It was a Thursday last week when I read about the exhibition – Shifting Landscapes – on the South Bank in London featuring an immersive installation titled Breathing with the Forest (pictured above), and figured I needed to be there. It only had three days left to run. There were no commitments stopping me making a round trip to the city on the Saturday, and I was lucky enough to get a ticket online, which was free. I managed to book a discounted train ticket.
Kinship among living organisms, and between people and the planet – the deep interconnections linking everything to everything – was the theme running through the exhibition, and Breathing with the Forest was one of nine exhibits by different artists. A year or so earlier I had seen an installation at Tate Modern, also on the South Bank, of great knotted khipu (quipu) dangling from the top of the turbine hall, the work of Cecilia Vicuña, and had been reading about and contemplating forests ever since. Vicuña had said of her installation: “This is coming from the heart. Rainforests are not something I am thinking about – the rainforest is how the Earth thinks of itself.”
The epigraph for Shifting Landscapes began: “We shall not sever ourselves from the earth”, quoting Navarre Scott Momaday of the Kiowa people in North America. It’s a sensibility that’s meat and drink to me nowadays. I see a lot of disconnection in the ways we have of cutting ourselves off from each other and from our physical and spiritual surrounds, and for me, awareness of connection and disconnection is helpful for understanding what’s gone wrong. It seems that the more we can recover a sense of deep, inherent, sacred connection between humans and the rest of Creation, the better placed we will be to understand and adjust to the predicament that we, as a notionally global community, have brought upon ourselves.
The venue for the exhibition was an old wharf-side warehouse by the Thames; four floors of distressed brickwork, peeling ceilings and half-stripped beams and girders. A dimly lit space of well-worn stone, metal and wood, cramped and shabby in parts, which immediately drew this visitor in. A place connected to a less slick and shiny era. I ended up spending five hours there and didn’t weary for a minute.
On arrival I went straight to view a short, eloquent documentary, by filmmaker Kalyanee Mam, about a seemingly mundane matter – sand dredging in the estuarine channels lacing a great mangrove forest on the coast of Cambodia. Sand which gets shipped overseas for construction and land “reclamation”. Dredging was forever in progress along the coasts and rivers of East Asia where I used to live – half the world’s fleet of dredgers was based in the mouth of the Pearl River when I was in Hong Kong, servicing the development of a man-made island for the new airport – and I never really gave it much thought. But in Kalyanee’s film we observe the process from the perspective of local families in small communities among the mangroves, accessible only by boat, fishing for crab and shrimp and harvesting mussels. They weren’t consulted or even informed in advance, but their livelihoods were wrecked as industrial dredging ravaged the nearshore ecosystem on which they relied. Their pain is keenly felt. As for damage to the mangrove forest, with its complex web of life above and below water, this was clearly of no concern to the people and organisations that profited.
It turned out that sand mined from the mangrove estuary became the ground for an environment-themed, mock-jungle leisure park in Singapore called Lost World. They’ve taken away our land, lamented a young mother in the community, to build theirs.
Another of the exhibits, by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee (also the curator of the exhibition), put you in a dark room – it was pitch black until your eyes adjusted – where you sat or lay on a floor of turf and fallen leaves and soaked up the ambiently piped sound of nightingales, among other forest movements and rustlings. That was all. Just lie there and listen…to something beautiful beyond words. It was an ambisonic recording (capturing the full 360-degree sphere of sound) made in woods in Sussex under a full moon in May last year, at the height of the nightingale season. The nightingale is (I never knew this) a small brown bird, secretive but full-throated, and it summers in southern England. Its habitats are increasingly fragmented, and it is thought likely that the bird will vanish from this land in the next couple of generations. It has been present, and celebrated in song and myth here, for thousands of years.
Birdsong might also have figured in Breathing with the Forest (by Marshmallow Laser Feast), though I can’t be sure. The soundscape was taken from Amazonian rainforest in the south of Colombia, and while immersed in the experience I wasn’t necessarily dissecting the enveloping layers of sound. For this installation you either planted yourself against the back wall in the darkness or sat on one of three wooden benches a little further forward, and in either case gave yourself over to a stunning, virtual reality recreation of trees drifting across your vision via three huge panels of pixels right in front of you. Swirling clouds of particulates, oxygen and vapour curled from trunks and leaves, forming rivers of condensation nuclei rising to the unseen sky, while the mycelial network and roots below pulsed with nutrients and energy. There was a rhythm of sorts in the soundscape, enabling viewers to sync their breath with that of forest and soil and imagine directly exchanging oxygen and carbon – the beating heart of animal/arboreal symbiosis – with other biota in the forest. I didn’t manage to latch onto that rhythm, but was mesmerised nonetheless.
To digress for a minute: I recently watched a couple of old documentaries about the Kogi people, a civilization of farmers and goldsmiths on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, who survived the European onslaught by retreating into a mountain fastness, and who, while shunning most contact and exchanges, have preserved institutions, practices and ways of knowing dating from their pre-Columbian heyday. In the first of the documentaries, released in 1992, the Kogi say that they, the “elder brothers” (endowed with special responsibility for keeping safe the Heart of the World, namely the massif where they live), want to warn us, their “little brothers” (who in mythic times were sent across the seas, where it was hoped we might do less damage), about the cataclysm that awaits if we continue carelessly disrupting the intricate web of connections that sustains the land and holds the world together. In the later film they patiently explain how the construction of a power station by the lagoon at the mouth of a river that is sacred and vital to their way of life, has disturbed the river’s headwaters in the miles-high, snow-capped peaks above their villages, causing it to run dry for part of the year.
A couple of experts are brought in to gently affirm that riverine causality flows downstream, not upstream, but the Kogi, who know as much as (if not more than) any Western scientist about the water cycle and cloud rivers insist – “when you cut your toe your head feels it.” They decry any act that wilfully harms the body of the Earth, who they call quite simply “our mother”, as an act that harms humans too.
The Kogi came to mind after I’d returned from the Shifting Landscapes exhibition, because the exhibits collectively reinforced what the Kogi were saying: that all beings are intimately connected, with the emphasis on intimately, and that given those bonds of intimacy we humans have a special obligation to look after and heal ourselves and each other, and the land, as if we and everything shared one body.
For the Kogi that’s a truth as plain as day. And for the itinerant exhibition-goer in London last weekend, immersed in an all-sense experience created and curated by artists with craft, love and attention, it was medicine to swell the heart.
I’ve only touched on three of the exhibits here, but all nine contributed in their way to the same effect. Above all, in relation to what I wrote about in Part 1 of this piece, the exhibition, in its presence, people and vibe, was bullshit-free. You can’t grow good thoughts when you and everyone around is mired in that stuff. Good thoughts, like green shoots, need time and space to emerge and develop. They need silence and birdsong. They need awe. They need an environment that stands on solid reality, not on you-know-what. And people who grow good thoughts need a space where hearts can safely open to each other and the world – a world not encrusted in bovine dung – in order to connect and experience true kinship.
There’s more I could write and share about the exhibition and what I learned that day, but more would be less. Several of the artists were present for enlightening “in conversation with…” sessions hosted by the curator, and I scrawled notes filled with key words and phrases like “humility”, “surrender”, the “messiness” of community, coming together in “ritual”, and the story of “flight into the forest”, which is one of pain and refuge. The remark “We cannot be a gift to the world until we are whole”, in connection with practices of healing, resonated. There was no woo-woo, and there was no pretence that everything’s hunky-dory. Just good people, and gentle honesty.
The message I took away was that there truly are green shoots, precious tendrils working through the cracks and reaching for each other, heart to heart, and there likely always will be.
I’m sure there are many ways of overcoming, or perhaps adapting to, the occasional internal “bullshitness of being” response to the state of the world as it is, and feelings of revulsion at one’s complicity in the excesses of modernity. The above is just one way of handling that response, and it has in its small way worked for me. I hope something similar works for you too, should you ever require it.