Creative approaches to rewilding

| 29th March 2019
OmVed Gardens
Thomas Broadhead
An upcoming exhibition in North London uses the rewilding movement as a lens for exploring the relationship between humans and ecosystems.

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Rewind/Rewild is an upcoming exhibition of contemporary art which aims to reassess human relationships with non-human entities such as plants, animals, bacteria and landscapes.

The exhibition is set in the restored glasshouses of OmVed Gardens in Highgate, North London. It recognises that alternative approaches to ecology and conservation need to be adopted more widely, and it looks at some of the tensions and contradictions that are often inherent in the desire to rewild lands and seas.

Rewind/Rewild also features a day-long rewilding forum, intended to foster discussion across the disciplines of ecology, social science, architecture, art and practical conservation. This interdisciplinary debate is born from a belief that climate breakdown and widespread ecocide can only be avoided if people work together across traditional boundaries.

Defining rewilding

The rewilding movement has been gaining momentum over the last few years, propelled into the wider public eye by books such as Feral by George Monbiot (2013) and later Wilding by Isabella Tree (2018).

These two examples present very different arguments, using examples from very different personal experiences. The differences suggest both the relatively widespread appeal of rewilding, and also the often-contradictory ways of looking at the movement, even among its supporters.

In its most basic form, rewilding happens when humans stop interfering in natural processes. Rewilding advocates argue that many ecosystems as we know them are depleted, lacking in wildlife and the diverse range of plants and fungi they could support. Through rescinding control, human beings have the ability to allow natural processes to resume, and for landscapes to restore their own balance.

The form this takes can be debated – certainly Isabella Tree’s rewilded farm model looks very different from that adopted by the Alladale Wilderness Reserve, for example. However, the idea of relinquishing control to nature, and of reversing some of the damage done by humans, holds true across many branches of ecology and contemporary conservation. 

Learning to love rewilding often involves extracting one’s thinking from the traditional linear, anthropocentric modes of thought predominant in Western politics, economics and social relationships. Sometimes, a degree of creativity is required for this. 

Rewilding creativity

The upcoming exhibition at OmVed Gardens uses the rewilding movement as a framework for thinking about human relationships with the non-human entities which share the planet with us. Rewilding requires us to give up control; art can suggest how we can actively allow non-humans to share in our creative agency.

Fiona MacDonald's 'Feral Practice', for example, develops art projects across species boundaries. She works unobtrusively with wild animals such as ants and foxes, whose activities become part of the artworks through their footprints or trails.

Other artists, such as Julia Crabtree & William Evans, work collaboratively to bring plant life into the exhibition space. Their blown-glass vessels contain living pondweed, which actively reacts to the conditions and microbial cultures of their surroundings – a tiny self-willed ecosystem.

The exhibition also considers the problematic socio-cultural conditions that lead to our widespread neglect of the natural world. For example, a new work by artist and co-curator of the exhibition Beatrice Searle asks why there is a memorial to the man who killed the last wolf in Scotland, but no memorial to the wolf itself, drawing attention to the challenge of commonly held gendered or colonial attitudes towards land and animals.

Perforated space

The exhibition will be held at OmVed Gardens in Highgate, North London. Once a dilapidated garden centre, the OmVed team have now restored the greenhouses to create a beautiful space for exploring food, art, performance and ecological concerns. 

They have also re-landscaped the gardens, transforming them into a diverse eco habitat with a wild flower meadow, an orchard and a vegetable garden.

The glasshouses at OmVed Gardens offer an alternative model for viewing art. Where most galleries follow the closed-off ‘white cube’ model, here the trees surrounding the building can be seen all around. They act as a moving and living reminder of the real-world implications both of art and of ecological issues. 

This ‘perforated’ space collapses binary distinctions between indoors and outdoors, the urban and the rural, indicating that all environments are potential sites for encounters with wild flora and fauna.

Across disciplines 

The Rewind/Rewild exhibition is also complemented by a day-long rewilding forum, bringing together speakers from across disciplines for a day of debate around ecological awareness. 

Speakers include representatives of rewilding projects in practice, such as the Alladale Wilderness Reserve and the European Nature Trust. Participants will also hear from ecologist Dr Darren Evans, who uses network theory and DNA-metabarcoding to understand the impacts of environmental change on species-interactions and ecosystem functioning.

Helping to complete - or perhaps complicate - the picture, Dr Jonathon Prior will discuss the aesthetics of rewilding, and the challenge of presenting the public with ‘unscenic’ landscapes which don’t conform to our expectations.

We will also hear from London National Park City on their drive to make urban areas wilder places, and from PiM Studio architects on the possibilities for introducing architecture that can be shared across species.

Together, we’ll consider whether we can increase our connection to the natural world while also giving up control and allowing ecosystems to manage themselves. The forum is intended to be a day of open-ended discussion, breaking down the traditional boundaries between disciplines that often hinder a wider appreciation of ecological issues.

Exhibition details

Rewind/Rewild is at OmVed Gardens, Highgate, London, 1-7 May 2019. Curated by Anna Souter and Beatrice Searle. The exhibition is free.

It features artwork by Rodrigo Arteaga, Marcus Coates, Alannah Eileen, Julia Crabtree & William Evans, Hannah Imlach, Fiona MacDonald : Feral Practice, Beatrice Searle, Anna Skladmann and Amy Stephens.

This Author 

Anna Souter is a writer, editor and curator with an interest in the intersections between contemporary art and ecology. Rewind/Rewild is at OmVed Gardens 1-7 May; the rewilding forum is on 4 May.

Image: OmVed Gardens © Thomas Broadhead.

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