Text and images by Stephen Bennett, MA Art and Science, Central Saint Martins

Who saw into the deep (2018)

Stephen Bennett explains how his residency at Joya: arte + ecología, influenced his Degree Show – artwork which has now been shortlisted for the NOVA Award, where you can vote for Stephen now.

I took part in the AER residency at Joya, Andalusia in September 2017. The experience influenced my practice and laid the foundations for my Degree Show exhibition in multiple ways. I had intensively prepared for the residency, researching maps and evidence, blogging about land and environmental art, and downloading relevant data. However, upon arrival, I was struck by an impulsive desire to climb the mountain overlooking Joya. I experienced an emotional moment on top of the Sierra Largo: reflecting on my practice, the MA to date, and my location in the midst of these beautiful yet austere Andalusian peaks. Almost instinctively I built a square out of stones found nearby. It perfectly framed the contours of the limestone paving.

Nine Quadrats (2017): Stone quadrat on top of Sierra Largo, Andalusia

For a while I had been struggling to combine my interests in cartography and the natural environment – to connect the experience of the map with the experience of the terrain. At the bottom of the hill I drew a square on my map. I proceeded to hike to the other eight equal points of the square, in a kind of spiritual, faux-shamanistic odyssey. I documented the moments in each of these spots, recorded my experiences and feelings. In each place I made a square on the ground and photographed the framed earth.

The map of the nine quadrat locations in the hills around Joya (Cortijo los Gazquez)

The residency at Joya helped develop an instinctual and spiritual side of my work. It also opened up other avenues. I was inspired by Joya’s attempts at sustainability: Joya is off the grid, powered by wind and solar, and zealous in its water conserversation. I recalled Carol Hanisch’s rallying call “the personal is the political” regarding the 1970s feminist movement. Surely this too applies to environmental art? At Joya, for the first time, I produced sustainable work, using found natural materials which will crumble back into the environment. This, in turn, led me to consider the temporal quality of the work. One or two of my nine Andalusian squares may still exist; they mostly will have been disturbed, eroded, ploughed. At Joya I learnt that I found this physical manifestation of the passage of time intriguing.

Who Saw the Deep: Nine Ceramic Tablets

My degree show installation Who Saw the Deep has been heavily influenced by these themes. Joya gave me the confidence to show work outside of the art gallery. Who Saw the Deep includes nine ceramic data tablets, odes to the cuneiform tablets developed in Ancient Mesopotania which contain the first written language. Each square tablet has been laid into fields and settlements of the southeast, nine points of a perfect square.

Who Saw the Deep: Bounds Green tablet

There’s a direct link from my practice in Joya, although my ambition here has been to access an audience beyond the limited confines of the art institution. I’ve made the work as sustainable as possible. The work shown inside the art gallery comprises dug-up earth samples from each of the nine points, collected via public transport and processed using recycling materials and tools (the ceramic works reduce the sustainability quotient). I’ve attempted to create a visceral and emotional experience, using earth which is drying, cracking and degrading over time.