Constructing precarious ecologies on the edge of expansion or the brink of collapse.
Artist Hannah Rowan’s work involves an ephemeral chain of events unfolding through material states: transformation, growth, reaction, adaptation, evolution and degradation. Both her work and her studio rarely look the same on any day. The artist works on assemblages by often adding lots of elements and then returning the next day by extracting or refining details, building up and taking away or vice versa. In many cases, she works within the limits of her own body – how high she can reach, how much she can lift or stretch. “I try not to be overly precious about dismantling something, but I do try to take process photos to remind me of how something was earlier.” She reveals. With the noteworthy interconnections between her elemental and ritualistic materials, these being both inanimate and living organisms, Rowan’s work reflects upon an essence of time in which the relationship between different materials act upon or support each other. As she explains, “I am interested in working with a wide array of materials and forming intricate connections and assemblages with these elements through a fluid process.” “Often water plays a role in relation to the material states of these other components”, the artist continues. Rowan finds deep relationships between elements often considered inanimate but in fact just operate on a different timescales. Coupled with her stage-like approach, enhanced by lighting devices, magnifying glasses and kinetic utensils, it’s an entangled scenario that enacts the potential for change to occur, creating circumstances in which growth and entropy unravel. This is a reference towards forensic way of scanning an event that is unfolding in real time, a subtle brutality, or an observed violence, especially for an artist whose work explores a larger sense of anxiety in regards to global and cosmological events taking place in real time, such as climate change, the liquidity of data or the accelerations of technology. Taking a closer look around her work, one begins to find their own connections towards ecology and geology, but also towards medicine, science-fiction, forensic science, alchemy and even astrology. Ahead of her solo show at Assembly Point in May, in which Rowan has spent a lot of time inhabiting the space to understand how the light moves and the different way that the gallery as a whole can be navigated, I spoke to the artist about the personal in relation to the global and how she mixes different visual vocabularies to disrupt the experience of her work.
Growing up in Brighton, you’ve had numerous encounters with a rocky beach. Do you have any anecdotes of this time that you look back to when making your works?
I grew up in Brighton, a coastal city where you can often catch a glimpse of the sea at the end of most streets. Growing up there made me and my friends quite agile walking barefoot on uneven ground. As a child, I liked to lift up the stones with my sister and brothers, starting from the large smooth stones on top and slowly going deeper into the beach, where the stones would get smaller and wetter, until we found the really tiny stones and first glimpses of sea water below the beach. I find encounters with stones incredibly beautiful and calming, the way they contain all these multitudes of timescales within a stretch of coasts and you look at each individual stone and can wonder what journey is has been on through time to become shaped by the elements. By looking at a single stone, this small handheld form, the stone represents a fragment of something much bigger, far back in time that is interconnected to a wider lithic timescale, yet still remains complete and whole in itself. I am quite drawn to stones and they shift our sense of scale through the intimacy of holding something in your hand and the haptic qualities this has. I am especially calmed by smooth flat ‘worry stones’ that I can roll around in my hand as I work through my thoughts.
You came across the importance of being close to water when moving from Brighton to London. Did that realisation stimulate you to start working with water as a material?
It took me a long time to unpack the significance of growing up by a large body of water within my work, and this still feels to be ongoing. Flowing and liquid motifs would reoccur in my work, even if I couldn’t fully articulate why, they just felt sort on innate to my person, which made more sense to me when I placed them within the context of my early years. Using water directly as a material came some years after and I was also interested with water as a material to explore my interests in transience and ephemerality, along with material states of a given matter. All these interests seemed to converge with and innate intoxication with liquidity entities.
I’m interested in knowing more about your relationship with painting, as you studied this particular field during your BA. Do you still paint or use the language of painting somehow in your current practice?
I think the language of painting was still quite present in my installations long after I stopped necessarily working with paint specifically as a material. Even now I feel the way I think about compositions within a given space can trace back to my time painting; I work with layers a lot in relation to staging encounters with materials that often are placed in relation to lighting and kinetic elements. While on my BA I was working within a very ‘traditional’ sense of what painting could be materially – oil paint, stretchers, canvas, whilst areas of my subject matter – landscape, screen based images, distance still endure.
Your eagerness in undertaking residencies is very notorious, and this has taken you around the globe to locations such as Canada, Chile, USA, UK and next Norway and the Arctic. How has encountering such varied environments built your ideas and opinions? Has it made your work more concerned in a ‘global’ approach rather than an individual one?
I consider residencies to be a vital part of how I develop as an artist in so many ways. Participating in residencies has also been vital for me as place to develop research and challenge myself. This has lead me to think a lot more about the personal in relation to the global, scales and distance. Often these different geological localities emerge as traces in the wider installations of my work; through images, 3D prints and video. When I was in the Atacama Desert, I felt it was important for me to encounter an environment where the presence of water could be felt also in its absence, by looking at how the terrain has been shaped by aridity and past water. I felt like I was there to learn from the surrounding ecosystem and the Atacameños people whose ancestral homeland this is. My research also involved tracing the double bind between the deep times of geology and the accelerations of technology. The Atacama Desert is currently a major site of extraction for lithium, which in turn is used to power rechargeable batteries that have sourced in tandem with the tech boom, which furthermore becomes entangled with the land and water right in the region. From this experience it has shaped my thinking to be more global and heightened for me something that Jussi Parikka talks about in Geology of Media, that the environment doesn’t just surround our media cultural world – it runs through it. This deep interconnection, fragility, sense of scale and distance is something I am trying to get at in the work.
The motifs you employ include cylinder shapes, fixings and rocks. How did you come across these specific emblems, and do you use them repeatedly within your practice?
The cylindrical motif is a continued presence in my recent work for the association I am wanting to give of geological cores, compression in information, build up of strata that evoke vertical slices of landscapes. I collect a lot of rocks and stones, often making casts and 3D scans of ones that especially resonate with me. The temporary and fragile fixing I often use – clips, tape, thread, clamps are there to create feeling of precarious ecologies; that could be on the edge of expansion or the brink of collapse, should one element be removed.
Clay, light, video-projections, 3D scans, rocks, minerals, and water are some of the materials you manipulate. Do you play with the relationships of these materials to each other?
I am interested in working with a wide array of materials and then through a fluid process forming intricate connections and assemblages with these elements. Often water plays a role in relation to the material states of these other materials, for example ice melting over salt which then evaporates and causes a crystallisation to occur in the salt, or water flowing over dehydrated clay, that then returns to a sludgy intermediate state. Within all of this is an essence of time and the relationship between different materials acting upon or supporting each other.
There seems to be a ‘stage set’ quality to your works, which include certain props, such as magnifying glasses or the use of light bulbs. Are you interested in indicating the audience where to look at, and making them question ideas through certain ‘clues’?
I use staging devices in the work to create intimate and scaled down moments within a wider installation. For example a magnifying glass placed in front of a salt crystal that resembles a mountain peak is an invitation to slow down and move around the details in the work. Dispersal is important to how I stage moments, and bringing together fragments to make a whole is part of this.
The melting of ice in your works creates a hypnotic quality due to its soothing soft rhythm. Do you reckon that this calming effect, when heard repetitively, might cause an unsettling and tense reaction upon the viewers?
Yes for sure, I am interested in how something can be both serene and unnerving at the same time and the underlying presence of danger in tranquillity. For me, ice melting into water really embodies this quality. Something that at first might be seductive, like the slippery shiny surface of ice melting, this could then become hypnotic and then unnerving, like a ticking clock or a memento mori.
Salt, water or crystals, materials you frequently use in your works, are widely used in mythology. Are you tapping into a ritualistic and spiritual field with this particular use of minerals and chemicals?
Yes definitely, the work I am developing at the moment feels to be going in this direction. Alchemy, astronomy and geology are continued sources of inspiration and references for me and with that I have a growing interest in how these materials relate to myth and ritual along with their spiritual associations. Extending my research surrounding bodies of water into that beyond earth by looking at the cosmic origins of water is what is consuming me at the moment and I am thinking about the origins of water in a more speculative alchemical approach.
The work changes state with time passing, suggesting what there was before. Is your reference to time linked to the limits of time to resolve certain issues at large, such as climate change?
Within the works I am interested in exploring something in the state of becoming, to set up a scenario that enacts the potential for change to happen, to create circumstances where growth and entropy unfold. Within these processes time becomes a crucial factor and I am interested in the possibility for overlapping and asynchronously unfolding timescales. I think within that there can be an interpretation how the changing material states of the work are reflective of a larger sense of anxiety in regards to unfolding global and cosmological events such as climate change, echoes of geophysical systems playing out on microcosm within the work can be suggestive of that uncanny feeling of being present at the birth of an extreme age.
Would you agree in saying that the decomposed presentation of your work, often joining elements through a system of pumped water pipes parallels to our own circulation, the river flow, or the planetary system?
In my show at White Crypt ‘Bodies of Water: Age of Fluidity’ the idea of bodies of water that connected ideas of the geophysical with the bodily was a core theme of the work. I was thinking a lot about veins as something that we find across these different scales of circulation and traces of the fluid; our bodies, hydrological systems, leaves, rocks. Astrida Neimanis intersectional research on Hydrofeminism: Or, on Becoming a Body of Water, is someone who for me really articulates this.
Are your works concerned in not only referencing ecology and geology, but also medicine, science-fiction and forensic science?
I borrow from the the visual languages associated with these different disciplines to think about the uneasy relationship between organic matter and human made objects, to evoke a feeling of nature dissected and staged under a lens of forensic tranquillity. Thinking about science fiction in relation to forensic scanning and dissection invites a more speculative interpretation that still relates to our current contemporary condition.
Does the liquid movement of your installations resemble to the circulation of images and data within today’s technology?
Yes for sure, I think a lot about fluidity and liquidity as a state of being and a metaphor of data circulation. Esther Leslie’s research on the fluid and intermediate properties of liquid crystals really resonates with me, and the idea that we are swimming in data while drowning in melting ice is a core aspect of my work. I use the aquarium, or the glass vignette filled with water, as a mediatory device between these two cosmological forces: technology and climate, where the cool blue glow of LCD screens and melting ice merge behind a glass screen.
In the studio, we spoke about your use of living organisms. Does the use of these organisms, such as moss balls, present a function within your work or are they purely aesthetic?
The moss balls in the tank in my studio purify the water. However within the works, and especially in the studio, what is often happening is an experiment, a testing of ideas and systems.
Your subjects seem to be in a vulnerable position in which you examine, pump, alter, x-ray, dissect and display them, frequently through vitrines. It seems to me as this process could be confused with that of a medical experiment, autopsy, or forensic investigation?
This comparison gets made quite often, and I embrace it. I am interested in the relationship between elements often considered inanimate but in fact just operate on a different timescales, such as stones and other types of living matter. I often work in a human scale – chunks of ice cut like organs hung up in an abattoir fashion, cosmological formations like asteroids that can be enclosed in the palm of a hand. There is a subtle brutality I am trying to get at, an observed violence, a forensic way of scanning an event that is unfolding in real time. The forensic staging along with the lab like dissection is a way for me to convey an unsettling and unnerving relationship between synthetic and organic systems and the interconnectivity of life forms, a ‘Frankensteinian’ experiment in becoming.
The balance between robust sections, with metal or rubber elements sit along with a soft palette, natural components and translucent textiles. Would you say your work lies in between the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’, the ‘temporary’ and ‘permanent’, the ‘liquid’ and ‘solid’, or the ‘natural’ and the ‘man-made’?
Yes, this totally does rest between all these distinctions, in fact I feel like it flows between them. The soft ethereal moments need to be counter balanced with the brutal armature to create a sense of unease, of precariousness that is evident beyond the initial seduction of what the material might be doing. I want to mix these different visual vocabularies to disrupt the experience of the work.
Is it an intentional decision to make your works so deeply layered, but still having semi-transparent results?
Yes for sure, I think a lot about surface, strata and screens. How the visual languages of the work can convey geological time and screen based digital surfaces, I want to explore the intersections of these time scales and playing with transparency and layering feels like an interesting way for me to do this.
You spoke to me about encountering a human-made copper mine in Chile, which is so extensive that it’s seen from space. In that context, does your work touch upon the sublime horrors of our own environments?
Chuquicamata is a currently the largest open pit copper mine on earth, located in Northern Chile, just outside Calama, on the edge of the Atacama Desert. The whole experience conveyed some kind of sublime horror. Standing on the edge totally disoriented my sense of scale, looking down into this deep man made hole, edging to the core of the earth. The mine itself could be mistaken for a canyon, with the layers cut deep into the earth like strata, clouds of dust rising up as piles of rocks are carted out on the back of trucks, where the copper is extracted and processed. Next to the mine were these artificial mountains built up from the ‘waste’ that was left after the copper was extracted, so on the one hand you have this deep pit and the other is this artificial mountain foregrounding the Andes mountain range. It takes a while to grasp that this is not a chasm shaped by the elements but by humans. Copper is a component for an array for systems: it is mixed with other elements to create parts for our mobile phones, it is hidden behind walls of our homes to carry water to our taps and is used in a myriad of electrical wiring. Therefore my feelings towards encountering the copper mine feel quite complex and contradictory, as how can I as an individual, living my very much linked up, tech enabled, water drinking, light switch flicking life remove my daily activities from the deep depths of this mine, I am complicit within this, there are no clear answers to this and I am still unpacking what that means.
There seem to be more and more fixed moments in the work. In that sense, will you explore working with more permanent materials?
I am currently working on some more fixed moments that feature in the installations through a series of bronze and iron casts. This is for the body of work I am currently developing that is exploring the origins of water from a cosmological and speculative perspective. I am looking to counter act the ephemeral moments with these more enduring forms, however the way I involve these more fixed elements within the wider show will most likely have some kind of precarious interconnection to the wider installation.
Your first solo show took place in an underground crypt, and I believe you are working towards your second solo show, in quite a different context. How will you approach the space?
My first solo show was at the White Crypt, in the vaults of a church in Kennington, and these works came out of my graduate show at RCA and from the work I developed while residence in the Banff Centre. For my next show with at Assembly Point in Peckham, I will be developing a new body of work. Physically the spaces feel very different; White Crypt flows off into smaller enclosed alcoves and the textures of the spaces floors and walls feel pretty raw. Assembly Point is one large open space with bright walls and floors. I will be approaching this next show as one installation that then has smaller moments of detail within it. The way I approach making work is always in relation to the space itself, I need to spend a lot of time inhabiting the space before I work, to understand how the light moves, the different way that the space as a whole can be navigated.
Is your work tapping into ideas of meditation and growth, as it develops?
I try to find harmony and balance whilst maintaining feeling of the precarious, ephemerality and fragility. A lot of the materials are quite ritualistic and elemental: water, stones, salt. The work often enacts processes of growth and entropy and the entropy itself can be seen to enable growth. As place to close the discussion and open up further imaginings, I find how Anna Tsing writes about this importance of living in ruins crucial in the The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Tsing looks at matsutake mushroom, a valuable mushroom that grows in human-disturbed forests and has an ability to nurture tree and help forest regrowth. There is a lot to be learnt from the symbiotic relationships between living organisms and as a way of thinking through contradictions of destruction and a need for ongoingness, to speculate what life might look like in the ruins made my humans.
Words by Vanessa Murrell