An interview with Alison Cooke
Alison Cooke, an artist based in London, works with clay excavated directly from the ground from interventions such as mining, engineering or scientific research. She uses the clay in its natural state to make ceramics based around the history and future of the location. Cooke has recently been researching the Doggerland, an ancient fertile lowland between the UK and Europe which is now covered by the North Sea.
What lead you to begin working with this geographical area and how have your previous works informed your approach?
My work usually revolves around the histories of a subject and a location, with a particular focus on hidden or underground networks and systems. I make connections with these histories, looking at how they might relate to, and impact on, our lives today and in the future. I use materials from the locations to make the work.
As a child I had been told about Doggerland; the fertile lowland, inhabited by thousands, that had once joined Britain to mainland Europe, as a result of water from the North Sea being frozen in a glacier during the last ice age. It had been thought that this land disappeared under the sea hundreds of thousands of years ago, but evidence now shows that there remained a land bridge until as recently as 5500BC. As our climate warms, the sea levels rise, as it cools the seas become locked in ice and our seas empty. The exposure and inundation of Doggerland has repeated many times through the millennia and although these extremes can be catastrophic for all kinds of life, there’s something about the simplicity of this process that interests me, particularly as we are on the same global warming trajectory that began about 20,000 years ago. At this point in history with widening political divisions of Brexit and rising sea levels, I’m drawn to the piece of land that once joined us to mainland Europe and remember the physical border of the North Sea is temporary.
You are collaborating with a research initiative Europe’s Lost Frontiers. Could you tell us a little bit more about this group and in what ways you have collaborated or learned from this group so far?
ELF is a 5-year scientific research project led by professor Vincent Gaffney. It has been using various technologies to map the topography of the ancient buried landscape of Doggerland and from there explore likely sites of human settlement. The members of the group have been taking sediment core samples from below the sea floor, analysing and dating them to provide information about the flora and fauna and of climate change.
I was fascinated by their project and it seemed particularly poignant during a time when the future impact of manmade climate change is unknown, and the split between the UK and Europe imminent. I first approached ELF in 2017 in the hope of obtaining some core material to work with. A few weeks later a chunk of ‘Doggerland’, about 14cm in diameter, arrived in the post. It was from core ELF02 from approximately 100km NW of the Wash and 3.6m below the sea floor. It had fallen out of the coring tube and so for scientific purposes was contaminated. For a year I followed the progress of ELF, within the limits of my understanding of the complex mapping of historic environments. During this time I was also thinking about what to make with this small, but valuable, piece of core that I had been given.
In November 2019 I requested and was given access to photograph the Doggerland cores. They are held in a cold storage unit in rural Wales at -20 degrees. I learnt that when they first exit the ground they are kept in the dark, sliced in half and wrapped. One half is kept sterile and the other half is used for research. Dr. Martin Bates from ELF, a geoarcheologist, talked me through the timeline of environmental change seen in ELF02, from 25,000 years ago to the present day, from dry land environment, through rising ground water as it became bogland, then to when freshwater shells appear, and eventually saltwater shells and sand as the land is inundated by the North Sea, approximately 7,500 thousand years ago.
The more interesting the information they gain from each core, the more holes are dug in them as they take more samples to test. The cores are beautiful and mind-blowing.
I was given further fragments to work with from the deepest parts of core ELF02 and ELF52 and some peat, which would have been bogland. The peat I find particularly interesting as this represents the time that ground waters started rising and when that part of the land was becoming uninhabitable. What is difficult to ascertain is the speed at which the water rose.
You are working with core samples extracted from the Doggerland by scientists as well as collecting your own samples from the coasts nearest to Doggerland. What are your observations of these samples and what was revealed when you test fired them?
The initial chunk of Doggerland is a dry mix of compressed silt with lumps of chalk in it. Although I wanted to test it, fire it, and make something with it, I couldn’t bear to break it up. I have fired the dust that falls from it, but also exhibited it as it is.
As with most projects the material I obtain sometimes has very few clay particles, and firing unknown materials is unpredictable. Firing unsieved clay often leads to cracking and exploding and so I mostly sieve larger debris out first, as this tends to give more stable results. The result of firing material from the extra Doggerland core fragments was a dull terracotta colour ceramic, which I found thrilling. At a higher temperature it broke up.
I next went to the Cromer Ridge in North Norfolk with geologist Martin Warren who talked me through the layers and timelines within the cliffs. 450,000 years ago a glacier 50m thick had stopped at this point. The Cromer Ridge is a terminal morraine and the materials I was searching for were the debris dropped by this glacier as it melted. It held all the material that was dredged up from the North Sea and as it melted it poured out and over time formed distinct layers. I took home a car-load of 12 different clay type materials. I test fired these at a range of temperatures, melting some, which resulted in an amazing array of colours and textures.
My favourite clay from that coastline I took from Happisburgh, from the site of the oldest known footprints outside Africa. These footprints, made approx 850,000 years ago were found in sediment on the beach after a storm (coincidentally discovered by Dr. Martin Bates). Although the footprints have gone I obtained some of the sediment layer. The footprints are thought to have been made by five individuals who most likely walked across Doggerland. This material fired to a dull dark terracotta.
Alongside the glacial clays, Shane Waltener, a Belgian artist working in the UK, brought me some clay material from Groningen on the coastline of the Netherlands which he brought over Doggerland by boat.
Ceramics inspired by this research were part of a group exhibition titled ‘New Doggerland’ at Thames-side Studios Gallery, London. Could you tell us a little bit more about this work and plans for future works?
‘New Doggerland’, curated by Jane Millar, opened on the eve of Brexit, 31st January 2020. I exhibited an installation that included an enlarged print of core ELF02, a series of ceramic footprints made of the sediment from core ELF02, the Norfolk glacial clays and Netherlands clay, and the original Doggerland chunk of core sample. The footprints, were fired at a rising range of temperatures (to mirror the rise of global temperatures that lead to sea level rise) in reference to the people that lived on and walked across the land which joined the UK to continental Europe, and which is now under the sea.
ELF have invited me to their end of project conference with the possibility to exhibit there, although with the country in lockdown this is uncertain. More recently I’ve been looking at using the Doggerland materials as a print medium. I have also been researching a major catastrophic event called Storegga Falls in which a massive underwater landslide off the coast of the Norway approximately 8,000 years ago, caused a gigantic tidal wave and probably removed vast areas of the land-bridge between the UK and Europe.
Alongside the Doggerland works I’m in the research stage of a new project that looks at mass extinction events, particularly more recent ones, and am looking into who best to approach to obtain related materials to work with.
Thinking about the visual representation of time passing found in the core samples in comparison to the ‘stillness’ of fired ceramics, how are ideas of pace and movement explored in your works?
The idea running through the use of the clays was that of separating and capturing time in slices. Each of the ceramic footprints is made of materials that were laid down at different points in history, but each from a time when Doggerland was dry land, when it could be walked across. The “stillness” of the material once ceramic is what I’m after; to freeze time and location. I stamped map references into the Cromer Ridge clays in the knowledge that in a few years the eroding cliffs they came from would be under the North Sea, and in a few millennia they may be back in a glacier. The “youngest” footprint is made of Doggerland core, a material that was dry land approx 25,000 years and the oldest is the Happisburgh footprint made of sediment dated approx 850,000 years ago, with the others spanning between those eras. In terms of clay these are very young materials, London clay for example is 54 million years old. I chose not to display the footprints chronologically by time, but by the temperature and location, as it is temperature that dictates the sea level and whether Doggerland was exposed.
Alison would like to thank Europe’s Lost Frontiers for their support.