I’m an artist who wants a society with a caring operating system and a planet with a future. I have developed an artistic practice using a broad range of mediums including sculpture, video art, performance, ‘happenings’, print, drawing, dialogue and natural pigments. It’s an intersectional practice, crossing disciplines in the humanities, (history, geography, psychology & language), in the sciences, (plant biology, chemistry & physics), and in maths and technology. The heart of my practice is within the social arts, connecting with communities, and using practice-based research to create works which raise awareness and facilitate depth of engagement. The result is a versatile practice of poetic activism.
This enquiry relates to my lifelong connection with nature and I consider myself lucky to live and to have grown up in the countryside. The uncanny time of lockdown highlighted the importance of this connection, and I started to use nature more directly in my practice. I learnt how to extract colour from plants and started on an exciting journey of discovery. Part of the awe of nature, is its’ unpredictability. Working with natural pigments is a balance between the unpredictable and control and I enjoy working between the two. I don’t always know in advance what colour the plant will yield, there is no encyclopedia, but I operate a no discrimination ‘equal opportunities’ policy when it comes to colour, every one is valid, they’re all just different. I can control however, the variations on the given colour, (meaning colour here in general terms), getting up to 20 colours from one plant when simmering it up to extract it. This gives some order within the chaos, which, on reflection, is much needed during an unpredictable time. The ‘brewing’ process is exciting; making decisions about when to stop and making detailed notes so that more informed decisions can be made at the next opportunity. I process my plants within a seasonal timeframe and nature didn’t play ball this year with my plans for creating an artwork based on feeling three different seasons at the same time. Spring hadn’t sprung in time. We are on a huge learning curve with regards to resilience, so I adapted my final outcome accordingly, however, the end point informed the way the enquiry evolved and the tests I was able to perform, so it is important to explain the reasoning behind my methodology.
The awe of nature can be overwhelming through its’ vastness as per the Kantian definition of the connection with nature and the sublime. I use a ‘nano-approach’ to investigate difficult concepts at a micro level to aid understanding at a macro level. Previously I have examined time and the medium of video art using this approach, looking at moments of ‘nano-liminality’, looking at how the interstice between frames is enlarged with the slow-motion technique and comparing this to the breaking down of an atom. To make this enquiry manageable, I concentrated the research in one parish locality; where I live (through necessity due to lockdown restrictions) and on the specific natural habitat of hedgerows. I choose this habitat because I’m involved with my local climate action group, and, as one part of our ‘Green Plan’ with the local environment group, we are conducting a local parish hedgerow survey. Hedges are excellent carbon sinks, have extraordinary biodiversity (2070 species have been recorded in one 85 metre stretch), and act as a thoroughfare for wildlife between habitats. A diverse team of 12 volunteers (including a geologist, a university administrator, a management accountant, a parish councilor and 3 of us are artists), go out for a couple of hours every weekend and record the relevant data; how ‘wide-high-long’, what species, assess the health and note the gaps. Based on initial data gained from existing maps, the parish has 46km of hedges and we’re ‘ground-truthing’ this with a view to improving their health. I then condensed this further by periodising it in seasons. I have a collection of autumn and winter inks, and I’m still working on spring.
When I am working with a material, in this instance, hedgerow inks, I cross disciplines, so when looking at our parish hedges, I increased my knowledge of the geography of the locality and I gained knowledge of their history. Hedges are visual documents in the landscape of political and social history. Being on the cusp of the Chilterns Hills, the hedges in our parish are a mix of species of ancient origin on the hills and in the ‘lowlands’, they are predominantly typical ‘enclosure’ hawthorn hedges of the mid 1800s which visually map the history of capitalism. I came across the curious phenomenon of Cuckoo Pens cited on Ordnance Survey Maps by word of mouth from our hedge expert, Nigel Adams, who is leading our survey. There is a folkloric myth attached to Cuckoo Pens, first documented in 1630, whereby the Merry Men of Gotham entrapped the cuckoo in trees and built a circular hedge around them so they couldn’t migrate, and the summer would never end. The myth states that they didn’t build the hedge high enough, the cuckoo got away and the seasons continued. This idea of perpetual seasons led me to start freezing the inks to keep them fresh so that I could use the true colour of any season together simultaneously in my work and play with the natural rhythm of time. I wanted to create a work that stemmed from the idea I argued in my dissertation, ‘Using the work, If I Hear a Loud Bang, I’ll Count to 10 Slowly Then Walk Towards It (2018) by Jules Bishop as a prism, explore how embodiment through the medium of video art affects us in the ‘now’’, that, by feeling time differently, embodied responses could bring about new ways of thinking regarding climate change. Environmental activism is a driving force in my practice and by marrying different disciplines into it, I give it this poetic touch, the resonance and the reverberations of which have the potential to be louder and to go on for longer.
Freezing the inks also led me down an enquiry into contemporary drawing practice in the expanded field. By definition, inks and watercolours (which can have the same gum Arabic binder) are differentiated by the state of the particles; watercolours are always made from solid pigment particles which are insoluble in water and inks are either in liquid or paste form and are soluble with or without a binder. Based upon one of my key principles, zero-waste, I used an iterative approach to the tests I performed. For example, I found that the ink was more concentrated in the residue left by the ice-cubes in the tray and I used these residues to create mono and chine-collé prints. The use of Japanese paper for this process led to my first experiments using the frozen inks with Japanese papers and different substrates underneath. I tested extensively and created a series of ‘ice process-drawings’, and I see my role in the process as one of a facilitator who steers and intervenes when necessary, using my body and intuition to direct the water to stay on the page. Melting ice is a perfect example of entropy and this journey the pigments particles are taken on by the water in the process-drawings, record and document the process of order and chaos, the traces of which are marked by the residual pigment particles after evaporation. The tipping point with regards to climate change is a real thing and by just doing any little positive step towards its’ prevention, is a step in the right direction. My practice embraces this by raising awareness, in a visually poetic way, of concepts such as entropy. I have experimented successfully with making watercolours pans, pastels, soy-based printing ink, and a plastic VOC-free alternative to acrylic paint. I have also developed a recipe for combining this alternative with an artisanal lime-based paint which absorbs CO2 during the 30-day curing process of carbonation. This process dates back to the mid-nineteenth century and the paint has been mixed with graphene, a 21st century discovery. The fusion of old and new has created a durable, elastic and breathable paint. This is an ongoing line of enquiry and documented as a work in progress.
‘Gluons’ are what binds particles together. The ‘gluon’ that binds my works into a practice is the process of embodiment. I use it in performance, embodying sensation, in the creation of process-drawings, embodying intuition as a means of facilitation, in the making of materials, embodying a sense of place which has loud local resonance, and by putting social art at the heart of my practice, embodying life and practice in one. Where the boundary lies between my life and my art is hard to distinguish and define. They fuse, merge and intertwine. I walk up and down hedges most weekends, which is part of my ‘everyday’ life but it’s how I use the knowledge and connection gained to spark dialogue, to raise awareness and to deepen engagement that makes it different. My practice an extension of key principles I live by: take all single-use plastics out of the system and don’t produce any more; stop using fossil-fuels and don’t extract any more; and zero-waste: reuse, recycle, repurpose, rethink, reimagine….
Environmental activism is the overriding theme in my work (and my life), and here I have based my dialogical work at a local, rural level. I staged a showcase of my work in the parish during Oxfordshire ArtWeeks in the week before the degree show. I exhibited the pigments I’d created and the test pieces from my research. The conversations I had during the course of the event were much more important than the sales. They covered the costs though and provided feedback on the overall body of work in situ; it was a calming body of work. The colours from natural pigments are harmonious and always sit well together. The aesthetic of pigments is closely linked to poetry and, by marrying the two themes, and working in an intersectional way, my work sits in the frame of poetic activism which has a wide reach. The embedded purpose gives a lyrical rhythm to my work. Liminality is also a key theme in my practice and this body of work sits within the timeframe of moving from fossil-fuels to renewables, which itself sits within the wider tipping-point umbrella. The work begins to touch on spatial liminality and connections with past and present, the hedges reverberating the echoes from the past as visual records.
The work that has had the most influence on my practice is ‘Human Cost’, which was performed at Tate Britain in April 2011 by Liberate Tate, an art collective who were opposing oil-giant BP’s sponsorship of the Tate. This act of direct protest has had a major influence on my practice, in that the photo documentation of the performance ended up on the front page of the Financial Times and hence in front of decision makers. I have sought inspiration from the forefather of environmental activist art, Joseph Beuys, particularly referencing in connection with the CO2 absorbing paint work in progress, the 1981 work, ‘7000 Oaks’, which was part of his Concrete Utopia series. It was a social sculpture calling for participation in the urban regeneration process. Beuys’ sophisticated choices and sensitivity to detail reverberate in the work of Neville Gabie today. Cambridge Community Collection1, was an unfinished work which was based on creating a unique archive of UK registered apple trees by grafting 800 species of apple tree and planting them, in alphabetical order, in concentric circles around a centre-point in the city. These would indicate your location relative to the city centre and, at the same time, map routes to new developments in the south of the city and highlight the ‘same symbiotic and mutually dependent relationship between existing and new communities which need to be fed, nurtured and established’. The community footprint of Gabie’s work gives it the rhythm of a choir. Sculptor and land artist, Andy Goldsworthy directly influenced this body of work, with his Snowball Drawings in 1981 melting on paper in the middle of the City of London. I am also interested in the time-based work such his Rain Shadows (1984-), where he lies down until the rain has stopped and leaves a silhouette on the ground. He is criticised for not addressing social and political issues, however, his recent work, Red Flags, 2020, at the Rockefeller Centre in New York has gathered up red soil samples from all over America, in a collaborative way, due to Coronavirus restrictions and 50 flags were coloured with these soils and installed around the plaza ‘as a gesture’ of solidarity and support. Aboubaker Fofana is a contemporary artist who uses indigo in his practice to make sensitive work and is ‘reinvigorating and redefining West African dyeing techniques.’ Finally, textile and other ink/pigment artists have been an incredible source of knowledge and I find ‘grooves of affinity’ with artists such as Linda Gass, who interprets climate data, and @a.ruralpen who buys up guns in America from pawnbrokers and turns them into ink and paint. As well as highlighting the importance of nature, lockdown also highlighted the importance of community. In 1992, theorist Suzi Gablik wrote, ‘the new connective aesthetics recognizes that we live in a time in which our need for community has become critical. Many artists now fashion their individuality out of this interconnection and weave it directly into their work. Over the next few decades, I think we will see more art that is essentially social, that rejects the myths of neutrality and autonomy, as the notion of atomic individuals discreetly divided from each other gives way, within an ecological paradigm, to a different notion of the self.’ My practice is a response to this, 29 years on.
- Gablik, Suzi. “Connective Aesthetics.” American Art, vol. 6, no. 2, 1992, pp. 2–7. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3109088. Accessed 24 Apr. 2021.