• Isabella Martin

Ship Shape

What does it mean to spend two months in the middle of a landscape? We’re all in the middle of landscape, so to rephrase: what does it mean to spend two months thinking and working in response to new surroundings? Where did these space ships take me?

I finished my residency in the Observatory studios a few weeks ago. I packed up my materials, tools, binoculars and late night working snacks. I swept away the chalk dust that had lodged in the cracks between the floor panels. I attempted to scrub away the ink stains on the desk, I wiped the glass so the view through it seemed like a new one. I turned the wheels of both studios around until my arms ached, tried to decide which view to leave as the final one. I lingered on the front step, I loved how it felt to be on the edge of it, the grass, fields and hills beyond turned into water seen from the deck of a boat.

Since then I’ve been looking for ways to put the last two months into words. Language can be a distancing and a dislocating mechanism, a way of removing and reflecting. This accounts for this delay, for the mid-residency silence that I reveled in - the immediacy of experiencing everything without pulling away from it to describe, to squeeze it back into a common language. Until I put language to the experience, until I articulate and share it, it could all still be happening. But weeks have passed, and now I’m ready to offer up words to what it meant to occupy the studios and keep watch over the hills.


Conversations with passersby and distant collaborators filled my days. We reflected on the surroundings, the memories of home ground, the hopes for future views, the way hills and fields and trees have a common but also quite restricted vocabulary. We were putting words to what we saw and felt, and sometimes the words caught something that had been hidden, other times they reduced and made the active passive. How to combat that? How can we share a common language which echoes the flux of emotions in response to rolling hills, or describes the clarity of the sky just before night falls?


Those South Down chalk hills soaked up time and gave it no meaning at all. We talk about time in terms of perspective, distance, lengths of space - the terminology of hilltops, of present height and lost in the depths of time. Looking at the hills felt like looking backwards chronologically, and every walk on the chalk which lay just under the surface felt like scuffing away at thousands of compressed years with a foot that was infant in comparison.


Matching the finger length scales of an OS map to the scales of paths that took a whole day to walk. Looking at the furthest edge of horizon, trying to gauge the distance between here and there, and mentally begin the journey across it. Using binoculars that filled both eyes with the far away turn of a wing and made what seemed incredibly far something intimately close.


The more I looked at the last part of land before the horizon, the more blue it became, the more watery it had become. The distant band of land became the sea, and that became the shallow underwater sea of 60 million years ago. Time, distance and water all collapsed into one. Talking became the constant attempt to communicate these nearby distances, the means of turning a place into appropriate words.

Through talking, time scales could collapse together, our presence become omnipresent, the hills could grow fluid as if we were watching them form. In these ways we could perhaps learn to see words as temporary and fleeting, and revel in the playfulness that results.

I left the Observatory keeping watch over these hills, containing all these thoughts and perspectives. Shipshape and full of longing, ready for the sea, where it sits now, looking out.

Everything from the residency is recorded here.

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