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Thursday, July 18, 2024
PeopleDavid Buckland

David Buckland

‘If anyone asks me, I’m from Dorset. Having moved to Dorchester aged 9 and left at 17, with a life spent in London, New York and beyond—I still maintain I am from Dorset. And now I am back with no intention to ‘up sticks’ again.
I finished my schooling in Canada, it was 1968 and the whole of the world’s youth seemed to be on the move, me too as I hitched across Canada wandering the West Coast with a glorious sense of freedom and adventure. The world was a strange and wonderful place then and compared to my small country town background, a massive culture shock compounded by three intense years at the LCP in London studying photography and film. I love the possibility of photography and still do. Photography has always been my medium of expression, an artform that is so in touch with contemporary human existence. You can show a photograph anywhere in the world and people can ‘read’ it, they can get its nuances, interrogating the underbelly of each of our own human quests and social culture—a truly international language.
After college I was awarded the first Gas Board Arts Fellowship in Newcastle for two years. Luckily that allowed me to photograph what I wanted for a good deal of my time, a wonderful opportunity to vision the North East, exhibit, make films and construct my first studio in a converted chapel set in the wilds of Northumberland. But too young to become an artistic hermit I moved south back to London and joined the creative mainstream—a thrilling time working in London, Paris and New York focusing mostly on making portraits of the great and creative humans from the arts and theatre world, holding exhibitions in galleries like the Photographers Gallery, London; Museum of International Photography in Paris and Sander Gallery in New York culminating in a solo show titled Performance at the National Portrait Gallery, London. As a lens-based artist, I used front projection and later worked with the early digital techniques of Photoshop with each of my subjects to create a performance full of visual coding—images that were re-worked into large scale ‘portraits’ for exhibition.
Early on in this adventure I met my partner Sue, whose professional name is Siobhan Davies, a famous ‘modern’ dancer and extraordinary choreographer. On leaving the London Contemporary Dance company in 1980, she formed her own dance company which became housed in the Siobhan Davies Studios—designed by the architect Sarah Wigglesworth. I was much involved with the set and costume design for many of her early productions which toured globally—we were one of the first creative companies to perform in St Petersburg when Russia began to open up—the good days before the regressive horrors that now define Putin’s Russia. Sue was awarded a Fulbright in 1988 and we took our children aged 3 and 1 year on a 7000 mile road trip, a wonderful adventure lasting 5 months, camping in the 5000 year old Canyon de Chelly, joining Apache Indian tribal dance festivals, lording it in the Bond producers house in LA and having extraordinary volumes of time with our children and ourselves.
Late in 1999 in London I worked with Antony Caro to photograph the 25 sculptures that made up his work The Last Judgement. His studio was 200 meters from our Camden house and I would work through the night alone moving, lighting, understanding each sculpture as his team built them during the day. Surrounded by gigantic steel constructions, lumps of moulded clay, railway sleepers and Caro’s artworks as he narrated the twenty vices leading up and through to St Peters Gate. Both he and I on those dark winter Camden nights confronting our own sins and misdeeds and celebrations as he built and I photographed these powerful artworks. Shown as part of the Venice Biennale in 1999 I was tasked with working through the night again to photograph the final install and rush the photographs back to London for the book publication—The Last Judgement. At the time I hadn’t realised it, but I was entering a turning point in my life. Resting that early morning after a night working, I sat by the grand canal, with coffee and the Guardian, I came across a small journalistic story about scientists who had mathematically mapped the whole of the North Atlantic Ocean. Being a sailor and understanding the mind-blowing complexity of Oceans I was intrigued, shocked and mistrustful that such complexity could be narrated within a mathematical algorithm.
Tracking down its author, Dr Richard Wood at the Hadley Institute, he graciously allowed me to visit. The reasons for the dramatic climate changes we are now experiencing were obvious to the climate scientists back then, but sadly not to those with vested interests in keeping the status quo—or our governments of influence.
Following that scientific trail, and as a keen sailor, I was invited to visit the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. They were perplexed as to why so few were listening to these important climate predictions which they had spent years of work accurately predicting. The scientific language can be viewed as complex, abstract, distant. My suggestion was, as an artist, to try and come up with a cultural language, human scale, to narrate the climate crises.
Long story short, I chartered a beautiful 100-year-old schooner based in Tromso, which had been converted to a 20-berth eco exploration vessel with ice capability and in 2003 for three weeks we set sail going north of Norway high into the Arctic heading for the Svalbard archipelago. The interaction between scientists and the artists was a great success and in all I led six expeditions traversing the High Arctic and the seas around Svalbard, across to east Greenland, western Greenland and northern Iceland—much of it through ice, wild seas, polar bears, all the time conducting ocean experiments and making art. Ian McEwan joined us and wrote his book Solar, sculptors Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread, musicians Jarvis Cocker, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Martha Wainwright, KT Tunstall, Feist, composer Jonathan Dove—who has written two ‘climate’ operas. I produced two films, one of the BBC and one for Sundance. A world touring Cape Farewell exhibition was launched at the Natural History Museum.
The High Arctic was the witness of human induced climate disruption not its cause—solutions rested within our human capacity to engage and evolve a sustainable culture not dependent on digging up fossil fuels and burning them.
Still based in London I initiated FarmArt, involving local farmers in Sydling St Nicholas and Cerne Abbas. Cape Farewell’s artists looked at how do they produce the food we need, how to look after soil, how to produce less CO2, how to manage animals well. I look upon these organic farmers as heroes, having to deal with so many varied problems as part of their every-day life, which is a hard one. Land-artist Chris Drury and writer Kay Syrad published their book Exchange, Guy Martin created a wooden bell-tower sculpture ‘Forcey’s Tower’ and the young artist Vanessa Reid constructed a pop up gallery on Bristol docks which she co-habited with two Jersey cows for a week—The Milking Parlour was accompanied with a flood of media.
Being back in Dorset became too big a temptation and I succumbed, buying an old fish farm in Sydling St Nicholas and slowly converting it into an ecological site, building artist studios and the WaterShed became the new HQ for the Cape Farewell charity. Bliss!
One of our current projects involves rivers. The scientists at the RiverLab near Wool were looking at salmon in the River Frome, and why their numbers are declining. Pollution from nitrates and phosphates causing algal blooms in Poole Harbour, release of raw sewage and urban encroachment is stressing our rivers and the wildlife dependent on them. In December 2021 we staged a RiverRun mini climate festival at Poole’s Lighthouse and have just finished a week-long Emergency festival at MAST in Southampton. In hope, we are about to embark on a three-year partnership with Wessex Museums staging RiverRun artworks and events. In April Cape Farewell is working with artist Sasha Constable to create a river serpent as part of the Cerne Abbas Giant Festival.
That interchange between art and science combined with the climate challenge is exciting, salient and threatening. The arts have a serious roll to play in tipping local and global cultures towards a sustainable and vibrant future.
All from a tiny village in Dorset.’

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