Millican Dalton: A Sublime Midlife Crisis
The relevance of a 20th century cave-dweller to environmental aesthetics.
Wednesday, 23 December 2020
At the mouth of the cave at Borrowdale, May 2020. Photograph: Lewis Eaton.
On a swelteringly hot day in the North Western Fells of The Lake District, the gaping mouth of a cave offered itself as a refuge and swallowed us mercifully into its cool damp interior. Caves are otherworldly places. This particular cave, set into the hillside of Castle Crag, allows you to peer out at the gently swaying trees and glimmering daylight of the outside world from a viewing point void of light and sound. The daytrip itself had been to seek refuge in The Lakes; an attempt at replacing the stagnancy of a locked-down city summer with a more welcome, less claustrophobic, kind of tranquillity. We spent a few minutes scrambling around on the siltstone, marvelling at the height of the cave walls and exchanging the obligatory comments about feeling small in big spaces. On leaving, I noticed a large, flat stone covered in scrawlings. At the centre in neat, deeply-etched letters read ‘Don’t Waste Words, Jump to Conclusions’ with dozens of smaller sections of writing surrounding this. Each gave names and dates, with many faded with age and dissolving back into the stone’s surface. It was from a frantic Googling during the car ride home that I came to find out we had happened across a sort-of pilgrimage place for hikers: the cave in which a man had lived out his summers for over forty consecutive years.
In 1904, at the age of thirty-six, Millican Dalton gave up his life as an insurance clerk in London in order to dedicate himself to The Great Outdoors. Having spent part of his childhood in Nenthead, the North Pennines, he found life and work in the capital stifling in comparison. From then on Dalton split his year, spending the summer months in the cave under Castle Crag and winters in a canvas hut in Buckinghamshire. Far from your conventional hermit, Dalton was an active and sociable member of the community. He organised camping excursions for the outdoors novice which included teaching hiking, rock climbing, rafting and how to forage for food. What I found extraordinary for the time was that these excursions didn’t exclude women, with one of Dalton’s advertisements for a mountaineering course stating his views bluntly: “Ladies are welcome to the camp. There is nothing new in ladies camping, the custom being at least 10,000 years old.” This rare indiscriminate approach led to Dalton forging a long-lasting friendship with geologist Mabel Barker, who over the years consistently recommended Dalton’s courses to women students and friends.
Dalton and Barker atop a needle, 1913. The Mable Barker Collection.
Sarah Sze at Victoria Miro Gallery
by Rachel McHale | 27 October 2021
Known for challenging static sculpture and emphasising transformation, the contemporary artist Sarah Sze creates works in a state of suspension. This monographic exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery, including work scaled especially to the space, expands these themes, bringing to light a constant dynamism. Sze’s works can be found in Gallery II, reached by ascending an immense seventy-two-step staircase contained within an extremely narrow corridor: one of the gallery’s many quirks. On the white walls of the long, tall gallery hang six large paintings. Scaled specifically to this space, these new paintings reveal Sze’s ongoing preoccupation with works in motion.
Conceived in pairs, the paintings show a development and transformation from one piece into another, emphasising a state of endless flux. The two parts of a pair are hung opposite each other, highlighting links and creating a dialogue between the two. Navigating from one side of the gallery to the other, I was drawn to the interchange the pairs present. Each painting can be viewed as a stage within a broader process of evolution; yet no hierarchy is imposed between the two, rejecting the idea of a beginning and a finished product and instead laying emphasis on mutual influences and development. Sze’s consideration of each individual artwork as ‘a window into a chain of ongoing decisions’ is eminent; the changes between each painting underline the various steps in their development from one piece to the other.
What is most striking is the way her works seemingly expand into the gallery space. Her sculptures, as part of the Fallen Sky series related to her huge site-specific installation on the hillside of Storm King Arts Center in New York, are intimately connected to their surroundings. Like the installation in New York (although on a much smaller scale), the sculptures reflect their environment. They draw in outside elements such as trees and clouds, and change depending on the weather, appearing blue on a bright day and grey on a cloudy day. One sculpture occupies the outside space at the back of the gallery that precedes the route upstairs, perfectly highlighting the work’s reflection of the outside world and acting as an insight into what is to come inside. Adapting to their surroundings, the sculptures are in a constant state of transformation, furthering Sze’s emphasis on evolution seen in her paintings. As the sculptures are comprised of many different individual pieces, Sze focuses on a sense of fragmentation – a broader theme in her work.
Similarly, her large paintings are made up of countless fragmented elements. Collage pieces, including scraps of train tickets, photographs and coloured paper, are integrated amidst vibrant paints, imbuing the works with an incredible texture. The use of collage does not, however, create soft edges as one might expect. Instead, clear shapes and lines are visible within the works. I found myself mesmerised by them, staring into these squares and shapes, trying to locate the centre. My eyes flicked from the middle to the edge and back again. Yet just as I was drawn in, the shapes simultaneously point outwards, the squares and rectangles mirroring the shape of the gallery.
The gallery does away with wall texts, instead inviting viewers to read about the exhibition online by scanning QR codes. Whilst this perhaps means that elements of the creative process go unremarked, I think it makes the dialogue between the works all the more fruitful. Situated in between the pieces, the viewer is a more present witness to the constant transformation explored through these works, and is left to draw their own parallels.
Sze does not simply create finished works of art at which to marvel; behind these paintings and sculptures lies an emphasis on process and transformation, forming an exhibition that hums with a constant motion.
Sarah Sze, Imprint Apparition, 2021. Oil paint, acrylic paint, acrylic polymers, ink, aluminium, diabond and wood.
© Sarah Sze. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.
Sarah Sze, Imprint, 2021. Oil paint, acrylic paint, acrylic polymers, ink, aluminium, diabond and wood. © Sarah Sze. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.
Sarah Sze, Air from Air (Fallen Sky Series), 2021. Stainless steel. © Sarah Sze. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.
Sarah Sze, Double Take Apparition, 2021. Oil paint, acrylic paint, acrylic polymers, ink, aluminum, diabond and wood. © Sarah Sze. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.