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Kate Whiteford: Land Drawings; Installations; Excavations

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Unusually for a land artist, Kate Whiteford’s references begin below the ground with archaeology

Kate Whiteford’s acute sense of history informs her masterful land art, writes Gillian Darley

Kate Whiteford: Land Drawings/Installations/Excavations by Richard Cork, Colin Renfrew and Richard Nightingale. Black Dog, 2009, 192pp, £24.95

Unusually for a land artist, Kate Whiteford’s references begin below the ground with archaeology. More usually such pieces linger over and draw on the attributes of place, season, setting and memory, but her work, documented in Kate Whiteford; land drawings/ installations/ excavations shows an intense interest in the subterranean that  emerged more than thirty years ago, during her first stay at the British School at Rome. 

She had arrived with a particular interest in site-specific work (above all Giotto di Bondone’s great cycle fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua) but found her interests expanded when working with field archaeologists.  That backwards, or downwards pull, her fascination with evidence of the past, corporeal or imaginary as the case might be, has proved to be the persistent thread running through a remarkably consistent and thoughtful body of work.  The connections to history and myth find Whiteford modelling symbols, signs, logos and even putative traces on the ground on many sites – but particularly in Scotland, her own country.

This new monograph on her work takes the reader on a coherent and stimulating journey in her company. The principal essay, offering an overview of her career, is by the critic Richard Cork, with additional contributions from a number of clients, collaborators and Whiteford herself.  On Calton Hill, Edinburgh the existing neoclassical structures set the scale but the work itself, Sculpture for Calton Hill (1987) became almost a riposte – naturalistic symbols of Pictish origin (spiral, fish) scored into the turf around a hilltop temple to the Scottish Enlightenment.

Whiteford’s has also increasingly turned to film.  A commission to illustrate Gaelic poetry diverted her from her original intention to make a land drawing in the Outer Hebrides. The extraordinary pitted terrain of Lewis, marked out by the runrigs of traditional cultivation, inspired her to make an aerial film on Super 8, using a sound track of wind, engine noise and fragments of spoken and sung Gaelic. This, together with works on paper and photographs, was exhibited at the An Lanntair Gallery in Stornaway in 2007.

Representations of language - especially traces from distant millennia- have always intrigued her.  Marked runic stones, Bronze Age inscribed rocks and Egyptian incisions have all fed into Kate Whiteford’s work. The distinguished archaeologist Professor Sir Colin Renfrew, at the time Master of Jesus College, Cambridge was her client for work carried out at Chapel Court, where she overlaid, as if it were ‘evidence’, the founder’s heraldic emblem, taking as her starting point an unsettling set of Luftwaffe aerial reconnaissance photographs.

On the evidence, Whiteford is an assured and stimulating collaborator.  In recent years she has worked on set designs with the Rambert Dance Company, added contemporary markings to major historic designed landscapes (at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute and Harewood House) and  worked in partnership with architectural practices such as Cullum and Nightingale, MacCormac Jamieson Prichard and Benson and Forsyth. Her land drawings play with perspective, scale and texture, and, increasingly, with colour and light, both of which were used for Airfield,  her exhibition at Compton Verney in 2007. Everything that has gone before suggests that there are intriguing projects to come.

Resume: Going underground and above-ground with Whiteford is always a pleasure

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