Ecos de la Selva (Forest Echo)
Colombia is a country of contrasts: its geographical features encompass the Amazon rainforest, the Andes and the Caribbean coast. Much of my work as a sculptor derives from organic forms and the visual parallels and resonances I uncover between them and human concerns and relationships. An interest in the rainforest and recent visits to Colombia have given me much to study and think about, ranging from the Spanish language, the history and mix of cultures, to the ecology and the many forms of the plants and animals.
Last year I was able to develop a site-specific work ‘Birth of the Innocents’ in a War Memorial chapel, and this gave me a taste for larger installation work that engages with the human and emotional side of our relationship to the natural world and to the ‘big questions’ we have about ourselves as creatures of consciousness. My visits to Colombia were a starting point for an installation I made in my front room studio, ‘Ecos de la Selva’ or ‘Forest Echo’.
I wanted to address all the ecological and social issues of development, deforestation and tourism by focusing on the other more ‘spiritual’ aspects of humanity that could be represented by the rainforest.
In our busy lives, we spend comparatively little time reflecting upon our unique position on earth and possibly in the universe. Today, as we shrink our planet and transform the unexplored, mysterious and secret places of the world into clones of western culture, I believe it is ever more important for us to reconnect to the natural world of the mysterious, the secret and the unexplored. I hoped the work would stir the imagination and generate recognition of our need for the mysterious and unknowable. I wanted to present a glimpse of the natural world; a hint and suggestion of the wild things we attempt to control at our peril, the plants and animals whose existence contribute to our definition as humans.
‘Ecos de la Selva’ is about that part of us that needs to celebrate the natural world and embrace an ‘otherness’ we need but can never truly understand.
It is sometimes only after completing a work that one begins to fully understand the purpose and implications of what has been made. So it was with ‘Ecos de la Selva’. Originally ‘Forest Echo’, even the title changed rather late in the day. Partly because I think the Spanish has a delightfully resonant sound, but in part also because the installation is about the distance between realities: life here in the west and life elsewhere in the world, life as a physical experience and the life of the imagination.
I made this installation for the weekend of the Crouch End Open Studios in 2011. During the weekend I met and talked to some 200 visitors, as well as friends and fellow artists, and this helped me understand the choices I made during construction, and some of the reasons for those choices.
I had for instance, decided quite early into the build that I would allow only one person at a time into the room. I had not fully realised why this was so important to me. I thought it was for both practical and psychological reasons: there is not a lot of space in the room and the sculpture needs to ‘breath’. I did not want people to talk, or look to compare their experience with someone else. I realise now that I wanted them to be fully positioned inside their own experience. I think this is often one of the most difficult things for people to feel when they look at ‘Art’, and this leads them to rush around seeing without really looking.
The installation worked in a number of ways that I had not consciously anticipated. The sound and smells and moist air had a powerful effect on my visitors that was quite unexpected by me. It soon became clear that the tree bark which covered the floor had not only given the distinctive smell of the forest, but had also altered the quality of the air within the room, giving it a humidity and freshness, even a breeze, that was often remarked on and that could be felt on the skin.
For the installation I had emptied the room of furniture and painted it white to reduce it to its architectural structure. This structure includes a pillar on each side wall that protrudes 6 inches into the room, at a distance of 3 feet from the window, creating a sort of bay. I always planned to use this bay and the upright pillar forms as active sculptural elements of the whole installation. A veil of green horticultural fleece stretched across the bay divides the green areas from the white areas of the room, separating the supposedly ‘real’ from the ‘unreal’ or ‘ghost’ areas of the room.
The viewer stands in the white area, amongst white tree forms and looks towards the light filtering through the green layers of paper and horticultural fleece that cover and obscure the actual window. Controlling the light was a much more important and tricky task than I had first anticipated, and it took several days of experimentation to achieve the right effect, since I wanted to rely on natural light and allow it to vary as it does from minute to minute. I was anxious not to create a stage or film set, but rather an environment that the viewer is immediately and inescapably a part of.
It is only now that I realise the main point of the work was to confront the viewer with the dislocation between the room and the natural world, between our lives and comforts and the life of the natural world and to lead them directly into a reflection upon the relationship between the two.