What kind of relationship can you have with a place without ever going there? This is a question prompted in part by the pandemic: I live in Edinburgh; artist Sara Bowler lives in Cornwall, and much of her work probes the deeply specific histories of places in the south west of England. But the question is not only topical; it is a significant one in any attempt to attend to Bowler's wide-ranging practice, her research process, and her sustained engagement with place.
Bowler's practice has gone through a number of developments. After studying painting and art history at Aberystwyth University, she initially focused on landscape painting before training as a glassmaker and completing an MA in glass at the Royal College of Art. But after more than a decade mastering different glass techniques, Bowler became increasingly interested in non-material, site-specific work, initially with a strong narrative element but becoming, in recent years, increasingly abstract.
A pivotal work was excavate:overlay (2003). Bowler refers to it as her glass “swansong”. Her first major temporary and site-specific work, it also marked the beginnings of a shift from artist-as-maker to artist-as-curator. Coordinating concurrent investigations across two sites in Caithness, in the far north east of Scotland, Bowler brought together a multidisciplinary team of artists, archaeologists and academics. The sites are notable for their parallel lines of small stone slabs and the remnants of a large stone wall, and, in response, Bowler's work emphasised the interrelation between specialist knowledge and hard, physical labour. She commissioned two glassmakers to hand cast two and a half tonnes of glass blocks to the same dimensions as the traditional sett used to pave roads. These pieces were laboriously gathered together on site for a series of durational installations, then removed. No trace of the work remained in place. Instead, its legacy is documentary: film and photographs, essays and talks.
Cairn | excavate:overlay | Sara Bowler | Loch of Yarrows, Caithness | 2003
Research has been central to Bowler's work ever since. Characterised by a forensic attention to multiple modes of knowledge, Bowler often engages with different conceptions of what it means to know a place. Ecologists, land managers, archaeologists, telecommunications workers: communities may form around shared interests but experts rarely speak across disciplinary boundaries. In walking between the amateur and the professional, from specialist to generalist, Bowler's work wears new paths between information and knowledge, between data accumulation and lived experience.
Following Tim Ingold, Bowler uses the term 'taskscape' rather than 'landscape' to emphasise activities over features, flux over fixity. From 2007 to 2019, she has returned again and again to Goonhilly Downs on Cornwall's Lizard peninsula. A heathland plateau with unexcavated Bronze-Age burial barrows and the Dry Tree standing stone marking its higest point, the site is best known for Goonhilly Earth Station, a Cold War era radiocommunications facility that links to transatlantic cables and whose large, recently recommissioned, satellites stud the skyline. Bowler's responses to Goonhilly have been as layered as the site itself. Working in collaboration with artist Elizabeth Masterton, Bowler curated a series of multidisciplinary on-site projects, Happidrome 1-4 (2007-10), which presented work by various artists inside a semi-derelict WWII radar receiver bunker, and Goonhilly Village Green (2015-19), a celebration of the site, its history and communities through artist commissions and free public events.
Within these expansive and generous frameworks, Bowler's own work has traversed a range of terrain, bringing surprising new life to hidden or forgotten stories, unearthed through careful and time-consuming research. Persistence and Listening (2007) combined animation, drawings and an audio tour to draw attention to Cornwall's oft-ignored indigenous plant species; The Ghostly Lugger of Croft Pasco Pool (2009) saw a spectral handmade vessel floating inside the disused bunker in recollection of a local folktale; and The Piskeys of Croft Noweth Farm (2010) likewise channelled regional myths, reimagining fairytale piskeys (pixies) within the setting of an old abandoned farm.
Pool | Happidrome 3 | Sara Bowler | Goonhilly Downs, Cornwall | 2009
While sites like Goonhilly are clearly complex and charged, Bowler's way of working suggests that perhaps any place can be fascinating if we learn to attend closely enough. Influenced by author Peter Ackroyd, who once said that his approach could be applied anywhere, Bowler is also interested in probing the histories of less obviously remarkable sites. “The more you research and the more you find out, the more astonishing a place becomes,” she tells me.
Exhibition View | Looe Street Detectives 1 | Sara Bowler | Plymouth Arts Centre, Plymouth | 2013
One example is Bowler's work on Looe Street, which at the time was home to Plymouth Arts Centre. Between 2013 and 2017, Bowler formed the Looe Street Detectives, uncovering personal narratives linking to a multitude of histories from Antarctic exploration to late Georgian welfare provision. As ever, Bowler's painstaking research produced a proliferation of works, including an audio walk, a text-based installation based upon a Myriorama (a nineteenth-century parlour game), and the transformation of the galleries into an immersive, three-dimensional map with blue plaques recalling alternative heritage narratives.
Thresholds Graphic Score | The Gathering | Sara Bowler | Goonhilly Downs, Cornwall | 2019
Over the years, Bowler has worked more and more with audio as a means both of gathering information about a place and of recasting the atmosphere with a suggestive sense of the uncanny. Janet Cardiff's The Missing Voice (Case Study B) (1999) has been a long-term influence, while a 2018 workshop with artists Chris Watson and Jez Riley French helped to develop new thinking around vibration and frequency. “Place and sound and moving sound around,” is Bowler's way of describing her current approach. Scales and sketched soundscapes help ideas develop before Bowler “translates” her wealth of research into the work itself.
At the time of writing, Bowler is researching Burnthouse Allotments in Penryn, Cornwall, as part of an artist residency. Sandwiched between major roads and bisected by a railway line, the allotments are a valuable public asset surrounded by privately owned farmland (but a difficult place to record sound). Intrigued by the site's distinctive land use, Bowler set to work. Poring over archival records and tithe maps, legal documents and deeds of ownership, she has uncovered clues about two women whose lives have shaped the site as we find it today. Their stories are intriguing in their own right (as accounts of love and loss) but also for the way they touch upon histories of ownership and the law, as well as attitudes to gender, land and capital.
Jane Gill’s Mark | Residency in a Shed | Legal document | Burnthouse Leisure Gardens & Allotments, Cornwall | 2020
At the same time, Bowler is thinking ahead to another residency in 2021. Taking place at a white-walled artists’ project space in Redruth, Cornwall, it is already prompting Bowler to ask new questions of her way of working. There is a hint of frustration with how slowly her research develops and with the way the resulting work is often tethered to its site of origin. A key question then is whether the work made in response to a place might exist apart from that place. Or is each project bound to live – and, as Bowler makes predominantly non-material, experience-led work, die – upon the single site it speaks to? And at a time when people can no longer travel, how might the work?
Lockdown has seen Bowler return, slowly, to objects. She has been remaking the little piskeys from her 2010 project out of grass and flowers, twigs and clay. There is even a possibility of a return, after all these years, to glassmaking, but like much of Bowler's work, these forays back into the world of object-making are deliberately ephemeral. “Not every mark we make is significant,” says Bowler. For an artist so attuned to the traces of past lives, this feels like an important ethical statement: when so many are desperate to leave their mark upon the world, maybe we can cherish the work that is content to fade slowly back into the land it came from.
Piskey 1 Croft Noweth Farm | Happidrome 4 | Sara Bowler | Goonhilly Downs, Cornwall | 2019