Alternative ways of travelling
The event began with a session exploring alternative ways of travelling. Minna Törmä first presented a wonderful example of woyou (travelling while lying down) in Chinese art tradition: unfold a handscroll of landscape painting and travel in it through visiting streams, climbing mountains, and taking a rest at a pavilion. Not only the elderly or sick people, but any home/office-bound worker can benefit from this way of mind travelling. Thanks to digitisation, we can now experience woyou online by visiting landscape scrolls at, e.g., University of Chicago Center for Arts of East Asia. Minna was followed by Nathan Woolley who shared another example from China: travel by the book, following a journey of Lu You to Shu in the late twelfth century. The book richly illustrates his travel from East to West along the Yangtze with poetry and records of history, religion, landscape, weather, so that later readers can experience a journey along the longest river in Asia, learning about distinctive characters of local regions and religious practices. The first part ended with Saeko Yazaki who explored an alternative way of travelling to Mt Fuji in pre-modern Tokyo, Edo. For those who could not perform a pilgrimage to the real mountain, including women, who were forbidden until 1872, children, the old and physically weak, miniature Fujis, Fujizuka, were constructed in Edo as featured in Hiroshige’s wood-block prints. Following this tradition, there was indeed a mini Fuji in Dundarach, Perthshire, constructed by John Henry Dixon at the beginning of the twentieth century.
In the second session, the content of the three presentations provided the means for considering how travel – or at least engagement with places distant in space or time – can be achieved with little or no movement through geographical space. A local woodland park in Perth can reveal an abundance of heritage tied to a variety of narratives crossing time and space, destabilizing the familiar and the everyday. Similarly, the living collections of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh embed collections of plants sourced from around the world in local Scottish space, making it exotic and unfamiliar even as it is domesticated. And finally, an online exhibition by the Hunterian Museum of material from travellers in Scotland in the 18th century allows the viewer to see a familiar region anew through the eyes of the past. In all these examples, there is an abundance of material for consideration in the creation of meaning locally, with the potential for undermining the comfortably familiar with the exotic and the distant. Hidden forms of meaning can be revealed through unknown items or unexpected juxtapositions, e.g. ancient stone tools found near a local running trail; a Tasmanian rainforest on a Scottish hillside; or a famous painting next to the uncelebrated. Any single curation of material for presentation about landscapes involves selection from a wider range of possible narratives, but intended meanings of this curation can still be augmented or disrupted by the knowledge, experiences and choices of an individual viewer. The result is that the full range of meanings of any given place will always remain beyond our grasp, and so the local will always contain the potential to surprise and take us to distant locations at unexpected moments.
Artists staying at home
The motivation for the evening session was borne from David Lowenthal’s book title The Past Is a Foreign Country(1985). We had invited Marie-Claire Cameron, MPhil candidate in History of Art at the University of Glasgow to present on her research on Scottish artists using their locality as an inspiration for their work. These artists ‘excavate’ what they find in the landscape – for example abandoned croft houses – and use their discoveries to dig deeper into the history of the islands and Scotland. Their work can be seen as a form of postcolonial criticism as they explore the significance of language and local lives. She was also joined by two artists included in her research: Marnie Keltie and Ishbel Murray. Their works develop around fragments – the seashore seems to be an endless source for ideas and materials – which may lead to discoveries into the histories related to their localities. For Ishbel Murray’s work shards of blue-and-white ceramics have been a source of diverse ideas exploring the connections of the local with the wider world.
Image: Ishbel Murray, “A Bailiff’s Staff is Not a Decree” (Chan Òrdugh Bat’ Aig Bàillidh) – 2021. Image courtesy of Ishbel Murray