In E M Forster’s short story from 1909, ‘The Machine Stops,’ we are presented with a society living in hive-like structures beneath the earth. Their every need is catered for by an omnipotent machine that mediates all communication. Intellectual knowledge is prized above all else and interaction with the earth is seen as crude and undesirable, a source of alienation. It’s a story which feels relevant to Sabina Sallis’ exhibition at Gymnasium Gallery, a space that whirrs with the life and activity of a myriad of fantastical machines. In her brief opening speech, the artist reflects on the continuous extraction that supports modern industrial society. Machinery permeates much of our daily life; its mineral residues, unequal labour relations and energy-hungry storage systems that pulse through the keyboard I write on and the systems that will distribute these ideas to you.
In Berwick, a new set of apparatus has been set in motion. A counteractive process in space and time, a generator for the imagination, Multispecies Visionary Institute is a dynamic project that has ambition beyond the bounds of the physical presentation of art in the gallery. On introducing the work, Sallis says that the ecological crisis is not only technological, but a crisis of the imagination. The artwork she has made is a space for ideas but one where the material reality of the Earth we inhabit is absolutely central. A space where the audience is also encouraged to imagine how an ecologically responsible future could look.
On entering the gallery, the air has a rich smell of herbs, pumped into the atmosphere through a series of coloured tubes connected to tinctures and herbal concoctions made by the artist. Woven structures known as Skeps (a form of beehive) hold large bundles of plants, clay forms hang like ritual bells and wrap themselves around electrical components, a geometric sphere made from copper and hazel spins slowly and the sound of gongs ring meditatively, activated by tiny networks of electronics. All of this is held together in three large geodesic structures crafted from hazel and connected by the network of rainbow pipes feeding into various improvised forms of apparatus. At the far end of the space, a series of small video projections reference the artist’s research into fire-stick farming with Indigenous Australian communities and Satoyama practitioners in Japan, with this shared knowledge woven into a quiet poetic text.
The effect is dizzying; architecturally light but full of detail, calming and yet bewildering – there is just so much stuff in here. In my mind, the space seems to shift between some kind of ritual site and a work of new age sci-fi, as if the worlds of Kubrick and Tarkovsky have been rendered in wood, plants and clay. It’s hard to overstate the amount of work that has gone into this exhibition, the product of Sallis’ PhD research. There is a fusion of craft, drawing, film making, archival research, ceramics, herbalism and research with diverse communities bringing together land based practices from around the world. Everything is hand-made – a collection of jars holding pickles and preserved plants are gathered along the edge of one of the domes, and one can only imagine the days, weeks or months of work which must have gone into that small component alone.
The wall by the entrance is papered with pages from the Voynich Manuscript, a mysterious undeciphered medieval codex thought to contain herbal remedies which has been central to Sallis’ research. On top of this is a kind of map of the space, showing the interlinked domes and the serpentine patterns of connecting rainbow tubes. More of these maps and diagrams are reproduced in an accompanying publication which reads like a cryptic instruction manual for the artistic apparatus. Diagrams and descriptions of ‘Terraformers’, ‘Voynichese Fertilisers’ and ‘3 World Receivers’, alongside lists of herbs and the artist’s notes lead me to think that Sallis is also creating her own codex here, open for us to decipher and interpret as we see fit.
Alongside this imaginative world there is a busy programme of workshops and events combining art and practical skill sharing, facilitated by invited artists and environmental specialists. The first iteration of this could be seen at the preview with performances from Chloe Smith and Sophie Lisa Beresford Smith, animating the space. Smith’s slow-moving piece ‘My Body Maps this Land’, inspired by the bodily attunement of bees to the landscape, seems to animate the ambient sound in the space – somehow amplifying it through movement as she carefully positions arms and legs bedecked with plants from the local area. In contrast, Beresford Smith’s piece ‘Radge Spirit Dance’ brought the high-energy sound of North East ‘Makina’, as she sings and dances joyously with long strands of seaweed hanging from her ears and waist. Her work somehow transforms a musical style often heard blasting noisily from car windows into something magical and uplifting. After sixteen months with very little amplified music, I really appreciated the energy of this.
The summer programme includes performance pieces, foraging walks, tree identification in the landscape around the gallery and a host of online talks including an account of a rewilding project in Sallis’ native Subcarpathian Poland. Bees and beekeeping are a recurrent theme in this programme with talks from tree beekeepers and performances referencing the symbolism of bees in Northern Mythology. Content which feeds back into the imaginative apparatus in the exhibition space.
Overall, this is a thoughtful exhibition which is worthy of close consideration. It will be interesting to see how this project builds a community around it and I wonder if these ‘machines for living’ might leech out of the gallery and into the lives of those who visit. In Forster’s story, the machine mysteriously stops working and the inhabitants are forced to reckon with the material reality of the depleted planet that sustains them. Our machines are still in operation but perhaps spending some time with Sallis’ imaginative apparatus can help us think about how we might live within the physical limits of the planet which sustains us.
Sabina Sallis: Multispecies Visionary Institute runs from 10 July to 5 September 2021 at the Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick Visual Arts, Berwick upon Tweed.
Visitors can book timed slots to visit the exhibition as well as the programme of events; please visit the Berwick Visual Arts website for more details.
Michele Allen is an artist and researcher based in the North East of England, working with photography, sound and video. Her work addresses issues around place and environment and is often produced in collaboration with communities over long periods of time.
This review is supported by Berwick Visual Arts.