From Derbyshire to Barbados; mycorrhizal networks to the movements of the stars; Irish potatoes to Cheshire weeds – re:rural is a project by Haarlem Artspace in which the rural is un-learned and re-imagined by four contemporary artists whose practices have evolved from years of working within particular non-urban geographies: Annalee Davis, Feral Practice, Deirdre O’Mahony and Pauline Woolley.
Hosted partially in Haarlem’s exhibition space in Wirksworth, Derbyshire, and online via the Haarlem Periodical on the organisation’s website, re:rural further functions as a reflection of the tentative new space many of us are inhabiting between staying at home and venturing out. It offers an interesting hybrid model for how rural spaces like Haarlem might operate in the future, combining the international perspective of the digitally connected contemporary art world with the rootedness and context-awareness of an organisation embedded in and emerging from a local community.
Pauline Woolley’s contribution to the online periodical echoes this idea of finding spaces where a local sense of place meets broader universals. The Sky Calls to Me is a series of photo collages produced with a home-made pinhole camera, which Woolley used to capture images of the night sky under a long exposure. Produced over the course of several months during her father’s illness, Woolley captured these images in the gardens of both her childhood home in rural Cheshire and the house in suburban Nottingham she lives in as an adult.
The quiet, clean monochrome images have a ghostly quality to them, the slow exposure blurring the leaves of trees and softening the roofline of a house, while also making visible the traces of the stars created by the earth’s imperceptible movement. The series subtly highlights how even the most familiar spaces are subject to ongoing changes and cycles on an astrological scale, connecting intimate local knowledge with what Woolley calls the “realms of the unknown” represented by the stars and planets.
The collages are presented alongside an evocative new video work, Beyond the Celestial Sphere, which combines images from The Sky Calls to Me with evolving layers of digital film and ambient noise captured during lockdown. The film also superimposes Woolley’s photography with moving astrological maps, planned and influenced by free open source planetarium software.
Woolley explains her interest in capturing celestial movement, saying: “I have for a long time questioned our perception of the sky in terms of where we are. Does the physicality of a location create a different experience of viewing the sky? Does an urban sky have any less emotional value and connection to that of a countryside sky?”
After Woolley’s cosmic musings, viewers are brought down to earth with a bump through Feral Practice’s Mycorrhizal Meditation, a guided meditation helping listeners to imagine the connections between their human bodies and the mycorrhizal mycelium in the living soil beneath their feet. The spoken word guided meditation is interwoven with field recordings of forests and sonifications of the electrical signals sent and received through fungal networks. These noises are very subtle, a crackling white noise in the background punctuated by tiny pops and rustlings; access to this mycorrhizal world is not made too easy – it requires ongoing acts of attention and creative imagination.
The page also features research photographs of different fungal species, as well as a short clip showing how the audio files are captured, in which a patch of mushrooms are attached to crocodile clips, a network of colourful wires, contact microphones and a laptop. We then witness the artist’s fingers reaching into the shot to press playfully into a spongey cap, giving an experimental mushroom massage. It’s a useful reminder of the haptic interspecies relationships at the heart of Feral Practice methods – and perhaps a prompt to try the meditation outside and to extend the experience of this mycelium-thinking beyond the screen.
The sound work is accompanied by a newly extended essay by Feral Practice. Like the meditation, this text elides the distance between human, fungus and plant; species differentiation is lost in the use of the second person pronoun. “The information you receive becomes indistinguishable from your sustenance. Subtleties of gift and receipt are complex. You offer your attention – hopefully, hungrily, waiting… You get sips of craved-for minerals, your sweetness leeches out in return. It’s not involuntary… you could stop… but if you did… would you still… exist?” This question could equally be addressed to a plant reliant on the so-called ‘wood wide web’ for its sustenance, and to a human being incapable of separating themselves from internet-connected devices.
Deirdre O’Mahony’s offering for the periodical centres around text and documentation from her ten-year research project SPUD. This body of work explores the role of the potato in Irish culture, starting from the specifics of potato cultivation in a particular rural location in County Clare before widening the scope to consider broader attitudes towards rurality, the Irish Famine as a warning against monocrop agriculture, and the potential of the potato in achieving food security in an era of climate breakdown.
O’Mahony challenges accepted notions of the potato as something ugly or uncharismatic, presenting photographs of its surprisingly elegant flowers or a scattering of bright purple roots cooking in a seaweed lined firepit. A number of photographs document Weeding Ridges, a potato bed dug in the garden of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2016. O’Mahony writes in a supporting essay that the geometric design was “intentionally referencing both land art, and the arts and crafts movement; high modernity and a ‘return’ to a rural vernacular.” It also draws on traditional Irish methods for growing potatoes – oral and embodied knowledge which is in danger of being lost as agriculture is increasingly consolidated and industrialised. These techniques are further explained in an animation depicting the rhythmical process of digging a lazy-bed, an act of labour choreographed like a dance.
Whereas the recent spate of online exhibitions have primarily recreated traditional exhibitions in an unsatisfying digital format, it’s refreshing to see an online platform like Haarlem Periodical providing a space for something beyond reproductions of finished artworks: documentation images and videos, works-in-progress, research images, quotations, essays and suggestions for further reading all feature.
re:rural makes full use of the flexibility of the online format, echoing the interconnectivity of the ecosystems it seeks to explore and offering an open and generous space for further investigation.
Unlike the other three artists, Annalee Davis’ work is available to view both online and in the small gallery at Haarlem Artspace, which is set at the entrance to a complex of artist studios housed in an old cotton mill (possibly the inspiration for George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss). Wooden beams and hints of exposed brick nod towards this heritage. The space contains an open-plan kitchen and there is a sense of its dual purpose as both gallery and social hub for the community of artists who work on site.
The gallery and studios of Haarlem Artspace inhabit around a third of the large red-brick buildings, which have been renovated over the years and also house a handful of creative businesses and a wedding venue. It’s a significant transition from the site’s former identity as the first coal powered mill in the world; one that points to some of the socioeconomic shifts seen in many post-industrial environments.
Annalee Davis’s work can be found both inside and outside the gallery. Her practice is an exploration of place, born out of her studio’s location on a working dairy farm in Barbados, which once operated as a sugarcane plantation. Walking the fields, she collects wild plants and pottery sherds, bringing them back to her studio to press or draw them.
In Wild Plant Series, Davis uses translucent latex-based pigment to draw botanically accurate images of wild plants from around the farm onto sheets from a 1970s ledger, designed to chart and categorise the economic activities of the plantation.
Without erasing this formational history, Davis’ drawings are acts of imaginative reclamation, seeking new ways of reading the historic site, much as wild plants can be seen as decolonising agents, interrupting the monocrop cultures of colonial trade. The piece further highlights the role of wild plants as a free herbal apothecary used by plantation workers, as well as the potential they offer for imagining anticolonial and anticapitalist modes of healing and understanding the body’s enmeshed relationship with surrounding ecosystems.
Curators Olivia Penrose Punnett and Catherine Rogers also invited Davis to create a sculpture responding to the building and its context in the post-industrial landscape of rural Derbyshire, home to some of the oldest cotton mills in the UK and therefore intimately connected to transatlantic plantation economies.
(Bush) Tea Plot – A Decolonial Patch for Mill Workers, which sits in the mill’s courtyard, is a one-metre tall glass vitrine on a limestone plinth filled with stones, found objects from the Haarlem site, soil, and living plants. The plants, which include yarrow, vervain, coltsfoot and meadowsweet, were chosen because they would once have been used medicinally by the women and children who worked in the cotton mills, and who often suffered from ailments caused by their difficult labour. The exhibition effectively links two very different rural locations on either side of the Atlantic, while also speaking to the socio-economic, historical and ecological specificities of each.
Haarlem Artspace’s inspiring manifesto states: “We are politically rural in that we view it as a shifting multiplicity, a practice, an identity, and an ideology.” re:rural is a manifestation of this premise, and the content of the exhibition as well as its cross-platform format both speak to the concept of the rural as a complex network of multispecies actors enmeshed in international sociocultural, economic and ecological currents as well as establishing a geographically specific sense of place.
re:rural is at Haarlem Artspace and online from 12th September to 11th October 2020.
Image credits (from top):
1. Annalee Davis, Sweeping the Fields, 2020. Photo credit: Helen Cammock
2. Pauline Woolley, The Sky Calls to Me, pin-hole photo-collage, 2020
3. Pauline Woolley, The Sky Calls to Me, pin-hole photo-collage, 2020
4. Feral Practice, Mycorrhizal Meditation, research image: mycelium around the roots of a pine seedling. Photo credit: Professor David Read
5. Deirdre O’Mahony, Weeding Ridges, 2016. Photo credit: Deirdre O’Mahony
6. Annalee Davis, rewilding installation image, Haarlem Artspace, 2020. Photo: Will-Slater
7. Annalee Davis, Wild Plant Series, 2015 for rewilding Haarlem Artspace, 2020. Photo: Will Slater
8. Annalee Davis, Bush Tea Plot – A Decolonial Patch for Mill Workers (detail). Photo: Will Slater
9. Annalee Davis, Bush Tea Plot – A Decolonial Patch for Mill Workers (detail). Photo: Will Slater
This is part of FIELDS, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring fields as natural and (agri)cultural, invisible and visible, poor and productive, created and creators. FIELDS is conceived and edited by Marloe Mens.