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.