“Tilting at windmills” exhibition explores visual impact of wind farms on landscape

“Tilting at windmills” exhibition showing at Other cafe & gallery, East London

I am relieved to say that the official opening of my “Tilting at windmills” exhibition at Other café & gallery in Dalston, East London last Thursday went rather well. Well-attended by fellow photographers, former classmates and curious locals, it proved that photography can be a powerful way of engaging the public in the debate on climate change, landscape and the environment. The gallery, with its exposed brick wall and low beams, created an intimate atmosphere, which allowed the images in the exhibition to really shine under the spotlights. Whilst the next-door lounge with its subdued lighting and quirky artwork provided an ideal spot to relax and discuss the exhibition over a glass of wine.

I was surprised by the overwhelming positive reaction expressed by visitors to the exhibition towards wind turbines in the landscape. This is most likely a reflection of the local demographic in Hackney where people are generally more liberal in outlook as well as being physically removed from the frontline of the landscape versus wind power debate. I hope to show the same exhibition in Norwich Arts Centre in Norfolk at the start of 2013. It will be interesting to gauge the reaction of locals in Norfolk to the same images. I expect that the topic will be rather more controversial and reflect the more polarizing nature of wind turbines in that part of the country.

I’ve also begun to view the images differently now that they are hanging together as a single body of work on the gallery walls. The images are displayed in pairs, which is emphasized by the captions and arrangement on the walls. I can now see a narrative flowing across these pairs from the bright sunlight of a crop-filled field to the closing twilight of an urban landscape. I have tried to convey the visual impact of wind power from both a practical standpoint, as directly experienced by a neighbour, and also as a more abstract idea through shadows and reflections. Changing seasons and changing light serve to emphasize that a landscape is ever evolving and this in turn influences how we perceive man-made structures embedded in that landscape. Understandably people were searching for their favourite image in terms of physical and emotional appeal. I am more interested in the public’s reaction to the entire body of work. I have tried to tell a story about the conflict between protecting landscape and building structures that provide clean energy. Some will embrace wind farms as a necessary addition to a modern landscape in the 21st century. Others will no doubt lament that scenes of rural life have been invaded by towering man-made structures.

Several people asked me why I chose the title “Tilting at windmills” for this exhibition besides the rather obvious mention of wind power. “Tilting at windmills” has entered the modern English lexicon as a figurative way to describe attacks on imaginary enemies, or to misguided courses of action based on romantic or idealistic justifications. To my mind, this expression encapsulates both sides of the debate – romantic notions towards the preservation of what is perceived by some as an idyllic rural landscape versus idealistic notions about the reality of man-made climate change as one of the greatest environmental threats facing the world.

The origins of “Tilting at windmills” go back to 1605 in a book by Miguel de Cervantes called Don Quixote, one of the greatest works of fiction ever published (certainly in the Spanish speaking world). I like the fact that more than 400 years later, the expression has new significance and a modern day relevance that could not have been foreseen.  It also neatly emphasizes just how long wind power has been a feature of the landscape. This conflict between Man and Nature is certainly not a modern day phenomenon. I also wanted to portray the long history of wind power in my images and fortunately, there were many opportunities to do just that since East Anglia has more windmills than any other part of the UK. The image of Herringfleet windmill in Suffolk dates from 1820, built to drain water from the surrounding marshland of the Broads, and now Grade II listed by English Heritage.

Windmills are not the only man-made features in the natural landscape that have come to be loved and admired. The Ribblehead railway Viaduct in North Yorkshire, England faced huge opposition due to impact on the landscape when constructed in the 1870s. A century later, people were campaigning against the closure of the same viaduct, which had become an integral feature of the landscape. I suspect that traditional windmills in this country have experienced a similar change of attitude with time. Does this imply that the outlook of future generations towards the visual impact of wind farms will be more favourable?

My own feelings towards wind turbines have changed since I started this project several months ago. Wind turbines were foreign to me before starting the project. I think that the physical distance between people and turbines is one reason why they can be viewed as “alien intruders” in the landscape. So it was quite exciting to get up close and personal with the turbines – to see just what huge structures they really are and to see how they connect with the land in which they are placed. They feel less intimidating to me now.

Landscape and wind power both need each other. As I’ve noted in a previous blog, our most precious landscapes deserve to be protected but equally we need to avoid climate change impacts that could destroy these landscapes through flooding or other extreme weather events. The Norfolk Broads, Britain’s largest protected wetland, stand to be inundated with saltwater that would destroy its unique freshwater ecosystem if sea levels rise from climate change. Assuming that onshore wind power is one of the most advanced, cost effective and scalable clean energy sources, is it not irresponsible to avoid building the structures that can protect against the source of future threats to the landscape? That is not to say that wind farms should be built on unique habitat. But land with suitable wind resource will still need to be freed up somewhere for development and this will most likely be situated in rural areas.

My intention has always been to leave the images open to interpretation and to present both sides of the debate. So pay a visit to the exhibition before it closes to make up your own mind…

Tilting at windmills” – an exhibition by Colin Cafferty is showing at Other café and gallery, 48 Balls Pond Road, Dalston, London N1 4AP from 14 September 2012 to 10 October 2012. Opening hours Mon-Fri 9.30am-7pm. Sat-Sun 9.30am-6pm  (closed Tuesdays). Entry free.

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