In his performance lecture at the launch party of MIMA’s summer exhibition, Fragile Earth: seeds, weeds, plastic crust, Uriel Orlow’s stoic but absorbing take on the continuing attempts to preserve South Africa’s indigenous flora and fauna from European invaders interweaved the parallel suffering of apartheid. His talk climaxed with an image of the Mandela Gold (a rare flowering bird of paradise flower) wrapped in protective wire mesh signifying nature’s continued struggle; the perfect metaphor for man’s spread to all corners of the earth and the toll, disease and exploitative supposition we continue to take with us. Indeed, in the entrance room to this powerful exhibition we are greeted by Allan Sekula and Noel Burch’s ‘The Forgotten Space’ (2010), which documents the journeys of shipping containers passing through the ocean networks and those people and cultures marginalised by the monolithic trans-global freighters that deliver these historically devastating problems into the modern age. In the same room, Hartlepool-based artist Diane Watson has, more prosaically, designed a new wallpaper for the exhibition with a pattern made from the plastic objects most frequently found on her beach trawls of the Tees Valley coast, the flotsam and jetsam of the same shipping lanes. She is working with local families to develop a spotter’s sheet for the most common plastic waste items in Middlesbrough to draw attention to plastic usage locally. And that itself highlights MIMA’s more overt move towards local inclusivity that has also seen them salvaging waste vegetables from local supermarkets for their new Veg Patch and a reimagining of the Middlesbrough Winter Garden.
Fragile Earth: seeds, weeds, plastic crust is an exhibition about the relationships between plants, animals and humans at a time of great ecological upheaval. This modern confluence of conflict incorporates the biggest topic of our generation, climate change. The exhibition includes works from the 1970s up to the present day by nineteen artists from across the globe, with video, installation, drawing and sculpture. At first deeply saddening that these concerns were being expressed so explicitly fifty years ago but ultimately inspiring the lengths nature goes to preserve and adapt and how all is not lost yet. So Orlow’s centrepiece work, ‘Affinites Des Sols’ (2017-2018) explores the relationship between colonialism and plant diaspora that can be uncovered by tracing ownership of seeds and management of agriculture across continents. This geography lesson as artistic aid appeals to the latent student in me, and Orlow’s reproduction of French test-gardens should also appeal to all those with an interest in raised bed types and self-sufficiency, me also included.
Andy Holden’s ‘The Oologists’ Record’ (2017-2019) explores the human need to control nature by ownership if necessary. His animated crow travels through time with the help of British landscape paintings arranged chronologically as Holden explores the changing perceptions to egg collections and collectors throughout modern history. His porcelain, paint, wood and ordnance installation portrays the paradoxically scorned image many of us will have grown up with on the news in the 1980s as the oddly perverse pastime became synonymous with greed and capitalism. In fact, the Dorman Museum in Middlesbrough has a huge collection of eggs bequeathed by Thomas Hudson Nelson in 1914 before egg collecting became illegal.
Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe) continue their study of the impact of the much-maligned Japanese Knotweed with the second central installation, highlighting our relationships with so-called invasive species by placing it in a futuristic office setting while Zina Saro-Wiwa’s perspex ‘The Mangrove Banquet Recipes’ (2015-) are an ode to traditional cuisine and the stories they tell us about the land. However, they are also under threat in the face of culinary homogenisation globally and another of the prevailing themes of Fragile Earth.
Maria Thereza Alves’ evolving ‘Seeds of Change’ (1999-) explores the history of change in the port cities of Marseille, Reposaari and Liverpool at the turn of the century. Her work uses ballast materials often containing seeds to trace plant migration in the modern era and echoes the urban elements of another piece displayed here, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ influential work ‘Touch Sanitation’ (1979), which shows the routes she took during her monumental performative action in which she shook the hand and personally thanked all eight thousand, five hundred sanitation workers in New York City.
Within the exhibition, a new commission by Faiza Ahmad Khan and Hanna Rullman charts the changing life of the site in Calais formerly known as The Jungle (while the curators reference the similar ecological changes in Teesside’s North Gare) which is now starting life as a nature reserve, as nature reclaims the land back from humans, but this time with a helping hand from them as the Liparis loeselii fen orchid takes hold. The area remains an enclave but for nature now. The fifteen-minute documentary concludes restoring an ecosystem is always a choice therefore uncovering political priorities about what we choose to protect and preserve – in this instance a rare orchid over the twice displaced humans and which brings us full circle from Orlow’s Mandela Gold and right up to the political and ecological present day.
Other works by Zheng Bo, Miriam de Búrca, Laura Harrington, David Lisser, Shahar Livne, Anne Vibeke Mou, Otobong Nkanga, Zina Saro-Wiwa, Diane Watson and Wayward complete the exhibition.
Fragile Earth: seeds, weeds, plastic crust is showing at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art from 29 June to 26 September 2019.
For more information visit the mima website.
Steve Spithray is a writer based in Middlesbrough.