Wood to World exhibition

I’ve got rather behind with blogging by way of being busy finishing work for and installing a solo exhibition at Kaleidoscope Gallery in Sevenoaks. SO here is some pics of the show and some explanation of how things were made.

It’s my second solo exhibition of work made as the result of persistent engagement with one smallish, ordinary-extraordinary wood near the M25 in Kent. This wood, actually two interconnected woods and some scrub and steep pasture, is on the hills between my house and the motorway, on the North Downs. I hope to spend more years exploring with/in, and learning, this particular place.

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The exhibition Wood to World places several kinds of things alongside, against or even inside another, to evoke how disparate large and small things nest and entangle to produce a unique ‘ecology’ in wooded space. It does not attempt to be a scientific or objective or realist study, rather it is very personal exploration of learning a place and becoming-with a place, by making art with and in and through it.

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The large sculptural hanging drawings are tree portraits, but portraits more ‘with’ than ‘of’ the tree. Each one is made by encasing a section of tree in my chosen paper, and then making a rubbing of the bark with graphite. This is making that requires touch, literally rubbing up against a place – thus a meeting of bodies, a co-production. There is an indexical relationship between the drawing and the tree, which I think is stronger than that of a photograph. These rubbed marks are made by the tree in physical contact with the paper, my body, and the graphite. The tree and me meet here on this paper. What is produced by that meeting is the artwork, but also a transformation of our relationship. The tree becomes individuated, personified. As my project carries on into the future, my aim is to rub each species of tree in the wood (I have counted twenty-three so far) but the trees are approached as individuals, and acknowledged as co-creators of the piece.

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There are two rings of sculptures that look something like dancing figures. The shapes of these sculptures are derived from woodland flower petals, from the Common Spotted Orchid, the Yellow Archangel, the Bee Orchid, and one petule of the conical Bugle, all of which species are relatively common in the chalk-hills of the Kent Downs. Each shape is made from four colours, the four soils types I have collected from soil dug out by animals in Shoreham Woods (Kent has a notoriously complex geology, having intricate layers of sedimentary rocks and soils laid down by successive river basins and shallow seas). The yellowish sand and the ashy grey were both from rabbit burrows, the white chalk from a badger sett and the brown mud was a molehill. I am not sure where the ash originated from, but I do know that during World War Two, these woods were heavily used by the army, and I find metalwork (billy cans and the like) that date from this time lying about, and even one shattered shell casing still sits grimly among the bluebells. There are lots of craters as well.

The panoramic ‘landscape painting’ is made outside, working on the ground on Polhill Bank, looking towards Sevenoaks, using just-picked berries held in the hand (blackberries, dogwood, old man’s beard). I had a pony companion/observer while I made this painting, and as the sun set and the moon rose I couldn’t help but think of Samuel Palmer (if you don’t already know him, do look him up, he’s good). The texture and imagery comes partly from the grass underneath the tracing paper as I drew, and partly from the bushes that surrounded me. It is not representational, but evocative. As an artist, I think that it is a fine thing to be captivated by a good view, but it can become a problem if one is interested in the view without any real imagination of or care for what it actually contains – with who actually lives there (creatures and plants of all sorts).

Romantic Sublime painting of the 19th Century helped persuade people to love and value the wild and beautiful places of Britain, where before they had found them frightening. Yet concentration on the glory of big views can obscure so much, including, sometimes, the very problems that create the views, like deforestation and overgrazing by sheep. In woodland, the big view is rare (especially in summer months). Instead you get thousands upon thousands of small views that change every time you step a different way around a particular tree. It is a kind of infinity.

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The lilac humps are painting-sculptures made with meadow ants (Lazius niger). The paper covers the nest, the paint (food colouring) is dripped on, and the ants run through the paint to make the drawn lines (or don’t, and drink it, or ignore it, or are scared of it). The thicker, woobly lines are made by the ‘fatter’ ants that droop their abdomens into the wet paint, whereas the tiny scratchy lines are made by antic feet. What never ceases to intrigue me is how one nest differs from another in their attitude and activity. Ant nests have distinct personalities. In fact, there is also the odd subversive ant who behaves quite differently from her fellows – who is obsessively interested in my paint drips, repeatedly wading into them and running around in them, and these ants are by far and away my best artists. You heard it here first. Or, if you didn’t, please get in touch.

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The photos and videos add a little bit of the ‘real’ into the exhibition (and are used sparingly as the real is a tricky business).

My aim for this research – these artworks, experiments and exhibitions, is to interpret and promote a world view that is less anthropocentric, and which highlights “the material agency or effectivity of nonhuman or not-quite-human things” (Jane Bennett Vibrant Matter, 2010 p.11) such that we can see beyond the end of our noses to the vitality and significance of the nonhuman world that surrounds us. It isn’t there for our benefit. It follows a different agenda, has its own frames of reference, its own purposeful and playful activities.

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P.S. In my experience it’s often worth checking under snaketraps. Especially in the morning.

 

 

 

 

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Trust technique

Wood to World is in large part a research project with which I aim to deepen my relationship to beyond-human nature. I am experimenting with differing (aligned and contrasting) ways of thinking and practicing relation to and communication with nonhuman beings.

Animal Communicator James French’s one-day course in the ‘Trust Technique’ is a newish venture for him, and draws on his Reiki practice (to Grand Master level) and many years of teaching and practicing animal communication. It aims to condense and clarify his understanding to date, such that the technique is clear, simple and effective enough to teach the key elements to people with animals in their lives in a single day. Almost uniquely among the 38 participants in the barn in Surrey, I do not own a pet or work (exactly) with animals.

James separates his approach from that of ‘whispering’ calmly but vociferously. Whispering, he says, is about applying pressure, and rewarding a desired behaviour by the release of that pressure. In as such, it is still intrinsically dominating, replicating the core hierarchies that conventional animal training employs. The trust technique, on the other hand, seeks to commune with an animal for the purpose of healing, and of deepening the relationship, resulting in loving relation rather than obedient servitude.

James asks us all to become completely still and fix our gaze on a point. The process is described as ‘delivering the present moment’. We note and release each of our thoughts as we would note and regard an animal’s distraction or activity when we are practicing with them.

He defines the key concepts as ‘creative reaction’, ‘realization learning’ and ‘trusted cooperation’: Creative reaction uses the innate sensitivity of intelligent creatures to one another’s moods and actions, and encourages positive change by managing one’s own role in that dynamic. In practice, this means giving the animal your active, thoughtful understanding and loving attention, or ‘mindful regard’. Realization learning is described as a deep process that can heal the sufferer of traumatic events by providing an alternative (contradictory, positive, nurturing) experience of human beings. This deep process-learning works only when the animal is completely peaceful (indeed, for a portion of it, asleep). Trusted cooperation is the position in which one can then ask the animal to do something, perhaps scary, without dominating them – they look to you for reassurance and guidance, because they trust you.

After a morning learning the theory and practicing ‘delivering the present moment’, we follow James around the Mane Chance Sanctuary as he demonstrates his technique with (and tells us the horrific histories of) some of the rescued horses. We all stare at a point near the horse with him, and whenever it flicks an ear or changes its position we think actively about it. Some horses drift easily into snoozy relaxation, one lies down almost immediately, one seems more interested in nuzzling James and licking his ear. Everything proceeds at the animal’s pace. Patience and persistence are watchwords.

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It is a very windy day, but many of the horses are still remarkably keen to come and see forty people and ‘get present with us’ which considering that one of them was nicknamed Doctor Death, for no small reason, is pretty impressive. I ask if it is possible to use the technique with the birds in my garden (my code for wild creatures of all sorts). James says he has had considerable success with his own garden birds, although he doesn’t elaborate. (He has worked professionally with lions and turkeys among other things).

James is practical, grounded and remarkable. His kindness and clarity is refreshing in a world so often dominated by ego, pretension or woo. His thoughtful passion and intent to benefit animals (and indeed people) is palpable.

Trust Technique website

James French animal commnication website

 

 

Axis Mundi

Axis-Mundi

I first saw this oak tree four years ago, perhaps from an angle  similar to this. It has a striking symmetry and skyward lift to all its branches. It is positioned right at the top of the wood, and within a small circle of clear ground, next to which and of a similar size is a round crater (presumably from a WW2 bomb, there are many around). I keep coming back to this oak. My first rubbing of a live tree was a circle of brown paper around its generous girth, in 2013.

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When I did an introductory course to shamanism at the Sacred Trust in May this year, I took this tree as my ‘axis mundi’. The axis mundi is the world center, or the connection between heaven and earth / upper and lower worlds in certain cosmologies. As the celestial and geographic pole, it expresses a point of connection between sky and earth, where the four compass directions meet. At this point shamanic travel and correspondence can be made between higher and lower realms.

As the drum beat a heady rhythm, I caught the train back to Knockholt and slid through the woods to this tree. I slithered down its roots and met a somewhat disparaging earthworm and then a friendly badger. I climbed up its branches into the clouds, and then got stuck (I am not, perhaps, a natural shaman, too rationalist?). But the next time I saw this tree, I had a spontaneous surge of powerful connection and emotion. The oak, in the fullness of its physical self, and the oak I met in my imaginative journeying from a London church hall seemed to know each other… and know me.