Fiona Macdonald’s ‘Woodland Portrait Project’ is something of a homecoming that has a deeply emotional engagement with place and nature, finding beauty in presenting and creating art through the language of non-human agents. Akin to the Romantic’s ‘discovery’ of the sunset, the intimate ‘woodland portrait’ is filled with new forms of wonder and enchantment. Fiona MacDonald acts as a master collaborator - her work is in alliance with nature, with self-organizing, intelligent organic systems and natural mineral processes, rather than totally created by her hand alone.
Behind this exhibition is incredible ambition, towards work on an important area of artistic and ecological research. Macdonald creates ‘feral paintings’ drawing from sources such as George Monbiot’s writing on ‘Rewilding’, ‘Affect Theory’ and Jane Bennett’s ‘Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things’, seeking to de-center our anthropomorphic way of reading and projecting onto the natural world. Through her ‘Woodland Portrait Project’, MacDonald has created an installation of wide scope; teeming with layers and multiple references from Eco Art to conceptualism, romanticism to folklore, organically working with nature’s non-human language, yet framing it within the human construct of ‘art’ – a practice of true ‘co-authorship’.
As you edge around the transported woodland created for the gallery, spaces emerge out of the corner of your eye. MacDonald is fascinated by the “thousands upon thousands of small views that change every time you step a different way around a particular tree. It is a kind of infinity.” Through intentionally displaying this entangled complex, Macdonald lands upon a rich mode of exhibiting, and the stimulating phenomena of being in the surround of woodland is recreated. Perhaps, deep down we require the pushing, colonizing competing quality of systems, affecting and responding to stimuli rather than linear, compartmentalised exhibitions.
On the floor a circle of dancing orchids, reminiscent of Helen Chadwick’s ‘Piss Flowers’, are cast from pigments taken from four soil types found in the woods: “dug out and made visible by an animal – the yellowish sand and the ashy grey were both from rabbit burrows, the white chalk from a badger sett and the brown mud from a molehill.” While in video work ‘Animat’, a painting placed on the floor of the woods over a small bush to dry, becomes animated by the wind, which makes it appear to breathe, and become animal.
Macdonald’s sculptural tree drawings dominate the space. Hanging like veils, these transported woodland trees appear almost as colour field paintings but also act as delicate translucent paper screens, turned luminous from the projection of ‘Bluebell Roll’, in which a camera is rolled on the wheel of a bicycle so it can squelch through tracks of bluebells.
In contrast to the more distanced nature of the sculptural tree drawings, Macdonald also created a series of direct tree rubbings that possess a meditative quality thanks to the closeness of the process. Each specimen was approached as an individual, “The rubbed marks made by the tree in physical contact with the paper, my body, and the graphite” are stronger than that of a photograph, it is “a transformation of our relationship” MacDonald continues, in the field notes provided by the gallery, “I want to touch this place, hunker down into it as much as I can, and practice being very thoughtfully a body among other bodies, more similar than different.” It’s not just about ‘Nature’, but about that negotiation, a meeting point between art and nature.
Limited only by the heights of the ladders used, an entire tree sculpture being made is a prospect, and as MacDonald’s project carries on into the future, her aim is to rub each species of tree in the wood. The ‘Woodland Portrait Project’ installation, in this case curatorially conceived as a total work, can be shown in different configurations and is set to extend and grow. As Macdonald allows natural and animal processes to emerge in their own language it will be fascinating to observe where this organic and symbiotic means of working will lead.