These artists are taking inspiration from nature's inherent forces, their acute observations and individual approaches result in works that are monumental and ephemeral
London's East End might not be the first place you would think of to connect with nature. However, once past Mile End's bus depot and beyond the diesel-belching Texaco garage and its chewing gum-pocked pavements, you will be pulled up short by an unexpected vision: its grass-roofed Art Pavilion.
This cocooning gallery hunkers into the ground and, inside, curves cosily behind and above you drawing your gaze, not only to the mirror-calm water reflecting light through the glass wall, but also to its excellent new exhibition, Force of Nature. It showcases the work of 28 established and emerging international contemporary artists and has been curated by James Putnam, founder and former curator of the British Museum's contemporary arts and cultures' programme.
Putnam explains "From the beginning of human history, and in every culture, nature has played a vital role in creative expression." He should know, he was also a curator of the BM's Egyptian galleries where nature is so evident in many ancient artworks.
This new exhibition, which runs until April 9th, aims to counter the depressing assertion that nature is an autonomous entity existing independently from the human race. It argues that the planet's people are very much a product of their environment. "Contemporary artists have been inspired not only by nature but also its processes - evolution, birth, growth, ageing, decay, change." Putnam continues: "The artists are taking inspiration from nature's inherent forces, their acute observations and individual approaches result in works that are monumental and ephemeral."
David Nash's extraordinary Cyprus tree sculpture Rough Sphere hits you with its solidity and the overwhelming urge to touch it to experience its texture and feel the warmth that seems to exude from it. Its organic quality magnified by its position between the steel columns of the white gallery space.
Other exhibitors blurring the perceived lines between humanity and nature are artists such as Koen Vanmechelen, the Belgium trans-disciplinary regular of the Venice Biennale. Vanmechelen's piece is part of his ongoing intriguingly-titled Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. This art practice involves interbreeding national chicken species and results in installations such as Coming World: delicate transparent glass eggs nestled in a giant wooden nest structure that float on the Art Pavilion's lake, scrambling our notions of the natural world.
Birdlife also features in the work of Kate McGwire, whose ties to nature and fascination with ornithology was instilled from an early age growing up in the Norfolk Broads. Her sculpture Scuffle re-frames the exquisite beauty of plumage onto writhing coils. The conflict of the attraction to the feathers and uncertainty of the alien shapes makes a compelling statement. Putnam says, "Although it may seem that we're growing ever distant from nature, we instinctively retain a penchant for its forms and materials that are destined to co-exist with humanity."
An artist using a more mechanical approach to the subject is the Australian Cameron Robbins. His ongoing project is creating ink drawings on paper using his invention, a Wind Drawing Machine installed in different locations that transcribe wind patterns. They respond to wind-speed and direction, allowing rain and sun to also have an effect. Wed 29 Jan 2014 Sth 10-15 knots is an almost balletic fluid pattern that elegantly evokes shifting winds.
Another exhibitor using meterological conditions and their consequences is Susan Derges. Her powerful camera-less photographic prints of water from the River Taw in Devon aim to capture invisible scientific and natural processes, exploring the relationship between the imagined and the ‘real'.
Throughout, Putnam presents us with the balance of fragility and strength in nature. A perfect example is Jurassic I by Richard WM Hudson, who lives and works in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. His charred and polished poplar tree artwork is inspired by rock formations and forest fire remains and so resembles an eroded cliff edge.
Putnam sums up the show by saying: "It must be significant that there is a congruency between the appearance of tree roots, branches and river networks and the configuration of our human arteries and lung passages. Despite mankind's ongoing advances in technology we can never cease to marvel at nature's own inherent creativeness."
Go and marvel at creative nature that is alive and well and even thriving in the east end of London.
Force of Nature is open until April 9th at The Art Pavilion, Mile End Park Clinton Road, London E3 4QY
Gary Cook is a conservation artist and the Arts Editor of the Ecologist
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