The Lure of The Limpet
Exploring Wonder and Art of Place
Masters in Research Student, Creative Practice, Centre for Island Creativity, Shetland.
This blog article presents a new perspective on the interconnection between art, archaeology, wonder and place, allowing unique insight into part of the process of creating a contemporary wunderkammer (wonder-chamber) known as The Limpetarium. Arguments put forward by the writers and academics Jane Bennett, Silke Dettmers, Lucy Lippard, Sara Perry and Mark Sanderson together with evidence gathered from a four day open studio event shows how The Limpetarium enables an exchange between people and place and engenders a sense of wonder in the audience.
‘Artists are at home in the Wunderkammer’ - Silke Dettmers
In July 2018, whilst on holiday I visited Skaill Farm archaeological dig on the west coast of Rousay, Orkney. An archaeologist working on the site gave me a handful of crumbly, white limpet shells that had been unearthed from Norse age midden as a souvenir. This small act of generosity sparked a long-term fascination with limpets. I was initially intrigued by their shape, texture and form which I began to explore through drawing but then, over the years the exploration expanded, developing into my current research for the MRes in Creative Practice, The Human Limpet Project. My concern for this commonly encountered but largely overlooked coastal creature is leading me along an entangled trail of archaeological, historical, ecological, scientific, cultural, and imaginary lines, which through a process of sifting, sorting and organising are becoming lines of research inquiry.
My art practice is interdisciplinary, combining drawing, painting, textiles, collection, curation, assemblage, installation and video. It is a form of ‘art as inquiry’ or ‘making as a way of knowing’ (Leavy, 2018) and has social engagement at its heart. I invite participation from others, including archaeologists, ecologists, artists, and anyone else who is interested in collectively illuminating the relationship between humans and limpets over time. Research trips to significant limpet-locations around the British Isles are forming an important part of the project, where I venture out from my hometown of Stourbridge in the West Midlands to explore, gather, learn, make, and exchange, creating connections with and between people and place as I go.
The amassed collection of limpet shells, facts, histories, stories, artworks and cutting-edge scientific data is being used to create a contemporary wunderkammer (wonder-chamber) known as The Limpetarium. It is a place of research as well as a fluid art installation which is continually shifting, changing and evolving, and in the process revealing some little-known limpet related wonders of the natural and human-made world.
Fig. 1 The Limpetarium, July 2021
Unpicking my Practice
‘All places exist somewhere between the inside and the outside views of them, the ways in which they compare to, and contrast with, other places.’ - Lucy Lippard
I have begun to unpick the different elements that make up my research practice and within this article I explore two of these underpinning elements: wonder and place. Wonder because my practice is, through a process of extended curiosity, a searching for and presentation of the unfamiliar within the commonplace, the fabulous beneath the mundane and the disquieting alongside the harmonious using the wunderkammer as a frame. Place because of its significance in my practice and The Human Limpet Project in particular which explores, through the lens of the limpet aspects of shelter, home environments, habitation, protection and attachment. Whilst wonder and place may not, on the face of it seem interconnected their relationship will become apparent as this account develops.
I might describe my place, Stourbridge as ‘around here’, the local, a centred location with which I have a relationship, which is entwined with personal memory, a lived-in landscape experienced from the inside (Lippard, 1997). But what of the the further away, less intimately known, ‘out there’ places viewed from the outside like Skaill Farm in Rousay, where I do not have such a particular connection or obvious tie but towards which I feel a strong sense of attraction? What might the relationship between these places be and how does this relate to the concepts of wonder and enchantment in contemporary art and the creation of The Limpetarium more specifically?
Distance and Difference
It is perhaps no wonder that since my first visit I have been repeatedly drawn back to Orkney. It is an extraordinarily elemental place of flagstone islands, perpetual winds and enormous skies, located between the wild Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea and in complete contrast to my place, 600 miles south.
Stourbridge is a small post-industrial town situated in the land-locked English Midlands. With Worcestershire to the south, Staffordshire to the north, Shropshire to the west and Birmingham to the east it is the place I have lived all my life and know intimately. Extraordinary in its own way, Stourbridge’s location on the edge of the resource rich Black Country made it attractive to the Huguenots, a group of persecuted, glass-making protestants who emigrated from the Lorraine region of France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Utilising the locally sourced raw materials of coal, limestone, sand and fireclay, the Huguenots established a world famous glass industry which thrived for over 400 years. All four of my grandparents worked in the glass trade and The Limpetarium is currently located within the Ruskin Glass Centre, the renovated site of Thomas Webb’s glass works in Amblecote, a mile or so north of Stourbridge
Figs. 2 and 3 The Ruskin Glass Centre, Amblecote, Stourbridge, September 2022
Fig. 4 Skaill Farm, Rousay, Orkney, July 2022
Skaill Farm is an important place for my research and I have made the journey there twice since my initial visit, joining the UHI Archaeology Institute’s team and local people for a week in July 2021 and again for another week in July 2022. While the place is significant as the source of my research and the obvious connection with excavated limpet shells, some other visceral force is also luring me back.
Maybe it’s the dissimilarity between Orkney and Stourbridge, the contrast between inland and coastal, central and northern, urban and rural? Perhaps it’s the people? The archaeologist who offered that first limpet shell gift and the others I have met generously inviting me to join them, conveying a message of welcome and hospitality.
Coastal archaeology is definitely in the mix of enticing forces, providing opportunities to spend time outdoors in a historic landscape, engage in fieldwork activities, explore the nearby shoreline and let my imagination run free. I am perhaps experiencing the ‘affective power’ of Skaill Farm as an historic and cultural site and it’s capacity to engender wonder, generate an emotional response, provide social connection and inspire creative action as put forward by Sara Perry in The Enchantment of the Archaeological Record (2019).
Movement between places may be forming part of the attraction, that back-and-forth process, oscillating between stillness and motion, rest and restlessness, ebb and flow. It is also possible that I am trying to escape something, a sense of constraint or restriction with my local, a weariness with the ordinary, repetitive, demands of the day to day. It could be that I am in need of that ‘shot in the arm’ described by Jane Bennett in her book The Enchantment of Modern Life (2001), where a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life offers a mood of fullness, liveliness and plenitude. Whatever it is, I am being charmed by the place.
A Predisposition for Wonder
Despite their difference and distance, I have begun to see these two places, The Ruskin Glass Centre in Stourbridge and Skaill Farm in Rousay as deeply interconnected. This interconnection is reflected in The Limpetarium which is described briefly here:
After leaving the busy car park and passing through my industrial looking, high-ceilinged art studio that once served as a glass warehouse, a long black curtain is brushed aside to enter The Limpetarium, a small, dimly lit room measuring approximately 4 x 4.5 meters described by one visitor as ‘another world’. There are maps of Rousey on the wall, books about the northern isles on shelves and images of archaeologists with limpet-rings for eyes set behind glass. Limpets dug up from the ground and collected from the beach are on display in dark wooden cupboards, half-open drawers and battered travelling cases. There is a feint aroma of seaweed and the sound of click-clacking shells can be heard as the flicker of a small screen shows a fluttery installation on a windswept beach.
Figs. 5, 6 and 7 The Limpetarium detail
The juxtaposition of dissimilar and seemingly unrelated places has not gone unnoticed. When I held a four day open studio event recently as part of The International Festival of Glass, visitors appeared captivated by this unexpected encounter, telling me that The Limpetarium is a ‘magical place’, ‘a fascinating and emotional experience’ and ‘it really opened my eyes and mind’. Some people returned several times bringing family and friends with them saying ‘you have got to see this!’
I engaged the audience on multiple levels; sensorily, intellectually and emotionally, drawing them into my sense of wonder and perhaps activating that ‘affective power’ described by Sara Perry, a ‘lasting remembrance… personal transformation, learning, …inspiration and the possibility of seeing other ways of being in the world’. This ‘emotional engagement’ is discussed by a range of theorists, artists and curators in relation to visual art in Wonder in Contemporary Artistic Practice (Mieves and Brown Ed. 2017). In chapter thirteen, Silke Dettmers and Mark Sanderson consider the conditions within which wonder can survive. They argue that ‘receptivity’ is at the heart of it, asking who might be attuned to wonder, and ‘What is needed for this predisposition? A natural curiosity? The ability to notice and to scrutinise? A yearning for new experiences? A need for moments of intensity and self awareness in our lives? A quest for some jarring form of otherness…’. They go on to suggest that ‘feeling of ‘authentic’ wonder is a complex mixture of renewal, uncertainty and heightened receptivity, possibly restoring a childhood moment of discovery to the viewer’.
The Limpetarium activates this state of ‘receptivity’, engendering an empathy and warmth of exchange between people and place, between myself, the audience, Skaill Farm and Ruskin Glass Centre. A shared experience of curiosity, questioning and excited puzzlement; a willingness to accept, engage with and appreciate the juxtaposition of the familiar and the unexpected, a superimposition of the ‘around here’ and the ‘out there’.
This receptive condition also provoked much conversation. Being taken unawares rendered most visitors pretty much speechless at first, other than the odd gasp but then this was quickly followed by a torrent of questions. Where is this place? What were you doing there? What is happening there? What is this about? Why is that here? What is going to happen next? As I responded to these queries the open studio event became a four day long, extended dialogue with over a hundred and thirty people!
Beyond the Tourist Gaze
This dialogue stimulated further thinking about the connection between myself, Skaill Farm and The Limpetarium. It is my wish to develop an ongoing relationship that is participative and reciprocal, and as Lucy Lippard says, demanding ’a respect for place that is rooted more deeply than an aesthetic version of the tourist gaze’. I am acutely aware of my role of visiting artist, entering the territory of others and the danger that my artwork may be simply about place rather than of place. Perhaps I started to apply this kind of ‘place ethic’ as Lippard calls it, when I spent time making a limpet shell installation with archaeologists and local children at the Skaill Farm dig during the summer just gone, temporarily repurposing the standing remains of the farm dairy with its lichen covered stone walls, niches and recesses into a kind of ephemeral cabinet of curiosities in situ.
Fig. 8 and 9 Participative making with Mathilda and Freida Cussans and Mark Edmonds,
I have started to notice a change in my sense of the local when I am at the archaeological site, no longer seeing Orkney as peripheral and ‘out there’ but experiencing it from a different standpoint, from more of a ‘multicentered’ perspective, as somewhere that is slowly becoming another my place. I am excited to see where this interchange between people and place might lead and how the deliberate generation of wonder and enchantment might engage, stimulate and inspire future participants and audience of The Human Limpet Project and Skaill Farm.
Thank you to Dr Antonia Thomas, Dan Lee and the Skaill Farm archaeological team for facilitating my visits and supporting my research project.
Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, crossings and ethics (2001), Princeton University Press
Patricia Leavy (ed), Handbook of Arts-Based Research (2018), The Guildford Press Lucy R. Lippard,
The Lure of the Local: Senses of place in a multi centred society (1997) The New Press, New York
Christian Mieves and Irene Brown (ed), Wonder in Contemporary Artistic Practice (2017) Routledge
Sarah Perry, The Enchantment of the Archaeological Record (2019), European Journal of Archaeology 22