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‘While the whole earth changes tune’: An essay by Calvin Winner


In May 2020, it was widely reported how the North Magnetic Pole had apparently shifted. In fact, in recent years it had been observed to be moving rapidly, travelling at between 55-60km per year from a location in the Canadian Arctic towards Russian Siberia. This news greeted a world already coming to terms with a global crisis. It seemed to encapsulate the gathering uncertainty that was only beginning to unfold. Here was evidence that the very physics of the planet was in flux and off kilter. Now, even the invisible physical forces of nature appeared to be recalculating. That some form of realignment was at work. The earth’s equilibrium was being recalibrated. The balance of nature being reset. Or as Laurence Edwards has said, referencing WB Yeats, While the whole earth is changing its tune.

The North Magnetic Pole can shift as the earth’s molten iron core is in slow ebb and flow. This spinning metal mass generates the earth’s magnetic field sending small electric currents pulsating through our bodies. But how perceptible are these forces to us? Certainly magnetoreception, the term given to the phenomena, does exist in some living creatures with migratory habits. This is how swallows embark on long flights across the globe. It is also how the European eel crosses vast oceans. It uses magnetic orientation to guide its path from the Sargasso Sea in the western Atlantic to the waters of the British Isles. But what about humans? Do they have an unconscious ability to perceive the earth’s magnetic field? After visiting Edwards in his studio last summer, it certainly made me question if there was at least some evidence this may be true. We speculated on the cause and effect of the moving pole and what this might mean. As our chatter drifted, Edwards own journey to Siberia came to mind. As if his recent journey to the tundra in the recent past had at least in part been guided by those invisible forces. In any case, it seems to suggest his own alignment with this occurrence. And after a period of reflection, some form of his own personal recalibration.

The thought that such forces, invisible or otherwise should have an effect on living things has been growing in recent decades. In fact, there is an established theory that all organisms and their inorganic surroundings on earth are closely integrated to form a single and self-regulating complex system. Indeed, it proposed that his system is responsible for maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the personification of earth and the mother of all life. The theory of Gaia proposes that such homeostatic balance is actively pursued with the goal of keeping the optimal conditions for life, even when terrestrial or external events menace them. And so perhaps in spite of a shifting pole, we can live in hope the balance of nature may yet be restored.

Edwards recalled that he had been reading the poetry of Derek Mahon. This encouraged me to read the celebrated (now late) Irish poet. His poem, A disused shed in County Wexford seem to me to offer an appropriate cypher for what had been happening in Edwards studio over the previous few months. A place where he typically spends the mornings before heading to the foundry to oversee the working of hot metal. A place where his ideas take shape and form. Even now there are places where a thought might grow.  This is how Mahon described such a place. There are places that inspires and to act as a salve in these uncertain times. Edwards found himself in lockdown in a fertile place such as Mahon’s unlikely shed in County Wexford.

During his time spent in isolation, like many of us, Edwards had reflected on this historic moment and the gravity of events. What confronted me in his studio last summer was an astonishing assembly of figures. Confined to his studio, Edwards new series of sculptures emerged offering a new and vital urgency concerning modelling and assemblage. Over the previous four months, he has been working in plaster on a new group of figurative sculptures. They were each about two and a half feet tall. Working predominantly in plaster was a new departure for Edwards, in part forced upon him when the unseasonably good weather made working in clay less agreeable.

The series of figures evolved from a single figure, cast many times into plaster, the plasters were sliced up on a bandsaw the many sections were then stacked into elongated stretched teetering figure forms. Once dry, they are worked by carving and reforming the material. In using this method, Edwards achieved an astonishing level of expression. But it was the sense of movement that was most pronounced and suggests a new aspect in his work. This is expressed in the capturing of movement or rather the figures appear to be engaged in some form of solemn dance. Both the expression of movement and figures in unison in his sculptures brings to mind Rodin. His experiments in the essence of movement and the extremes and contortions of the human body were both being echoed here. For example, in Shifting Poles, the two figures demonstrate a profound degree of movement whilst they remain perfectly in unison. The figures are twisted, pitching, arching and turning as if magically forming and reforming before our eyes.

The group of sculptures appeared as if some form of invisible force of nature had a hand in their making. That external forces had applied an unseen pressure on these series of figures. As if a sudden gust of wind had blown through the studio and the resulting shockwave continued to form a displacement of air pressure. The figures were tilting and pitched to the side as if ships in a raging sea storm. Like a shoreline walk where the body may be forced against the ocean and a constant persistent funnelled venting sea breeze. In a work such as, hold sway, the figures are resisting the unseen forces at play.  This sense of movement and animation has breathed renewed energy into Edwards sculpture. Where once figures were static, as in Alberto Giacometti’s standing sentinel figures, crystalline structures that resemble stalactites. Now there is motion, purpose and vibrancy in the way the Swiss artist found locomotion in his famous walking figures. In grouping figures and creating such an assembly, Edwards has answered our deepest desire not to be alone. For example, the work Side by Side. The comfort of human companionship and shared endeavour. We are not alone. That before too long we will be able to enjoy mass assembly once again. In fact, Edwards sculptures seem to represent us bearing witness to a mass event and an assembly yet to come.

This remarkable assembly of figures was arranged in his studio elevated on tall stands and plinths. Individuals figures, pairs and grouped, they speak something of our collective predicament; alert, watchful and witnesses of recent events. Are they the survivors? In the work Side by Side the two figures join hands. They are attenuated but remain stoic. They are also elongated but not in any exaggerated sense. They are simply how Edwards happens to see them. Stack is assembled from a series of blocks and reveals this through fractures and fissures in the material. Fragmented and missing elements only serve to make the figures seem more alive. The seated female figure, Audience of 1, offers a more hieratic proposition. The collective effect strikes me as less of a response and more an act of solidarity and of shared experience.

The works in this new series, all created during the time of year when the cycle of renewal exerts itself on the Earth. Yet made in a year when the natural cycle of seasons passed from Spring to Summer and in turn to autumn without our full witness in this lost year. It reminded me of historic events that happened in 1816, which was recorded as another lost year. Named the ‘year of darkness’ as it was the year without summer. The cause was a massive eruption of Mount Tambora, in the April of 1815. This location is in present-day Indonesia and darkened the skies across the world. Perhaps the largest eruption in over one thousand years 1,300 years. Resulting in crop failure and food shortages, then as now taking the poor and disadvantaged in greater numbers. The year without summer raged unrelenting and with no known cause or cure.  The long cold and wet summer of 1816 forced people to take prolonged shelter indoors and fed the imagination of artists. It inspired Mary Shelly to write Frankenstein and Lord Bryon, the poem, Darkness. As they waited for the dark to go, they lit candles in the middle of the day. Even in the middle of summer!

And men were gather’d round their blazing homes                                                 To look once more into each other’s face

At times of uncertainty and hardship, we turn to artists more than ever. Edwards assembly of figures is an affirmation of the complexity, wonder and resilience of humanity and the natural order of all things. An enduring order that remains intact regardless of our own individual fate but offers hope in the collective endeavours of humanity. And most importantly, our dependence on each other. From that visit in June, Edwards left me with reference to the line from W.B. Yeats, Gallway Races, and a cause for optimism.

But some day and at some new moon
We’ll learn that sleeping is not death
Hearing the whole earth change its tune

W.B. Yeats, extract from Gallway Races, 1908