Through intensive engagement with a patch of turf that is the size of their own bodies and near to their homes the artists engage with issues of land and species interdependence, of ‘belonging to’ versus ‘ownership of’, in our current moment of global pandemic, amid the ongoing ravages of global capitalism.
Fiona MacDonald works with humans and nonhumans as Feral Practice. She is based in rural Kent, UK. Her patch of turf is on a chalk grassland meadow, part of a local nature reserve. Sonya Schönberger is based in Berlin. Her patch is in a communal city garden that she rents. This Vibrant Turf is supported by the German Embassy in London and the Goethe-Institut London as part of the ‘Stand Together and Go Virtual’ programme.
In 1503, Albrecht Dürer painted a group of wild plants, including dandelion, daisies, skein grass, yarrow and greater plantain. “Das große Rasenstück” depicts the plants growing in their entirety, from the tip of their leaves and flowers to where they join the earth. 500 years later, these plants still surround us and we know them well, but they have been valued very differently over the course of history. Once, these plants were loved and respected for their medicinal properties – Greater Plantain was one of the Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo Saxons. They fell out of use and favour in the wake of modern medicine, and were deemed Unkraut (or nonplant, i.e. weed), to be sprayed with toxic chemicals or dug up and burnt in favour of monoculture crops grown for profit.
In our current moment, as we face multiple intertwined anthropogenic crises – of climate change, habitat and species loss, disease and antibiotic resistance – we are learning to look again at diverse weeds’ preciousness and value, for our own health and nutrition, and for the interwoven networks of species they support. Dürer’s intense study is one inspiration for our collaborative and conversational project.
In our work, we honour the radical potential of close looking, of paying close and extended attention to those things and beings which are more usually overlooked as unimpressive. We elicit and interpret the big picture revealed in the small.
In this project we have each worked with a patch of land at the diameter of our bodies (Fiona 1.70m, Sonya 1.75m). A small patch, near to our homes, which we are fond of and fascinated by. We have spent time observing, becoming porous and responsive to this patch of land over the course of the project – filming, writing, drawing, tasting, and conversing with the plants, insects, and one another about, and through the focusing lens of, these small lively areas.
We have used macro and microscopic camera lenses, hand-held magnifying lenses, and powerful miniature microphones to near and augment our view. We have entered imaginatively into the natural-cultural histories of the plants, exploring the diverse potential of phyto-histories and phyto-poetics.
This Vibrant Turf seeks to generate fresh artistic research and connective tools for engagement. It is intentionally small in scale, in order to engender a different approach, one that travels lightly and looks deeply at the world. One that engages afresh each time with the familiar, and learns something unforeseen from every meeting.
It is our aim that this intensive engagement with a small, near patch of ground speaks thoughtfully and humbly to issues of rootedness versus migration, ownership versus belonging. We seek to work and think care-fully on how, as white western women, we engage with land and its multispecies inhabitants’ histories, all of which entwine with colonialism, displacement and indigeneity.
Our project is guided by many sources including posthumanist and new materialist theory, indigenous philosophy, paganism, plant and insect science, social and colonial history, poetry and contemporary art. Our most important sources include Robin Wall Kimmerer (Braiding Sweetgrass), Monica Gagliano (Thus Spoke the Plant) David George Haskell (The Forest Unseen).
In this time of personal struggle and isolation for many people across the world, our project aims to empathically connect with people through this grounding perspective of a small patch of turf, as we each concentrate on ours, we seek also to connect with others across the world. So, if this resonates with you, we welcome your response.