Rachel Irons, Cold Fell
16th July - 17th September 2022
This text responds to the call of the land, as it reverberates through the fragments offered up by Rachel Irons in this space. In her practice, Irons acts as mediator between what the land holds and what we are able to perceive. Her works are listening devices, through which we might find entryways and access points into old and new ways of knowing. For Irons, the land is more than a sum of its parts, holding meaning to be passed down and inherited by those who are able to hear it. This installation is an exercise in listening, in paying attention to the landscape and how it speaks. Extended into this space, it continues to resound and reverberate. We begin to hear the hum and are drawn in too, now implicated in this sonic investigation.
Irons’ film, Beware Deep Rabbit Holes, documents the landscapes of the Tyne Valley in Northumberland in search of a sound, a hum that permeates the town of Hexham. The source of the sound is a mystery, with local people speculating that it might be produced by a drone, or the wind rolling through disused mining shafts under the hills. It has been compared to a phone left off the hook, someone preparing for an evacuation, or an alarm. Yet, it appears to have no human origin, and is only of the land itself. Through alien soundscapes and lingering glances, Irons’ film transmits the eeriness this sound provokes. The eerie, as conceived of by Mark Fisher, occurs when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present where there should be something. The eeriness of Hexham’s hum derives from the feeling that there is more behind it than just the usual goings on of the landscape. There is a sense of alterity, that whatever is happening might involve forms of knowledge, sensibilities and ways of being which are currently out of reach. The sound seeps in, and with it brings that which we cannot yet know.
In acknowledging the intentionality of the landscape, Irons allows herself to be compelled by it. In line with psychogeographical tradition, she lets herself be moved in the various directions the landscape pushes her, and in doing so considers what this tells us of the ways in which it might have been constructed. What this reveals is a web of entangled relations between man and nature, industry and landscape, the human and the non-human, in which each are proven intrinsically interwoven and inseparable from one another. In Beware Deep Rabbit Holes, shots of industrial plants feel imposed upon and surveilled by the surrounding forest; amongst shots of hillsides, man-made metal and brick frameworks protrude, overgrown by the encroaching foliage.
Irons’ sculptures, which populate the landscape of the exhibition, particularly Colliery Wheel and Mire and Moss, also reflect this entanglement. Their form and materiality blurs the boundaries between the organic and inorganic, that which has been created with intent and that born of chance. In doing so, she reveals absence where we assumed presence, and presence where we assumed absence. These objects, once created to serve human ends, have now been partially repurposed for intentions unknown. This destabilises the idea that the spaces through which we move lack agency, that they do not produce influence or affect on us as we encounter them - the myth of self-enclosure. Irons’ work gives back intentionality to the landscape, and with it, acknowledges that we are continuously shifting products of our engagement. We produce and are produced by that which we encounter, and cannot exist outside of these sets of relations.
In untethering the landscape from its role as a fixed, stable backdrop for human existence, Irons depicts a site which holds within it the potential for new, or perhaps lost, ways of being. In actively entering into a reciprocal relationship with the land, in listening to it and being guided by it, Irons’ work becomes a listening device for new points of connection and modes of being. Through film, drawing, sculptures and soundscapes which are in part alien, industrial and human, Irons’ reveals hidden layers of meaning and zones outside of common experience. As in her sculptures, Collier House 1, Collier House 2 and always within earshot of Devil’s Water, Irons releases forms from their webs of human connotations, of industry, progress and capitalism. They are simplified, reduced to several amongst many features of the landscape, their context surrendered to the soil. As old meanings are layered like stratum beneath the ground, new meanings can be drawn out. Ancient stones, erected for purposes now served, can be taken up as radars.
The monolith that surveils the landscape in Irons’ Beware Deep Rabbit Holes, known as Long Stone, is a part of this process of repurposing. Little is known of its actual history, whether it is a monument to miners who died in a disaster in the nineteenth century for which there exist no records, or to mark the death of a local quarryman in Roman times. Its parts have been fragmented, dating to different eras, and have been visibly fixed and refixed with metal rods. It feels as though Irons is not the only one to have been compelled by these lands, to return again and again to repurpose its materials and rework its narratives. What begins with a question, a search for a hum, seems to be resolved not by an answer, but by an ongoing process of repeated engagement. This layering of meaning, of stories and histories, will never be complete. What is found will be returned to the earth, to be found over and over again.
In reaching out to the land, it offers itself up to meet us. The ground provides the next step. This text is one amongst many listening devices in this landscape.
Written by Stevie MacKinnon-Smith
 Mark Fisher, ‘Approaching the Eerie’, in The Weird and the Eerie, London: Repeater, pp. 62.