Robyn Maree Pickens

The restorative potential of earth-centred practices

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Runner-up essay for the Michèle Whitecliffe Art Writing Prize

Commenting on this essay, one of two to be selected as a runner up in the 2021 Michèle Whitecliffe Art Writing Prize, the judge Charles Darwent noted: ‘What made The restorative potential of earth-centred practices so compelling was its pulling-together of strands. Much of the narrative involved weaving of various kinds – the darning of an old jumper, the plaiting of ropes from dry tī kōuka leaves – but the piece also wove together making and curating, the theoretical and the lived; the impersonal and the deeply personal.’

In 2017 I rolled a ball of soft clay between my palms and over the course of two separate events in 2021, I wove a fine fibrous thread from tī kōuka (cabbage tree) leaves, and used second-hand wool to darn an old jersey. These three experiences have several attributes in common: they took place at one art project space, specifically as public programming events situated conceptually and physically within the context of each artist’s exhibition; and involved working with earth-based materials. Together, the interdependency of these attributes contributed to experiences that I found restorative. The constancy of one location, Blue Oyster Art Project Space in Ōtepoti Dunedin provided familiarity and community; the format and framing of the public event fostered collective focus and embodied engagement; and the use of earth-based materials to make small objects or amendments with earth-based materials connected me physically and metonymically with the earth. This brief overview generates a working definition of restorative experience as one constituted by community, embodied engagement, and connection with the earth. At this juncture it is important to recognise the subjectivity of this definition. In so doing however, the intention of this essay is to open a discussion on the intended recipients of wellbeing, and to suggest that the subjects of restorative experiences might include the rest of nature – earth, water bodies, flora and fauna. In one speculative leap based on the 2017 experience, the rolled clay balls could be returned to their provenance to catalyse subsequent projects that address any socio-ecological concerns in that area. Such a speculative project expands the idea of who constitutes a subject worthy of wellbeing, and advocates community, embodied engagement and tactility as modes and means of achieving this expansion of restorative experiences.

In some respects, this is not necessarily a new idea. Cecilia Vicuña (born 1948) performed what Lucy Lippard has described as the first earthworks on a beach in Concón, Chile, in 1966,[i] Agnes Denes (born 1931) planted a field of wheat in 1982 to protest social inequity in New York (Wheatfield – A Confrontation), and Alan Sonfist (born 1946) has been planting trees in various locations since 1965 (Time-Landscapes). Although identified here as individual artists, they have also worked collaboratively to varying extents either with audiences, in the case of Vicuña, or with friends, fellow artists, and volunteers in the cases of Denes and Sonfist. In these instances, the artists actively facilitated community, embodied engagement, and tactility between human and nonhuman beings, and their practices drew variously on Arte Povera, Land Art, performance, and environmental art practices. Of the three artists, Vicuña, after decades of under appreciation, is now receiving belated exposure and opportunities, such as her inclusion in the 13th Shanghai Biennale (2020–21). Despite the multi-generational gap between Vicuña and the artists from Aotearoa whose projects I introduced in the opening paragraph – Becky Richards, Connor Fitzgerald and Louie Zalk-Neale (Ngāi Te Rangi, Pākehā), and Arielle Walker (Taranaki, Ngāruahine, Ngāpuhi, Pākehā) – Vicuña’s practice is nevertheless a significant international reference and point of comparison; both conceptually, in her avant la lettre approach to the rest of nature (as sentient), and formally, via her ephemeral sculpture and participatory performance

Elements of these approaches and formal practices are evident in the three projects at Blue Oyster discussed in more detail below. This discussion situates these projects in relevant art historical and curatorial conversations around relational aesthetics and participatory art practices, acknowledges the impact of government funding on public programming, and nests the advocacy of restorative earth-based practices in the most pressing of global concerns: socio-ecological crisis and potential reparation.

Arielle Walker, Connor Fitzgerald, Louie Zalk-Neale, and Becky Richards make works predominately with earth-based materials such as foraged plant dyes, hemp fibre, muka (flax fibre), tī kōuka fibre, found natural remnants (shells, twigs, stones, flowers), and clay. These materials subsequently take the form of woven artefacts, small sculptures (ephemeral and gallery-based), handwritten notes, photographs, performance, or installations. To varying extents, the works acknowledge whakapapa (genealogy) and connections with the earth in a time of crisis, and do so from perspectives as tāngata whenua and Pākehā, or Pākehā alone. Given these approaches, concerns, formal practices, and perspectives, it follows that the programmed public events amplify an aspect of each exhibition, whether conceptually, formally, or via participatory performance. Another term for these typically gallery-based public events is the ‘paracuratorial’ or ‘paracuratorial activities’.[ii] This terminology, established and defined by Jens Hoffmann, describes events that are beyond exhibition making but are understood to be the outcome of curatorial work. Generally speaking, the artist and curator develop paracuratorial events together. At the risk of diminishing the importance of exhibitions, or treating them as ‘containers’ for paracuratorial activities (talks, screenings, workshops, participatory performances), it is nevertheless these events that I have found personally restorative and which I propose could be restorative for nonhuman beings as well.

Even as paracuratorial activities offer the potential for deeper experiences of community, embodied exchange, and tactile experiences with earth-based forms, it is worth establishing public programming as an expectation, if not an obligation, of art institutions that receive government funding. In Aotearoa, this constitutes the majority of art institutions via support from the government-funded body Creative New Zealand. This identification of public programming as an expectation in return for taxpayer support is not to compromise the modality as inevitably overdetermined and devoid of potential, but to acknowledge that it is not neutral. The goal of paracuratorial activities at the level of funder and institution is to generate new audiences, whether motivated by justification, community-building altruism, securing future funding, or some combination of the three.

This focus on paracuratorial activities warrants attention in the global context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although Blue Oyster in Ōtepoti was fortunate to experience only two or three changes to scheduled events during the first lockdown in 2020 and a second short restriction in 2021, other institutions, particularly those overseas, have experienced major disruptions. For some institutions, Covid-19 continues to impact the ability of communities to safely meet in a confined space, in turn resulting in the creation of online content and communication to maintain or grow communities. While online presentations, conversations, and virtual gallery tours sustain community to varying extents, the urge to congregate face-to-face was widely expressed during our first lockdown, and the first exhibition opening I attended once it ended was a feral press of bodies and exchange of droplets. It is a cruel paradox that Covid-19, which is a virological event borne of excessive destruction of nonhuman habitats by human beings has impacted on the potential to work together as communities on restorative projects, whether in the gallery or beyond.

While Covid-19 has caused (or increased) feelings and experiences of loss, loneliness, alienation, poverty, precarity, and poor mental health, it has also, in many instances, prompted close examination of values, priorities, connections, and indeed, an awareness that this virological event is anthropogenic – our wellbeing depends on that of other living beings and interconnected elemental systems (atmospheric, hydrological). On a vastly smaller scale, if the virus curtailed social interactions, including those such as public events at art institutions –however prescriptive in origin they may be – the pandemic also highlighted their importance. To congregate therefore as an evolving community, to experience embodied engagements that do not involve Z__m, and to dwell on and with earth-based materials accrues potential as a catalyst for the restorative wellbeing of both human and nonhuman beings. As with the performances of Vicuña, wellbeing manifests in the paracuratorial, socio-ecological congregations facilitated by Walker, Fitzgerald and Zalk-Neale, and Richards as warmth, generosity, and an ethics of care.

Over two days in mid May this year, Blue Oyster hosted a paracuratorial event facilitated by Walker titled Kōrerorero, which means ‘to talk, to discuss’. Kōrerorero was framed as a conversation between ‘people, materials, places, and times’, in which participants were invited to bring a textile to work on (weaving, knitting, ‘family pieces’), a poem to share, or to simply sit and be in the space.[iii] I don’t remember consciously choosing an old jersey my father gave me as a ‘family piece’, but I did dig it out and decide to darn a fraying edge. My father used to work as a shepherd and then as a soil conservator – both on high country sheep stations – and would’ve worn this jersey (which subsequently shrunk) while out working with the earth. I had darned it, and darned on top of the darning over the years, and in a growing culture of reusing and repairing old objects (coexisting with cheaply manufactured and purchased items), it felt appropriate to tackle it again. Walker asked me what I was working on, and via this question – in the broad remit of working on a textile – I was able to bring my father and a little of his history into the space as I sat darning on the wooden floor beneath my favourite work in this exhibition: an in-process length of flax knitted in the traditional Print o’ da Wave Shetland lace pattern. Titled tūpuna guide us to weave in any way we can (2019–ongoing), this work encompassed central concepts and materials of the exhibition: whakapapa (genealogy), natural fibres, dyes, and handed-down fabrics to story connections and reciprocity between generations, art forms, and between humankind and the earth.

Paracuratorial events such as these, which involve conversation, meeting new people, developing existing connections and friendships, sharing food (soup and bread), and working on craft or art pieces (or my case mending) share much in common with artistic practices of the 1990s–2000s known as relational aesthetics. Theorised by French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, relational aesthetics describes art practices based on human relations and their social contexts, in which ‘[e]ach particular artwork is a proposal to live in a shared world, and the work of every artist is a bundle of relations with the world, giving rise to other relations, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum’.[iv] Perhaps the most famous exponent of this practice is Rirkrit Tiravanija, who turned galleries into kitchens and served food as an exhibition project. In 1992, for Untitled (Free), he served rice and Thai curry at 303 Gallery in New York. A comparable iteration of relational aesthetic practice in Aotearoa is Eve Armstrong’s Trading Table (2003–ongoing), which builds relational encounters through the exchange of goods.

The key distinction between relational aesthetics and the contemporary paracuratorial activities of Walker, Fitzgerald and Zalk-Neale, and Richards is that the relational subjects of the latter not only incorporate the rest of nature, but their exhibitions and associated events are constituted with and by cultural (tāngata whenua whakapapa to the earth) and material relationships with the earth. Walker’s exhibition, distance rewoven from the roots to the stem (15 April–15 May 2021) and the event Kōrerorero are borne from and seek to develop ongoing relationships with the earth that grew the flax and the plants that can be transformed into dye. By making manifest the lived reciprocity between people and the earth through earth-based artefacts Walker’s exhibition materialised reciprocity and restorative practices (sustainable use of natural dyes over synthetic dyes and the repurposing of used fabrics). Within this context, Kōrerorero invited participants to consider connections between entities and generations, and to share knowledge, techniques, family stories, and encounters with the rest of nature. The community of relations established in this exhibition and furthered via paracuratorial activity extended connections beyond the human to strengthen ties with the rest of nature. In so doing, Walker’s project exemplified the restorative potential of community in its most expanded sense.

While community is essential to the conceptual and perspectival framing of Fitzgerald and Zalk-Neale’s exhibition GLOSSY LEAF kiss at Blue Oyster (4 March–10 April 2021), this collaborative exhibition and its associated paracuratorial event, a workshop titled Pause Blur Grass Witch (4 March 2021), embody the capacity of participation to invoke wellbeing. The verb ‘embody’ is deployed here as both a semantic and sonic echo of ‘embodied’ (from ‘embodied engagement’) for two purposes. Firstly, the body and the intermingling of bodies, particularly queer and nonbinary bodies, is important to the identity of both artists and to their explorations of gender, sexuality, and (the rest of) nature in GLOSSY LEAF kiss. Secondly, embody –pointing to embodied engagement – ushers in the synonym ‘participation’ or ‘participatory art’, and Claire Bishop’s theorisation of participation as emblematic of the social turn.[v] Although Bishop’s influential texts distinguish participatory art from relational aesthetics by positing an earlier history of relational practices and a Marxist analysis to offer a more nuanced appraisal, Bishop, as with Bourriaud, ultimately omits nature from the social turn and participatory art. To put it differently, Bishop similarly negates human relations with the rest of nature, or nature itself from the social and the participatory. Ever increasingly however, contemporary art practices do not end at the skin or stop with humans and human-built environments. Fitzgerald and Zalk-Neale embodied the participation of human–nonhuman engagements to foster restorative relations between (queer) bodies and (queer) nature throughout their exhibition of found earth artefacts, sculptures and video, their paracuratorial workshop and, perhaps most convincingly of all, in the ritual performance at the exhibition’s opening.

<p>Connor Fitzgerald and Louie Zalk-Neale, <em>GLOSSY LEAF Kiss, I dug a hole and they sprinkled sand in it</em>, 2021 (performance detail), Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin. Image courtesy of the artist and Blue Oyster Art Project Space. Photograph: Bunty Bou</p>

Connor Fitzgerald and Louie Zalk-Neale, GLOSSY LEAF Kiss, I dug a hole and they sprinkled sand in it, 2021 (performance detail), Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin. Image courtesy of the artist and Blue Oyster Art Project Space. Photograph: Bunty Bou

Following a knelt meditation, Zalk-Neale rose and slowly handed a small stone to eight or so attendees. Each stone was attached to a fibrous thread that the artist pulled from a nest-like object worn as a small woven backpack/adornment. Slowly, the artist and those holding a stone connected to a thread unspooling from Zalk-Neale’s back moved to a hanging sculpture or assemblage comprising thicker woven ropes and stones. The new threads were then attached to the larger sculpture in an action reminiscent of Vicuña’s common practice of loosely joining audience members together with string, thread, or skeins of unspun wool. Bishop is accurate when she writes that photographs or descriptions of performances or participatory acts cannot capture the experience of being there.[vi] Given my emphasis on performance and in-person paracuratorial activities as potentially restorative, I have intentionally restricted commentary to events I have physically attended. The above description of Zalk-Neale’s role in the opening performance is deliberately matter of fact, as there is no way to capture the full affective experience. To tell rather than show: it was intense, ceremonial, ritualistic, moving, and bonding. All of the attendees, through the participation of the stone-holders with Zalk-Neale, became quite literally woven, threaded, tied, and anchored to the artists, their work, the materials, and each other. Our embodied engagement was simultaneously formed with and by the solidity of the earth (stone) and the connective tissue of fibres. The earth – or nonhuman nature – was engaged with as a series of bodies (stone, plant); participants and constituents of the social, with whom the attendees shared an embodied, restorative engagement.

Tactility, touch, the haptic sense. In Fitzgerald and Zalk-Neale’s workshop, we learnt how to make slender woven ropes from dry tī kōuka leaves discarded by the tree. We used thumb and forefinger to torque each strand and then overlay them until we reached the end. While the process of weaving tī kōuka fibre was undeniably tactile, the experience of rolling a ball of clay between my palms for an hour or longer four years ago at Richards’s workshop in 2017 still lingers. As a physical and phenomenological experience, the attempt to achieve ‘roundness’ was deeply calming and meditative. It could sound coercive – to force a shape on a ball of earth – and perhaps on one level it was. However, shaping depended on working with, and not against it, and to do this required getting to know how a particular chunk of clay aggregated, when to add water to prevent it from drying, and how much water. All of this took time. From another point of view, this engagement could be seen as an act of love towards a clump of earth, and with not too much of a metonymic shift, to loving the whole round ball of the earth.

The practice of nurturing tactility figured in Richards’s exhibition and workshop of the same title, To watch, with your mind’s eye, the world floating quiet (5 April–29 April 2017) drew on the traditional Japanese earth craft of hikaru dorodango, which translates as ‘shining dumplings’ or ‘mudballs’. As the first English translation suggests, hikaru dorodango are dried and polished once perfectly formed. Following Richards’s conceptual parameters, our hikaru dorodango were not, and so their earthy quality remained.

Like any abstracted, decontextualised or instrumentalised term, concepts of community, embodied engagement, and tactility with earth-based materials mean little as words. However, when community is fluid, evolving, self-reflexive, decolonial, and inclusive, such as those fostered by Walker, Fitzgerald and Zalk-Neale, and Richards, it can constitute a welcoming, safe space. All three projects, and particularly the paracuratorial activities, offered embodied engagements with earth-based materials guided by an ethics of care for human and nonhuman beings. Characterised by reparative modes of communication, art making, and interactions, these artists’ restorative practices embody wellness for – and beyond – the human.

[i]Cecilia Vicuña, New and Selected Poems of Cecilia Vicuña, Rosa Alcalá (ed, trans), Kelsey Street Press, Berkeley, 2018, p xvii.

[ii] Jens Hoffmann, ‘Curating Between the Lines’, Critique d’art: Actualité internationale de la literature critique sur l’art contemporain, vol 41, Printemps/Eté, 2013, p 2.

[iii] Blue Oyster Art Project Space, e-newsletter, 5 May 2021.

[iv] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods, Les Presses du réel, Dijon, 2002, p 22.

[v] Claire Bishop, Participation, Whitechapel Art Gallery and MIT Press, London and Cambridge, 2006, p 3.

[vi] As above, p 5.