Prose | Emily Joy
We did not know it, but we felt it; in the taut balance, the taking, the shift of energy extracted and the contraction of ice; in the fracturing and vertigo of over-description, the untethering of mountains and blocking of passage; in the unrooted lichens and stone-moved mosses.
Like a daydream before an actual journey, I found myself making a virtual journey, wandering from website to website along an uncertain route through the Alps. After meandering for a while, I began to search for an image of a specific view familiar only from a 35mm slide. The view of the mountains and path around the Morteratsch glacier is one of around 20 locations recorded on blue-plastic mounted slides from a journey through the Swiss Alps made in the 1970s.
The slide image – when seen in a viewer – is so clear, so startlingly crisp, the view so perfectly framed and composed, the striations and shadows of the rock so deep, that it feels possible to step onto the curving path. Viewing this image is like a plunge into a cold lake, a bright immersion in another place and time. The mountains are as sharp as the deeply shadowed, brightly lit foreground; it was a sunny day in August, the unknown figure walking the path on the right is lightly clothed. The person looking through the viewfinder, finger on the shutter release, was my father.
The visible figure is facing away towards the mountains, relaxed and mid-stride. Although a small element, the person stands out as a luminous speck against dark rocks. The figure, like the Rückenfigur of a Caspar David Friedrich painting, is wandering (walking) or wondering (gazing) out and away into the landscape. Having long since rounded the corner of the outcrop and disappeared into the mountains, they stand as a marker of what is past, of the unknown other which is both figure and wilderness. They leave us behind, forever unable to catch up, watching a departure whilst we share the perpetual view from behind the camera lens of someone also departed.
We are both long gone and left behind.
That late evening internet journey led me to the hiking route from Morteratsch to the glacier, and there, abruptly, was what was both expected and almost unimaginable; a recent photograph which showed the same view, taken from the same location as my slide. A hurried reach for the slide viewer for comparison revealed transformations; the glacier has shrunk; the trees have grown.
The images misregister, and time folds backward and forward. There is a sensation of doubling up and halving, a throwing out and reeling in; projection and evidence. Beneath these observations, things shift. The glacier is in unstoppable melt with no way to arrest it. We can only watch, placing signs to mark the loss of each year. That nostalgic man in the nostalgia of a nostalgic walk in the nostalgic Alps – all vernacular architecture and dreams of unspoilt nature – was both walking out and walking in. Walking away from the behemoth of progress that takes too long to slow to a halt and continues to destroy whatever got caught in its cogs; a freight train of climatic change so vast its brakes need more miles of track than we have to slow its speed. The trees have doubled, the images are doubled. The glacier has halved accordingly as if there is only so much matter to go around.
The glacial tongues of the mountains are withdrawing, the mountains crumble into stones. Unstoppable movement around which stopping distances become an irrelevance.
Art | Emily Joy
Emily Joy’s practice draws upon personal, social and ecological narratives of loss, with recent works alluding to central-European histories of migration and exile. Nostalgic imagery of the Swiss Alps is transformed; through erasure and isolation of elements to create new narratives with unexpected possibilities, or changes of scale and material alluding to material movement and loss. The key theme of empathy is explored through works relating to shared language, connections between landscape and individual, and questions of the human role in care, protection and preservation of fragile ecosystems.
Emily Joy (UK, 1982) is sculptor and installation artist. Underpinning her practice is an investigation into the subjectivity and loss inherent in remembering and reimagining; asking how experience is mediated by the imperfect copies of memory/language/image. Recent work draws upon personal, social and ecological narratives of loss, alluding to central-European histories of nostalgia, migration and exile. The use of base materials and everyday objects is a common theme in Emily’s practice, inviting participation during the making and destruction of the work. Emily Joy was awarded the 2008 Darbyshire Award and was shortlisted for the 2012 and 2016 Aesthetica Art prize. She is a founder member of the artist group Quercus and half of creative partnership Periscope. As well as collaborating with artists, she has programmed events with writers and philosophers (Brian Dillon, Mark Currie, Chris Norris) and anthropologists (Elizabeth Hodson, KFI project, Aberdeen). During residencies at Mustarinda (ecological research centre, Finland), at Loughborough University and the University of Gloucestershire Emily deepened collaborative research into empathy, loss, land and earth. She is currently exhibiting in the John Muir Open in Dunbar, as part of the COP26 events.