The Stuff of Life: The Life of Stuff

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Interior of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, UK.

I am in my home town of Norwich, UK. One of the jewels of this fine city is The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia. It’s a very cool place. It was built in 1978 to make accessible the stunning and eclectic collection of paintings, ceramics, sculptures and African masks belonging to Robert and Lisa Sainsbury. The Centre’s current exhibition “Planet for Our Future: The Stuff of Life / The Life of Stuff” is a must-see. This is master-class creativity in photography, video and installation. It succeeds in its objective of urging the visitor “to consider the global challenges of pollution, environmental destruction, and climate change.”

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El Anatsui “Freedom” Reclaimed bottle tops and copper wire (2021)

My co-visitor is Roger Bunting (who knows about art.) “I don’t think it’ll be easy on the eye” he says. He’s right, as usual. I am nevertheless unprepared for images and concepts powerful enough to whip my trotting eco-awareness into a galloping eco-concern. Deep in the exhibition space, I am stopped in my tracks by El Anatsui’s “Freedom.” Thousands of bottle tops scavenged from European waste exported to Nigeria are flattened and stitched together with copper wire.

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The “who,” “what,” “where” “when” and “how” of this beautiful stuff are clear. The “why” is made evident by the position of “Freedom” in the exhibition: in the section entitled “The Politics of Reclamation.”

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Maarten Vanden Eynde “Check Mate” Board and nurdles (2020 ongoing)

Maarten Vanden Eynde’s “Check Mate” is inspired by the story of the crafty king who commands his daughter’s suitor to put a grain of rice on the first square of a chess board. On the next day the king demands two grains on the second square. On the third day, four grains on the third square and so on. Each day, the number of grains on each successive square doubles. Of course, by day sixty four, the load of rice on the last square would represent all the rice grown in the world for several years. Here, Vanden Eynde replaces the grains of rice with “nurdles.” I learn a nurdle is a plastic pellet retrieved from a beach. (There really is a single nurdle on the first square!) 

Did you notice the 2020 “Ongoing“? The nurdles are crowd sourced from beaches all over the world. Anyone can hand in their nurdles at the exhibition. When enough are collected, the next square will be piled high with the requisite number. This is a fabulously elegant statement about the widespread production and use of plastics and their increasingly evident environmental consequences.

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Elias Sime “Tightrope: Secured” Reclaimed electrical wires (2021)

Roger drifts off to find more stuff. Elias Sime’s “Tightrope: Secured” catches his discerning eye. “Oi!” he calls to me. “Take a look at this!” The room’s vigilant attendant makes a kind of cautionary throat-clearing noise.

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Each panel of “Tightrope: Secured” is made from the compression of thousands of braided wires ripped from redundant computers that are exported to Ethiopia from all over the world. The effect reminds me of a microscopic image of the intersection of white and grey brain matter. How appropriate for such an exhibition in 2023 – the year in which we all wake up to the fact that artificial intelligence is and will forever be a part of our lives!

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Romuald Hazoumè “Mariama” (2019), “Avatar” (2022) and Deco (2022) Found objects

Roger and I share a fascination for African masks. We’ve never found a totally adequate explanation of their meaning, especially those with the hooty-astonished round mouths. Inevitably, what Romuald Hazoumè from Benin has created from found objects catches our attention. In the context of this exhibition, the meaning of these “masks” is clear: plastic waste collides with the deepest aspects of African culture. But we are both laughing. Is this because the same building houses an exquisite and priceless collection of the real McCoy? Or is it because – as intended by the curators of this exhibition – us (white-rich-european-and-now-embarrassed) visitors are finally forced to ask ourselves if we really know what happens to stuff we chuck out?

Jane Thewlis – All About Plants

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Detail of “Ice Keeper”

At a family wedding I bump into long-lost cousin Jane. She’s great. She’s always been into plants and stuff. If I called her a tree-hugger, she would smile and say “Well, yes, I hug the occasional tree! What’s wrong with that?” I ask her if she is still doing her “art.” She fumbles for a smart phone deep in the pockets of her dress. Scrolling through numerous images, she speaks rapidly and with passion. She takes me on a whistle-stop tour of her decades-long creative trajectory. I am captivated. Yes, Jane Thewlis is definitely still doing her “art.” I ask myself why I have not written before about her, her love of nature, her concern for the environment and her beautiful stuff.

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Ash Key Necklace

“I’ve recently learnt the basics of silversmithing. I’m doing mixed media jewelry pieces.” she says. I notice her necklace. I needn’t ask. It’s her work. The piece is charming, natural and original.

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Display of earrings by “All About Leaves”

Jane’s seed and leaf-based jewelry is stunning. She uses traditional hand tools for mark-making on the silver, copper or brass of each unique piece. The beads comprise peat-free compost, sand and leaves, along with recycled old beads. This beautiful stuff sells. Cambridge University Botanic Garden Shop was the first to take it in stock. Demand is high. Have a look at Jane’s business – “All About Leaves.”

“All About Leaves” follows an extraordinary career in which she has won awards and commissions for her plant-themed installations. She studied textile art in the early nineties at the Winchester School of Art. The death of her parents at this time led her deeper into nature. She would collect all manner of plant matter. A day walking in a forest would finish with experimental stitching and sewing of leaves with other materials such as pine needles. By her own admission, she has always done things differently. 

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Ice Keeper

During her final year at Winchester, she won sponsorship from Sainsbury’s who delivered enormous blocks of ice to the College early in the mornings of her degree show week. Each day, she made delicate buttercup chains and laid them between layers of ice. They froze perfectly. On thawing, the flowers decayed and the puddle formed by dripping water brought worms up onto the grass. A couple of blackbirds caught on and regularly fed around the work. Unsurprisingly, for her, this represented one life dying and another thriving. 

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Sycamore Enclosure (Day 14)

On leaving college, she won her first commission for Milton Country Park in Cambridgeshire. She pine-needle-stitched together hundreds of delicately torn sycamore leaves. This “textile” was then wrapped around four willow poles to create “Sycamore Enclosure.” Soil was removed from the earth below and the ground lined with clay and soot in reference to 18th century dew ponds. The hollow was filled with water so creating a surface for reflection. Visitors could look into the water and observe the inner aspects of the piece. Over fourteen days, the leaves turned from green to a reddish orange and the whole started to fall apart. Jane emphasizes that at some point her ephemeral works are always removed. It’s important to her that they are never seen as litter. 

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Illuminated Spiral

“Illuminated Spiral” was commissioned for National Tree Week. It was inspired by the Fibonacci sequence: the mathematic series that determines the natural spiral growth pattern of, for example, ferns and pine cones. The Fibonacci sequence was used to plot a willow framework covered in plane tree leaves stitched together – again – with pine needles. Turf beneath the piece was removed and the ground lined with sand. Sixty small candles embedded in the sand cast light upwards onto the leaves. Jane smiles as she remembers how the spiral flickered throughout the night of the event. A huge photograph of ‘Illuminated Spiral’ was chosen as the centre-piece for the launch of a “Year of the Artist” project at the Wellcome Institute. 

When I ask about the source of her motivation, she cites a childhood in which she was encouraged to be resourceful. She remembers the ground floor of the family home being inundated by an exceptional rain storm. Rather than calling the fire brigade, her father got her and her brother making little sail boats from walnut shells and paper with plasticene as ballast. When the flood eventually subsided, she spent hours in the garden making mud pies and decorating them with leaves and berries. Still a child at a family Christmas dinner, she was told to be quiet when asking where the turkey’s head and feet were. This made her determined never to eat meat again. In her teens, she realised that a healthy diet did not necessarily include dairy produce. She became vegan. This was a choice that made her question every aspect of her life and has since infused her creative force.

Early influences include Kurt Jackson, Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy and traditional textile work from Rajasthan. Her jewelry is a nod to Lalique and the Dogon in West Africa. 

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An Instrument to Observe the Moon Through

The piece that for me sums up everything about Jane is “An Instrument to Observe the Moon Through.” Just how did she conceive of the idea that looking at the moon though a hoop made from privet withies and filled with dandelion seeds was a more enriching experience than simply looking at the moon? I imagine that the instrument – when held in the right position in relation to the night sky – would make for a sort of heavenly-cubist-lunar halo. Jane tells me that the piece was created in honour of the Ladies of Llangollen; a celebrated 19th century couple who eloped from Ireland and set up a home in North Wales. The “Instrument” rests in the Denbighshire Collection.

It’s impossible not to admire what Jane creates without also admiring her values. The beautiful stuff and the person go together like, well, love and marriage, a horse and carriage, tofu bangers and mash or peaches and cashew-based cream. Get it? On returning home to Geneva, I find myself in a nearby park. I stop by a handsome Scot’s pine. With Jane’s work still in mind, I brush a cheek against the chunky bark and smell the sap. Nobody’s around. I lean in and wrap my arms around the trunk.

Manuka ties in New Zealand: the final days

It is 2009. I am on a long, long flight. Needing to fill out an application for a visitor’s visa, I dig into my hand-luggage for a pen. I smile at what else I have brought with me. Carefully folded are three high-quality silk ties given to me by a friend who, on his retirement, swore he would never wear one again. I told him what I planned to do with them. He beamed.

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I am lured back to New Zealand every year by the prospect of casting a dry fly over trout of memorable size in rivers of unforgettable beauty. This year takes me to the banks of a little-known creek off the Waikikamukau river. The creek is home to tiny trout that dart for cover as I approach. Only in the winter spawning season will the massive pink mama trout make their way up from the lake to await that brief and critical tail-flickering encounter with a hook-jawed male. However, I am not here for the trout. I am here for the manuka forest through which the creek tumbles. I want to install the ties and seek three trees of neck-size girth standing together.

In 2012, I pull on my hiking boots and return to my chosen manukas. I am amused by the way my carefully knotted ties with the naily tie-pins have maintained their business-like form but look like they have done way too many business trips. I wonder where this idea will go in the coming years.

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2016 finds me back at the creek. I am always fascinated by decay of man-made things but my little project in entropy seems to be a bit of a flop. Let’s be honest, the whole thing looks like what it is: three ties rotting on tree trunks. I have a sneaking feeling that Andy Goldsworthy is watching over my shoulder with a wry smile.

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It is 2019. The ties are now gorgeously decayed. Their strut has long gone. They are almost at one with the flakey manuka bark and so are becoming part of nature. Time is the “artist.” I like what I see.

I try to recall why I did this in the first place. It was something to do with my anger about the bank-induced financial crisis of 2008. Why the tie thing? A tie…. That symbol of the powerful smart man. That totally unlikely, brightly coloured, pants-pointing neck-wear. I realise that my anger is now redirected towards the Trumps, Putins, Xis and Johnsons of the world. Maybe my exposed tie experiment conjures up more than macho-corporate decay; perhaps it speaks to our daily-growing awareness of that biggest of human trade-offs: on one hand, we have our booming population living life-styles that are driven by manufacturing economies that in turn are driven by the business and political worlds (both lorded over by tie-bearing men.) On the other hand, we have our inevitable, massive and global impact on the environment. Whatever path humans take, nature will win in the end. Big mama trout will swim upstream to spawn long after humans have been consigned to the archives of the planet’s natural history. 

And then the pandemic hits.

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A friend (thanks, Anna) sent me a photo of the ties from the lock-down days of 2020.They’re just about hangin’ in there; they seem about to merge completely with the natural world. 

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Now it’s 2023. I take up the story again. I am back in New Zealand after nearly three years. I hike the familiar path. The creek still runs clear. The early morning bell bird chorus thrills me anew. The forest is still fresh. However, those three manuka trees are in their last lean-over days and their ties are in the final stages of gratifying decay. Isn’t it time for those power hungry men to lean over and decay with equal calm and composure?