Do you welcome the coming of the dark nights as Autumn closes in? Or do you rage, rage against the dying of the light?
At this time of year, when I pull the curtains closed of an evening, I can still hear my mother’s voice commenting doomily, “The nights are drawing in!” as if the end of days was coming. Years later, when I first told my brother I was moving to Orkney he said, in mild horror, “But the winters will be so dark!”
Indeed so. As soon as we pass the Equinox, we slide quickly towards darkness. By this time next week we will have lost a further 26 minutes of daylight and we’ll go on haemorrhaging light right through to the Winter Solstice. Just as well then, that unlike my mother and my brother, I welcome the coming of the dark.
Because there’s nothing quite like contemplating the night sky to put things back in perspective. As our sense of space and time expands into all that vast grandeur we can feel our sense of self shrink in a way that’s strangely thrilling.
It’s been a wet and stormy few days here but last week we had an unusually calm, clear night, so I took a couple of blankets and lay out in the hammock watching the stars wheel above me and the faint aurora gleam in the north. I remembered the winter I spent on a residency in Helmsdale, in the North of Sutherland, a few years ago, tramping the hills at night, thinking about all the other things that light conceals but dark reveals. I wrote about learning to walk in the dark, both outside and inside, and what might be learned there.
That writing would eventually become the central chapter of my first book. It was a long time before that residency bore its fruits, six years, to be precise, before The Clearing was published in March 2020.
Now that I am working on what I hope will be the next book, I have to keep reminding myself that the creative process is slow, that much of it happens in the dark, and that it’s often not until you look back that you can see how things have been slowly taking shape.
For example, way back in 2007 I spent three months in Tasmania making work for a solo exhibition. I worked intensively on a series of big prints and drawings, installed the exhibition and then left the work to tour to another venue while I came home to Scotland. By the time the work was finally sent back to me more than a year later I was immersed in a full-time academic job, a part-time PhD and looking after my increasingly frail parents, all in different cities. So the package was stored away, and there it stayed as life went barrelling on…for fifteen years…
But recently I took the package down from the rafters of my studio where I had stored it and unrolled the prints for the first time. It was like meeting old friends again. And it has also shown me just how slowly ideas percolate. Because the title I gave the exhibition these works were shown in was ‘The Subtle Ether’. So back in 2007 I was already thinking about gaps and the space between things and the longing we fill it with. And I kept on reading and thinking and making art and writing about these things until they started to turn into a book.
‘The Subtle Ether’ was the working title of the manuscript that was eventually published as The Clearing. The change of title was the result of long negotiations with my publisher, and it was a hard decision for me to let go of a title that, for me, told the story of the book’s long gestation and deep creative roots. I still have a few copies of the original booklet and DVD that was produced as a catalogue for the exhibition. You can pick up a of the The Subtle Ether catalogue from my website if you’re curious to see where it all began!
The black and white prints that have been so long in storage were made as one-offs for that specific exhibition space and they’re really quite big. But now that I see them again I still really like them, and I’m getting them ready to print in small editions, at a smaller scale, about 58 x 41cm (roughly A2).
Quite a few people have asked if I do prints and I don’t have any available at the moment. But I’ve been in touch with a really excellent fine art printer abut printing of these as archival quality giclée prints, in a velvety deep black on lovely heavy paper. So watch this space!