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Soft Estate

by Edward Chell
Bluecoat, School Lane, Liverpool, UK, 2013
152 pp., illus. 100 col. Trade, £15:00
ISBN: 978-0953899678.

Reviewed by Sana Murrani


Soft Estate by Edward Chell is a project that crosses the boundaries between academic research, fieldwork, and multi-narrative art practice. An artist and a senior lecturer in Fine Art at the University for the Creative Arts at Canterbury, Edward Chell was awarded an AHRC funded research fellowship for the Soft Estate project between the years 2012 and 2013. During this time Chell embarked on a continuation of his early investigations on abandoned places, liminal spaces and unofficial landscapes across England’s motorways and verges. The Soft Estate project constitutes an exhibition initiated by Chell and adopted by The Bluecoat into a show featuring a selection of artists as well as a book that transcends history, ecology, travel and representations of ways of looking.

A term used by the Highway Agency to refer to the natural habitats that flourish around the verges of motorways and trunk roads, Soft Estate, the title of the book and the exhibition, takes on powerful connotations of an unofficial fragile ecosystem that exists as a byproduct of utilitarian post-industrial expansion and connectivity in times of accelerating consumption. The book is balanced with its equal emphasis on theoretical and historical content that situates Chell’s multidisciplinary practice between fine art, paintings, photography and film.

Soft Estate, the book, comprises three essays but pivots on Chell’s essay in particular, which is situated in the centre of the book. The first essay is by The Bluecoat curator Sara-Jayne Parsons titled In the Rear View Mirror. Parsons’ essay situates Chell’s work within the history of British landscape by emphasising its origins within the Eighteenth Century Picturesque movement in relation to photography and representation. The final essay, Hidden Dips, is by the nature activist and writer Richard Mabey; he provides an overview that confirms the relevance of the historic landscape theories of the Eighteenth Century Picturesque movement in light of the natural habitat found on the sides of motorway verges.

Chell’s essay carries the same title as the book; he eloquently brings in his hypothesis linking Eighteenth Century Picturesque landscape history with its emphasis on tourist vistas to the refuge for wildlife in and around verges, edgelands and soft estates we encounter while traveling on motorways. The strength of this book is in Chell’s personal encounters and subjective analysis of the spaces on the sides of the motorways, roads and travel vistas that have been sensitively described and critically contextualised within the Picturesque movement of Eighteenth Century landscape historians, theorists and writers on commerce and tourism such as William Gilpin, William Kent, Uvedale Price, and the work of Humphry Repton among others. While maintaining clear linkages to historical accounts, Chell situates his practice and process of work within a more contemporary work of transnarratives with emphasis on the writings of Iain Borden, and the work of Patrick Keiller, Mark Dion, and Marion Shoard.

While the foreword for the book (written by Bryan Biggs, the artistic director of The Bluecoat, Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts) alludes to notions of non-places, the Situationist’s psychogeography, and Edgelands, these concepts have not been explored further in the book, but rather the book maintains a relatively narrow focus on the allegory of the Picturesque landscape that echoes the workings of the motorway in its representation of mobility and ecological systems. The core subject of the book is the collection of artwork produced by Chell for the exhibition Soft Estate. In addition to photographs, a film and laser etched parts of car silencers, there are sixty silhouette paintings that Chell considers to “constitute a kind of virtual vista” a process of revealing, looking, and experiencing rather than an end product. He uses dust gathered from the sides of motorways and trunk roads with a process of layers of lacquering that reveal the painting sandwiched between the layers of lacquer, giving it the appearance of a scientific specimen. This catalogue of painting specimens alludes to notions of sustainability and carbon footprint while suggesting a reality that is beyond reach, unannounced and unofficial.

Soft Estate by Edward Chell focuses on using art as a vehicle for revealing the hidden worlds that are ignored, under explored, and affected by postmodernity. The book could be seen as an active and radical exposure to one of the many issues that our modern life has made inevitable. With its eloquent language and sound referencing, the book makes an interesting read for professionals, academics, students and general readership alike. 

Last Updated 5th August 2013

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