Forests hold stories of mythology and mystery. Their lineage can be traced back to long before our own ancestors limped around on all fours. Today, forests around the globe are threatened by deforestation and degradation – there are keen concerns for their maintenance and sustainability. Between their ancient history and current fragility, it is little wonder artists are continually drawn to forests as a rich source of inspiration.
‘Jerwood Open Forest’ at Jerwood Space exhibits a distillation of proposals by the award’s five shortlisted artists that reflect their wider practice. One will be selected to develop and present their work in its intended forest setting. The challenge of this interim exhibition is to show work that will ultimately shine best outdoors and with this in mind, the curators have paired artists to create a sense of contrast and synergy.
Works by Keith Harrison and David Turley are arranged in the first gallery. Harrison’s focus for ‘Joyride’ is the post-industrial landscape, specifically Birmingham’s Longbridge car plant which shut down in 2005 and is now the site of enormous re-development. His interactive car seats vibrate and buzz with futile attempts to tune the radio; his windscreen’s high speed journey accentuates the frustration of sitting still. Stepping out of the partial vehicle and viewing David Turley’s paintings is like standing in the carpark at the edge of a forest. Turley’s landscapes are a drama of watery greys, muddy greens and zingy oranges. They imagine a place where you can only proceed if you push past the dense growth. His ‘Returnings’ concept is centred on a forestry worker who planted over 10,000 trees in 1947. With a nod to Joseph Beuys’ ‘7,000 Oaks’ (1982), Turley proposes to plant seedlings too.
The David Rickard and Rebecca Beinart room offers a quiet moment wedged between the sounds of galleries one and three. Beinart’s ‘Forest of Lost Trees’ plans for the audience to meander around the forest where narrators will relay a range of stories from personal experience and familiar and local tales, to global concerns of deforestation, climate change and colonisation. At Jerwood Space, Beinart presents ‘Assembly’ which includes a range of empty ceramic vessels. They echo the burnt-out stumps of Paul Nash’s ‘We Are Making a New World’ (1918) which recalled the cut-short lives of fallen soldiers. Their emptiness suggests loss as well as the possibility of being filled. Nearby, Rickard’s ‘Epitaph’ is a disassembled memorial bench – each plank of wood, paint peeling from their surfaces, is neatly propped along the wall from shortest to tallest. The work describes rational order while suggesting that the planks may be in readiness for another use. Easily missed is the projected wall text written by poet SJ Fowler. With the quiet tenderness of a Fred Sandback installation, one single word at a time is revealed, supporting and changing the reading of the rest of the work in the room. Rickard proposes to inscribe a new, unending poem on wooden planks from an abandoned building and return them to the forest.
In gallery three, accompanied by filmed interviews and further reading sources, Magz Hall has built a hut to house a ‘Dream Space’ of radio-transmitted dreams. These are dramatic re-tellings of being chased and attacked, of paralysis, collapse and so on, all in rather gory detail. Her interactive radio trail proposal recalls Susan Hiller’s ‘Witness’ (2000), in which hanging speakers relayed stories of UFO sightings and creatures from elsewhere. However, while Hiller’s scary would-be predators were out there somewhere, Hall’s are located inside of us.
Art that operates within the natural environment remains as diverse as that within gallery walls. It has included polar opposites of gigantic scale and humble, ephemeral gesture. Michael Heizer’s ‘Levitated Mass’ (2012) involved shifting a 340-tonne boulder and cost around $10 million, while Richard Long’s countryside wanderings have caused little more than temporary footprint impressions. Many artists have also been directly engaged in the politics of environmental issues. Among this extensive list is David Buckland’s ‘Cape Farewell’ project which inspired Rachel Whiteread’s ‘Embankment’ (2005), as well as collaborators including Dalziel + Scullion, Heather and Ivan Morison, and Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey.
The five artists exhibiting in ‘Jerwood Open Forest’ contribute to this long line of environmentally engaged practice. They open new ways of thinking about urban industry, poetry, loss, technology, stories and historical connections. It is possible to imagine how these works may be experienced in an actual forest though, for from almost 500 proposals, only one of the five will be realised.
Jerwood Open Forest is an artist-centred initiative established by Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Forestry Commission England