Skip to main content

< Return to artist's essay

Chris Welsby

By David Curtis

1. Introduction

Laura Mulvey points out - in her introduction to the British Film Institute's recent DVD collection of his works - that Chris Welsby's true subject is weather, and changes within the view.

Earlier critics have described Welsby as an artist whose use of film extended a British tradition of Landscape painting established in the Romantic period by Cozens, Constable and Cotman. Certainly the exterior spaces of cityscapes, seascapes and wilderness are seen in his films and installations, but the painterly tradition he feels closer to is that inaugurated by Cezanne and Monet; artists who understood that landscape is never static; always changing. Like them, his work acknowledges our changing relationship to the environment, drawing on twentieth century science and art-practice to re-define the idea of Landscape with a relevance to our own times.

With each work he makes, Welsby devises new ways in which technology can make visible and comprehensible the changing scene. For him, it is also important that technology (the camera and shooting strategies) should be in harmony with its subject. In an interview with John Wyver he states that: [Each] film could be read as an environmental model, in which technology and nature work together, rather than technology dominating nature. (Transcript of Illuminations TV interview with Chris Welsby by John Wyver, 2004 (unpublished).

2. Early Work

In one of his earliest films, the two-screen Wind Vane (1972), the uneven motion of wind across the hilly parkland of London's Hampstead Heath controls the panning-movement of two cameras positioned fifty feet (fifteen meters) apart.

The changes in camera-view determine the viewers' capacity to 'read' the landscape, by inference allowing them to 'see' the wind as it influences first one camera, then the other. Like many of his films, Wind Vane suggests that Welsby's artistic schooling owes as much to a continuing, fascination with boats and sailing begun in late childhood, as it does to his formal education as a painter at Chelsea School of Art and the Slade.

The genesis of [Wind Vane] came through sailing and doing long trips where you used a wind vane to steer the boat, so you could balance the steering on the boat to the direction of the wind... the way that technology worked with nature as a way to get you to a destination. So if you see 'getting to a destination' as being the film, then that was essentially the central metaphor of Wind Vane. (Transcript of Illuminations TV interview with Chris Welsby by John Wyver, 2004 (unpublished).

Welsby has sometimes used the technique of time-lapse filming, essentially shooting one frame at a time rather than continuously, to condense time and so make visible the patterns of natural movement. Adopting different intervals or measures of time reveals different patterns. In Park Film (1972-3), he exposed a frame of film each time a stroller in the park crossed a particular point in his fixed-camera's field of vision, revealing both the daily ebb and flow of Kensington Garden's regular users, and the effect of waxing and waning daylight and changes in the weather upon this activity. In the two-screen River Yar (1971-72), made with William Raban the timelapse intervals were a minute apart, shot continuously day and night for two weeks in both spring and autumn, enabling him to explore the effect of the equinox upon water and sky in a tidal estuary, whilst using the changing length of day and night both as a rhythmic device and a structuring element in the film. Sometimes, Welsby has varied his pattern of shooting within a single film in response to changes within the scene. In Forest Bay 2, [1973] different elements in the landscape that are performing to different rhythms; clouds, waves breaking, people playing on the beach, are caught by bursts of filming of different lengths, as the camera successively pans across the view.

3. Developing Structural Film-Making

Welsby developed as an artist during a period when Structural filmmaking was at its height in Britain, and he acknowledges connections between his own development of a film language, and the explorations of his peers, such as Peter Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice.

Whilst happily embracing overt subject-matter in his films when others didn't, he shared the Structuralist concern that the processes of filmmaking should be transparent, and that this desire for transparency is central to an understanding of the work.

Welsby saw his film Seven Days [1974] as, 'very much a structural film in the sense that it's to do with the structure of the rotation of the planet.' Here, time was condensed to one frame taken every ten seconds for a week during all daylight hours, the camera tracking the sun's position in the sky from horizon to horizon, using an astronomer's equatorial mount to determine its position. Making the film became a kind of performance and even an endurance test, (not unlike his contemporary Richard Long's landscape walks) in which the makers struggled with exhaustion, (Welsby on this occasion was helped by the filmmaker Jenny Okun) and are even caught on-screen desperately wiping rain from the lens-cover. Fluctuations in wind-power were also central to the trio of films Windmill III, Anemometer and Tree (all 1974). In the first, changes of speed alter the degree to which a windmill with mirrored blades set in front of the camera becomes 'transparent' (when spinning fast) or 'reflective' (when spinning slowly), alternately opening up the space behind and in front of the camera. In the second, wind-speed actually drove the camera motor, its variations influencing both the perceived speed of action in a cityscape, and the exposure of the filmstrip, the latter altering both the light/dark relationship in the image and the amount of detail visible. In Tree, the simplest, a camera strapped to a branch moves as its host does, scanning a wooded landscape from the tree's vantage point.

Stream Line (1976) was shot in 'real' time and consists of a tracking shot of a fast-flowing streambed viewed vertically from just 3 feet (one meter) above its turbulent surface, the hard straight-line of the track contrasting with the churning, swirling movements of the water, accompanied by 'live' sound. (The richness of the soundtrack delighted one of the film's first reviewers, the sound artist Paul Burwell).

4. Pioneer in gallery shown Films

By the mid 1970s, Welsby, unlike many of his filmmaking contemporaries, but in common with some video artists of the period, had declared his preference for the gallery over the cinema as an exhibition space, and he became one of the pioneers of the moving image installation in Britain, though he continued to make single-screen works.

His first important installation was Shore Line I (1977), shown at the Acme Gallery, London, in which six projectors were lined up along one wall with long loops of film strung from them to the ceiling, and projected a fragmented panorama of breaking waves along the opposite wall. Thus, a constructed image of patterns of natural movements, was faced by, (and of equal importance in Welsby's view), a transparent display of the technology used in its construction. He even welcomed as part of the process the shadows cast by the viewers on the screen as they penetrated the space. In Shore Line II (1979), a later version shown at the Tate, the six cameras looked down vertically at segments of a pebble-strewn shore as waves broke over them. For Welsby this second film; 'emphasises the element of chance, both illusionistically as a study of wave motion, and in actuality, as a feature of the projection event... At times the water appears to flow from one projector to another; at other times the edges of the frames form a barrier to the waves.' Chris Welsby (Booklet published by the Tate), 1981

First shown at De Apple in Amsterdam, Estuary (1980) was an extreme demonstration of Welsby's determination to identify and document all the elements at play in a seascape. While the film installation shows the view from a boat as it moves on its moorings in a tidal estuary, the twenty eight images that accompanied it included navigator's charts of the seabed, tide timetables, barometric readings, aerial and satellite photographs and other data alongside the artist's notes. Subsequent installations were simpler in layout if not content. Rainfall (1983-90), shown in Liverpool and at MOMA Oxford, was the first of several to introduce the screen as a horizontal plane, in this instance a mesmerising image of raindrops landing on the surface of the lake. Skylight (1986) returned to the six-projector format, but consciously introduced a new level of subjectivity. Its study of storm clouds and shutter-function (an irregular pattern of disruptive flash-frames caused by stopping the camera with the shutter still open while shooting) together with radio 'noise', gained an air of menace by it's association with the contemporary Chernobyl disaster, indicating how metaphor has gained increasing prominence in Welsby's later work.

5. Installation

Lost Lake (1998) was made for the late 1990s phenomenon the 'video-wall', in this case a 16 monitor configuration installed in a horizontal plane, with a single, oblique-angle shot of a lake's surface as its image.

The ripples and reflections on the water fill the composite frame, and construct a typically Welsbian visual paradox:

Viewed from one angle, as the viewer enters the gallery, the perspective of the water surface and the reflected trees makes sense spatially, since the viewer's angle to and distance from the water surface are very similar to that of the recording camera. As the viewer moves around the 'lake' .. the spatial coherence is disrupted since the reflections will not move as they move. The image of the water surface parallels the surface of the monitor screens, but the water reflects only the image of trees, and not the image of the gallery. Chris Welsby A Systems View of Nature, 2004.

The four-screen At Sea (2003) was more minimal, and partially reworked the theme of the earlier single screen Drift (1994); in this instance a fog-bound limitless ocean without horizon or other visual anchor-point is scanned by a restlessly shifting camera. As its ambiguous titles suggests, it is as much a visualisation of the mental state of being 'all at sea', 'lost / adrift', as a descriptive seascape. By now, Welsby was working fully in the digital domain with its new constructional possibilities. In Changing Light (2004), made for the Artspace Gallery, Sydney, sensors and a computer allowed a new form of interactivity in which the viewer becomes directly involved with the work. Again the screen is horizontal, and the subject a lake surface. Now the shimmering pattern of reflections responds to the presence of the spectator, the rippling intensifying as viewers increase in number, but rewarding the solitary observer with greater tranquillity and clarity of image. Welsby is able to unite his fundamental concerns about the convergence of nature and technology, which Changing Light 'inextricably bound together in a playful dance of colour and light'. Chris Welsby A Systems View of Nature, 2004

In the early 1970s while studying at Chelsea School of Art and the Slade, Welsby got to know some of the British 'systems' painters who taught there, such as Malcolm Hughes and Jean Spencer, and began his life-long engagement with movement by making photographic works to be viewed in series. Thirty years later, 'systems' are still central to his thinking, but now in the more complex form of the unseen structures that connect natural phenomena with human mental processes and technologies. Indeed, Welsby acknowledges as a major influence the physicist Edward Lorenz, who applied systems science to meteorology and thereby laid the foundations for contemporary Chaos and Emergence theory. This new awareness illuminates Welsby's major written account of his own work A Systems View of Nature;

What interested me about both structural film and complex systems was the possibility of creating work based in the interconnectedness of these systems, where landscape was not secondary to the filmmaking process or filmmaking process to landscape, but process and structure, as revealed in both, could carry information and communicate ideas.
Chris Welsby A Systems View of Nature, 2004

David Curtis is the author of A History of Artists' Film and Video in Britain and works at the BAFV Study Collection.

< Return to artist's essay