I went to the opening of a friend’s exhibition last week, ‘Island Connections‘, by Vivian Ross-Smith, at Bonhoga Gallery. It is a collection of works that examines the relationships between people and land. Vivian carried out an artist residency on the island of Korpo in Finland in 2016 and grew up in Fair Isle; her body of work forms a conversation between these two places.
‘Worship’ | Vivian Ross-Smith | 2015
Seeing her work made me reflect on the ten years I have lived in Shetland and I was reminded of a talk by Murdo Macdonald I heard not long after I moved here. He spoke of the difference between the visitor to the Scottish islands seeing land and seascapes through the porthole of a ferry and the view of the islander seeing the shoreline in minute detail each day. He referred to Unravelling the Ripple by Helen Douglas, an exploration of a Hebridean tideline. It is a book I read before moving here and one to which I return every so often.
Murdo Macdonald used the Shetland word ‘shoormal’, which I have come to love, and for which there is no direct English translation. As I understand it, it is the space between the high and low tide watermarks on the beach. It is in this beach space each morning that I find the treasures of the day. Over the years, these have ranged from pink seaweed to miniature figurines, from old silver spoons to scrolls of birch bark – these are treasures indeed – there are so few trees in Shetland that they have probably drifted with the tides and currents from Norway, or maybe even Canada.
Shetland is a place of huge skies and seas; a land of extremes in terms of its weather, dark and light, and yet a land of subtleties and things in miniature. Autumn is not overhead in the leaves of huge trees, it is in the subtle change in the colour of the grasses and mosses underfoot. Summer is not always in the heat and depth of blue of the sky but in the height of the grasses and the abundance of wild flowers.
As Murdo Macdonald suggests, as tourists and visitors to places we look through framed viewpoints as through the porthole of a ferry, but in doing so we may miss the small details that make us connect with a place, or even call it home.
The artist James ‘Jimmy’ Cauty, through his ‘Aftermath Dislocation Principle‘, turns this idea on its head, by creating the detail within the porthole. I stumbled across his travelling show in the Grassmarket, Edinburgh, at the end of last year and was fascinated to peep through a myriad of tiny windows in a shipping container and view the scenes of devastation beyond, in miniature. I enjoyed the sense of voyeurism, of a feeling I shouldn’t be looking and yet being drawn in to look again, trying to capture more detail from repeated viewings and different viewpoints.
Shetland has taught me to revel in the detail.