River Sculpture: the gait of tractors and texture of shovels

Tractor reflected in the river

Tractor spilling stones into the river

In autumn, up in the north of the moors, I met Martin De Retuerto (Winnall Moors Project Manager) for a bit of ecological river sculpture. Over the past 400 years the chalk streams that flow through the moors have been altered in ways that changed the energy of the channel and thereby altered the way that water naturally sculpts and forms the river habitat. Since October of 2009, the HWT have been working to re-build the streams, in particular the Barton Carrier, which joins the River Itchen and whose fishy inhabitants include: Brown Trout, Bullheads and Grayling.

Many artists have used the natural environment as both a material source and site for art practice. In the 1960’s and 70’s ‘environmental or land art’ emerged as a tributary of Conceptual Art: including perhaps most notably Robert Smithson’s spectral Spiral Jetty (1970), and in Britain the poetic traces of Richard Long’s walks through an environment. More recently the sound artist Bill Fontana has re-located the submerged sounds of the Thames into an installation at Somerset House and poured the roaring pulse of Chesil Beach across the streets of London.
The chiseling of the Barton Carrier has a less obvious interaction with the general public, but perhaps a more lasting consequence for the environment.
Martin’s sculpture was assisted by tons of gravel and a small caterpillar tracked tractor with bucket. In order to create shallow pools for the breeding Brown Trout, the gravel was poured into the water, with Martin directing the pour and using a spade to make small adjustments. The stream will carry on the re-building of it’s own course.

The idyllic sound of a chalk stream is perhaps more normally associated with the gentle lapping of water, the gossamer buzz of river-fly, the whip n’ whir of angler’s fly-fishing and the occasional gulp of a fish taking an insect from the water’s surface. But the sounds of this river sculpture are just as fascinating to the open ear.

It is not just the bucket of (pebble) rain (heard from above and below the water) poured into the river that fascinates, the sculptural process itself offers a spatial narrative and rich sonic palette: the slow clattering mechanical gait of the tractor approaching the river, the balletic tip of a pneumatic wrist and subsequent garrulous perforation of water, followed by the brooding withdrawal of caterpillar tracks and the final organic demise of engine pitch.
This sonic landscape is accompanied by the dissonant sound of a Martin’s spade shoveling water and pebbles. Slightly reminiscent of chalk on blackboard, the sound also has a texture and metallic spatial whirl that adds to the concert of watery voices that inhabit the moors. Listen below:

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