Coastal Connections with Xtina Lamb

View from No.34's window of Xtina Lamb's exhibition Sea Plastic Songlines

This month’s exhibition is tactile in nature. It’s also focused on nature too. The work Xtina Lamb is exhibiting explores the diverse landscape of the Outer Hebrides, in particular the route between Stornoway and Uig. Kyra, Ideas Test’s Audience Development Assistant, sat down to talk to Xtina about the elements – both artistic and topographical – that have contributed to this atmospheric exhibition.

The work has been commissioned as part of Bealach, a two-year initiative established with An Lanntair, to invite people to explore the longstanding cultural landscape across the Isles of Lewis and Harris. Under the umbrella of Bealach, a number of arts events, festivals and exhibitions have been curated, including Songlines. It is this brief that Xtina’s exhibition, Sea Plastic Songlines, responds to: using found objects from the shorelines to comment on the cultural aspects of life on the island.

“This work has got a specific story to it; it’s been created for a reason, to draw people from Stornoway to Uig,” Xtina explained, informing us also about the centre that is to be built in Mangersta, Uig. “The idea is to create excitement and another reason for going to that side of the island,” she added. St. Kilda was evacuated by its inhabitants in the 1930s, when its population dwindled down to less than forty people. Xtina has friends who live up in Uig so she visits there often, and it’s clear from her approach to this work that she has a real appreciation and sensitivity for the area. Part of the story of the St. Kilda evacuation “is threaded into this work and I’d like people to think about that,” Xtina affirmed.

Shadow cast by Xtina Lamb's suspended shelf holding glass bottles filled with shredded sea plastics.
Photo: Kyra Cross

Xtina’s work at No.34 includes a suspended shelf in the Window Gallery, upon which stand three glass bottles. Located behind this are the series of photographs by Xtina, detailing the landscape and her work in progress. Underneath this hangs a series of small bags, each one containing a different type of plastic that Xtina has painstakingly collected and colour-coordinated. It provides a beautiful insight into the process of making this fascinating project.

Using raw materials she expertly salvaged from the shorelines, Xtina has developed a particularly interesting approach to creating this commissioned body of work. “It’s been quite a new method of working,” Xtina explained, telling us how she combed the beaches in Uig, picking up pieces of plastic and other materials to then ship them home back to Kent ready to rework them. “I developed this method of chopping up and fusing the plastic and working with it in the bottles,” Xtina explained. “I’ve learnt lots about how you fuse plastics together, how the colours change, how you have to build it up in layers. It’s an exciting thing, really, to work in that method.”

Xtina can see herself utilising this method far beyond this commission. Though it is now second nature for Xtina to easily extract raw materials from various riverbeds and shorelines, this commission is the reason for this way of working. “I thought about using it in the way I have this time because the commission asked for artwork that could exist out in the landscape,” Xtina informed us. She established early on that she wanted to work with something “that was free and plentiful and to do with the area”, and that could also withstand the extreme elements often experienced up cut in the Outer Hebrides.

The issue of sea plastic is one that is gaining cultural awareness and Xtina hopes “people think about the value of rubbish, the value of plastic”. Plastic is a fantastically (re)usable material; it can be worked and reworked into many different items. The problem with sea plastic isn’t regional by any means and Xtina hopes that “people get the sense of this being the most distant part of the UK from here but across that distance, I hope they see parallels to what happens here as well.”

Making art with found sea plastic definitely helps contribute to the growing ‘environmental’ narrative, and Xtina is clear about her intentions. “I’m working with plastic which I’ve taken away from being pollution and I very much want it not to become pollution again, so I’ve sealed the tops of the bottles with wax, in most cases, in the ones that have gone up to Hebrides.” The plastic that Xtina extracted went through a process of being cut up by Xtina herself, using scissors and secateurs. She also shredded rope she found from the sea, which was “a bit of a revelation”, as Xtina discovered it worked fantastically for recreating different types of moss and lichen.

Xtina didn’t use every piece of plastic and rope the sea washed up, though; there was in fact a great deal of method in her beachcombing. It’s fascinating to listen to the process of finding the right materials as Xtina scoured the shoreline. “First it was picking things up and thinking, is that a useful shape I can use in a piece of work?” she explained, “but then it would totally switch and be about colour so it felt like I was going to an art shop and picking out my paints.” By extracting the plastic and reworking it into entirely new creations, Xtina is both purifying the water and giving the plastic a more noble purpose.

Another challenge Xtina faced was ensuring that the work enhances the extensive existing landscape. She talks wonderfully about the history of the area, and learning about it creates a deeper appreciation of the work. Some of her work is already on location in Scotland, in a remote Watcher’s Hut. “It’s like a little semi-derelict gallery; the rain comes in and runs down the wall,” Xtina described. Together with a builder, Xtina constructed a frame to fill the hut’s empty window, “specifically for the bottles to sit on”, because she noticed other places in Scotland do similar displays with bottles in windows. Bringing this practice to No.34, Xtina has replicated this in the Window Gallery to great effect.

The bottles have a strong historical context, too. Xtina found them under boulders where, since the Victorian era, people had discarded or left them. As Xtina explained, it seemed important and of great benefit “to have something that was contemporary to the time the St Kildans left the island to be these vessels of the colourful landscape”. “One of the reasons for me choosing the bottles was the St. Kildans used to send these little mail boats,” Xtina told us. These boats would be a foot or so long and had a message inside, with the words ‘Please Open’ written on the top and an aid to keep them afloat. They would be placed in the water on a certain tide in a bid to reach the Western Isles. The idea of conveying messages, of things floating and carrying sentiments from shore to shore, is something Xtina has tied into this project.

Aside from collecting and reworking plastic, Xtina is also a renowned printmaker (and has run several successful events for us here at No.34, as well as at Intra, her own studio in Medway). There are some similarities to be found in the way she mixes and combines inks in printmaking to the process Xtina uses when melting and layering the plastic to recreate images of landscapes. “Laying down a layer and then reacting to it is absolutely identical to process of making those large monoprints.” Both processes have a meditative quality to them, Xtina has found, as well as a transitional quality. She has also applied greater or more concentrated focus in recent work by “weaving specific history into something, and I’ve really enjoyed that, having a sense about the place.”

Having enveloped herself in the rich history of the Hebrides, we asked if Xtina felt an increased sense of responsibility in both using, and adding to, such a vast and historic landscape. Xtina selected the location knowing that if it was successful, people visiting the artwork wouldn’t be damaging the landscape. It’s clear Xtina has tried to be sensitive and thoughtful in her approach to the work, the place and its history. She discussed with the local communities the work she was planning to create and had conversations surrounding the locations and imagery she used to convey and create work to exist in the landscape.

The Sea Plastic Songlines exhibition is open until October 28th so pop in to No34 at any time during opening hours to visit Xtina’s work. To find out more about Xtina Lamb, you can visit her website or look at Intra to see if there are any Medway based courses or events you might like to try.