Terra has landed

10 Nov

The new TERRA show just opened at the Jerwood Space brings together five sets of sculpture, of “artists considering the relationship between their practice and the environment outside of the white–walled space,” curated by Haley Skipper and Anthony Mottershead of the Forestry Commission England at Grizedale Forest and its sculpture park.

The world is a big place. And while humans have managed to colonize the planet pretty well, it’s only more recently (ie less than a century) that we’ve started to look around a bit more and ask what we’ve been doing with our planet and if we can keep on doing it. Humankind have been pretty keen to distinguish themselves from the rest of the organisms on the planet, and since the Industrial Revolution the separation of human from ‘nature’ has been increasingly understood as a dichotomy. Nowadays, city-bound people plan their ‘getaway to the country’ months in advance.

So to say ‘Nature’ is a theme here is maybe a red herring, and also pretty broad and spring-loaded territory. But it is still part of the territory defining the show. TERRA steps directly into the murky areas of the questions raised by calling on ‘the natural world’ with a range of approaches, from the simulation, manipulation and magnification of what we might see or try to experience as nature.

Looking to nature usually carries with it the accusation of Romanticism, the return to nature spurred on by the rise of industry, or in more modern parlance a utopian idealism. We might be at some sort of turning point in how we conceive of the debate though. Shaping alot of the thinking of the past decades have been thinkers like Buckminster Fuller or Gregory Bateson, who looked to nature as a sort of benign governing force upon which to model our own actions. While their voices have been necessary mediators of attempts to curb our remarkable use of this planets resources, recently their views have also been subjected to criticism weary of their idealisations of the mechanisms behind their understandings of the natural world – see, for a bombastic example, the 2nd episode of Adam Curtis’s recent BBC subjective documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.

In contemporary art, there have been a few recent examples to try and explore this territory, such as the Barbican’s 2009 Radical Nature exhibition (and a review of the show here), or this year on a smaller scale the ‘Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow‘ group show (and my own review here). But on a more long-term basis, alongside those efforts in Grizedale, are other organisations, such as the garden and contemporary art centre Instituto Inhotim (see also Dan Fox’s view on the place here), or the residency program and efforts of Campo Adentro (‘Inland’) in Spain. These efforts necessarily have to tackle head on the tangle of a contemporary pastoralism, mediating realism, criticality and the very real ghosts of what’s conceived of as a ‘pleasant’ countryside. These efforts try to ask in new ways how we understand ourselves in relation to the world around us, and whether that world can be considered ‘natural’, how deep the oppositions might go.

Joy Sleeman’s essay accompanying TERRA at one point quotes Maurice Merleau-Ponty, saying, “all is fabricated and all is natural with man.” I would think this would mean, for Ponty, that in our apperception of the world around us we experience and interact with things via the same channels, that it is all constructed and intertwined with us and so what really is the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’?

But the quote also made me think of a line Jonathan Meades once said, that “Rivers and fields no more just happen than do buildings. They’re industrial sites.” (I think said in his ‘Father To the Man‘ episode of the Abroad Again series) The quote struck me when I heard it, because it underlined in an apparent way firstly how I had come to think of ‘industry’ as factories, large buildings churning out smoke. But also how our relationship to land has always been industrious, even before agriculture, and also furthermore how much we have affected and shaped nature to the point that it is rarely, if ever, directly experienced. Maybe the ‘natural’ simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Meades has had his own rallying against the idealisation of the rural for some time (you can read an article from 2002 here, and one from 2010 here), but I think what’s important is the realization that what we understand as Nature is a cultural construct. This also shapes our expectations, whether it’s how we look at a computer screen as opposed to a flower. Over the next few weeks I’ll look in more detail at how each of the artists in TERRA have dealt with these issues, as well as speaking to the curators, looking at our use of materials in the art world, and a few other stop-offs via Smithson, Vonnegut, and a few other guests.

2 Responses to “Terra has landed”

  1. Hannah Mansell November 13, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    The idea of whether the Natural exits any-more becomes very interesting when works endorsed by the forestry commission are introduced into the gallery space. Reading Joy Sleeman’s accompanying essay brings to the fore the movement of Land Art and contextualises TERRA within the interesting debate surrounding the gallery space and the artist. Listening to a young visitor singing ‘twinkle twinkle little star’ when encountering Jonathan Anderson’s sculpture ‘Dark Star’ epitomises the notion that Nature is a cultural construct. The way such a visitor is reminded of a learned nursery rhyme when encountering a work in TERRA emphasises our collective perception of nature and the cultural assumptions we make when approaching works that address this territory, regardless of age.

  2. Pippa Marsh November 18, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

    The decision taken by The Forestry Commission at Grizedale Forest to collaborate with Jerwood Visual Arts on ‘TERRA’ brings sculpture, made by artists in response to nature, into the gallery itself. This forces the viewer to be confronted with elements of the natural – an oddly uneasy and sometimes uncomfortable experience – which suggests we are perhaps no longer familiar with the idea of ‘the natural’ anymore.

    Placing these sculptural works in a gallery enables a multi-sensory experience – Jonathan Anderson’s ‘Dark Star’, may not achieve the same physical impact if displayed outdoors. By placing it within the confines of a room, it puts the viewer’s existence in relation to the sculpture, automatically altering their perception and transforming the sculpture into a dark and imposing form. Similarly, sprawling branches of beech wood confined by the white walls of the gallery in Anne-Mie Melis’ ‘Are Your Petunias Actually Transgenic?’ immediately appear daunting, as though they are slowly taking over the gallery space, Luke Jerram’s sculpture ‘Tohoku Earthquake’ transforms the incomprehensible scale of the sound of the Tohoku earthquake into a physical object, and the use of scent in Edwina Fitzpatrick’s ‘Arboreal Laboratory: In mythology the Gods always smelled good’ disrupted visitors’ behaviour whilst in the gallery – some bending down to smell the scent, others inspecting where it was coming from.

    The Owl Project’s ‘Sound Lathe’, which comprises of a sound system made from wood and sound generated by a wood lathe, gives a now seemingly defunct material and process a new purpose, and opens up questions of man-made technology and how it has affected the natural world. It serves as a stark reminder of the technological environment which we have constructed for ourselves – thus creating a tendency to ignore or forget the ‘natural’ – and manages to combine the seemingly opposing forces of nature and technology. The Forestry Commission’s project at Grizedale Forest has shown sculpture within natural surroundings, which could possibly further enforce the dichotomy we have constructed between technology and nature (exemplified by the “city-bound people” who “plan their ‘getaway to the country’ months in advance”). By bringing this work in to the gallery context ‘Sound Lathe’ offers an opportunity to discuss the possibility not for us to return to nature (by planning a ‘getaway to the country’ or viewing land art in natural surroundings) but for nature to return to us – a way to move forward in our technology obsessed generation that has forgotten what is or even if the natural exists.