Elisabeth Holder – Working Away

By Bernie Bell

Elisabeth Holder was one of the Artists in Residence at the Ness of Brodgar archaeology dig, last year, and has been there again, this year.

I had wondered what her Residency had produced, and whether last year’s work was finite, was still developing, had developed into this year’s work, or, if Elisabeth had taken a new direction this year.  Mike and I had both wondered, so we hoped that Elisabeth’s talk entitled ‘Working Away’, which was held at the St. Magnus Centre on 31st July, would enlighten us.

To me, the title ‘Working Away’ could have two meanings.  Elisabeth is from Germany, and so, has been working away from home, as well as working away – working hard, at her work!

Due to unavoidable circumstances, she has had to return home early this year, so her talk, was her ‘farewell’ to Orkney, for now.

I am familiar with Elisabeth’s work, which Mike and I first encountered at Tormiston Mill in 2009   – What The Architecture Tells Us

Oh, for the days of Tormiston Mill as the Visitor Centre for Maes Howe, when an exhibition of art-work could be combined with an experience of the use of sound in Maes Howe, and, of course, an experience of the cairn itself.

Marianne Pollich’s book ‘What the Architecture Tells Us’ was/is a further showcase for Elisabeth’s work.  And, more recently, she’s been working away at something new.  O.K. – I’m labouring the pun a bit – but I like puns!

The following is my interpretation, of Elisabeth’s interpretations!

Elisabeth took the approach of working away, diligently, patiently, thoroughly, as the archaeologists do, in the process of excavation.  They clear with a digger, or with a shovel, or with a trowel, or a small, soft brush! Then they sometimes have to dismantle, then, carefully, lift, remove. They wash, sift, dry, label, box up, bag up etc. etc.

Using artists’ materials, Elisabeth produced images of stones and markings, in and on  different media, with the same painstaking care and intensity – aiming to “empathize with states of mind” of the archaeologists, and of the original builders and makers and markers of the past.

When building and mark-making, the builders at the Ness ‘worked away’ too. They built and re-built, re-arranged – the layouts changed, the structures fell down, were re-built, sometimes re-using stones from older structures.  Sometimes they introduced different entrances, which could dramatically change the aspect to the structure and our perception of the carvings inside, or outside.  They are the Neolithic people, and stone played such a part in their lives. And this spirit, the spirit of the time, can be said to have imparted itself to those at the Ness now – archaeologists, et al – What used to happen at the Ness, is still happening at the Ness

As far as we know, the ancient peoples of Orkney didn’t have paper, but some of the materials they used, have been used again by Elisabeth – stone and clay.

Elisabeth’s previous interpretations of the sites she visited, tended to be more internal – inside the structures

Elizabeths postcards B Bell

Her more recent work is more expansive, physically – she is outside, on and in, the site.

Elisabeth tells us that, when she arrived at the dig at the Ness of Brodgar in 2017, she began with the impression of how she could see the site being “brought back to life” as the winter protective coverings were removed, to reveal a working archaeological dig. Previously, much of her experience had been visiting sites which have been conserved, preserved – sometimes a bit ‘frozen’.  What she encountered in 2017 was the real, immediate, happening, emergence of structures after millennia of being ‘earthed’.  She found this a bit daunting at first, as the structures could look like a jumble of stones, until thought and hard work helped them to be revealed as….structures.

Elisabeth waited to see which of the structures would ‘speak’ to her, and they were Structures One and Twelve. They appeared, to Elisabeth, to have a clearer lay out, not so  – unstructured!

Elisabeths image at Ness B Bell

Structure Twelve, with Elisabeth’s drawing.

Themes emerged for her –

1)      Angular and Round – she saw the opposition, or balance, between the inside and the outside of the structures.  Maes Howe is a good example of this, and, at the Ness, Structure One, where, inside is all angles, whilst the outside is rounded and curved.

2)       Movement – she saw how the restless movement in the shapes, as expressed in her drawings, could be seen as being like the restlessness of the builders – changing and re-arranging the structures, and also the placement of carvings, in and around these structures.

3)      Restriction & Expansion.  In her previous work in  Maes Howe, and at New Grange,  Elisabeth had experienced the sensations which can be produced by the architectural features, and the sense of confinement involved in going down an often narrow, constrained passageway, into a wider space – or out through  that same passageway, to the outside world again, after being confined in the structure.  This idea is also to be found  in some of the structures at the Ness, with narrow passageways which lead to an expanded view, either internally or externally.  Elisabeth did comment that it is virtually impossible to truly express movement like this, in one image.

Elisabeth referenced Antonia Thomas’ book    ‘Art & Archaeology in Neolithic Orkney – Process, Temporality and Context’  and raised the question….can we see or refer to all these markings we find at these site, as ‘art’?  Is every mark, ‘art’? The ancient people’s concept of ‘art’ might not be ours. The concept of art, for art’s sake, is a relatively recent one.  So, did they perceive what they did as being art, for art’s sake?  Or did they see everything they did, as being part of Life – part of an holistic view of Life?

Elisabeth then focussed on her response to the ‘art’ of the Ness of Brodgar,  whether expressed in the building of the structures, or the markings found there.

Structure One, for example, has some stones which are so placed that the carvings on them can only be seen at certain times, in certain light.  She wonders why?  How much work went into these carvings, which can only be seen in certain circumstances? Was the work, for the sake of the work itself? or for the end result? or both?

Elisabeth then tried to do some of this kind of work herself. Scratching stone with lines – some criss-crossing, some vague and apparently directionless, some very purposeful. She made a comparison with the work of a present-day Dusseldorf artist, Harald Nägeli, where lines form shapes as the viewer’s eye wanders over the piece.

Elisabeth also suggested that some of the marks we see, may have been made on purpose – very purposefully, but some could be a by-product of human activity, for example – stones used for sharpening other stones, or for rubbing things smooth  – ‘wear and tear’. Some of these markings could even have been produced by the process of building, itself.

She also mentioned the marks which echo the marks found in the landscape around the site – on the stones which are seen in situ – in nature.

As an artist, Elisabeth hoped to not only present a new perspective on the variety and placing of stones and marks on stones, but also to experience for herself, the effect produced when doing this ‘work ‘ – when working away at the stones – in particular, carving and ‘pecking’.  She found the repetitive ‘pecking’ to produce a calming effect – the sound, and the repetitive action, can take the worker ‘away’ into an altered state of mind, whether then, or now. We are all people, all human, we have the same biology as they did – we’re not that different.  The effect that this working will have had on them, would be similar to the effect it would have on us. In today’s world , I can’t help thinking that taking time to do this kind of work, might  be beneficial to some people who let the modern world, drag them into a maelstrom of hectic activity.  Imagine – sitting and pecking away, at a stone, with a stone, quietly, steadily.

Elisabeth did this – exploring this aspect of the stones and ‘art’ at the Ness, in a very expansive, collective and inclusive way, immersing herself in the possible mind-set of the people who worked there so hard, for so long, producing so many varied way of combining, placing, marking stones – thereby hoping to achieve a more holistic view of the site, to echo the holistic existence of the people of the stone-age.

This is very much a condensed account of Elisabeth’s talk. She talked us through various places, forms of incision and use of stone. Her work develops and progresses, each part of it, is of itself, whilst being part of the whole.  An holistic approach, to an holistic approach.

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