> The Bore Affect: Sophy Rickett’s ‘To the River’

Russell Roberts / The Bore Affect: Sophy Rickett’s ‘To the River’

May 2012

‘I don’t think I can properly convey the effect that moment had on me. It wasn’t like a tornado or an earthquake (not that I’d witnessed either) – nature being violent and destructive, putting us in our place. It was more unsettling because it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for these minutes, nature was reversed, and time with it.’

– Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, London: Vintage Books, 2012, p.36

The otherworldliness that Barnes’ central character experiences in this brief but memorable moment on the banks of the River Severn, concerns the sudden change in the direction of the water as the periodic and infamous tidal surge makes its presence felt disturbing the regular order of things. One moment water is flowing one way, the next it is flowing in reverse and at several feet higher, crashing over the riverbanks.

For those who have witnessed the Bore, it is indeed memorable because for many it confounds their ability to truly make sense of what is happening with the abstractions of tides, river-bed topography, wind speed and direction and the sheer volume of water entering the Bristol Channel. As a predictable phenomenon in the annual tidal calendar, the Bore is the result of a extra surge of water within a comparatively narrow channel occurring around high tides and, most prominently, in the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. The resulting rise in river level is between 2 and 6 feet, as it moves from the mouth of the river around Sharpness where it forms, following the inland route of the Severn as it winds through the Gloucestershire countryside and dissipates at the weir near Maisemore.

Installed across two floors of Arnolfini’s distinctive dockside building, Sophy Rickett’s exhibition in two parts, provides the viewer with an encounter with the Severn Bore that adds to its unfathomable character. To The River uses the rhetorics of scientific study in parallel with an insight into the social dimension of the Bore to offer another way of understanding this curious and beguiling event in nature. The exhibition is the result of a two-year collaboration between the artist, Arnolfini, film producer Elena Hill and ArtSway, and consists of a multi-screen video installation downstairs and framed prints in a gallery on the first floor. The combination of video installation with both photographs, text and ephemera is at times a deliberately awkward one, where romanticism and personal testimony are set against documents and bookish explanations of the Bore as simple matters of physics and geology.

In this configuration, the Bore lends itself to introspection, to curiosity, to pilgrimage and possibly to a sense of awe and the sublime when understood in its natural fullness. It is the allure of the wave, its pending arrival, the fleeting spectacle and its emotional resonance, that To The River reflects upon more specifically. Here Rickett presents us with a glimpse into the metaphorical Bore associated with the lives of people gathered to witness its passing. Undertaken with the patina of anthropological fieldwork and a gesture towards ‘the archive’, data gathering, classification, truth and linearity are not necessarily rigid or stable categories in this search for an authoritative and over-arching narrative. Instead, Rickett opts for a more mutable and psychological currency relating to the significance of the Bore.

Sophy Rickett’s previous work has explored the otherness of landscape through pictorial conventions that similarly confound viewers’ expectations. As a recurring motif, the nocturnal world has been transformed by an ambiguous scale of things bathed in viscous and lurid luminescence, that opens onto a darker nature. In To The River a similar disturbance takes place; filming at night with stills that refer mostly to the river by day. The fragmentary aesthetic present in the video installation is again mirrored in the narrative power of fragments in the second part of the installation– audio snippets of overheard conversations, camera glimpses of faces in crowds, postcards, book plates and diagrams carefully torn from the spine, printed words cut from the page, as if in this selection of specimens the wave can be contained, quantified, known. In this collection of commentaries, the video plays a more seductive and melancholic role, where the prints work in opposition as seemingly clinical and archival forms of evidence.

The main installation consists of three screens set at three different points in the large downstairs gallery, two on separate walls, one spanning a corner. The screens are of equal size and are much smaller than the surrounding walls. Spatially things are made more disconnected by the use of surround sound from different audio tracks relayed at several points in the ceiling. The viewer moves between recorded conversational fragments collected from the banks of the river, to visual equivalents. The experience is not unfamiliar from being in crowd, words and stories catch you and take you with them for a while before other distractions impose themselves.

As an immersive environment and one whose commentaries crave intimacy, the pacing and scale of this installation is thoughtful. Hopes of seeing the Bore are dashed and the (mental) image is concentrated into the soundtrack of its approach and passing, with dark footage of spectators looking out into the river and the fleeting verbal commentaries. These conversational fragments are important and contain brief accounts of lost loves, the death of a parent, the sighting of dead animals in the river, expressions of boredom, domestic tales both intimate and perfunctory, cursory discussions of the Bore, and perhaps most pointedly, an account of a display case of butterflies whose decay is accelerated by the ingress of air.  These amount to frames of reference that mark an erratic emotional scale linked to the Bore from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Ephemerality and the ensuing loss is keenly felt in keeping the Bore itself out frame beyond its sound, but a sense of its actual form can be seen, in part, elsewhere in the exhibition.

The filming took place in and around Minsterworth, a prime and popular observation point. The crowds are lit from behind and above, lending their faces and occasional discernible features an ethereal, spectral appearance. On the banks of river at night, a thick sense of time underpins the expectancy for the arrival of the Bore, a moment that has a contingency of up to 30 minutes  depending on prevailing weather conditions. In the installation, we hear a mix of accents that perhaps superficially demarcate a territory between town and country. The video installation is not without associations to films that use arcane, archaic and esoteric ideas of the countryside, where people are mysteriously drawn to an unseen power in the land, such as the group that gather nightly at the water tower in Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers (1988), or the binding pagan force found in the small community on Summerisle in Robin Hardy’s cult film The Wicker Man (1973). 

In what can be seen as the second part of the exhibition on the first floor, a small room contains framed items culled mostly from books. These book plates can be seen as a more clinical mirror to the brooding romantic landscape evoked in the film. Here the Bore and surrounding countryside are contained, defined by the languages of maths and physics played out through photographs made on location or of Bore physics simulated in the laboratory. And, it is this form of analysis that the film actively works against, introducing unseen elements associated with social and pyschological landscapes. The book plates then embody aspects of modernity, of knowledge and progress in collision with more intimate and imaginary accounts connected with place.

The second section with its allusions to ‘the archive’ opens with a personal letter to the artist, written in an elegant hand, that expresses a reluctance at having not seen her in the course of further research for the project, noting that ‘our paths may never cross again’. Alongside this hangs a portrait of an elderly gentleman who wrote the letter and for whom Bore watching has, we assumed, figured in his life for decades. The sentiment and loss conveyed by both the letter and the tender portrait that accompanies it are evident as expressions of a particular attachment to the social dimensions that converge around the Bore.

Other traces of the social connection are illustrated in the case of framed book plates that include transcribed quotes taken from sound recording in situ. The books from which the plates are taken include F W Rowbotham’s The Severn Bore (1964), R A R Tricker’s Bores, Breakers, Wakes and Waves (1964), V Cornish’s Ocean Waves and Kindred Phenomenon (1934), and J Lighthill’s Waves in Fluids (1971); all functional but in their new context possessing an engimatic even nostalgic charm as half-tone illustrations and letterpress diagrams. The plates supply visual evidence which is countered by transcripts of conversations, such as one fragment concerning a disagreement between neighbours over a plum tree that was subsequently cut down; a journey into alcohol dependency; the sighting of a dead fox in the tide line of the river ‘it looked so beautiful, completely peaceful and perfect…’. These transcribed fragments are printed underneath those monochrome photographic studies as expositions of the physics of the Bore and the surrounding landscape. Rickett makes these differences play off against each other and they inhabit each others’ value systems where the romantic is for a moment checked against the matter of fact analysis of the tidal waters, and the melancholia of some of the text is constrained. It is as if the juxtaposition, in a gesture towards the Bore itself, momentarily reverses the expected flow and currency of words and images, a fleeting disturbance.

Perhaps it is the ‘wrongness’ of the Bore that best illustrates why people come to see it.  That is, to place themselves in proximity to an event that is so outside of their everyday lives, to stand close to something that is unfathomable, to feel both challenged and reassured by its passing. As an experiment, To The River offers a fascinating poetics of the Bore as a means to articulating its affect, to think about time, its accretion and dissipation, and the residues of memory. It is a piece full of sadness but also of hope. It might be perceived as the inevitable failure of scientific ordering principles in favour of a romantic and allegorical encounter with Nature, but this is too indulgent and simplistic for what is being offered here. To The River is a collection of very human stories that touch upon mistakes, failure, desire, loss, ambivalence and resentment; it is a prolonged encounter with the momentary reversal in the flow of things, allowing for a symbolic occupation of the past to potentially shape a different future.


Russell Roberts is Reader in Photography at the European Centre for Photographic Research at University of Wales, Newport. He has curated many exhibitions both nationally and internationally and is currently working with The Photographers’ Gallery, London, on an exhibition for 2013 based on the archive of Mass Observation.


Sophy Rickett‘s solo exhibition To the River was shown at Arnolfini, Bristol 3.3.12 – 22.4.12.  To The River was commissioned by Elena Hill in partnership with Arnolfini and ArtSway.  The project received funding from ACE, AHRC, Wonderbox and University of the Arts, London. The publication To The River was published by Arnolfini and Brancolini Grimaldi, London.