david edward allen
texts & documentation

Sensing through shadows and darkness

Interview with artist David Edward Allen by Helga-Marie Nordby, in connection with Allen`s solo exhibition Nightshade at Kongsvinger kunstforening.

As an artist you work with different mediums such as painting, sound and video exploring concepts of nature, landscape, and wilderness. You studied art in London and have been living and working in the center of Berlin for over twenty years. Can you describe your relationship to nature and wilderness?

Around 2008 I started to work with some pear trees. I saw the work as a sculpture, but I also started to make drawings of them. And because of drawing them I spent a lot of time looking at them. And that began to change the way that I looked at all other trees. It was as if up until that point I had never really looked at trees, they were just a symbol, a kind of superficial image. But that changed and the more that I looked at trees the stranger they became, like uncanny alien beings so different from ourselves but alive and in their own mysterious ways sentient. They seemed to be unfathomable and this I found fascinating.

This perspective extends now into all my interactions with nature, and my work in turn gives me a way to follow these observations and encounters. It is not easy to find wilderness or wild places anymore. I think my relationship to nature and wilderness is both a real experience and imaginary, envisioned and existing on an abstract level. And this relationship is based on the dilemma of our time; that we are experiencing not just the real loss of wilderness on our planet but also the loss of a sense of wilderness or nature within ourselves.

There is a strong sensation of otherness and the unknown in nature, of which we are often afraid. Animals, plants, trees, and even landscapes can possess this sensation of wilderness. And maybe what I am trying to do is to find a way to relate to that unknown, and approach some of those fears.

In your exhibition Nightshade at Kongsvinger kunstforening you are showing a series of new paintings. At first glance, the works seem totally black, like color field paintings. But, as I keep looking, shapes start to form. Slowly the paintings start to reveal landscapes; forests, lakes and mountains are looming from the darkness. It’s like stepping into the night; your eyes need time to adjust. How did you develop these works? 

The paintings developed out of a series of video and sound recordings that I was making in the forest during the night. I was filming from the position of a hunters hide, several meters above the ground in the middle of the forest looking out into a surrounding wall of green foliage. I would climb onto the hide in the early evening and start filming just before the sun was setting and continue until it was totally dark. At first, I went there together with a hunter hoping for a chance to shoot some game, we sat there quietly looking and listening into the forest for hours. Once it got too dark to shoot, around twilight, the hunter would leave, and I would continue to sit alone further into the night with my camera and microphones. It was through this sitting and observing, watching the forest alter slowly in the steadily growing darkness over these long periods of time that my awareness and perception changed.
The forest became more active in the darkness, coming alive in a strange and uncertain way. The space around me changed too, the depth of things appeared to move, distances extended endlessly, shapes shifted.

Later, in the studio, I started painting to see if I could describe some of these perceptions. I then discovered that the actual process of painting was as elusive and difficult to grasp as the subject that I was trying to paint, and consequently it seemed to fit together in the right way.

You said the darkness made you more aware of the sounds in the forest. When one sense is reduced in this case sight, other senses like hearing are sharpened. In the entrance space of the gallery, you have installed a sound piece created from field recordings you made in the forest. What do we hear?

It’s a recording of a family of Barn owls. I came across them in an abandoned and derelict farm at the edge of the forest. I could see during the day where they had nested high up in the corner of an old barn, and in the evening, I returned with my recording equipment. The barn was very large, and I carefully entered the opposite end to the nest and set up the microphones, one on a stand, the other held in my hand. Then I waited for it to get dark. 

The microphones are very sensitive and the barn itself also acted as a huge resonance chamber, sucking in, and amplifying the muffled sounds of the world outside; cicadas, a blackbird, geese, the distant human-made sounds of a field being harvested and an airplane flying over. 

In the twilight at almost precisely the moment that the sun set, one of the owls left the nest and glided silently out of the barn to hunt. Once the sunlight had gone completely the inside of the barn became utterly pitch black, and I stood there listening into this void with the microphones pointed towards the nest. 

I had never heard barn owls before; I remember watching them steal silent and ghost-like over the fields of my grandparents’ farm in Suffolk when I was a child. But the sounds that I heard in the darkness were startling and unexpected. There were grunts and snorts and strange chuckling noises, squeaks, and roars, and when an owl returned with its prey, there was a chorus of rasping screams, an eerie and chilling sound that seemed to come more from demons than from birds.

It felt as if I was eavesdropping into a hidden and arcane realm, and I returned to record them over three nights. The result is a narrative of sorts, edited down from that material.

Nightshade is the title of your show. There is a beautiful essay written by the Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki from 1933 titled In praise of shadow, where comparisons of light and darkness are used to contrast Western and Asian cultures. The west in its constant search for progress stands for light and clarity, while Asian art and culture represent an appreciation of shadow and subtlety. I know you love this book and also that you have a personal relation to Asian culture through your partner Yassu.

Yes, Yassu is half Japanese and half German. Actually, she gave the book to me. When I read it, I felt a strong correlation to what I was trying to do with the paintings. It was encouraging to discover an affinity with a way of seeing that came out of another time, and what was for me, a distant culture.

And although the book describes the fading away of habits and aesthetics specifically in Japanese architecture and behaviour, what I think it also argues for is a way of perception and consciousness that is both universal and timeless.

Moreover, I believe that Tanizaki’s lament about the over-lighting of the world around him echoes even louder today in our societies dominated by images and brightly lit screens.

Capitalism has created a situation of an increasing dependency too, and a continually growing consumption of, images. And this onslaught of imagery has a way of numbing our senses. It not only makes things harder to see but also to hear or touch or smell. And through this decrease in sensory experience our awareness, especially of the natural world around us, is being reduced, and in turn we are becoming more alienated from it.

This is what interests me the most about sound. Listening can provide an alternative to this over exposure and a possibility to encounter parts of reality, lying beyond the obvious, that can be overlooked. It is a way to both listen to and look again more closely at the obscure, and at the things around us which are often unheard and unseen.