Recent years have been defined by division, our political landscape scarred by an inability to find nonpartisan solutions to problems. Perhaps the best example of this is Brexit, a process that has rocked British democracy and divided families and communities. On an even larger scale, political attitudes to climate change continue to lack the required urgency and are hampered by inaccurate and often confusing information. In terms of persuading voters of the environmental crisis unfolding, the battle has yet to be won and time is running out.
Future Landscapes is an excellent example of the power of art to communicate new points of view and open up debate. Artist Gemma Burditt has worked closely with Dr Paul Cowie from the Centre for Rural Economy as well as six Northumbrian land-based businesses to create a thought-provoking installation designed to spark conversation around changing uses of the land and sustainability.
The Gymnasium Gallery is the perfect space to consider challenging topics such as Brexit and climate change, a safe space if you like, made fluid by the natural light falling through its windows. The only sounds are a fierce autumn wind whipping leaves into the air and a head whirring with thoughts. Future Landscapes is an exhibition that creates more questions than answers, and perhaps intentionally so. This is the first phase of a project that will continue to explore themes around land use alongside political and environmental changes.
Burditt’s installation is inspired by businesses she has worked with, 1970s architectural collage and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch – certainly it allows reflection on the consequences of a sinful humanity. It is comprised of a series of flat collaged plains which have been assembled to form one larger landscape. The use of a variety of materials, including natural grasses, reflects both the biodiversity of these areas and the ranges of outlets that rural businesses engage with to stay afloat.
Interspersed amongst these collages are projections of tiny animations – a cloud pouring rain, a butterfly fluttering onto a leaf – little flickers of movement that bring the installation to life. There is something cartoonish about the blocks of colour and figures, the childlike essence enhanced by the intricately layered collages, each tableau a little world to lose yourself in. The delicately cut images seem to represent the fragility of the land, with many of the figures looking through binoculars, perhaps searching for answers. Flashes of red inevitably conjure images of blood and a battle with the land, but it becomes clear that these local businesses rely heavily on collaboration and cooperation. The colour palette is not what would usually be expected for a Northumbrian landscape, but this is an intentional attempt by the artist to challenge our view of farmland as idyllic and natural.
Quotes from the participating businesses are printed on boards around the installation. The lettering is dim in the low light, vital voices lost amongst all the noise: ‘The Uplands are quite precious places, they are accepted in the minds of the people as being good places, sensitive yet important’. This idea of ‘accepted’ landscapes is a recurring theme, and we are asked to consider what is ‘natural’. The spectacular treescape as viewed from Alnwick Castle might be considered an example of archetypal English countryside, yet it was planted by Capability Brown only 300 years ago. Andrew Howard, manager of the Doddington North afforestation project, reminds us that 6,000 years ago 98% of the country was woodland. Our perception of the aesthetics of the countryside must be challenged, however, there are arguments to continue its management, as beautifully encapsulated in this anecdote by John Barber, farmer at Brackenside Farm:
A while ago, Natural England were concerned that the orchid rich pastures on Holy Island were suffering from the demise of the local rabbit population and the subsequent lack of grazing pressure. The grass sward was becoming too dense for the orchids to thrive. We were asked if we could introduce cow grazing in the autumn to eat off the rank grass and taking thirty cows across the causeway for three months grazing has become an annual fixture.
The accompanying exhibition catalogue offers a fascinating insight into farming and land management as industries, and it’s hard to understand why these lucid and intelligent views from experts of the land are not more universally communicated. The complexity of combining environmental sustainability with consumer needs comes across loud and clear. We learn that wind turbines, offered as a viable source of alternative energy, have prevented a number of species of birds from breeding in the area – snipe, curlew and hen harriers – frightened and by the ‘whoosh whoosh whoosh’ of the blades. Another concern is the affordability and availability of food after Brexit, with several exhibition participants expressing dismay at some of the UK’s food production processes and logistics. Balancing society’s expectations of food prices against production and distribution costs will be a major issue going forward.
Overall, the exhibition is optimistic in tone and aesthetically beautiful, intricate and engaging. But perhaps its greatest strength is its spirit of collaboration and the opportunity it provides for conversation. Instead of a country defined by deep division, Future Landscapes offers us an alternative world where we can observe, think and listen together.
Gemma Burditt: Future Landscapes runs from 16 September to 24 October 2021 at the Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick upon Tweed.
Caro Fentiman is a writer and musician living in Northumberland.
This review was commissioned by Maltings with support from Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy and Institute for Creative Arts Practice.