque landscape arousing the notion of the hologram felt when viewing Neudecker’s Sea of Ice. Richardson’s landscapes are hyper-real, videogame-like and yet recall timeless mythology in their subject matter (the stag and the forest for example). Through her work we imagine a world run out of nature, a world increasingly digitised and reliant on new technologies. We do not encounter the dystopia that the press release tells us to expect, but rather an uneasy and ambiguous balance between the familiar landscape and the unknown future.

Richardson’s films point to an uncertain future but in doing so also look back to the Romantic sublime of Friedrich. The uncertainty of what’s beyond the frontier, the limit of man’s endurance for extreme nature, was for the Romantic adventurer, the source of excitement and terror that the technological future holds for us today. With no new lands left to discover, cyberspace is our final frontier. Rather than replacing nature, it is technology’s future relationship with nature that is explored in Richardson’s films and with this in mind Bon Hiver also elicits questions about how we can understand a future where the once seemingly timeless and unchanging “nature” (represented by the landscape) is called into question. Will “technology” be its saviour or help facilitate its demise?