On first entering the studio, you might think you have wandered into a deserted laboratory where the experiments have been left to their own devices. Spindly metal frames are dotted everywhere, supporting angled shelves and transparent surfaces, some carrying Perspex tanks of rippling liquid, others covered in piles of strange, organic substances.
These crystalline heaps are almost spilling over onto a floor that is littered with snaking power cables, scattered rocks and cylindrical plaster casts. The set-up is animated by glowing light bulbs and whirring fans, held in place on jutting armatures by clamps and bulldog clips, interacting with strips of image-laced acetate that stir like plastic caught on a wire fence.
Components are linked together with trailing string or wire and are placed at different heights, meaning the eye is drawn from the floor up to nearly the ceiling in an effort to make sense of what’s going on.
The studio is that of London-based artist Hannah Rowan (b.1990) and the multifarious elements on show are typical of those she uses in her work. Everything has a temporary feel, as though it could all be disassembled and reassembled in a rushed 20 minutes. This idea of things lasting for only a limited period of time seems relevant in many ways to Rowan’s work and partly helps to answer that question of what’s going on in her fragmentary installations.
Her studio itself is an impermanent one; Rowan is in her final year at the Royal College of Art, occupying the soon to be demolished Sculpture building on the college’s Battersea campus. Since completing her BA five years ago, she has worked in a number of different spaces with finite time limits, a nomadic working practice familiar to many young artists, which has necessitated the lean towards portability in her work.
Another familiarity is the short-term temp job fitted around art-making; Rowan has worked in the past as a set dresser and art department freelancer for film and TV and her experience creating improvised rigs, coupled with a sense of staging and a proficiency with the practical tools of that profession – clamping, taping, lighting, suspending – is evident in her creations.
A need to carve out a separate space for her practice, away from the pressure cooker of London and its frenetic temp work, led her to participate in a number of international residencies, firstly in 2015 at The Banff Centre, Alberta, Canada, and in 2016 at the Vermont Studio Center, VT, followed by the Wassaic Project, NY, both USA. Again spaces with limited timeframes, each residency offered concentrated creative environments that helped focus the interests already present in her work, as well as fostering new ones.
A personal connection with nature, of a type experienced amongst the awesome splendour of the Canadian Rockies, is something Rowan has tried to instil in her work ever since. A closer inspection of her installations reveals how many natural processes are being recreated in microcosm: melting, evaporation, sedimentation, to name a few.
The stratified plaster casts peppering the floor mimic the gradual layering of rock formations. The humming fans send a faint breeze fluttering through the wisps of hanging film. Water, either in excess or scarcity, is a central theme, almost brimming to the lips of the tanks or tellingly absent in the piles of crusted salt crystals. And the pure blue of glacial melt water is the abiding colour present throughout Rowan’s work, often projected using tinted plastic to lace each scene with an icy tinge.
These filmic devices of lighting, projection and wind machines highlight these processes at work, introducing a further element of time – of the viewer having to be present to witness the shimmering optical effects cast by the interaction of light, colour and movement. These carry a sense of spontaneity and visible flux in contrast to the unseen but nevertheless similarly ever present change of evaporating water, drying salt and slow-forming sediment.
Rowan leaves the mechanics of exactly how these effects are created on show, satisfying not just the viewers’ ‘behind-the-scenes’ curiosity but making their artificiality self evident and highlighting their impermanence. By showing how the work can be easily dismantled and reconfigured, a regular occurrence as it is transposed from site to site, the installations seem frail and contingent, as if removing one element would lead everything to collapse. Each structure feels like part of a mutually dependent ecosystem, interconnected by immaterial light and those fragile strands of string.
These works plainly speak to the state of the natural world so present in Rowan’s thinking – not the submissive Romantic awe typified by the likes of Friedrich but a febrile fascination with an environment contending with gigantic ocean trash vortexes, with rampant deforestation and desertification, with mass flooding and sunken habitats.
Actively engaging with this world through her work for Rowan is key and, again, many of the ideas raised can be seen in relation to time and the temporary: from the acceleration of ecological processes due to human activity, to the divergence between immeasurably slow geological time and rapid, technology-driven contemporary existence
And time marches on for Rowan herself. Within a few months she leaves the RCA and, potentially, London as well. In the meantime, another residency in Chile’s Atacama Desert awaits, the driest non-polar desert on Earth – another space to learn, to reflect and to work alongside artists, scientists and indigenous people who share her concern that that the time available to address these shifting states around us is steadily running out.
All images © Hannah Rowan 2017