In some weathers, the burgh of Berwick can appear as an island – appropriately enough, for a town that has never been truly English or truly Scots. It is therefore a fitting location for an exhibition about the Anglo-Scottish border, which has historically been regarded more as ‘the Debatable Lands’ than as any fixed line.
The excellent organisation VARC (Visual Arts in Rural Communities) hosted a residency by Zoe Childerley in 2016, during which she walked the ninety-six miles from the Solway to the Tweed, investigating the landscape, meeting its people and discovering the distinct identity of ‘Borderers’.
A sophisticated wealth of resulting work is sampled in this exhibition of photographs, drawings, folding books, word-art and maps. Childerley has an energetic but organised visual appetite: there is complexity and conceptual strength in this work, but it is also accessible and aesthetically pleasing. An otherworldly tinge comes from ambiguities between fact and fiction, and from a prevalent pale blue and grey depiction of lands we may know better in greens and browns.
With the Scottish independence referendum still a recent memory, Childerley’s walks coincided with the Brexit vote; while all over Europe, frontiers were tightening in alarm at waves of displaced migrants. The ‘Borderlands Growth Deal’ plan was finally submitted to government just prior to the exhibition’s opening. All perfect timing, therefore, for the artist’s poignant reflections on territorial demarcation, nationhood and belonging.
Her varied photographs are full of geometries, edges, mists and fadings, in trees, rocks and water. They are an intriguing mix of constructed abstraction and documentary style, which gives them a psychological charge, and echoes the likelihood that the stories she was told by locals were partly what really happened and partly mythic embellishment.
This may remind us also that national borders often follow politico-cultural imaginings rather than physical topography – especially the Anglo-Scottish border, since for much of its length there is no geographical, racial or historical rationale for the placing of the line. Map-drawing, too, is a less literal business than we may think, relying as it does on creative re-proportionings, agreed colour conventions and so on. The exhibition includes an installation of aerial photographs folded into icosahedrons, in homage to Buckminster Fuller’s ‘Dymaxion Globe’, which presents the world as a contiguous land mass, conveying an idea of ‘borderless’ human unity.
One map here traces only the watercourses of the region, following Kate Foster’s 2013 equivalent for the Tweed catchment. This giant vascular system is there in real life, but seeing it like this is unsettling. Another drawing blends a flock of birds with a vague rendering of what could be a map with survey markings, or a satellite image through clouds, or an undecoded ancient manuscript. Such is the indeterminacy of tools for knowing ourselves in place, it suggests.
In the vein of writer Kapka Kassabova, but with a diverse visual repertoire, Zoe Childerley has provoked a contemplation of borderlands that is gently anthropological as well as artistic. It is surprising therefore, and given the human encounters that featured so much in her residency, how unpeopled are the images in this show. This may be yet another way in which it will resonate long after one’s visit; musing on what was evoked as well as what was seen.
Beyond the Pale is at The Granary Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed until Sunday 20 January 2019. Open Wed-Sun 11am-4pm. Admission is free.
Inspired by Beyond the Pale, Zoe Childerley will lead a Creative Schools Cluster CPD Session for teachers and other learning professionals in The Granary Gallery on 12 November 5-7pm. Visit the Berwick Visual Arts website for more information.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.