A key aspect of my project is underpinned by the desire to 'return to nature/source/origin as an escape from the cacophony of technologised modern life'. Searching for metaphors to visualise this aspect, I've been researching hermitage cells in Cornwall primarily as weathered relics of human history embedded into the remote natural landscape. Cells, often found in mountainous and cavernous natural terrain, signify a spiritual sanctuary from the modern societies of the day. The other key aspect and impetus underpinning the project is the reflection on the philosophical principles of impermanence, incompleteness and imperfection in wabi-sabi aesthetics (which I have written about here). Wabi-sabi can be visually articulated by traces of what is 'timeworn' and in a state of decay (as something emerging from nothingness or heading to it - inception or subsiding).
Whilst the meaning of wabi-sabi has evolved into a positive meaning of aesthetic values, it is fascinating to think that the original meaning of the word Wabi related heavily to the idea of the hermitage: "Wabi originally meant the misery of living alone in nature, away from society, and suggested a discouraged, dispirited, cheerless emotional state. The self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the hermit and ascetic came to be considered opportunities for spiritual richness. For the poetically inclined, this kind of life fostered an appreciation of minor details of everyday life and insights into the beauty of the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature. In turn, unprepossessing simplicity took on new meaning as the basis of a new pure beauty" (Koren, 1994:22). So, the time-weathered ruins of the places in which people would be able to seek out enlightenment through nature have, over time, inadvertently become visual objects of the very thing they were built, or appropriated, to facilitate.
I came across the spectacular ruins of a local early 15th Century (1409) oratory built into a large granite outcrop in the village of Roche (Roche is the Norman-French word for Rock so it is essentially called Rock-Rock nowadays). The outcrop appears to be the centre of a site long-venerated with pre-historic religious importance - Neolithic pottery and remains have been uncovered in the vicinity and local settlements taking their name from the feature. The chapel, a masterpiece of mediæval engineering, is dedicated to St Michael and is said to have been the abode of a hermit monk named Ogrin or a leper whose daughter would bring him water from the local, and equally mythical, 'bottomless' Gonetta holy well. The Rock has many folktales attached to it, most famously being the hideout of Tristan and Iseult whilst on the run from King Mark (a later version of the story speaks of Tristan’s tragic leap from a chapel window onto some perilous rocks whilst trying to escape from Mark’s soldiers), it is also the refuge of the ghost of the Cornish Bluebeard Jan Tregeagle.
Whilst researching the rock, I found this oddly appropriate description of the rock written (in Olde English) in 1610 by topographer Jon Norden:'In this ragged pyle may be obserued five seueral workes: the firste of nature, whoe, as a mother, begate this stonye substance; nexte of force, whereby the water at the generall floude depryued it of her earth coueringe shelter, leauinge it naked; the therde of arte, which raysed a buylding vpon so cragged a foundation; a fourth, of industrye, in workinge concauitye (concavity) in so obdurate a subjecte; lastly, of deuotion, wherein men, in their then well-wenuinge (well-meaning) zeale, would abandon, as it were, the societye of humane creatures, and undergoe the tedious daylie asceut, and continuance of so cold and so abandoned a place. To this may be added a sixth worke, euen of Time, who, as she is the mother, and begetteth, so is she the destroyer of her begotten chyldren; and nothinge that she bringeth forth is permanent.' - (Norden's 'Description of Cornwall' (1610), quoted in Ancient Crosses, and Other Antiquities in the East of Cornwall, John Thomas Blight (1865:107-108).
The paragraph addresses the key themes of my project: Nature ('as a mother, begat this stone substance; next of force, whereby the water at the general flood deprived it of her earth covering shelter, leaving it naked'), art ('which raised a building upon so cragged a foundation'), the abandonment of society to submit and fuse with nature (of devotion, wherein men, in their then well-meaning zeale, would abandon, as it were, the society of humane creatures) and impermanence in connection to nature and time ('Time, who, as she is the mother, and begetteth, so is she the destroyer of her begotten children; and nothing that she bringeth forth is permanent'.).
I would like to think I will be able to incorporate this text into my work somehow. I am also really interested in the old illustrations of iconic historic landmarks that are found in old publications such as this and am thinking about how I can abstract these too. The books are so rare and expensive to buy but it is possible I could print the scans I have found and re-photograph sections. I will make a visit to the Royal Cornwall Museum and see what other relevant texts can be unearthed.
Blight, J.T. (1858) Ancient Crosses and Other Antiquities in the East of Cornwall. London: Simpkin, Marshall and Co. Dublin: Hodges & Smith. Penzance: F.T Vibert.
Koren, Leonard (1994) Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. California: Imperfect Publishing.