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Made in the conversation #2, Katsutoshi Yuasa

Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig……

The enigmatic opening line of Sorley Maclean‘s poem was chosen as the title for an exhibition on forests and memory, curated by Amy Cutler, which had its opening last week in the Belfry Gallery of St John on the Green, at Bethnal Green in London.

Those who follow this blog will know how often I feature trees, woods, forests (even more than I realised looking back), and this exhibition had many personal resonances for me, having been born close to Epping Forest, which features in several exhibits. Simon Schama‘s  Landscape and Memory, with a section on wood, and Robert Pogue Harrison‘s Forests: The Shadow of Civilisation are both long standing favourite reading material.

This exhibition focused on the forest as an archive, a witness, holding and keeping memories of its own, of itself and of human history from trauma to nostalgia – using archive material, texts and artworks, labelled and sometimes boxed, to create an archival installation. There is an instinct in humans to classify, pin down, preserve in order to understand and make sense of something, which may, as I think is intended here, still remain elusive, fleeting, even when it has a physical actuality. An initial appearance of objectivity can be counteracted by final intent. This is the phenomenological approach to curating, in complete opposition to the white box aesthetic. I was for some reason reminded of Francis Alÿs’s film artwork, The Nightwatch (2004) with the fox in the National Portrait Gallery.

Many of the artists were new to me, a new generation maybe, but names such as Alec Finlay, Chris Drury and herman de vries are well established favourites. Working with poems, texts, actual tree material they are all remaking or re-presenting the natural world. Others use photography, sound, film and (a few) traditional fine art media.

Forest-exhibition

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Alec Finlay

Alec Finlay’s Latin and Gaelic names for trees

detail from herman de vries piece

detail from herman de vries piece

Tree rings, literally show memories, time and events in the life of the tree, traumas can be read like words in a book to those able to interpret them, here through dendrochronology sections, core samples and drawings.

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Nostalgia Forest, a pamphlet publication by Amy Cutler published by Oystercatcher Press, launched here, ties in neatly. It combines diagrams from dendrochronology manuals with words from Paul Ricoeur‘s Memory, History, Forgetting.  “To remember is to have a memory or to set off in search of a memory.” These juxtapositions make us create new connections and question our assumptions.

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Social history shows the life and death of the forest: pieces from the Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew show the forest as a resource, a ribbon of the Ancient Order of Foresters suggests those who are part of its history, old postcards of forest images suggest collective memories.

With minimal obvious signs of man and his intervention the forest retains its mystery and integrity here, not yielding its secrets easily.

This was enhanced by the setting and the opening event, the feel of a forest interior in the church (a Grade 1 listed building designed by the architect John Soane) lit for performance, the climb to a belfry tree house in a forest of stone, dimly lit, a shrine. A joint reading of the Sorley Maclean poem was followed by haunting music from Rob St John, followed by other relevant music.

The subject matter seems to stir something in us and the extensive interest shown in the exhibition (which was unfortunately on for a very short time) fully justifies the ideas behind it. It would be wonderful to see it taken forward, although the atmosphere and sense of occasion could easily be lost on a bigger scale or in another venue.

A full catalogue by Amy Cutler will be available shortly online (see writeoffthemap.wordpress.com) which will make up for my not very informative photographs and captions, for which I apologise (particularly to those I have not credited). For me it has been an inspiration for the future as well as a source of memories to follow the progress of this exhibition.

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