Updated: May 21, 2020
"The idea that the earth is alive has existed since ancient times. The name Gaia is of a living entity and was used by the Greeks two thousand years ago." Gaia, J.E. Lovelock
Here I sit in my little snug with the evening light casting its warmth and golden rays onto books that obscure the floor, debating in my head the subject of my next confession. It is the 1st of May and as Clare Leighton so aptly states in her Farmer's Year...
"May is a white month. Sheared sheep and daisies in the meadows, chestnut candles and hawthorn snow in the hedgerows, white of blossom in the orchards. White clouds toss and float across the sky, and white clothes blow on the washing line in the cottage gardens."
From observing our garden and nearside road verges I would add the white lace tops of cow parsley blowing in the wind and the unfurling, velvet white popular leaves that pirouette on their delicate stems like the great tremulous aspens, which are a close cousin. But April is not far behind and has predominantly been a yellow month with fields and verges full of the golden rays of daffodils and dandelions, lesser celandines, primroses and cowslips. I was rather late planting a new batch of daffodil bulbs so we are still enjoying a late bloom in our garden, as well as the riot of yellow and white on our neighbouring airfield in Northrepps. Covid-19 does have a silver lining and we don't have to look far to see it. Wild flowers that would ordinarily be cut within a millimetre of their life have been given an opportunity to put on the most glorious exhibition: no people, no planes and therefore no need to mow the airfield. Every time we walk down its strip we are rewarded with a greater display of daisies and dandelions set against a musical backdrop of Larks ascending and descending into the surrounding fields.
I read an article by Plantlife this morning about No Mow May: how to get ten times more bees on your lockdown lawn. If you were ever in an ideal situation to experiment in your garden and then wait to observe the wildlife in action, now is the time to do it. All our pollinators need our help and if your lawn looks anything like this wonderful road verge then consider the power each and every one of us has to help our environment.
The humble dandelions, however, have a wonderful celestial party trick, one minute they emulate the rays of the sun and in the next they become a glorious microcosm of earth or according to others the moon; a white globe of ephemeral beauty that heralds the month of May, indeed the summer. Their seed heads, also known as blow balls, wait for the prevailing winds to carry them aloft, high into the star lit skies. Every part of the plant is useful for medicine, edible as food and used as dye colouring, and up until the 1800s was nurtured in a garden and valued. Now the humble dandelion is classified as a weed and mown, uprooted and poisoned the world over. These are possibly some of the most resilient plants you will ever come across, their roots can be as long as 1 meter and they have the longest flowering season of any plant.
HELEN CHADWICK (1953 - 1996)
I am almost always reminded of the British artist Helen Chadwick when I look at a perfect dandelion seed head, particularly because it's representation takes pride of place on the front cover of her touring exhibition catalogue Stilled Lives produced for the Portfolio Gallery in Edinburgh and the Kunsthallen Brandts Klaedefabrik in Odense. One of my prized catalogues. The image is one of 7 that make up the photographic installation called Nebula, 1996.
Helen Chadwick, Nebula, Unnatural Selection, 1996
"Nebula is one of three, jewel-like sculptures which have the collective title ‘Unnatural Selection’ and came out of Chadwick’s time as artist-in-residence at King’s College Hospital Assisted Conception Unit in 1995." Louisa Buck, Frieze, 09 Jan 2019.
Helen Chadwick is one of only a handful of contemporary artists, who made and continues to make an enduring impression on me, helping me to radically rethink my art practice when I was in my twenties. On reflection I find it interesting to note, that many of these influential figures are predominantly female, some of whom are sadly no longer with us. It is also a great regret to me that in 1994 I was not able to sign up for a one to one tutorial with her whilst on my MA course in Barcelona. She was a visiting tutor during her one person show Effluvia, on exhibition at the Fundacio La Caixa in Barcelona. She died in her prime of the virus myocarditis, heart failure, on the 15th March 1996. The work presented in her catalogue Stilled Lives was the final body of work she produced before her death.
In 1994 I was at a cross roads in my life; their is no doubting the amazing opportunity 9 months in Barcelona followed by 3 months in Winchester had on me as an artist. I was only 3 years from having completed my degree at Edinburgh and still struggling to define myself and most importantly my work. I had trained as a traditional printmaker but was lost in the my own world, hanging on to threads of light that were not augmented by knowledge or understanding. In those early years I took inspiration from my immediate surrounding; the printmaking department behind the botanical gardens with its atmospheric print workshop, paper making facilities, darkroom and predominantly, from somewhere deep inside of me. In the intervening years I spent time in my attic studio in a converted farm barn on the edge of Edinburgh, with no facilities other than what I created with my hands.
Seeing Helen Chadwick's work for the first time in Barcelona was a revelation to me...you could say it was a much needed light bulb moment. I knew deep down I wasn't a traditional printmaker, nor a traditional photographer, what was I trying to achieve? Chadwick's work made me see that photography could challenge conventions, break expectations, and be presented as an experience. It could be constructed not just presented.
The medium and histories of print is vast and what the 20th century, and 5 years working on a doctorate, taught me was that in a post-modern world anything is possible. Breaking away from convention and taking every opportunity to create exquisite unholy alliances, Helen Chadwick showed me that the conception, process and presentation of a work of art are of equal importance. Photography was not an end in itself but part of a staged process, a constructed schematic, to aid cognition.
She was ahead of her time in her journey of self reflection, focusing on notions of identity and exploring symbolism and materiality in her work. Philosophy un-mistakenly underpins her work. The photograph was not just simply a means to tell the story but an integral tool that helped shape the story. She often appeared as a subject of her work too, exploring not just the visible but invisible layer of her body. She was first and foremost an artist: a sculptor, a photographer, an installation artist, a thinker and a performance artist who worked against the grain of mainstream feminism of the 1970s and 1980s, for daring to depict her naked body in her work.
I wish I could thank her for being such an inspiration to me and for making me see that I am no less an artist for choosing to define my practice by my ideas rather than my medium.
For a brief time, I was involved with Art Space, an artist run studio complex and gallery in Portsmouth. On my first visit in 2000 Aspex gallery still occupied the large upper floor of the converted church. During my tenure as a trustee researching material for the 30 year celebrations in 2010, I was excited to come across documentation of Ego Geometria Sum the Labours I-X a significant exhibition of Helen Chadwick's work first shown at Aspex Gallery in 1983, only 3 years after Art Space / Aspex was founded. 1983 to 1985 were pivotal years for Chadwick, her career was on an upward trajectory and there was no stopping her. This was for me another poignant connection with her.
When I was in Barcelona, the photographic work that brought her to my attention was an exhibition called Effluvia; a selection of work from the previous 5 years, which included a recent body of work called Wreaths to Pleasure, informally titled Bad Blooms by Chadwick. They are 13 very large circular photographic pieces; different species of coloured flowers beautifully arranged in domestic fluids, some of which are toxic. This was so characteristic of the artist to present the sensuous aspects of the natural world alongside its polar opposite.
The works "are at once as repulsing as they are beautiful, and it is this combination that typifies Chadwick's work: aesthetic beauty created out of an alliance of unconventional, often vile, materials." Richard Saltoun Gallery
Helen Chadwick, Wreaths to Pleasure No 11, 1992 - 1993
Helen Chadwick, Wreaths to Pleasure No 10, 1992 - 1993
I was profoundly struck by another still life photographic work called Loop My Loop 1991. Golden blonde locks have been intertwined with pigs intestines that on first appearance look enthralling until the truth of the material evokes disgust.
The scale of all of Helen Chadwick's work is significant, human scale to be precise. Her works deceive and reveal simultaneously and convey a profound vulnerability in the human condition. Composing beautiful flowers within a context of toxic man-made substances conveys yet further layers of meaning, of superficiality and our relationship to nature.
So I have digressed a little from the image of the dandelion. What was its significance you are probably asking? Whilst musing about the blog a few days before I began to write, and whilst also sitting on the edge of the field behind our wood with my sketchbook, I started to think about the strip of land in front of me, that had been set aside for the Country Stewardship Grant by the owner. A twelve metre wide strip, a field long. I haven't actually tried to measure the length, suffice to say that in Norfolk terms it is long field.
The strip has not been planted or ploughed since last year and I find it interesting to observe what grows on the earth that has for decades had artificial fertilisers and herbicides applied to it. Very little grew last year, the strip struggling to cast off its mantle of poison. This spring it appears to have more promise of life, though still struggling. I have made a collection of all the species I can find that are currently in flower and wonder at their resilience. What comes to mind is nature's ability to heal, restore and to re-colonise. Like the first forests, it is always the pioneer species that get established, which then pave the way for the larger longer living deciduous or evergreen trees, like Birch and Scots Pine are to a whole host of other trees.
My mini survey of the wildflowers revealed our common daisy (Bellis perennis), The delicate blue of the Common Field Speedwell (Veronica persica), Shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), the electric though poisonous Scarlet Pimpernel (anagallis arvensis), Scentless Mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum) which is strange as it does have an unpleasant smell, Red Dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) one of my favourite wild flowers, Groundsel (scenecio vulgaris), perhaps the most surprising is Wild pansy (Viola tricolor) so delicate and small, you could almost miss them, and last but not least our humble common Dandelion (Traxacum officinale).
I don't think that I speak out of turn when I say that the earth is dying, the human species is single handedly poisoning and polluting this fragile planet; 2019 was the year that the world started to pay attention. But I look at this strip of field behind my house and I feel hopeful, that nature has the capacity to fight back, to heal and flourish once again if only we allowed it to. Perhaps 2020 is that year! Covid-19 virus has precipitated an unprecedented global event when humanity stood still. Already after 6 weeks in lockdown, we are seeing spectacular scenes across the world where pollution has been vastly reduced. Even this morning's BBC news article Climate change and Covid-19: Five charts that explain the impacts is focusing on this fact.
In 1979 the scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock came up with the controversial "hypothesis that the entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales to viruses, and from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity, capable of manipulating the Earth's atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts". Gaia, J. E. Lovelock
I leave you to come to your own conclusion about the current global pandemic and climate change. Nature has the capacity to heal, do you think we have the capacity to change?