Research: Artists who use glorious mud

Mud is a primordial ooze that we generally avoid. As children, we are told to come away from it and we treat it with general disdain. But everything that we humans create will eventually decay back to mud and we can go anywhere in the world and be sure that we can find mud under our feet. So I was interested to look at artists who have embraced this omnipresent and ultimately sustainable material to make art.

The British artist Nick Rands has used mud from around the world in many of his works. His installation Earthly Desires consisted of 4000 perfect spheres of mud precisely arranged in a grid across a gallery carpet. Each sphere of mud is approximately the size of a cupped hand. This simple earthly installation shows mud balls that have dried to various ochre, under and sienna shades depending on whether the mud was gathered from the Rio Grande in Brazil or from a roadworks in Reading.

There is an interesting sense of order in this piece, some rows have mud entirely of the same shade but others are mixed. I find myself looking for patterns and I search for an image, language or other significations but find none. The pleasure is just one of how earthly colours blend beautifully together, as in a piece of tapestry designed by an artisan. But is there a deeper meaning that is referencing the substrate under our feet around the globe? Rands has brought together samples from around the globe and they are consistent in size and shape so this could be perceived as a reference to equality (all mud is equal). But we could also be looking at skin tones in a crowd of humans, and how beautiful they look all together, so a message about racial equality comes across as well. Whatever meaning we take from this, the grid shape assumes no hierarchy and is a clinical placing that simply pleased the artist.

In a geographical sense, Rands has created a mud map of the world. Each mud ball is a drawing pin on a map, a city, a country, a wilderness, and we see them in a museum catalogue format. We sense the artist as a fastidious Victorian collector of endangered species, but this is simply mud. A museum collection makes the world feel smaller, it connects history together, time feels shortened and we are illuminated in our understanding. Looking at this collection I see epochs of earth’s history and personally, I want to go out and study mud with fresh eyes.

Earthly spheres by Nick Rand, 1998. 4000 balls of mud

I also enjoyed the piece below by Rands, titled Neckinger river levels which was a site-specific piece at The Bermondsey Yard Café, Bermondsey Street, London. I’m interested that the work has no context and I can find no information about it online but I have found out that the River Neckinger is a subterranean river that rises in Southwark and flows 2.5 km before it enters the Thames at St Saviours Dock. Rands is giving a lesson in simplicity here as the distinct lack of context fires all sorts of connections; the repeating dots are a metaphor for time passing and these could be samples taken from the river over a period of time or are they the course of the river above ground?

Rands describes how he aims for beauty in his work by performing a task simply and with no other aim than to be completed with dedication and persistence and his quote below is meaningful. I like how he separates his mark-making from a view or a subject matter as I feel this lifts his work from being a scientific record to that of a work of art. He has defined a rule set that is simple and not defined by the context and this has created a plane of consistency for the outcome. In my own journeys along the River Erewash I have tried to have a similar methodology as I want to remove what is a constantly changing landscape and focus on one element of change to inspire my work – so Rands has been inspirational in that regard.

I make work using simple, predetermined repetitive processes and everyday materials. This may involve marking a surface with colour according to numerical systems counted out during the process, or repeatedly travelling the same route and photographing at predetermined intervals and directions rather than according to a particular ‘view’ or subject matter.

– Nick Rands

John Newling is a local artist who is very much in touch with the natural environment. He explores the natural world and the social and economic systems of society so it is relevant for me to look at his portfolio. His Dear Nature letter is almost childish but the ‘need to be needed’ underpins the essence of human wellbeing. He placed the work in a forest and put it in place to be reabsorbed back into the landscape. The act of putting the work in the environment removes the artist from the work, they are then nothing to do with the artist, and in John’s eyes, this is the most genuine letter to nature. It’s a nice thought that nature physically absorbs the letter into itself, it feeds on it and is maybe slightly better for it.

Placing ephemeral work in the environment is something I’ve looked at several times and I always enjoy the work of Andy Goldsworthy who never really plans for his work to be seen. Newling’s work seems a lot more direct in terms of trying to raise the issue of human extinction, rather than pure beauty there is sorrow and a need to change direction. His work usually sits in a gallery before finding its place in the environment and I like this transition from a public to a natural space. A public space creates dialogue but the fact that it will move into the environment adds urgency to catch it before it goes. The gallery viewing is a prelude to a burial ceremony which adds all sorts of inferences.

The artist Stephen Turner pinned a roll of canvas to an estuary bed and let the tide paint its own mud picture. Unfortunately, I can’t find any image of this piece as it was early in the artist’s career but I have emailed him and he is sending me some material in the post – very exciting.

Hi Richard, Thanks for getting in touch. I’m pleased you find the tide pieces interesting. I still make then from time to time on different tidal rivers. I very much like the idea of taking the hubris out of art-making and letting nature’s own voice be heard. If you send me a postal address there are a few things I could easily send you too. All the best, Stephen

Stephen is interested in abandoned places and the history of people and nature in those places and particularly how nature reclaims those spaces so his work is directly relevant to mine. He tries to reconnect people with abandoned places and he lived in a wooden egg, off-grid, to spend time embedded in different landscapes. He connects with communities, not just humans but between humans and nature, insects, flora; there are no boundaries. He comes across not as an artist but as a kind of caretaker for wherever his egg is placed and his art creeps in around the edges. What I take from Stephen’s work is that he connects his body and soul to the landscape before he defines his art, there is a real sense that nature is fueling his thinking and helping communities bond with him and together they enjoy rediscovering the natural environment together.

There is no better way to get to know a landscape than living in it, in fact, I would argue that there is no other way. We see a landscape when we want to, when we need it, in the light of the perfect day and we miss much of the chaos and darkness that exists there. This has made me consider that I need to experience my own River Erewash at those awkward times, at night, in the worst weather, when I really don’t want to be there. The landscape persists as it has done for millennia I will feel unwelcome and at risk, but might something more elemental result from that experience. Something to consider as an experiment.

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