Up To Nature, review by Andy Field
As we arrive the cars wheels are skidding on the wet grass. From the boot we unload carrier bags of food and waterproof tents. Music plays from a boombox in the corner of a food tent. From the top of the hill the landscape is beautiful, a panorama of forests and fields unfolding in front of us. The earth is soft beneath our feet. We reach out to be as close to nature as we can get, like eager faces pressed up against cold glass. We are here and yet we are not here, still experiencing this landscape as an image; something to be looked at, not something to lived in.
The fraught question of what it means to make art about wilderness seemed to hang in the air during ‘Up To Nature’ like a fine mist. How do you manufacture the untamed’ How do you bring people together to understand isolation’ How can art ever talk about nature without inevitably talking over it’ Here was performance’s long struggle with the problem of representation translated to a countryside that we are so often guilty of pictorialising.
What this carefully curated festival did, then, was not to talk about nature but rather to talk about longing. Here in the mud, between the rain and the frequent glorious bursts of sunshine we were confronted with incredible desire; for wilderness and isolation, for nature not as something wholesome and picturesque, but instead something to be consumed by. ‘This is not babbling brooks… This is not milk churns on the front porch.’
For a number of the artists this longing was encapsulated by the yearning to become animals. In Martin Nachbar’s quietly playful ‘Animal Dances’ his body jolts and stiffens, contorting itself into borrowed behaviours in an attempt not simply to mimic but to become. Emma Bennett’s transformation is less explicit but equally delicate and beautiful. As her stuttering slideshow of common British birds begins to go wrong, it slowly re-rhythms her talk into a kind of fluttering bird song made of fragments of sentences and half-finished descriptions. For Johanna Kirsch, moving carefully through the branches of a low-hanging oak as it sways precariously in the wind, the desire to become an ape is part of a need to find some new way of responding to the overwhelming shittiness of a world we’re ambivalently destroying. Tom Marshman meanwhile is grooming himself into Bambi, teasingly juxtaposing the muddy Forest with the artificiality of Disney string arrangements and miniature bottles of Babysham.
For other artists the longing was of a different kind; not for the imagined peace of animals but for the remembered remoteness of a present or former home. In both Action Hero’s and Nic Green’s pieces we are introduced to distant places via maps made out of mud or old camping equipment; birds eye views of isolated cottages. In both cases also these are not picture book rural idylls; there is suicide and dead family pets, old cars full of blue bottles, stillness and silence and cold. Their descriptions move slowly and carefully. Space seems to expand around us; enough space for every encounter to become remarkable.
Elsewhere French Motorshead’s courageously straightforward workshops invited us to climb trees or explore the undergrowth, simple encounters with the actuality of the forest. And on a hill overlooking the entire site Ella Good and Nicki Kent invited you into their caravan to have your hair crafted into some fabulously artificial expression of wildness; spray on leopard print and plastic flowers, pop music on headphones and framed pictures of 80s hair models. Another perfectly realised longing for something wilder than ourselves.
And yet, just as it feels like this distance might be overwhelming, that we will always be up to but not into nature, it starts to get dark and in the dark things always seem different. A few drinks in and our decorum and even perhaps our sense of ourselves is slipping away in the mud. As dusk settles around us, we are sat in the middle of a pine forest, the taste of vodka still hot in our throats. Two figures, their faces obscured by long tangled hair, slowly rotate back to back. As they move a band creaks achingly into life; the breath of an accordion, the creak of a violin. They keep rotating, moving in their slow circle as the night comes in, and as the music grows louder we are lost, hypnotised by this slow, rhythmical dervish. In almost total darkness the music and the dancers stop, and from somewhere in the forest is the sound of a choir, and it is like the wilderness is singing to us. Fiksdal, Langgård and Becker’s ‘Night Tripper’ is a remarkable finale to an equally remarkable weekend.