The Stuff of Life: The Life of Stuff

The Stuff of Life 1
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.

World Cup Haka

World Cup Haka 1
Copyright: Billy Stickland

It’s the Rugby World Cup. The New Zealand All Blacks are looking to lift the trophy for a third successive time. And don’t we all love their haka?

There are numerous hakas which have been passed from long-ago Maori culture. Many were war dances. The haka most frequently performed by the All Blacks is the Ka Mate. It was composed in 1880 by Te Rauparaha, war leader of the Ngāti Toa tribe in New Zealand’s North Island. Translated, the main body of the chant is:

I die! I die! I live! I live! I die! I die! I live! I live! This is the hairy man who fetched the sun and caused it to shine again. One upward step! Another upward step! An upward step, another… the sun shines!

The use by the All Blacks of the more aggressive Kapa O Pango haka was put on hold in 2006 because it included what was perceived as a throat–slitting gesture. However, it was resurrected controversially for the big match against Australia earlier this year.

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Illustration from: J. White, “The Ancient History of the Maori” 1890

Whilst best known in the context of rugby, these group dances are also performed on other important occasions such as funerals and welcome ceremonies. Many include women but the famous tongue-protruding aggressive hakas are only performed by men.

The connection of the haka to rugby dates back to 1888 when an all-Maori team toured Great Britain and before kick-off rather startled the Surrey county team. The Ka Mate haka was first performed in 1905 by the “Original All Blacks” prior to a match against Scotland. Help ma sporran!

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Copyright: Getty Images

The whole of an All Black team in haka-mode is so much more than the sum of its fifteen parts. As a ritual for scaring the living daylights out of the opposition and boosting one’s own morale, the haka is very effective. There is a debate in international rugby circles about how an opposing team might best counter the haka. Most adversaries choose to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a bid to stare down the New Zealanders. The idea is to pass the message that we really are not intimidated, really… not one tiny bit. This passive choice involves looking like, in comparative terms, a line of vegan train-spotters. The other option is just to ignore it all and carry on warming up; just jogging around the pitch passing and kicking balls. But this apparent disrespect risks further inflaming that All Black passion. Dilemma! Whatever, the haka is there. It is centre stage in everyone’s mind. Neither opposing players, match officials, the crowd nor the millions of tele-viewers can ignore it. It’s as good as a seven-point lead at kick-off. And the truth is that every spectator loves the spectacle independent of allegiance. Personally, I think that the England team when next facing the All Blacks’ haka should dig deep into Anglo-Saxon culture and do a spot of pre-match Morris dancing!

Rugby has a near-religious place in today’s New Zealand. Whilst the haka was put on the world stage by the All Blacks, the ritual now goes way beyond rugby and bores deep into the psych of all New Zealanders. There is no politically correct tokenism here. I ask friends of different nationalities what words they associate with the haka. Answers include “powerful,” “intimidating,” “ferocious,” “awe-inspiring,” “up-lifting” and, most tellingly, “patriotic.” If you want to see just how the haka creates a point of unity between the European and Maori cultures of New Zealand, take a look at this school haka. Add “eye-watering.”