Simon Callery: Segsbury Project
1 April – 1 August 2003

It would seem that this is a project of contrasts. Firstly, there are three different kinds of work: a series of photographs placed within the drawers of seven custom-made plan chests, a sculptural construction and a number of paintings. Secondly, there is the uncommon situation, an encounter between the disciplines of fine art and archaeology, which gave rise to the works.

To begin with we are curious about the idea of an artist – and not just any artist, but this particular one – meeting with a group of archaeologists in the expectation that it will provide a stimulus for the creation of a new group of artworks. How will someone whose practice is largely concerned with the building of a complex surface as an articulation of and meditation on contemporary urban experience respond to the particular demands of an excavation? What can the discipline of digging into the ground in order to unearth and investigate traces of Iron Age life offer an artist whose works call for intense concentration upon what is visible here and now? Where, in short, does the imaginative reconstruction of past lives from their visible traces and material remains meet the visual and material analysis and reconstitution of contemporary existence?

Before Simon Callery began working on the dig at Segsbury Camp on the Ridgeway, he was aware that his urban-oriented approach to art might not immediately mesh with an activity sited in the heart of the English countryside. Once he had got going, however, another observation quickly took over. Archaeological fieldwork involves a sequence of discoveries and decisions as to future actions that occur in quick succession. Set against an approach to painting which places value on the slowing down of time in order to encounter the subtleties of a complex paint surface such a procedure seemed to offer the potential for difficulties.

But emphasising this apparent disjuncture alone would be to suggest, somewhat unhelpfully, that the disciplines of art and archaeology are simply incommensurate. On the other hand, it would be equally unsatisfactory for us merely to indicate various formal similarities between the areas of endeavour – a shared interest in ‘layers’, for example – and to leave it at that. In their choice of material and form, the works that Callery has made since his first visit to the Segsbury site in 1996 reveal connections that run at a much deeper level. Two important aspects of this deeper relationship, in respect both of what Callery observed at the dig and of what we in turn see in his work, are the experiences of time and movement.

The seven large plan chests of The Segsbury Project contain 378 photographic prints taken in collaboration with Andrew Watson that, between them, chart the entirety of a 40 x 20-metre excavation trench. Laid flat, two per drawer placed side by side, they make it possible to look searchingly at every part of the chalk surface laid bare in that section of the site. Post holes, storage pits and all other features can be examined and their spatial relationships to one another understood. Start at the top drawer of a chest and work your way down to the bottom and you are moving from north to south. Shift one chest to your left and you are moving west, to the right and you are going east. Since the orientation of earth and photographic image mirror one another, what is horizontal on site remains horizontal in The Segsbury Project. Compass bearings on the ground, however, become translated into lateral and vertical movement in the chests. And as we move around, peering into one drawer after another, we become aware of how our own body sets limitations on our efforts to comprehend the totality of visual information on offer, to see the full extent of what is there. Middle drawers are easy, and at a comfortable height, but we need to crouch down or stand on tiptoe if we want to pay attention to what lay at the margins of the trench.

Archaeologists generally rely on a clear spatial schema to distinguish the synchronic from the diachronic: find two things in the same layer and they can usually be assumed to be contemporary with one another; dig down below them and you are going back in time. In The Segsbury Project Callery takes this simple stratigraphic principle and turns it to his own purposes. The same principle is confounded in a different manner by Trench 10, a work made on a later dig at Alfred’s Castle, several miles from Segsbury. To create it, Callery took a cast of the eponymous trench by covering it with plaster and lifting it in sections once it had set. What resulted is not merely an impression of the trench, but the chalk surface itself, embedded in the plaster as it hardened and thus lifted with it. Stood on end and supported from behind by a substantial wooden framework, the plaster panels form a 20-metre frieze that one can, as with the photographs of The Segsbury Project, examine at close quarters and in great detail. Unlike the photographs, whose horizontality matches that of the ground they picture, we are here presented with the ground itself made into its own image. Trench 10 had been dug at Alfred’s Castle to cut across part of the outer ditch surrounding the settlement, and this depression in the ground is replicated as a protrusion of the cast out from the general line of the work into the viewing space. To view the sculpture is, once again, to become conscious of one’s relationship not only to the work, but also to the building that contains it.

Callery’s paintings are rich, dense and delicate. The eye is held on a surface whose qualities are evidently the result of successive stages in which paint is laid on, scraped back, laid on again over other areas of painted incident, veiled thinly over what has been built up, scraped back once more and so on. Coming through the paint one also sees a number of vertical lines drawn in pencil. Their placement and spacing is not regular. It seems more intuitive than calculated. The lines do not so much divide the canvas into smaller portions as further articulate its entire area. Taking a lead from one of their titles – Flake White Entasis – we could say that they are white paintings. White is, after all, the predominant colour used. But it is not the only colour, and we should anyway beware that in thinking of them simply as white we might, say, ignore how the colour has been modulated by a patch of grey-green underpainting, or be tempted to overlook some of the delicacies of tone and of figuring. We might fail to notice the manner in which an area of dense working shades off near to the edge of the canvas, or might not be led to consider how that edge contains, without setting a limit to, the painting. These things are important and should not be overlooked.

All the paintings are large, in fact very large. Fabrik is nearly as wide as is possible to make it using the longest wall in Callery’s studio. Testing the limitations of his workspace in the other direction, Flake White Entasis is very tall, and Porch is about as tall as a canvas could be without him having to make a hole in the roof. Employing conventional terminology we would describe them – one wider than it is high, the other two taller than they are wide – as being in landscape and portrait format respectively. Yet to rely on these words alone is to see only half the picture. The land, which is to say a space for action, is there, the body is there, but there is more because the space is not any space, the body not just any body. We get a strong sense in looking at these paintings of how the meditations and internal conversations guiding Callery’s decisions during their making reflect the physical and cultural context within which he is working. Their scale is impressive, but it does not overwhelm us. As with Trench 10 and The Segsbury Project, rather, we become conscious of our own actions as we move in front of them, discovering the nuances of the paint surface, and working round to the sides where the solidity of their construction becomes visible. Callery’s paintings do not sit directly against the wall, but are instead held away from it by a sub-frame. This sub-frame has the same dimensions as the painting, but is assembled from various lengths of timber layered to produce the desired thickness. The wood forming this extra element is often bare, but in places there is a thin wash of paint over it. It is at one and the same time both part of and distinct from the painting proper.

The titles are suggestive: Fabrik (factory), Porch, Entasis – all of these refer to buildings, to what happens in them, and to how they function. Taken together they also indicate that, for Callery, architecture is about more than just buildings. It is a body of attitudes and theories about built form that has been and remains subject to historical development. Entasis is the Ancient Greek trick of giving a slight bulge to the middle of a column and then tapering it towards the top so that it looks as well as acts like a solid supporting member. Echoing that technique, Callery has built an almost imperceptible taper into the frame of Flake White Entasis, making it at one and the same time physically present fact and calculated illusion. It is an imaginative reflection on the past in the present. That the title of Fabrik remains in German suggests that we might also think of what happens in such a place – Herstellung (production) – in German, too. This opens up the dense play on the verb stellen that we find, for example, in the writing of Martin Heidegger, for whom producing (herstellen), placing before (vorstellen), forming an idea of (vorstellen) and representing (darstellen) were inextricably interrelated activities. In our experience of the range of Callery’s precisely chosen and realised artistic forms we recognise the truth of that connectedness.

Michael Archer

This text is reproduced here by kind permission of English Heritage, The Henry Moore Foundation and the University of Oxford © 2003