On fairly solid ground – Phoebe Somerfield

‘On Fairly Solid Ground’ is a contemplation of feminine presence in landscape with post-industrial  scenes acting as backdrop sites. Much of the work is performative, using my own body to interact and  intervene with the landscape. I mould and bend to seek clarity and mimic with discussion, an  interaction with the material of the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene is the proposed geological  epoch that we are living in – it suggests mass human domination over the land we once deemed to be natural.  

I took to Ecofeminist theory while beginning the work. The theory takes human degradation and  domination of landscape as well as the feminine connection to nature and illustrates a connection which, in turn, reinforces patriarchal systems that repress both women and nature. I began to think of  how I should navigate the Anthropocene as a woman and with a camera, using the body to perform and suggest. Giving the Anthropocene physicality makes it far easier to see.  

Much of my thinking originated from the Land Art movement that came out of the 1960s and 1970s.  The movement is weighted towards the relationship the male artist had with the land, sites of which usually appeared theatrical and grand.

Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt’s moving image piece Swamp’ (1971) struck me particularly. Although the landscape in  the video piece is not grand, there are unsetting power dynamics between the couple. In the video, Smithson leads Holt through a swamp in New Jersey while her only vision is through the lens of  a camera. I respond directly to Holt in Smithson’s work directly in ‘Swamp 1 & 2′ where I remove the power relations and demonstrate the act of photographing myself.

The title of my work comes from ‘Swamp’ – while instructing Holt, Smithson reassures her that it’s okay to move forward and that she is “on fairly solid ground”.

This dissection of power dynamics becomes a post-modern critique between the man and woman in the landscape, a re-contextualisation producing an equalising stance using my own body and the camera.

In hindsight, much of land art has failed at its purpose; the way in which we  photograph the landscape and see feminist theory must be scrutinised to enable progression.  

Building upon this thinking with influences from performance artists, I attempt to understand what constitutes appropriate action. Carey Young was a great inspiration; her work takes examples of  1970s land art pieces and re-performs them in ‘Body Techniques’. The work discusses art and global commerce but the performative actions and the sites she moulds herself around speak of a relation  between the female body and the landscape she’s positioned in.

Young’s work reflects on modernist performance artists such as Richard Long. Dressed in a suit, she tiptoes across construction waste piled into a line, a precariousness I have reflected upon in my own work and it’s curation. Balance and precarity are themes that run through ‘On Fairly Solid Ground‘, both within the photographs and through the presentation of the work.

The forts propped up by pin like legs in the middle of the English Channel; reeds emerging upright from the sludge-like swamp; the vast bridge supporting its loads while held up by pillars and strained cables. Balancing enacts a precariousness but also a firmness, which relates to the Anthropocene and Ecofeminism’s current positions of uncertainty and critique. A precarious position, one which I have tried to simulate in the gestural actions that take place in other  photographs. 

Physical manifestations of the Anthropocene, the towers, bridges and cliff faces in ‘On Fairly Solid  Ground’ are haunted by post-industrialism and traces of war. They are illustrative – even dystopian – hard like concrete and sticky like sludge. How we act in landscape is culturally determined. The bridge became a manifestation of thinking, a place I was drawn back to time and time again, a pilgrimage from  the urban landscape. With the bridge I found scale; I felt so small against this towering concrete that unites land. Thinking about John Davies and his wide stretching photographs of industrial Britain.

The work is a discovery of what constitutes appropriate action on, in and around a site. Be that a specific landscape or in the studio space, considering where the performative body should be situated with  influences from performance and land art. I attempt to work out how to move amongst these  landscapes, considering scale and size of my body relationally while considering the Anthropocene, Ecofeminism and historic works, and thinking on how that can be conveyed through photography and installation – a conversation which is not entirely resolved.

“Perhaps our hopes for accountability, for politics, for ecofeminism, turn on revisioning the world as a  coding trickster with whom we must lean to converse.”

Donna Haraway, Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of  Perspective (1988)

I am a photographer and artist from Devon, UK who lives and works in London. My work explores themes of landscape and I often use my own body in my works to perform and discuss.

phoebesomerfield.co.uk / instagram.com/phoebesomerfield