Found Landscape, Sheffield Rivers

by Cathy Dee

This photographic essay is concerned with Sheffield’s intimate, hidden river landscapes. It is about found and neglected places and nature, details and artifacts within them as incidental, intentional or accidental manifestations of cultural or social functions.

With irony, contemporary cultural aspirations for a regenerated steel-city beautiful are brought into focus.

The everyday ordinary digital snapshots were taken on a series of walks along Sheffield’s River Don, River Porter and River Sheaf in 2004. Technically there is nothing aspirational, about these images. They do not aim at conventional aesthetic merit. As attempts to beautify, to cleanse and to rework commercial interests through urban regeneration in Sheffield take hold, and thus control the use of urban land of these river landscapes, the photographs serve to highlight alternative functions and realities for these places, and the role of natural regeneration without human intervention here. These places point up the forlorn gloss of consumption landscapes that have been developed on former steel production sites. A critique of the ‘heritage’ aesthetics in new urban design (where molten steel representations, idealised steel workers in bronze, and shiny steel structures in various abstractions allude to an imagined and heroic past) is also implied in the collection of photographs. A disjunction between the cultural idea of sense of place and landscape heritage and the actualities of contemporary function, nature and the culture of global consumption are suggested.

The title ‘found’ refers to that which has become culturally invisible and therefore has to be sought in the places that result from commercial civic regeneration aesthetic strategies and actions and sought too in the ‘nature’ and human functions which are obscured in this aesthetic. In a sense the photographs are a form of landscape detective work. Interpretive captions are given but the images invite other verdicts.

1.Plastic cutlery; blue; Made in Taiwan; Non-recyclable. Location Frog Walk, Porter Brook, Sharrow. We chuckle at a steel cutlery animal sculpture in the Millennium Galleries and admire crafted knives in Sheffield’s museums, but technology in Sheffield is as yet unable to retrieve and reuse these blue-coloured molecules fashioned for convenience and used late at night on a local path, for chips long since digested.

2. Ornamental shrubs. Location: Meadowhall Shopping Centre, adjacent to River Don. Pinkish stems form a cradle for and complement a rose-coloured Baskin-Robbins ice cream carton, lazing. This pairing seems suited: a landscape of pleasure and sweet safe illusion. But the garden cannot clean the car park and motorway air which sit in the river valley, dulling lungs.

3. Shopping bag amongst alders. Location: River Don at Meadowhall shopping centre. A bag manufactured in Teeside has found its way, via shopping hall, to the River Don. It has been swept in flooding which increases in frequency as carbon from the bag’s manufacture saturates air and warms climate. The flowering bag is insistent, waving, cheery, and demands attention not really as a warning flag but only as mischievous temporary littering. Its clear non-degradable white with blue is almost nicer than the transient dull brown alder fruit, and lank acid green leaves.

4. Pines in new corporate landscape adjacent to River Don, near Abyssinia Bridge. An efficient security fence keeps safe a new private territory of dying pines from Austria, aluminum manhole covers, and the rubble that lies under lawn producing yellowing short growth.

5. Balsam and Fishing Stations, River Don near Abyssinia Bridge. Opposite the dying pines, on the other side of the river, lunchtime fishing posts have been made. Balsam and fisherman choose to make home of this place regardless of private ownership. An impermanent landscape of pleasure, it is not dissimilar to one of ancient times.

6. Blue table with birch in glade at former Vulcan rivet and brass works, Brightside. An arcadia of sorts, this table from pallets is carefully positioned in aspect, centred in a glade, secluded by birches, for games or picnic. It is enough for pleasure.

7. Overshadowed by a magnificent remnant ‘Forgemaster’ steel shed a birch casts leaf pattern on a plastic sign announcing a family restaurant. On the upper sign, a happy bear consumes. Bear and birch are illusory fragments in this homey eatery. The birch that thrives close by is invisible to eaters except as red reflection on plastic shine. The laughing bear stands in for other fauna we have exiled from Don Valley.

8. Burger remnant on lawn, Meadowhall shopping centre. The crescent of bread and pressed meat is a last mouthful dropped intentionally or by chance by a crying child, pushed to shopping. Grass blades, cigarette butts, and autumn leaves miniaturise it.

9. Wild railway embankment, near Meadowhall, with undergarment in brambles. The pink elastic and rayon slip prompts thoughts of a night of violence, sadness or despair but perhaps this was a happiest time and the dress became lost laughing amongst blackberries, birds, tussocked grass, butterflies on buddleia, hosts secluded.

10. Folded pinstripe trousers, burnt, on mossy stone, River Don at Effingham Street. Reggie Perrin is recalled in this precisely placed formal clothing on the water’s edge. A funereal ritual or a miniature pyre? The trousers of the fire-maker or found object for play-burning? The synthetic fabric melts to moss like growth or has the appearance of swirling waters close to the river’s weir upstream. Carefully left, intentionally performed, the clothing fire-act remains make a stage of this road and wall by the river.

11. Decayed turtle-necked pullover; beige polyester, on concrete floor at former Brightside steelworks. The garment prompts thoughts of those who worked on this site producing steel, and of decaying lungs and limbs, deflated, washed out grey. The fabric merges with the grayish concrete floor. The earwigs or woodlice will complete their hollowing inroads until the torso and arms have become them and they the food of birds or small mammals.

12. Cloth fragment with rose pattern, Brightside former steel works. Another fabric, perhaps from a chair of the night watchman’s lodge or blown from adjacent demolished housing. Further upstream at Meadowhall shopping centre there are yet more printed fabrics. We buy them, bring them indoors as paradise gardens full of Persian roses. Outside once more this fragment looks unfortunate in contaminated ground; an indoor image-paradise unable to survive nature. Like the cloth, ideas for a paradise nature in Don Valley have been misplaced.

13. Cutlery with silver disk and napkin, near River Sheaf, outside Spar supermarket, Leadmill Road. An ending. Rainwater has collected and evaporated leaving dust particles to tarnish another plastic cutlery item, this time white and broken. The rain too has mashed a paper napkin from the same meal, taking it on the journey towards becoming substrate for plants. The bleaching chemicals of its whiteness will wash to river. Like a tiny moon, a metal disk awaits a sweeping brush to carry it to burial in a landfill site. Another footfall will splinter the spoonfork. Another wind gust may take its shards to sail downstream to sea, or it too will be swept permanently white to dark landfill.