Kathleen Herbert  Past time is finite, future time is infinite
 

Kathleen Herbert  Past Time Is Finite, Future Time Is Infinite I, II and III   2015  giclee print on Hahnemuhle German Etch paper  40.5 x 30.5 cm
photograph by Oskar Proctor

Nina Ernst  All yields its place and goes

Kathleen Herbert’s A History Of The Receding Horizon visits the Kielder Reservoir in Northumberland. In a poetic and mesmeric tone it investigates the impact of this man-made reservoir on the landscape and the strange hypnotic residue of what was before. The film becomes an exploration of time, and our under-explored but overly measured relationship with time.

The Kielder reservoir was created in anticipation of a growing need for water for industrial production. It was a pre-emptive strike, a prediction of a future full of change and growth. However, change once anticipated changed direction and the reservoir became a strange landmark for something that never was rather than a hub of industrial productivity. Unlike the past, we cannot look into the future.

Where there were houses, roads; somebody’s home, somebody’s childhood, there is now only water. The flooding is remembered in this place as an event, and our anonymous guide in the film remembers a certain day of the water finally arriving as a sudden happening even if it then took years to complete in full. The mass of water flooded in, full of movement, flooding the air with anticipation. In the end the area was plunged into another state of being, one of stillness. Still, or gently drifting water instead of rapidly moving streams. Once the reservoir was constructed and filled, the flooding became a thing of the past, a memory - rather than the event it had been.

Deep at the bottom of the reservoir, layers of the past have settled. Before the flooding, there was a forest – another man-made piece of engineering, created in the early 20th century as a timber reserve. Initially there seems to be a central contrast in the film - between manmade structures and the natural world. There are the beautiful scenes of the Kielder forest and the reservoir, contrasted with the tracking shots of the Kielder Dam or the mechanical movements of the observatory’s architecture. Gradually a more complex relationship is revealed, as the notion of ‘natural’ is broken down, and we are reminded that nothing is truly natural here, that everything is a man-made construct. The area has a history of ‘floodings’, first by trees, later by water, and most recently by recreational visitors. Along the way the various historic decisions to create repositories have been recorded in layers, as the millennia of change are logged and later recalled, perhaps, as a dendrochronological reading of growth rings in felled trees. These tree rings, in turn, become a preoccupation and a mechanism for measuring time, like our phones, clock or watch. The abstract measure of time becomes more meaningful than the memories which we can’t quite grasp or recall or decipher.

Perhaps we struggle here, because over time layers of the past have settled into each other, become translucent and merged, as have their reasons and meaning. As a collage of memories, in places half-forgotten, deliberately obscured or forcibly repressed, the past is not homogenous or linear, as the thin films of different layers overlap and in places dissolve into one another. Herbert reveals these layers of the past in her exquisite collage works, which give us a glimpse of history of this place made up of fragments from the many incomplete memories, half obscured like ‘a burned photograph’. The collages float mid-frame, suggesting a horizon or horizontal axis, which in some of them becomes more apparent than others. Sometimes there appears to be a gap in the recollection, in the timeline, or in the horizon, and a vertical line draws the eye upward along another axis, upwards towards the night sky. One image overlaps layers of a cottage and a large body of water, and the result is almost a physical sense of being submerged. Or one image from the bottom of the reservoir, rich in bright orange which is side-by-side with a close-up of a growth ring, and the fragment of a landscape, which we are mostly left to just imagine.

It is very clear that these layers have a personal dimension, they are not recorded with scientific accuracy, but filtered through the fallible nature of human memory. They could be the recollections from a ‘childhood that no longer exists’ and ‘the thoughts of a stranger’, either now homeless. They are somewhat lost or abstracted from their human owners.

Throughout the film this absence of human agency repeatedly resurfaces. There is very little evidence of people belonging to this place, and we only see a detached arm operating the mechanical structure of the observatory; or playfully a floating eye drawn on a historical instructional diagram. The neglect of some abandoning owners is sensed in an empty chair left behind on the observation deck of the dam, a shape so familiar that you can almost feel the materials of the chair against your body. When the outline of a man eventually does appear, casually gazing over the mass of water, he remains anonymous and keeps his back to the camera. These fragmented human shapes are from controllers, observers or operators, themselves impersonal extensions of the measuring and monitoring process.

Controllers seem to be here to ensure that a dominance of the environment is upheld. They serve a function in the on-going process of keeping check and holding back the water, felling the trees, and scanning the horizon. The creation of this man-made environment requires them to stay alert to constant change. In the oscillation of time between movement and stillness, controllers inhabit the still, yet monitor the minuscule moment with utmost attention. In this end of the time spectrum, change is slow and unfolds gradually over a lifetime, one season and one drip at the time. Perhaps only through a lens, measured with the hands of a watch, or charted against a high water mark these changes become visible.

The controllers’ measuring and assertion of dominance is visible in many of the collages too. Here we see the larger industrial structures left in the landscape, the observation deck of the dam, or the cold emptiness of its sunken interior. We see the traces of the forestry’s infrastructure and the abstract clarity of a light beam in the observatory.

However, watched or not, the forest grows regardless, slowly and all the while the rings of each tree record the passing of time. In this location where nature and the man-made mastery of nature completely overlap, the forest represents the ongoing passing of time and becomes an intersection point for our attempts to control and measure time. In the forest we are reminded of our presence as violent aggressors, how we fell trees, flood valleys, and dissect time.

At the same time, deep below the surface of the water, and embodied by the organic decay and visceral orange-red fluid at the bottom of the reservoir, layers of change settle as memories pulse and move. As the mass of water gradually dissolves all materiality around it, we glimpse what is left behind of the past, and in bright super 8 footage, full of colour and sensations, the images evoke a community which was eradicated with the flooding of the valley. This is a world that ripples and moves, accepting the millennia of change.

Changing or still. In one state there is an acceptance of layers of change, a slow, organic process which settles gradually, ‘taking lifetimes to occur’. In another state distances are greater and everything twinkles against the starlit sky, seemingly in stillness. With this stillness is the acceptance of the strangely engineered relationship between space and time which plays a trick on us and allow us to look backward into the past. Not into our personal past, but maybe into a more comfortably abstract past, A History Of The Receding Horizon allows us to ponder the time and those strange connecting moments between our personal past and history’s larger perspective. How we ourselves recall our memories? How clear are your layers? Do you struggle to recall the detail of childhood memory, a sediment from when time was close and compact. And do we perhaps seek too much comfort in the processes and controls that seem to somehow record and measure our time and memories. It seems an artificial construct – an all too-convenient distraction that lets us busy ourselves checking the time, adjusting the dial, scanning the horizon rather than looking too deep. constellations, planetary alignments and stars slowly dying.

Time is observed more peacefully at the observatory, and it is perhaps more attractive to look into the past when looking at the beautiful night sky, than to struggle with the fallible nature of human memory. The scientifically observed or measured abstraction of time has an odd sibling relationship to our organic memories, both belong to the same family and yet they are distinctly different and constantly at war. The two are mirrored on either sides of the horizon; from the flooded deep of the reservoir and from the deep of the engine room in the observatory, both dimly lit with a warm, corporeal red light.

We are brought quickly back to earth or back to the horizon and even below it. We are reminded that the telescope is a scientific construct, and emerged in red fluid we are reminded of the physical and bodily qualities of our own experiences and memories by contrast. We are completely immersed in the deep and entirely surrounded for a bold, extended moment where all we sense is a soft, engulfing mass of water and red light.

Holding back this mass of water, are the white corridors of the Kielder Dam. Here everything is drab and dry, void of colour and nearly still. There are no memories here, no community, no personal tributes. There is only a strange droning hum, and a flickering of strip lights to reveal the stairs climbing up and out. The walls bear testimony to former water damage and yet there is nobody around to care. In places, as if through a membrane, water seems to penetrate. It drips through the walls, corroding the dam’s tired concrete, it leaks into the void. There is a suggestion that water might eventually win the gradual erosion, and bring on another round of change, a sudden rush of movement and a new state of being.

Until then, the only sign of activity is on the surface. Here we ignore the past to enjoy the present, as we put the reservoir of memories to only recreational use. We surf, we bike, we hike. We glide along the surface in one way or another. We float mid-frame along the horizontal axis. It is just the latest round of change and flooding of the area, which with time will most likely form yet another layer of memories of the past here. A History Of The Receding Horizon allows us to ponder the time and those strange connecting moments between our personal past and history’s larger perspective. How we ourselves recall our memories? How clear are your layers? Do you struggle to recall the detail of childhood memory, a sediment from when time was close and compact. And do we perhaps seek too much comfort in the processes and controls that seem to somehow record and measure our time and memories. It seems an artificial construct – an all too-convenient distraction that lets us busy ourselves checking the time, adjusting the dial, scanning the horizon rather than looking too deep.


 
 
 
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