Saturday, 16 October 2010

Autumn, Pennine Lancashire and Panopticons

I have a mental list stored up ready for those fortuitous occasions, which happen about once a year, when I have an afternoon spare, it's not raining too much and I am in the company of someone with a car who will drive me wherever I want to go. High up the list of places I have wanted to visit for which a car is essential (or, at least, a lot more convenient than public transport) is the Pennine Panopticon trail, which consists of four monumental public artworks which were installed a few years ago in the hills above Lancashire mill towns.

We made it to the first three, but not as far as the final artwork in Blackburn. We started in Haslingen, walking up narrow country lanes from the town to what I thought was the least impressive of the Panopticons, although the country walk was lovely (bright green, mossy walls, yellow and orange poppies and marigolds growing out of cracks in the thin layers of bricks and leaves trickling down from the trees). Halo is a giant metal UFO which resembles a big children's climbing frame. Apparently it's lit up with green LED lights at nighttime and, seen from the motorway, appears to float over the town, but in the daytime it looked a bit tatty and worn where bits of the plastic hanging down from its structure were already snapped and broken.

Far more impressive is the Singing Ringing Tree high above Burnley, where the clouds hover above the top of the hills, which takes the appearance of a large, windswept tree shivering on the side of a hill. This sculpture interacts with its environment, as it consists of narrow tubes of steel of different lengths which are tuned to produce chords as the wind whistles through them. When you approach from a distance, it coos softly like birdsong, almost making you look out for a hidden chorus of seagulls. Close up, as you stand underneath, noises come at you from all directions, a sort of call and response which reminded me of all the instruments of an orchestra tuning up to A at the start of a concert, listening to each other and adjusting their pitch until they're in tune with each other.

I associate the word panopticon with the nineteenth century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who designed a prison based on the concept of the panopticon; a place where the prison guard could watch the prisoners at all times, without them being sure when they were being observed (so, a place where everything is on view, and a form of psychological as much as physical control).

The artwork at Colne is based on a broader definition of a Panopticon as a place providing a panoramic or comprehensive view. Atom is a concrete oval structure perched on the side of the hill which has large viewing holes looking out over the hills and a shiny, round nucleus in the middle, which again distorts these views in its reflection. The irregular viewing holes make it resemble a washed up pebble which has been eroded over time by the sea, and the metal coating on the outside of the Panopticon itself is becoming weathered; its turquoise seams show and it's beginning to take on the bloomed, layered look of the landscape around, which is criss-crossed with old walls, dappled with trees and patches of brown and scattered with sheep.

I like the Pennine Panopticons because they aren't just alien interventions in the landscape. As well as being new additions to the spectacular hills that dominate the skyline all around, and being artworks which are fascinating in their own right, they make you look at and think about what's already there. It's impossible to see the Singing Ringing Tree without noticing the huge wind turbines blowing in the wind below; the same wind that produces music for the Singing Ringing Tree generates power for homes in the area. You're also always conscious of the ways that man has intervened in the landscape before, and continues to make a mark, from the dense rooftops of the towns beneath to the ever-present buzz of the motorway in the background.

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