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‘Source’, 2007, video still

Commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of An Tobar, ‘Source’ is an in-depth exploration of nature as experienced through the eyes and ears of a young boy. Filmed entirely on Mull, it captures the stark grandeur of the landscape in winter, when it is at its most sparse and unforgiving. The boy leads us into a world that seems bleak and menacing, in which he appears small and insignificant. We are in turns shrunk to the size of an insect, zooming in on the microscopic creatures that busily inhabit an unseen world beneath our feet, and then elevated to the height of giants, as we look down upon the patterns that emerge within the landscape. Through the boy’s senses we experience each form as if for the first time, the damp, spongy texture of moss, the buzzing of a fly, the tickly feeling of a centipede’s legs as it crawls across his face.

As always with Dalziel + Scullion, the work transports us beyond the gallery space into contemplation of the world around us. A circular motif recurs throughout the work, picked up in the natural forms of sea caves and pools cut out of the dark basalt rock, and reinforced by an incomplete circle that appears between sequences, the gap in the circle working its way round like the ticking hand of a clock. The appearance of this circle divides the work into five parts, each of which focuses on one of the boy’s senses, or ‘portals’ as the artists describe them. This reflects their interest in the study of nature and philosophy, in particular the work of David Abram, who believes that human beings’ estrangement from their environment is at the root of many of our social and ecological problems. The circle also makes a connection to the work’s title, ‘Source’, and to the name An Tobar, which means ‘The Well’ in Gaelic. One can speculate that it may also refer to the cycle of life, of which we are all a part—perhaps even (through the ticking clock motif) a countdown for our time here on earth.

Sound is a vital component in this work, and the artists use it effectively to create an ominous, portentous atmosphere. In one sequence, as the boy runs towards the shore, we hear the swooshing sound of feet splashing through water, reminding us that this shoreline would have been covered when sea levels were higher. Sound also draws our attention to the constant activity in nature: the buzzing of a fly becomes menacing; the rushing of a waterfall overpowering. There is the sense here that man is largely ignored, irrelevant, no more or less important than a sea louse or centipede. The boy could be the last person left on the planet, or the first person. Certainly we feel as though, through his eyes and ears, we are experiencing it for the first time. There is an apocalyptic feeling to this work, as if there may have been a disaster, but the closing scene—a shifting patch of sunlight on water—ultimately leaves you hopeful. Nature will continue, one senses the artists are saying, long after we are gone.

Formerly part of Tobermory’s school buildings, An Tobar began conversion into an arts space in 1995 before opening to the public ten years ago. Each year it exhibits a well-chosen programme of local and national work, and as the only independent arts space, makes a vital contribution to the cultural life of the island. Mull has a thriving artistic community, and—unlike some other local arts centres—An Tobar has managed to successfully maintain the balance between supporting local work and maintaining a high quality, diverse programme. As well as visual art, it also runs a wide range of professional and community arts activities, including a year-round music programme.

Juliet Knight is a writer living on Mull