BRISTOL, ENGLAND — Terratypes: Tanoa Sasraku’s solo exhibition of “earth photos” at Spike Island takes its title from a new term the artist invented, used to describe her process of making impressions of the land. The coinage refers to early photographic techniques such as the Daguerreotype and the tintype, and alludes to how Sasraku creates portraits both of and from the landscapes with which she works.
The works in the exhibition are born from Sasraku’s engagement with Dartmoor — the huge moorland in Southwest England near where she grew up — and the Scottish Highlands, the site of a recent residency. To create her Terratypes, she begins by rubbing blank newsprint with pigments derived from raw materials she forages from these landscapes, such as ochre, graphite, and manganese. She then binds together multiple layers of the newsprint with an industrial sewing machine, creating a stitched seam around the edge. Next, she soaks the sutured stacks of paper in a body of water, such as a boggy pool. Finally, the layers are torn away in strips and manipulated to create abstract patterns and areas of contrast.
These are works impregnated with a sense of place. In some of the Terratypes, such as “Mire Horse” (2022), dried debris from the bogs and moors is visible, caught in the fringing around the edge of each piece, pointing to a vital cycle of immersion in and re-emergence from the landscape. Some of the show’s artworks draw explicitly on Sasraku’s personal embodied experiences within the places of her childhood. For example, “Mire Horse” evokes the memory of falling into a Dartmoor bog and coming across the decomposing body of a horse. Made up of a series of Terratypes, the elements of the work take their forms from a pixelated outline of a horse’s head, spread across the gallery wall like a puzzle waiting to be reassembled. A quote from the artist in an exhibition label reads, “the work reflects the death and decay essential to the life cycle of the Moors and the Highlands.”
In Terratypes, a relatively simple idea is effectively expanded in multiple directions to fill the exhibition space. The large-scale collection of five freestanding works titled Liths that occupy the center of the gallery are firmly rooted in the wall-based Terratypes and the artist’s process of making them. To create these more sculptural pieces, Sasraku began by scanning fragments of the saturated newsprint torn from the surfaces of the Terratypes, then printing the high-resolution images onto large sheets of handmade Japanese paper, mounted back to back, and framed in substantial black wooden supports.
Hugely magnified, the scraps of paper take on the textural quality of rock; the series turns these throwaway scraps into monoliths imbued with mystery and power, enacting a transformation from the ephemeral to the monumental. Alluding to the many standing stones that punctuate the landscapes of Southwest England and the Scottish Highlands, the artist sees the Liths as portals or doorways into alternate landscapes, emphasizing the sense of wonder to be discovered in rural places.
Sasraku convincingly conceives of the exhibition as an electrical circuit, channeling shared energy around the space. Many of the Terratypes have titles that suggest circuit-board technology, such as “Grey Wet-Cell” (2022) and “Yellow Gate (Terratype)” (2022); “gates” are a fundamental part of programming that are essential to every function of the circuit. The Terratype shapes and networks of sewn lines similarly evoke microchips, networks, and sim cards.
Sasraku’s works can be seen as a way of storing or even encrypting information about place. Rather than holding numerical data, however, they are imbued with geographical and geological information through the artist’s process of rubbing foraged pigments into the surface of the newsprint. In a wall label, she explains that the Terratype pieces “represent a pixelated or digitized flow of energy or electricity, linking the works in the exhibition in a circuit, which at points oscillate in velocity and intensity.”
The paper works are also offset by a series of cast bronze wall sculptures that cradle chunks of foraged pigments. Small and rectangular, they refer to the “Baghdad Battery,” a clay jar and stopper from c. 150 BCE, which was believed to have the power to raise the dead. Sasraku thinks of these bronzes as “activating batteries,” energizing the other works in the show and tying them together. She sees strong parallels between electrical charges and spiritual energy, or the energy fields emanating from landscapes.
There is nothing twee or folksy about Sasraku’s engagement with these landscapes. Rather, they employ a degree of abstraction and a move away from figurative representation rarely found in visual explorations of the rural. Her practice comprises a deep material and embodied entanglement with place, drawing together digital and handmade creative processes. In finding new ways to read and map landscapes, she disrupts our expectations of the rural and opens up latent memories, mythologies, and energies within these places.
Tanoa Sasraku: Terratypes continues at Spike Island (133 Cumberland Road, Bristol, England) through July 17. The exhibition was curated by Spike Island Director Robert Leckie with Assistant Curator Rosa Tyhurst.
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