18 Jul 2016

Artist in Residence Bulletin 10

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

14 July 2016

This is where it ends… my last bulletin to close an epic, 10 months long adventure, as Artist in Residence at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. I am fortunate to have been invited to share some of my visual experiments as part of the Oriel Davies-curated, flora touring exhibition, that has just opened at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. My installation is a small part in a big and plentiful show and I seriously recommend a visit to anyone interested in plants and contemporary art.

My piece in this exhibition is called Plat de Résistance II (please see installation photo above), a variation on the themes of soil cultivation and resistance, that I have been exploring during my residency. It consists of a table covered with soil organized as a geometric pattern and mirrored by a photograph of the same soil-covered table, on the wall directly behind it. I love the way the installation is placed right at the back of the exhibition, in a small, slightly separate room, acting as a kind of quiet punctuation mark to a rich and wholesome show, and to the artist residency itself, of course.

There is a kind of satisfaction in being able to bring dirty soil within the immaculate confines of the art space. But this is not any soil – nor is it actually dirty, the soil I have used is beautiful compost produced at the Botanic Garden, from the painstaking and methodical gathering and stacking of discarded plant and organic material, by the gardeners that work there. There is no greater pleasure to me, as a budding horticulturalist, than to patiently watch all the rubbish stuff, turn into the sweet organic matter it becomes. It is also always one of life’s great consolation to remember that shit turns into manure – something I have to remind myself of a lot, following the social mess that the Brexit vote of three weeks ago provoked.

I mentioned in some of my previous bulletins the importance of soil as the key to everything – not least human survival. Plat de Résistance in French means main course, or literally a dish of resistance or sustenance. (Apologies for using French quite a lot, it is not an attempt to sound intellectual or sophisticated, it’s just that there are certain things that I can express better in my native language). Conveniently, the French word Résistance can interchangeably mean sustenance or resistance in English. And through my work I want to talk about sustenance and about resistance.

I have been as impressed and fascinated by the creative and scientific energy of the Garden, as I have been concerned by the lack of political cohesion that seem to constantly undermine its efforts. This may sound a familiar narrative in the social turmoil sweeping this country in the aftermath of Brexit: I do often think of the Garden as a kind of microcosm reflecting the wider social and political landscape of Wales and Britain as a whole, including the class struggles, turf wars, and of course all the foreign invaders (should one use chemical or biological control?!)

Resistance – I am alluding here, to a kind of quiet, often unspoken resistance, as a determination to keep true to one’s ethical principals –  is a quality that I admire in people and although in my view relatively rare, I have found plenty of this quality amongst the people of NBGW, especially amongst the gardeners. At best, they remain unabated by the enormity of the task facing them (looking after over 220 hectares of land), undeterred by the cheap gimmicks that threaten the sustainability of their project, rise above petty politics, are unafraid of strangers, generous and welcoming of others – they plough on regardless, day after day, shine or rain, mostly invisible or unnoticed, but no less determined. Much has to be said for resistance through careful and patient cultivation… of land, of human relationships.

Plant communities have always known something that humans don’t always see:  the importance of working together. It is to all the people that understand that local preservation and kindness to others is an act of political warfare, that through small every day rhizomatic connections and gestures, we can resist the forces that try to destroy our souls and our soil, that I want to dedicate my Plat de Resistance. I can’t think of a better way to end this journey, than with the words of 18th Century philosopher Voltaire, who concluded his initiatory tale of Candide, with the words:

Il faut cultiver notre jardin

We must cultivate our garden