Remembering Trees

Reading the following essay, penned in March 2020, I was glad to find it better than I remembered (I had initially intended an art review!) and that it remained relevant regarding the unprecedented world events that were only then starting to appear.

Remembering Trees by Alison Philp

In March I visited the last art show I might manage to see this year. ‘Seized by the Left Hand’ at Dundee Contemporary Art, curated by Eoin Dara and Kim McAleese, an exhibition comprising a community of various artists using different art forms to imagine alternative world-views. They were brought together in the context of the 1969 science-fiction novel ‘Left Hand of Darkness’ by Ursula Le Guin and situated together within a gallery space.

Four paintings illustrating the Amazon rainforest by Colombian artist Abel Rodriguez caused me to pause for a while. They had an aesthetic quality I liked, sensitive lines, watery paint and a magical relationship to place. The diverse characters depicted were individually complex and nuanced but nothing was focused on, singled out or given more importance than anything else. The detailed depiction of flora, fauna and wildlife, invoked a life world system of entanglement and of human and nature co-habitation. I envisaged a culture whose land ethic was removed from any sense of ownership or economic gain. Contained in wooden frames sitting inside borders of white the images presented on paper as imaginary islands of abundance, unspoiled and existing apart.

Within the context of the exhibition the forest images were the most radical in their reimagining of an environmental relationship to place and yet they were not another ‘planet away’. Inspired and informed by the artist’s real world ancestral knowledge and actual lived experience from many years before, they showed a form of local knowledge that was rapidly disappearing in Brazil’s race for ‘economic growth’.

My imagining of differing world realities, expanded outwards from the picture of the Amazon forest, to the gallery space, and then toward the city bustling outside. In stark contrast to the recalled forest, the noise of Dundee filtered through the gallery windows and up from the cafe below. An urban environment of asphalt, concrete and stone with nature subordinated and squeezed into edges and managed in parks was just a few metres away. Within the disparity of these two different environments I comprehended the plant blindness prevalent in the city and also in much of western life.

And in the weeks that followed my last visit to the DCA the world as we had previously lived it changed. With borderless viruses and Brexit negotations we were all in it together but also better apart. And those (physically) exhibited images of the forest world preserved in their frames, within a gallery, located in a city, situated in a cultural landscape, remained an insight into an integrated way of living with ‘otherness’ that might offer a philosophy greatly needed in this unfolding time.

From the exhibition notes – As Le Guin herself said so eloquently in 2014: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”

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