You said you like making films because you learn something about your work when you make them. So what did you learn from this one?
It revived my interest in the videos. I’ve always done videos but mainly to do with the rain shadows. Because Thomas asked, I’d film things for him occasionally, with my daughter’s help, for Leaning Into the Wind, like the crawling through the hedge. I had two cameras set up. One was taking still images for me, and then I did this movie of it that I was going to let Thomas have. The movie images of it were great, so honest and straightforward and uncomplicated. It just shows me crawling, with all its rawness and slowness and the boredom of it, the tension and the excitement. I’ve always loved the single-shot, continuous, unedited image in art.
That sort of coincided with moving from film cameras to digital. In the early days, I had a film camera, a 35mm camera, and a Hasselblad, but it’s a lot to carry around. It’s actually more important for me to be able to walk where I want than to be limited by the kit that I’m carrying. That was a major reason why I stopped taking video cameras with me, unless I knew I was going to work with them. Well, now with the digital cameras, the same camera can do time lapse, it can do still photography, and it can do video of really high quality. That’s an amazing tool for me to have.
Your work often feels as if it sprang from nature or the collective unconscious. It reminds me of Stonehenge, and also of something a friend of mine said about some of her own art. She used to buy stuffed trophy fish in pawnshops and then paint them. She used bright colors and patterns you’d never find in nature, but they always looked just right, somehow, and she joked that she made them look the way God would have if he’d thought of it. Does that jibe at all with what you’re feeling when you create your work?
[laughs heartily] Well, I’m not motivated by any intention to improve on what’s there. I don’t think I can do that. But I’m motivated by a need to understand what’s there through making. I think the act of making is an amazing tool for understanding what’s there and establishing a connection with a place. The difference between looking and making is huge. And when I’m within that, I wouldn’t take out a box of paints and paint stuff, because I’m much more into finding the colors that are there and understanding the colors that are there—to understand the leaf and work with the leaf on the tree that it fell from. The material is a window into this lineage of growth and change, and that’s what I’m really interested in. It’s not just going out there to make images. Otherwise I could just fabricate them on the computer.
I wonder if you could make a living doing what you do if you had been born before photography was invented, since most people wouldn’t be able to see what you do at all without photography.
I guess that would be the case. I have no idea, or where it might manifest itself. But I think that experience of just experiencing the atmosphere, the place, has always been a big part of what artists do, like Turner strapping himself to the mast of a ship. And because of photography I have the ability to actually make that into a work—or a work that people can see.
Without photography, I wonder if you’d still be doing what you do but on a much smaller scale and mostly just for yourself, maybe as a farmer.
I think so. Actually, that was what I was geared up to be, what I thought my lot in life would be. Because even if I had photography, it didn’t mean that I’d be able to make a living from it. I worked on farms from about the age of 13.
You said in the film that purpose of your art—and of your life in general—is becoming less clear as you age. Do you like that feeling of uncertainty because it opens things up more for exploration?
I think so. When you’re young, you’re so certain because you don’t know what you’re doing. I think the older you get, the less certain you are because you know more about what you’re doing. [laughs] So I think this is the time to take risks, to take chances, to experiment, to upend your notions of what should be. And then, inevitably, things happen in your life that just upend things too.
You say in the film that looking at work you did in the past reminds you of what was going on in your life when you made it. Is that just because it takes you back to that time, the way listening to a song you were playing a lot in the past takes you back? Or is the work itself influenced by what you’re going through when you make it?
I don’t think I’ve ever made a work that, say, I’m going through a divorce so I’m going to crack a rock open. [laughs] Inevitably, though, I’ve always worked, so anything happens in my life, I’ll make a work. That’s my response. Now, whether it actually looks in any way influenced by these things, I have no idea. I know when my partner was pregnant with our son, she was really close to the time of birth and I was working on the beach. And there was a round boulder just sticking out of the sand, and I did this work where I unearthed this round boulder, and then I went back and saw the pictures and I saw Tina with the fully pregnant belly and there’s me digging out this round shape. [laughs] It was pretty obvious, I guess.
What you do is so unusual that I wonder how you find your way into it. When did you first start thinking of what you did as art, rather than just climbing trees or whatever like other kids did? A lot of the work you do is so close to the way that children explore the world.
I think you’re right. Up to about the age of 17, I guess that could be said of me too, though art—in the form of drawing, painting, making things—has always been everything to me. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done. So there’s that. But when I was working on a farm, I remember one day we were collecting stones off the field, and I made a pile of stones. My brother was with me, and he started handing me stones, and this pile just took on this quality. And then the farmer came and said, “We should stick a flag on the top of that!” [laughs] Now, what was the difference between that pile of stones and just a pile of stones? You know? I guess that was my first really sculptural moment.
How old were you?
I want to say around 17. But the whole thing about working on farms was so sculptural, the mood and building of haystacks, which are big minimalist sculptures, really. You have a system to building the haystacks, with the bales, but inevitably, with any system, it starts getting erratic and stuff starts getting out of shape. Those are very sculptural lessons that would have informed me. Or plowing a field, laying a hedge, building a wall. The British landscape has been sculpted and painted by farmers for centuries. The whole kind of rawness of farming, too. It’s a tough thing to experience. It really informed me.
You do a lot of work near your home in Scotland. What is it about that area that attracts you?
I came there 30-odd years ago because I was really poor and it was cheap to live here. I guess the reason why I’ve stayed is probably the more interesting one, because I could live anywhere, really. The landscape is great, and there’s open access to the land, which is important for an artist like me. And the people are really very tolerant. I’m English, I’m an artist, and I live in a small Scottish village, which would normally be reason to be treated as an alien. They don’t understand everything I do, but there’s a real tolerance and openness and I think even enjoyment of what I do. I tend to work not on my own land, but on other people’s land. Well, I don’t own that much land. But I also like the discipline of working on someone else’s, because it makes me aware of the social nature of the land. People think of me as being by myself, out in the wild all the time, communing with nature, but I’m often in a very public place. This isn’t my studio. This is a public place. Any time, the farmer could come by and drive over my work. [laughs] Or walkers could come by, or fishermen or hunters or whoever. I think that helps me as an artist.