Review: Fine Line: Twelve Environmental Sculptures Encircle the Earth

Reviewed by Paul Simei-Barton

Environmental artists Martin Hill and Philippa Jones serve up a visual feast in Fine Line with 260 glossy pages documenting a series of ephemeral sculptures placed in stunningly beautiful locations around the globe.

Environmental artists Martin Hill and Philippa Jones serve up a visual feast with 260 glossy pages documenting a series of ephemeral sculptures placed in stunningly beautiful locations around the globe.

The Fine Line vision came to Hill while sitting on a New Zealand beach in 1995. His partner Philippa Jones enthusiastically joined the venture and the ensuing 25-year odyssey became a vehicle for their shared passions for mountain climbing, environmental art and the natural world.

In an introductory essay, best-selling author Fritjof Capra likens the project to a pilgrimage, noting the physical hardships of their protracted journey required perseverance, humility and an openness to surprises.

The site-specific works were often hastily constructed in perilous conditions in wildly inhospitable environments. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising the sculptures do not have the conceptual sophistication of 1970s’ land art or the exquisitely crafted quality of Andy Goldsworthy’s work - but whatever may be lacking in artistic finesse is lavishly compensated by the breathtakingly spectacular landscapes that frame and enhance the installations.

Hill’s extensive mountaineering experience allowed the pair to access locations other artists would long for and Jones’s sharply written commentary details how fickle alpine weather meant simply completing the sculptures was often a major achievement.

Within the Arctic Circle on Baffin Island, the intrepid couple camped out on ancient glaciers, dodged polar bears and negotiated perilous crossings of fast flowing streams fed by glacial melt-water. They were rewarded with a dramatic photo of a disc of cut-ice sitting beneath the towering granite of the evocatively named Thor Peak which is a fabled destination for mountain climbing aficionados.

On Mt Kenya, Jones languished at base-camp with a bacterial infection while Hill’s hasty ascent to the 4850-meter summit brought on a debilitating attack of altitude sickness.

Typically Scottish weather on the Isle of Skye added a palpable element of danger to a roped climb over the vertiginous rock-faces of the Cuillin mountains which yielded a sombre image of a ritualistic circle of rocks resting on a wind-swept ledge overlooking a bleak valley opening to the North Sea.

A seriously cool head for heights would have been required for their installation at Yosemite National Park where a spiral of coarse sand was laid onto a precariously tilted slab of granite overhanging the vertical Northwest Face of Half Dome which plummets more than 1000m into the Yosemite Valley.

A more prolonged stay at Scott Base in Antarctica produced some of the book’s more complex works beginning with an ethereal photo which shows a fragmented ice-flow adrift in a psychedelic ocean. The other-worldly beauty of Antarctica is nicely off-set by a sloping circle of cylindrical ice-core samples rising out of intricately textured sea-ice to create an image that evokes the rigorous scientific research undertaken at Scott Base.

On the opposite side of the globe, Iceland’s glaciers and volcanoes provided an appropriate setting for a fine study in contrasts with volcanic ash delineating a black arc on fresh white snow while a line of white snow completed the circle as it extends over a patch of black volcanic rock.

Enormous care has been taken with photographing each of the sculptures and Hill’s striking compositions show a fine sensitivity for the way delicate shifts in the angle of light dramatically enhance the texture and colour of natural forms.

Hill’s background in visual design is evident in the digitally super-imposed ‘fine-line’ which links the 12 key images in the sculptural series. For the cover shot taken on the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe, the fine-line graphic passes through an icy triangle held within a disc of packed snow and recalls the famous Pink Floyd album cover of a light ray entering a prism.

In some of the shots the fine line inscribed on a clear blue sky brings to mind the aesthetically pleasing but environmentally toxic vapour trails left by jet aircraft as they wing their way around the globe.

The book concludes with an essay by veteran British environmentalist Jonathon Porritt who suggests environmental artists play a vital role in shifting our consciousness towards a deeper sense of connection with nature. While this is probably true, the book also presents an alluring advertisement for the kind of globe-trotting adventure tourism which needs to be curtailed if we are to meet the urgency of the climate-change crisis.

That said, the Fine Line project offers an attractive alternative to the knock-‘em off machismo often associated with mountaineering and the book which would be a handsome addition to any coffee-table, speaks with eloquence, sincerity and visual panache about the need for genuine connection between communities and the natural environment.

Reviewed by Paul Simei-Barton