Dear Nature: a reflection on the work of John Newling

Dear Nature John Newling exhibition at Ikon Gallery Birmingham 4th March – 31st May 2020

Dear Nature by John Newling is an epistolary book of letters to Nature, musings on what the natural world is and how the human race considers its relationship with it.  This echoes many current trends in thinking, as the consequences of our disregard for the natural way of things is increasingly giving cause for concern.  Nature appears to be hitting back either with deadly viruses, floods, storms and excessive heat causing fires in Australia and America, or becoming urban deserts and a waste land denuded of natural resource.  Although the book is a lament in some respects, it is redemptive and encourages the reader to not only think seriously about the situation, but also to consider how things can change, if we are prepared to change our behaviour ourselves.

Dear Nature,


We have changed the climate.
We are under the weather.


We have changed our climate.
We are under our weather.


Yours,
John

Dear Nature 21st March 2018

The Dear Nature project began in the wake of Journeys With “The Waste Land” a project which took inspiration from the poem by T.S. Eliot and culminated in exhibitions at Turner Contemporary, Margate and the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.  Newling provided artwork based on the composting of hundreds of copies of “The Waste Land” along with his household waste.  The resulting compost became the medium for growing new life, an act of transformation and was made into paper for Eliot’s Notebooks 2017, also part of this exhibition.  Some of these sheets of paper spontaneously germinated residual seeds and stand for the essential triumph nature has.  This insistence for re-growth and rejuvenation is the surety of hope for the future.  Newling’s musings do call us to action and after outlining how the world came to be in the position it is, the possibility of renewal is offered.  Dear Nature does require you to reconsider.

We are in danger of forgetting that every place, event and phenomena is held within an environment of you; a dangerous amnesia.

Dear Nature 29th January 2018

Perhaps our technologies have created an environment where our cognition responds to this environment to the detriment of being in the physical environment. Trees are not seen, landscapes forgotten as we become immersed in other communities and social landscapes.

Dear Nature 30th January 2018

The notebooks have been reimagined as a series of Soil Books 2018-19. These books made from John’s garden soil are displayed open, with pressed leaves also collected over time from the garden. The pages vary in colour and contrast with the leaves placed in neat rows, some leaves are gilded and shine in the light, and some are stained with watercolour. Each book has an object holding the pages open: a perfectly spherical root ball; carefully chosen and marked sticks; stones or pebbles highlighting the relationship with one to another conjuring ideas of beauty, placement, nature and order. The itchingly tactile nature of the natural medium is locked away in the case, however one knows the apparent strength and solidity of the pages would become friable at a touch. The gold leaves prompt ideas of natures wealth, and I hear the old proverb of “gilding the lily” ringing in my ears and wondering at the hubris of mankind to add gold to something that is already gold in its autumn finery and wonderment. The gold book has a ball of gold in the centre, reminding me of the Golden Snitch of Harry Potter fame. On closer inspection the surface of the ball is covered with medical plasters, sprayed a shining gold and the question of not fixing, but hiding, under a plaster as a quick fix comes to mind. All is not as it may seem.

Soil Books 2019

The seriousness of the subject may appear dry and dusty, dramatising a difficulty too big to surmount, but there is humour, and when John Newling delivered selected readings of the letters at the opening event, the audience spontaneous laughter appreciated the sentiment.

In a society that adheres to the cultivated in most things, weeds seem to me to be the mavericks of our gardens.

I like weeds.

Come on the weeds.

Dear Nature 21st February 2018

We do not have a magic wand to put the world to right, but maybe Nature does, is the question Newling poses. Daily collections of fallen twigs, a free resource for us all to use, have become wands with the application of a painted black body with tips of white to suggest the magician’s wand. 365 days and 50 million year old leaves 2019. The challenge is to pick it up, at least the concept, and use the power we have. One pile holds fossilised leaves, a reminder that Nature has been continuing the life cycle for millennia and another pile is supporting methods of written communication, an ink well, a quill and we are charged to wave the wand of intellectual illumination and communication. Dear Nature has accepted that challenge.

Dear Nature,

A lament.

We were lovers; your unknowns folded us in
fear and wonder.

We signed our names in your soils lost in our
clearing and clearings.

Our shadows alone touched you trying to find
where here is.

Wanting here to be elsewhere we became
estranged.

I am sorry but, perhaps, we are moving towards knowing what here means.

Yours

John

Dear Nature 27th March 2018

John Newling spreads the message by sending out tendrils and reaching out branches he brings the words out of the book into the wider world and within the natural environment by directly attaching his poetry to the tree. There are messages outside in the trees at the Ikon Gallery “so sorry” and a permanent installation is available to see at the University of Warwick Art Collection. A stanza from the above poem “Our shadows alone touched you trying to find where here is” is attached to an old oak tree in Tocil Wood, central campus of the university. John describes the delight at finding a way to install it that didn’t compromise the tree.

It took several months to find a way to install the work without any compromise to the beautiful mature Oak tree. The work effectively floats on the surface of the tree and is tied with special horticultural rope. Always a nervous moment but I was so pleased to see the work had the kind of silence in it that made it feel part of its place; at once visible and at times invisible… The full text reads;
‘Our shadows alone touched you trying to find where here is.’

John Newling blog

The 81 tiles of Frank’s Field 2018 are not enclosed and the need to quell the desire to touch is palpable. The tiles emulate the 81 letters in Dear Nature and are of soil and paper printed with the text of the letters, with flax seedlings embedded. The seedlings are knotted like love trysts and the effect is delightful. Displayed in front of the piece Design for a Farmer’s Duvet 2019, which uses the knotted seedlings in circles as an overall pattern, would not look out of place as a dress fabric, it conjures romantic notions of the connection between farmers, fields, nature, beds, sleeping and the cycle of life. The letter on each page of the book Dear Nature is accompanied by an image of the Linum usitatissimum plant, charting the 81 days of growth of the flax plant that is used to make linen. The delicate nature of the seedling, with its long fine roots and vibrant leaves illustrate the remarkable and robust requirements for life.

Dear Nature is read in different voices for a video created by Reece Straw. It is Newling’s great generosity commissioning a work to compliment his own, encouraging new shoots of artistic growth to be generated. Straw’s work is a triumph of cinematic ingenuity with crisp foregrounds of nature, leaves blowing in the breeze, elegant grasses waving, as a means of illustration of the words of the letters. It has reverence and a contemplative sense of time and space, no rush, and time to look and take in the beauty of the image that is married to the word. A moorhen swims from the top left screen, a perfect triangular wake expands across the view as it disappears bottom right of the screen, tranquil and beautiful. There are many special moments captured, a thistledown trapped in a flowerhead, water shimmering and flowing, and a tiny silvery cobweb glistening and trembling as the words from the many different voices slide into the ear and manifest in the eye. Thought provoking too as the Dear Nature letter from 20th March 2018 is about snow, digital technology and the need to experience the physical, where Straw has juxtaposed a romantic treatment of solar panels in a field, snow being the opposite of the warmth of solar energy, and the beauty of nature invading the ground around the manmade panels.

I do not want to experience you only through glass.
I want to live in your risks and dangers.

Dear Nature 20th March 2018

This film in running throughout the exhibition until the 31st May 2020, and will also be available at:

Brighton Festival 2020 – 2nd- 24th May 2020
Depot Cinema, Lewes on the 18th June 2020

Highlighting the expansiveness of the predicament the world is in is illuminating. Art allows the mind to explore these massive problems using visual metaphors and conceits to explain the inexplicable. The vastness of the difficulties can leave one feeling helpless and impotent to exact a change, but Newling pulls us back to our individual responsibility, and the positive message that the answer is in our hands and what is more, within our capability.

It is the accumulative actions, however small, of people that will change our relationship with you. Small solidarities from us.

Dear Nature 24th March 2018

John Newling website

Dear Nature Ikon Gallery website

Reece Straw website

Purchase Dear Nature Beam Editions


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