Environmental art in action

Photography Martin Hill

Fine Line – artistic endeavours that speak for the Earth and return to it.

Carving a snow sculpture with an ice axe while balancing on a precipice sounds like risky business, but for these committed environmental artists, that comes with the territory.

Over the past quarter-century, Martin Hill and Philippa Jones have been scaling heights around the globe making art in the most unlikely places. They use natural materials found at each location, such as stone, snow, ice and grass, which ultimately return harmlessly to the environment, mimicking nature’s cyclical processes. Only the photographs remain as an inspiration to “think deeply and change fundamentally”.

Their Fine Line project has now been made into a book, its release timed to coincide with the recent COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow where Hill and Jones hoped to also celebrate a defining moment in history where world leaders finally acted to prevent climate breakdown with an agreement to hold global warming below 1.5 degrees. “Sadly, this was not achieved and the fine line we are treading has just become even more fine,” says Hill. 

What is uplifting, is the completion of Fine Line, which Hill and Jones hope will inspire more people to take action.

The global environmental art/science project draws a symbolic line around the Earth to connect 12 ephemeral sculptures. The line starts and finishes in New Zealand, and each sculpture connects to the other through this representative line. It alludes to the ‘fine line’ we tread between economic prosperity and ecological disaster and the circularity and inter-connectedness of the web of life.

“It’s a planetary concept. You can’t create a sustainable world in one place. You have to do it everywhere because everything is connected and everything effects everything else. So the line going around the Earth is a reference to that,” Hill says.

Fine Line also aims to promote systemic design solutions to climate, ecological and social collapse by learning from living systems.

“We need to redesign our lives, businesses and energy use to become regenerative and therefore compatible with the Earth’s natural systems on which we totally rely.”

The pair met in New Zealand in 1996 while rock climbing. Hill was 48 and Jones 44. Now in their 70s, they are still climbing and the day before this interview they’d cycled the Lake Dunstan Trail on their e-bikes. 

Home is Wanaka where they grow their own vegetables, compost and look after the trees on their land. 

They never imagined Fine Line would take them 25 years to complete, but many things intervened, including the fact the project was entirely self-funded.

Hill, a photographer, began to make land art in 1994 and envisioned the Fine Line concept. When he later shared his vision with Jones, a weaver and writer, she resonated with the idea and was all in!

“The idea was to combine our lives of going to these wild mountain regions and making these works with the concept of interconnectedness, which is essential to an understanding of changing our model of progress from degenerative to regenerative – one that understands natural systems and operates accordingly,” says Hill.

“The work is about sustainable design, which is referenced by the use of nature’s materials, which go back where they came from without harm.”

The couple hope their work will have more impact in 2022 as in the beginning it wasn’t always fully appreciated.

“Global warming was clearly understood 30 years ago but it’s taken us 30 years to get to the point where governments are actually admitting it, never mind doing anything about it. And frankly, they’re not doing enough,” says Hill. “We never thought it would take 25 years to complete the project. I thought that people would pick up on it after five years and we’d have international support and it would be exhibited around the world but we came across the same negativity that the scientists have come across because people didn’t understand it, or if they did understand it, it wasn’t in their interest to act on it.”

With the climate emergency that has now changed and Fine Line has already been featured in BBC4 series Nature and Us: A History through Art. They’re hopeful their work will inspire people to take action.

“All the information is out there. It’s up to the people to embrace it,” says Jones. “We try to inspire people to listen, learn and do stuff.”

The first sculpture in the book was created on the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe, Tongariro National Park, in 1997. Hill laughs as he recalls Jones saying she wasn’t sure if the snow sculpture with a triangle in the circle would work. It’s now on the cover of the book.

A year earlier they were “stormed off” Ngauruhoe’s peak. It wrecked their tent and in hindsight, it was a “blessing because the presence of snow was ideal for sculpture making”. 

The book, and line, ends on Mt Ruapehu in 2019. They chose not to climb to the summit of Ngauruhoe on this occasion out of respect for the local iwi. “We had no idea that 20 years later we’d still be trying to do the last one and connect up that line,” says Jones. “It was not the right thing to do, to climb Ngauruhoe again.”

All of the climbs in the book were profound experiences for the couple and involved a huge effort and a lot of self-belief and perseverance but one of the most memorable climbs for Jones was Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, in 1996, which looks hair-raising in the photographs. 

“It wasn’t death-defying, but it did take nerve. That rock is very solid but it’s hanging over a 1,000-metre cliff but as rock climbers we are accustomed to precarious spots,” says Jones. “The precariousness of it was part of the idea, reflecting our precarious human way of life.”

Jones remembers them sitting up in the rocks leaning against their packs with a little stove as they waited for the sun to come up and watching the sun go down and sitting there in the dark. “Martin and I had only been together for a year and it was an out-of-this-world experience.”

In British Columbia, Canada the peak they chose was literally a sharp rock summit they could barely stand on. They made a sculpture there from snow with the concept referencing humanity’s position on the abyss.

A two-week trip on Baffin Island, Canada – home to some of the highest walls in the world and twin-peaked Mount Asgard – was extremely arduous and required carrying large amounts of equipment and eating dehydrated food. It was also very remote. To get there and back also involved multiple river crossings in glacial water.

And that’s before they even got to making a sculpture and photographing it as well as waiting for the weather to come right. Sometimes it doesn’t, as was the case in the Isle of Skye, Scotland where it rained for a week.

They also need to be on location long enough to be able to gather materials and then be in a position where the light is good enough for photography.

“Some of the sculptures have been really hard work. Some of them are very simple and quick. Some of them are quite momentary and a photograph captures them in that moment and then they’re gone. Some of them are heavy work, heaving rocks and shovelling snow, and one of the most challenging things is coping with weather conditions,” says Jones.

There have been times where nature has also worked for them. In Switzerland their stone circle was “a bit bland”. “We knew a storm was coming through and the idea was if it’s stormy enough this could transform it, and it did. Over a 24-hour period it snowed, and everything changed,” says Hill.

Two of Jones’ strengths include weaving and improvising, which came in handy in Madagascar. When the couple did a reconnaissance climb all they could find was vegetation, which they didn’t want to disturb, so they went back to the valley and made a sculpture from grasses that they then carried back to the location.

“That was a very unusual way for us to work but in this case we had to improvise,” says Jones.

Weaving sculptures is something she enjoys because it means she is working with her bare hands rather than being gloved up with crampons and ice axes.

She also loves working by the water where they often use reflections to complete their sculptures.

Hill prefers everything to come from a conceptual idea, which he finds the most satisfying.

What does he say to people who compare his work to land artist Andy Goldsworthy?

“Our work is similar to all the other environmental land artists because we use nature. Land art is a genre. We are inspired by Richard Long, Chris Drury and Nils-Udo. We focus on our art practice and our communication intention without being affected by social media and online discussion. We just ignore it.”

What he cares most about is demonstrating that nature has the power to regenerate.

“I believe art can help trigger change and inspire us to look at problems as opportunities for innovation from which multiple beneficial outcomes increase wellbeing for all.” 

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