Frances Disley:
The Cucumber Fell in the Sand

A view of an artwork in a gallery. It is a large wall hanging or mural, made from fabric. The background is shiny gold, and it features shapes that look like legs and bodies.
Installation View. Frances Disley, The Cucumber Fell in the Sand. Courtesy of Humber Street Gallery and the artist, 2019. Photo by Jules Lister.

We are just so extra, shining in our rose gold breathable barefoot trainers, our hobbyist fermentation stations bubbling away, even our gut health bacteria shimmering and shining. Frances Disley’s The Cucumber Fell in the Sand fills two floors of Humber Street Gallery. Disley has worked with a range of collaborators – artists Gregory Herbert, Liverpool’s CBS Studios (Joseph Hulme, Liam Peacock & Theo Vass) and Foodsketz (Alison Claire & Cat Smith)[1]. Taking inspiration from Buckminister Fuller as well as Hull’s Joseph Rank Limited (once one of Britain’s largest Flour milling and bakery companies), the works consider our relationship to food production, the environment, and how it relates to our contemporary life and our needs as humans.

On the first floor, ‘Idea for a Holo Programme’ (2019) makes a cosy, queasy, sick-bay of floor beds and nests, duvets and pillows dyed with turmeric, nettle tea and avocado stones. Punching a pillow sometimes reveals they’re stuffed with lavender. Wall-mounted atomisers pump out essential oils and cucumber – the scent is unmistakably a face-mist cucumber, which is to say that it’s more cucumber-scented than an actual cucumber. Extra. Disley’s installation is, in part, riffing on the hyper-feminine ways we strive for improvement. We’re surrounded by these quests for wellness and improvement, and sometimes we exhaust ourselves. Here, we’re invited to collapse down onto the beds for as long as it takes for us to feel good again. We can loaf indefinitely, squirting perfume, flicking through a truly joyful publication from Foodsketz, produced for the exhibition and available from the gallery, about food and self-care.

A corner of a gallery with cushions and mats to sit. A small wooden circle provides a table space. The walls are painted with swirls of yellow and pale pink stripes.

Installation View. Frances Disley, The Cucumber Fell in the Sand. Courtesy of Humber Street Gallery and the artist, 2019. Photo by Jules Lister.

On the second floor, the gallery becomes a space to grow plants, herbs, bake bread. All these activities are suffused with a practical sporty-cyborg aesthetic: suggesting that a human who is close to nature is an improved human. Shimmer curtains and floor drawings suggest movement and performance. Of course, Instagram looms large, and many of the wall and floor drawings reference trainers, and a contemporary athleisure colour palette, all muted pinks and rose golds. You know the one.

But in the open, light, concrete-floored gallery space of Humber Street something else is activated within the work. Sure, we can quantify our steps and measure the popularity of the Instagram likes our plants receive. But at every stage, our interactions with nature are mediated and compromised by our own unmistakable human-ness, our inability not to ruin things with scruffy too-human touches- plastic containers or handwritten labels. All the things we’ve invented to contain and present nature – CGI lilies, barefoot-technology trainers, not quite flowing water – they are, here, reminders of our inability or unwillingness to transcend our species. Maybe we feel more at home in simulacra of nature than in the real thing; maybe it is more relaxing to tune into a recording of birdsong and to imagine, not a tree full of finches, but the dubbed-on birdsong of a Big Brother TV livestream. Maybe these are our forests.

A view of a gallery with lots of different sculpture and artworks. Centrally there is a table and stools set up. There are several gold fabric wall hangings and curtains. Plants feature throughout the space.

Installation View. Frances Disley, The Cucumber Fell in the Sand. Courtesy of Humber Street Gallery and the artist, 2019. Photo by Jules Lister.

And so, the sound of running water is not quite the sound of the water but the sound of everything else, the bubbles, the buckets, the tubes, the sound of the suburban hum of the garden centre. And, when we listen to a relaxing water feature, part of what we hear is the sounds of our own desire for relaxation, for extra-relaxation, for relaxation that is extra. We are, it seems, incapable of not meddling in nature.

But this is still humanity, and Disley’s vision has plenty of room for hope and optimism. The spaces where this quest for sporty perfection is compromised are the spaces where we find the most pleasure. The pine-cones painted with children, the handwriting on plant labels, and a space where bread can be baked or conversations can be hosted; these might look messy, and less perfect, but they all reveal our real souls. These scrappy edges are less quantifiable but more lovable. These are the spaces where care and love can flourish, not just an abstracted performative self-care behind a screen, but as unguarded and emotionally honest spaces.

A photograph of a set up for growing seedlings in a black drainpipe, with purple lights shining on the tiny growing plants.

Installation View. Frances Disley, The Cucumber Fell in the Sand. Courtesy of Humber Street Gallery and the artist, 2019. Photo by Jules Lister.

[1] Foodsketz is a collaborative vehicle for art/food-based social interaction and discussion, by Cambridge-based artists Cat Smith and Alison Clare.

Frances Disley’s The Cucumber Fell in the Sand is at Humber Street Gallery from 13 July to 29 September 2019. Humber Street Gallery is an Absolutely Cultured project.

Tessa Norton is a writer based in West Yorkshire and London.

Published 30.09.2019 by Holly Grange in Reviews

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