Seeing Through a Glass Darkly

Towards an aesthetic of uncivilisation

is a writer, editor and co-director of The Dark Mountain Project. Her most recent book, After Ithaca is about recovering our core relationships with the mythos and sentient Earth, revolving around the Underworld tasks of Psyche. She teaches ensemble creative practice and lives on the wild salty edge of East Anglia.

Those people were some kind of solution
— ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, CF Cavafy

I’m exploring a territory I have not stepped into before. Maybe none of us have yet. I am not sure if aesthetic is the right word for it, but it’s the one that comes to me as I begin a new role as the art editor for the next Dark Mountain collection, as the editorial crew sift through the material for a fifth volume in a fifth uncivilised year.

Images form an intrinsic part of the Dark Mountain anthologies – photographs, paintings, drawing and illustration appear in all of them. The books themselves are beautifully and deliberately constructed; handsome hardbacks with covers the colour of damsons and field maple leaves. A physical thing you wouldn’t want to throw away. But what about the look and feel of the Dark Mountain Project that extends beyond its text? Is there an aesthetic we share as writers and artists, makers and thinkers? And if so how can we best showcase it within the pages of a book?

Capitalism Hill by Lucca Benney from The Crisis of Civilisation

The team (that’s Paul Kingsnorth, Dougald Hine, Nick Hunt, Adrienne Odasso and myself) are now looking for new visual work for Dark Mountain 5 and 6, so this post is an invitation to contribute as well as an exploration. I wanted to talk about aesthetics in a wider context, because, even though I have long rejected the words that once earned me a good living in the city – style, design, fashion, taste – I know the look of things, their shape and form, are as important a part of a new narrative as words. The fact that civilisation holds us so tightly in its unkind embrace is not only because it controls what some call ‘industrialised storytelling’, but also because it manufactures the images that powerfully and unconsciously distract and misinform us, keep us endlessly looking at the shiny surfaces of what we feel is our cultural reality,

The Visitors by Rima Staines

I want to ask: what are the arts of uncivilisation? What happens outside the gallery and the multiplex, what are the barbarian images that might liberate our vision, that bring us home? If we live in a culture that is separated from and in control of what is seen, how can we make an unofficial art created within experience to include dimensions our ordinary attention might miss? Behavioural scientists observe that change happens slowly and deliberately over time but artists know it happens in a split second: a chink in the door, a wild unexpected moment that appears before you and for no reason you change lanes. A flash of quicksilver that can transform the dark materials of a whole culture.

When I walked through the trees at the Uncivilisation Festival past sticks arranged in a circle on the ground, people in animal masks, slates hanging from the boughs of a tree, I recognised something that made sense of a long journey I had once made.

A coyote on a television looking across a valley, a hare leaping inside a poem, Rima Staines’ Weed Wife covered in flowers on a sheet of oak, Dougie Strang’s Charnel House for Roadkill, like an archaic Tardis on the steps of the Glasgow Art Gallery.

Charnel House by Dougie Strang
Charnel House by Dougie Strang (left) door detail (right) underneath the arches

uncivilising the eye

I have to tell you a story about the journey. Because that’s where this exploration begins.

Late ’80s,walking down Bond Street, my eye is caught by a room full of vast chunks of stone and a pale suit hanging on the wall – an Anthony D’Offay exhibition of Joseph Beuys’ The End of the Twentieth Century. The stones are hewn from basalt, a stone that will form Beuys’ perhaps most famous work, the planting of 7,000 oaks in the city of Kassel in Germany. The suit is made of felt, the material the artist was wrapped in by nomads when his Luftwaffe plane crashed in the snowy wastes of Crimea. Felt and fat saved his life, but they also transformed his life. They became the materials that defined his art. On a video Beuys is telling the world: in the future everyman will be king.

I could say this was the moment I walked out of galleries and stopped writing copy about Bond Street. Because shortly afterwards I left the city whose high culture I had been steeped in for 35 years. The change happens quickly but it sometimes takes years to thrive in the world without those beautiful clever things that shielded and once defined you.

Cairn 1

Roland Barthes in his elegant deconstruction of the bourgeois mindset, Mythologies, laments how hard it is to forge a culture unbound from a market economy. He points to a painting of a Dutch interior where a wealthy burgher sits surrounded by his possessions. His library, bolts of cloths, furniture. Shipped from all round the world, the goods set a pattern for material desire that has become the stuff of Sunday colour supplements ever since.

This is the art of civilisation. Globalised goods, fetishisation, possession. This is mine, all mine! Houses, horses, naked women, rich and poor, the painter who paints the canvas and the canvas itself. And even when art has rebelled against the pattern in a hundred dexterous and avant-garde moves the painting (or sculpture, or drawing) is still possessed. It is still property, a commodity in the minds and hands of those who could buy it – once the Church and then the collector and the State museum.

Honeyscribe – lightbox installation by Amy Shelton

What do art and aesthetics look like within the frame of collapse? What does photography look like that is not alienated from its subject? How do we love the world in a time of extinction? I look at my own collapse in order to see what that might mean. Because although I was educated in the dominant culture, there were strains of an uncivilised aesthetic that ran counter to everything I was taught, flowing dangerously beneath the surface like the river Styx. I wrote about the one perfect gleaming designer chair but my eye was always caught by rougher stuff that felt it had content and not just form. Like a linguist in search of a lost language, I would sometimes stumble upon its broken vocabularly.

A circle of driftwood in Derek Jarman’s garden, a spiral of stones on a table at Kettles Yard, a path that led through the tundra, walked by Richard Long.

These were the creative salvage years in London where makers like Tom Binns conjured ‘unjewelry’ from keys he found in the Thames foreshore or seaglass from his native Donegal; where welders like Tom Dixon made furniture from scrap metal. Post-punk warehouse years before corporate style had taken hold, when the original cut of your coat, or tribal marking distinguished you. There were chinks everywhere if you looked.

One of those chinks I went through in Bond Street and found myself in Mexico. To liberate yourself from the mindset, you sometimes have to leave the city that bore you, or crash into another territory entirely.

Fish mural, Cayton Bay, Scarborough, by Phlegm

In Mexico I did not go to museums or churches. I watched market squares and mountains, the colours and the vernacular of places. Later I looked at plants and at dreams. For six years I stopped writing and taking photographs, took out a notebook and studied living forms and the shapes of my imagination. I was uncivilising my eyes: shifting my attention, away from an aesthetic moulded by the hard lines of Balenciaga and Mondrian and Diane Arbus. I learned not to be enticed by the siren images, the fairy world of haute couture and Hollywood.

I learned to wait in the long American afternoons, for the slow and deep and resonant thing to appear.

It was as if I had never paid attention before to the world. These glimpses became the main track: images that were archaic and aboriginal, that spoke of trees and elements and beasts and weather, that linked the people to the dreaming of the planet. The rough beauty of the woodcut, the mythic fairytale, rock and cave painting, the shapes that follow the contours of the earth. The art that invites us to engage and remember, rather than possess and to forget. To ask questions rather than feel superior with our great knowledge of paintings and history.

From them I learned that the ancestors do not look like the gods. That barbarians do not speak in perfect prose. All artists wait for Prometheus to arrive with his firebrand to lighten a darkened world.

Although I did not go to exhbitions in these years, I met artists. I met sculptors and painters who lived in Bogota and the Arizona desert. I met the Slovenian peformance artist, Marko Modic, on his way back north from Tierra del Fuego where he had travelled alone with a dog and a camera. Marko was an extreme caver and mountaineer and he brought that wildness and strangeness into every room he entered. And that’s when I realised that the buying and showing was not the true function of art. It was the practice of the artist themselves: their capacity to live against the grain, the shape they made, the line they took.

corn dolly
Corn dolly by Anne-Marie Culhane

From them I learned that the ancestors do not look like the gods. That barbarians do not speak in perfect prose. All artists wait for Prometheus to arrive with his firebrand to lighten a darkened world. The best of them know that time is a gift, not a curse, and that waiting is part of the art. That all paths lead inevitably away from Rome.

The artist is the one who can find the chink in the door and allow us to push it open. In a fixed and atrophied world they act as strange attractors bringing chaos and freedom and new life. Their work and their practice break dimensions in time and space, throw wild seeds into monocultures. In a disconnected world they bring connection. And sometimes they bring us back.

Following the track of the coyote

There is a moment of return and that too comes as a surprise.

I am in the Museum of East Anglian Life, at an event called What if . . . . the seas keep rising? As the director of nef and a woman advisor from Natural England talk about climate change and what this might mean to the marshlands and coastline of Suffolk, there is a photograph on the wall that has transfixed me.

It’s by the sculptor, Laurence Edwards. Two men with long poles are taking clay giants on a raft down the river Ore. These are the Creek Men, the beings of these waterlands that have emerged from the landscape, from the artist’s imagination and from his hands. I can’t stop looking at that image. Like an anchor among a babble of voices that I will not remember, it was an image of belonging that made sense of everything.

High Water Mark by Dan Grace & Laurence Lord (Book 2)

I realise now what grabbed me was something that Mexico taught me years ago. At some point the ancestors return and reclaim the earth. All civilisations which ignore their original blueprint live out the consequences of that defection. And whether you understand ‘the ancestors’ as the primordial forces that govern this planet, or a part of yourself that makes sense of everything, to which you are loyal in spite of your upbringing, they are always here: we just have to see and feel them. Make space for them in paper and stone, in a corner of our tidy lives.

In that journey I understood that artists are the ones that remember the tracks those ancestors made in the beginning. Those shapes and colours appear in dreams and on canvas, and artists follow them, in the cities and on the seashore, walking across the land, reminding all of us who watch them of the way back. And when the rational world seems to make less and less sense, becomes more and more incoherent, so it is that the artists come with their intelligence and their wit, their delicate brushstrokes, the rivermud under their fingernails, their mask and their surprise to push the door.

It is my hope as the new ‘curator’ of the Dark Mountain pages dedicated to visual content, that we will be able to publish some of those uncivilised shapes and colours, lines and images. We are now open for submsissions for original work (paintings, drawing, photography) for the next two volumes (Dark Mountain 5 and 6). We are also actively seeking to commission illustrators for some of the stories and poetry, as well as strong images from the four Uncivilisaition Festivals 2010-2013. Please look at the submission guidelines for details and send submissions to [email protected]. Deadline is 6th January.

Poster for Dark Mountain 3 by Mattias Jones (designed Andy Garside)

Images and artists: Laurence Edwards with Creek Man, Butley Creek, Suffolk; Capitalism Hill by Lucca Benney for the documentary, Crisis of Civilisation; The Visitors by Rima Staines; Cayton Bay, Scarbourough by Phlegm; Corn dollies by Anne-Marie Culhane; Cairn by Andreas Kornevall (Book 4); Walk of Seven Cairns by Richard Long; High Water Mark by Dan Grace & Laurence Lord (Book 2); poster for Dark Mountain 3 launch – cover art by Matthias Jones, design by Andy Garside


Charlotte Du  Cann is a writer and editor and one of the core team behind The Dark Mountain Project.

  1. Thanks Charlotte, I find this really interesting and think that yes, there is a dark mountain aesthetic emerging. As someone who once worked in communications design, in recent years I found myself wanting to throw the idea of any kind of ‘brand’ away. Recently however I have come back to this from a more artistic, integrated perspective and believe it does matter that there are coherent, strong aesthetics in the world, but ones that allow for diversity within.

    Being a part of the DM network has strongly influenced by own artistic direction. Looking at other people’s work and my own I feel the aesthetic is handmade, somehow crafted, tactile, sensitive in terms of colour palettes (inspired by nature), magical, and a little other-worldly. There is also a sense of images and objects created being from another time, or timeless.

    I also observe an appreciation for both the highly crafted and ‘skilled’ to amateur art and making. A giving permission to the primal artist and innate qualities of creativity within us all. Similarly with craft for practical purposes (I think of the basket weavers who came to one festival); making because it’s useful and meditative, objects where no two will be the same.

    Just some thoughts anyway, looking forward to reading more along these lines. Can I point you and others towards the Dark Mountain Makers group on the unciv ning network:

    We have had some great discussions started there, I will post a link to this article.

    1. Hi Catherine
      What a stunningly beautiful passage. I am totally in awe….your cred comes over most explicitly and you sound reassuringly appropriate for such an innovative task. Congratulations, what an absorbing and well worthwhile project it will surely prove to be.
      I would say ‘aesthetic’ is on the whole not a bad word to use. It is a term generaly understood to mean what it is actually supposed to mean and has space enough within its concept of ‘principles’ not to be restrictive in the way that principles can be.
      Beuys has, quite profoundly, sparked me too on at least one occasion that i remember well. His snake was well and truly out of the box.

      Hi Emily, you are covering a lot of ground there.
      ‘A giving permission to the primal artist and innate qualities of creativity within us all’.
      That is beautifuly put and yes it is a major realisation that one is actually allowed. Just so long as one can muster the energy to keep a commited focus and play out an ever more personal thread, i am quite content with the role of amateur artist. The psycho therapeutic benefits are enormous….. ‘Amateur’ is a concept that needs to be rediscovered. Somehow teased out from under the shadow of her big brother ‘The Professional’ and a genuine ‘working from the heart’ could be seen to be central to the qualities one might include in ones uncivilised aesthetic. A work can be touching simply through a sense of honesty never mind the skill involved.
      Speaking for myself, ‘art’ is a word that begs some serious redefining, ‘creativity’ being the big broad umberella and ‘innocence’ the key. Yes we should talk more, and perhaps share some pictures.

  2. I am going to say that if we want the coyote to look across the valley, the hare to leap into the underbrush, and the birds to swirl into the berries, we need to build a human society that generates goodness from within, instead of relentlessly cutting every tree, damming every river and digging every mountain in the hopes we will find goodness inside those things.

    So, I think of honeybees at the hive entrance. I think of the long table feast of friends and family after a good and hard day’s work. I think of the viscera filling with ground meat as sausage spirals across the table.

    I think of sunny rooms where elders die, and waterfalls where people worship.

  3. Good day,

    I am writing to ask if my art could be included in Issue 5 perhaps….?
    Blessings and gratitude,



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