Curator's Choice: Dan Howard-Birt on trout tickling at Stour Valley Arts' Reforest show

| 25 July 2013

Curator's Choice: Dan Howard-Birt on distant relatives, trout tickling and the trials and joys of arranging an exhibition of site-specific art commissions at Stour Valley Arts…

A photo of people looking at a screen showing a forest inside a gallery
© Jem Finer
“Reforest is an exhibition that attempts the impossible by seeking to present - in our Ashford town centre gallery space - an account of the first 20 years of Stour Valley Arts’ work in and around the ancient woodland site of King’s Wood.

How artists have chosen to address this specific research site across two decades is not singular or consistent. Neither is the vision or the passions of the commissioning organisation, which have continually refocused.

We’ve commissioned sculpture in organic materials, forest-based film screening events, paintings made by catching leaf litter on canvases left beneath trees, a processional symphony, a contemporary dance, a computer programme, and a walk which the artist made but left no trace of.

Curatorial intern Ali Farmer has devised a two-part exhibition. This strategy allows the display to evolve and mutate through its run so that distinct themes can explored. So the exhibition as a whole can embrace the non-static and ever changing character of the forest.

As curator here for the past six years, I have my own knowledge and experience of our commissioning back-catalogue, along with favourite works and fond memories of extraordinary events and excruciating weather-affected installations.

As Ali began to outline his vision for the exhibition, I got the strangest feeling. The works to be gathered for the two halves of this exhibition did not feel like old friends, but more like a gathering of distant relatives.

Edwina Fitzpatrick oversaw the installation of her Arboreal Laboratory works.

They are four transparent plinth-mounted blown glass vessels containing perfume scents recording the four seasons in King’s Wood.

The scents were made by scientists in 2003, and I had a slight worry that 10 years might not have been kind to these delicate perfumes.

Edwina eased my anxieties. The nectar was supplied in archival flasks, meaning that until the supply is exhausted the fragrance will be as good as new. And so it proved.

Arboreal Laboratory was commissioned before SVA had its own gallery space. So Reforest brings together these distant relatives at our new ‘home’.

Likewise, Stephen Turner’s catalogue of tree species, represented in inks refined from their own leaves, bark and berries was not shown with us. These are much-loved works, so it is great to get them out again for this occasion.

Susan Derges’ Kingswood is more like a favourite aunt. Her prints record bluebells and other species through a full-year cycle, presented in a grand portfolio.

They were originally displayed in a church. For Reforest, the prints are changed daily so that the exhibition itself becomes a marker of time, and not just a container of objects.

The whole exhibition will change during its course. Of those yet to arrive, I am particularly looking forward to a display of drawings relating to the construction of Rosie Leventon’s B52.

This shadow form in the shape of the titular bomber recalls the moment in 2003 when the artist stood within King’s Wood and watched the planes pass overhead en route to the second Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq.

The fears manifest by the threatening menace of this destructive act inspired Rosie to turn to the landscape and to create an oasis of hope that could outlast the conflict.

By making a clearing within the dense tree plantations, she created a meadow environment, which helps the health of the whole forest by increasing the biodiversity of plants, insects, snakes and mammals.

These in turn encourage more birds to feed and to nest nearby. B52 can still be found in King’s Wood, or can even be piloted over, virtually, on Google Earth.

Tessa Farmer is also returning. We gave Tessa her first residency commission in between her undergraduate and postgraduate study. She has gone on to very big things since, with exhibitions from Tasmania to St Petersburg.

In 2002, Tessa populated the darkest and most mysterious corners of King’s Wood with her beastly goblins, fairies and wingless fairies – each delicately constructed from seed pods, flies wings and spiders webs, standing no taller than a few centimetres.

Without an exhaustive survey, you are always going to feel that a key moment, much like an errant uncle,  is missing from the picture.

Perhaps this is exactly the right way to feel, as we could never bring the forest into the gallery, and that is certainly at least 50% of who we are.

Ali has however performed an unlikely act in assembling this exhibition. He has managed something akin to the fine art of tickling trout, where the underbelly of the fish can be rubbed with the fingers, sending it into a trance-like state for just long enough to lift it out of the water and onto the bank.

Being on the bank allows us to observe the fish closely – however momentary this privileged viewing might be.”

  • Reforest is at Stour Valley Arts Gallery until August 31 2013. Read our Preview.

More pictures:

A photo of people looking at a transparent installation inside a gallery
© Edwina Fitzpatrick
A photo of a see-through sculpture
© Edwina Fitzpatrick
A photo of a book showing a photo of plants inside a gallery
© Susan Derges
A photo of small twig-like sculptures on a gallery table
© Vera Moller
A photo of various small installations
© Vera Moller
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