At the entrance to “Tomás Saraceno in Collaboration: Web[s] of Life,” we are politely asked to surrender our phones. There is no apparent judgment; instead, the act is more performative as our gadgets are safely slotted in what appears like an old wooden shelving unit and exchanged with an oracle card, “Arachnomancy Card,” with a personalized message (mine read: “planetary drift”). We are free, of course, to choose not to give away our phones. Yet it seems a missed opportunity: to truly immerse in the lively and layered world created by Tomás Saraceno for London’s Serpentine Galleries requires this small sacrifice.
Later, I reflect on what a relief it was not to reach out for my iPhone at every photo opportunity (and there are plenty), to be in the moment and absorb the chapters that unfold in each room and onto the surrounding Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. As Saraceno’s first major exhibition in the UK, “Web[s] of Life” takes on a lot. Ultimately it aims to observe how different life forms, technologies and energy systems are connected in the climate emergency. Art, for Saraceno, has active agency.
A canvas of sprouting greens reveals a fading figurative image of family. The watercress has taken only a few days to grow thanks to the nitrate-rich Spanish water used to cultivate the seeds. As the green grows, the negative projected onto the cress panels fades. Eventually, the living artwork returns to earth. This is Family Album, the last chapter in The Pigment Change creation by the London based Spanish artist Almudena Romero for the BMW Residency at Paris Photo. Her autobiographical and at times impermanent organic photographs ask the viewer to question production, consumption and ownership. Hers is a meditation on the ephemerality of life and our relationship with nature. I met with the artist to understand more:
You talk of finding ways of renewing the medium of photography. Can you explain?
Photography has been a conservative medium. It has taken a long time for it to move out of print because it has largely been used as a tool for representation and documentation. For me photography is a process rather than being about the result. If we start to understand photography as writing with light, then it becomes a very simple rudimentary concept that makes sense. This way it can be liberated, become more performative, more conversational.
Your work is very organic, working directly with plants to create photographic images via photosynthesis, as well as being highly autobiographical. Can you explain your process?
I started my research on plant-based photography at my grandmother’s garden in Valencia. I work with her plants and her nitrate-rich water to create my work, then I use my hands to project images onto the leaves. Some of the images are sharp, some not. There is a lot of invisible feminine labor that goes into growing a family and growing a garden. The fact that my hand images are not all obvious I feel is a metaphor for the invisible labor that makes the trees and plants and nature grow.
Your grandmother sadly passed away before the original show in the summer at Rencontres d’Arles in France, yet her legacy continues through your work.
She passed away before I exhibited and I’ve been reflecting on our relationship and her impact on me ever since. When I was a teenager, my grandmother would tend to her plants and I would listen to the Spice Girls not realizing how much of her and her work stayed with me. My mother says this is the real heritage, my grandmother’s legacy and the passion and understanding I have of plants.
That is really beautiful. I’m intrigued by the layers of multiple meanings in your work. Is this intentional?
Much of my work is self-reflecting. As an artist, I want to know what’s the impact of one’s own practice, contributing to the dynamics of producing, accumulation — all of which is at the roots of the environmental issue. I want to contribute to a wider conversation as to why and where does photography exist, what’s our relationship to nature, to photographic productions such as photosynthesis. A better understanding of plants can help us be more respectful to nature.
Your final piece, the vertical watercress for the BMW Residency at Paris Photo, is made to disappear, which to me seems like a direct commentary on art ownership.
Forthe BMW Residency I wanted to move on my plant-based photography to be alive. I have a good scientific understanding of plants and began looking at all sorts of green elements until I decided on watercress. I got the idea from garden walls which always have cress as it can grow vertically and doesn’t need soil to make roots. I had to search hard to find the right type of seeds which will bring the color and tonality I’m after. Growing it vertically gives it one focal length so you get the sharpness in the picture, then as the plant grows the picture disappears in complete greenness.
I’m reminded of an ancient Persian ritual we perform for our new year, which falls on the first hour of spring. It involves cultivating seeds on a plate, watering them for 13 days, then releasing the fully grown green into a flowing river to symbolise letting the past go and welcoming new beginning. And I’m moved by the ephemerality of your artwork.
I really like that! My work is ephemeral but at the same time in ephemerality there is hope for the future. We are facing a serious environmental crisis based on too much production, accumulation and disposal. I used to teach at the Stanford University overseas study program in Florence and I would often think of what I wanted to pass on to my students, what knowledge and skills would make sense to them in the future. This plant-based photography is part of my vision as a teacher in that these materials are ephemeral in the short run, but in the long run they are the only thing we will be able to practice. Because ephemerality is the only thing that lasts.
Perhaps it is a question of redefining object ownership in that the memory of a piece of art, that moment of connection, can be the value rather than possessing it as an object. In fact, we have an ephemeral connection to most works of art anyway since we see them fleetingly in museums or galleries after which they remain only in memory.
That’s a really interesting concept: this idea that because the piece is ephemeral it disappears. But art disappears from everyone’s eyes unless you own it. As an artist I’m interested in contributing to the wider conversation, help change our understanding of the photographic medium, of our own lives and our relation to nature, rather than decorating someone’s house.
That’s quite a radical statement. I like it.
We have to review property and ownership. This is part of the problem. “Me and mine” are the dynamics of the ego. It extends to “my perspectives”. This is why I’m very keen on collaboration and on passing my knowledge and processes to my students, as I think it’s rewarding to pass on your knowledge and see it grow elsewhere and without the need to be the master of the original idea. I feel the art world needs to move more towards this direction.
Wabi-sabi is the belief in the beauty in imperfection. The ancient Japanese philosophy seeks charm in the incomplete object, in the worn and weathered – products with a storied past. A growing movement is championing wabi-sabi, and it is being largely led by generations fatigued with the fetishization of busyness and the cult of perfection. Echoing the Arts and Crafts movement that came before them as a reaction to mass industrialisation and ruthless commercial expansion, today’s social rebels are purposely disconnecting from the hollowness of the corporate world. Instead, theirs is a slower life choice found, also, in the art of craft.
‘Perfectionism is such a funny thing,’ says James Otter, surfboard designer and maker, and founder of Otter Surfboards. ‘Our western cultures celebrate it – tirelessly. But it is a completely unrealistic target for any of us to aim at. It is an unhealthy and often damaging way of thinking.’
Otter has recently authored ‘Do/Make: The power of your own two hands’. by Do Books – the publishers of pocket guides designed to inspire action and positive change. He offers a simple guide to making while posing a compelling case for embracing a life in the arts and crafts. Otter is an award-winning designer who works with wood, sourcing ecological timber and making sustainable surfboards that celebrate beauty in the process.
‘I used to take pride in considering myself a perfectionist until I realised that this way of thinking revolves around judgment from others and when you feel things aren’t perfect, you feel a sense of shame,’ he says. ‘So your options are to achieve something that is technically impossible to reach.’ That doesn’t sound productive, I note. Otter agrees. ‘I found that reframing my making into a journey of achieving excellence was a much healthier way of thinking.’ Otter is also an advocate of the wabi-sabi philosophy. ‘I think it would be amazing if our cultures could move to a place where experimentation and striving for excellence were revered far more than the outcome.’
Our entire education system is geared towards promoting perfection though, I say. Otter agrees that we are all likely to suffer from the fear of non-achievement – that at some stage in life our creativity has been knocked back by someone or even ourselves. ‘But what if we lived in a society that celebrated play – a place where having a go, and making mistakes were acknowledged as a way to progress? What a wonderful world that would be!’
Even before the pandemic took us by storm, many of us were reconnecting with the art of making, and the process of creating. Otter’s book happens to coincide with our current crisis. ‘As we progressed with the editing phase during the start of the pandemic, we noticed how people were reconnecting with their local environments, taking time to be with the people around them and reconnecting with the art of making,’ he tells me. ‘There is such a mental, physical and spiritual benefit to be found from reconnecting with our hands,’ he adds, ‘and there is no better time than now.’
Then there are the health benefits of creating. With wellness and mindfulness becoming increasingly pivotal in our lives, the art of making can cultivate a healthier lifestyle. If mindfulness is the idea of being in the present in each moment, regardless of activity or state of mind, then what could embody the spirit more than taking up a slow-motion craft.
‘Mindfulness is about being able to calm the mind, recognising thoughts, acknowledging them, then letting them pass,’ agrees Otter. ‘So, when we embark upon any journey of making, we are given the opportunity to be completely absorbed in that process and by doing so, we can be present. With that in mind, the more opportunities we can create to make things, the more chance we will have of forming lasting habits that keep us making and provide us with the mental benefits for years to come.’
It seems like a win-win situation but I’m interested to know the necessary steps towards cultivating a passion for making. How do I know what I want to make, for instance? Otter has some helpful tips: ‘The first would be to pick something you are already excited or passionate about. For me, this was surfing. Then create a space to work in so that you can keep coming back to it as and when you are able. Then schedule the time to devote to it. Then release yourself from judgments by others and yourself.’
He says it is
the fear of not being good enough that likely stops most of us in our tracks. ‘So,
recognise this and let is pass. Finally, get stuck in – there is no right or
wrong way to do this, mistakes made whilst making provide an opportunity to
learn and help with the continual development of your skills. Enjoy the
The art of making ought to have some purpose too. Finding happiness in making also entails thinking about the larger picture. ‘As someone who designs and makes things for a living, for me it is so apparent that every decision I make along a product’s journey has an environmental impact,’ says Otter, ‘and if we want to continue to make things – and survive on this wonderful planet – we need to put the environment first, always.’
Otter’s craft of choice has the added power of being a rather evocative product. His current favourite surfboard is designed to be versatile and withstand most wave conditions. ‘I spend a lot of time in the ocean with it – interacting with the wonderfully dynamic environment of the sea,’ he offers. ‘There is such magic in moving across the ocean, riding on a wave of energy that has travelled hundreds, if not thousands of miles to reach the shore before it rises, peaks and folds in a way that we can utilise. It is my happy place!
John Ruskin, William Morris, and their Arts and Crafts comrades fought tirelessly to bring back the joy of craft and celebrate the natural beauty in materials. They understood the relation between art, society and labour, and in the darkest hours of industrialisation applauded the art of making. As we head deep into the machine age, begin to see the effects of globalisation, and try to salvage a climate in crisis, echoes of the movement continue to shine some light on life.
Adirondack Guideboat is a heritage company based in Vermont, New England in the US, where brothers Justin and Ian Martin craft rowing boats from sustainable cedar wood and lightweight fibreglass using artisan skills that honour the classic design passed down some 150 years.
As this global pandemic’s devastating impact on our world brings on a lively focus on the promise of life, and of the beauty of nature – personally, I wish I was rowing one of these crafts…
We are at a really critical time in history – more than 70% of the world’s population is migrating to cities over the next 30 years, and technology is completely altering our reality. We have to rethink how we live, work, interact, consume … I see this as a hugely exciting time. And there are some very exciting innovators and thinkers and designers working on highly progressive concepts. Here’s the latest one I came across