My housemate is packing the garden away. Blue refuse bags lined with dry soil. I wonder if there are worms in there. And if there are, how much can be composted with such splintering ground. How much can be broken down/apart/into something new, from earth disinclined towards moisture, towards sweating out/releasing/juicing sweetness. How much can come of new matter. I wonder if my housemate is clinging on for fear of a lack of green in spring, for fear of nothingness in the winter depths. Uncertainty that growth may not occur again.
The same morning, I meet a new friend—a recent move from Glasgow to London wills connections—to visit Camden Arts Centre’s show Grooves in The Green by Tamara Henderson, an artist I first came across working at Hospitalfield in Scotland. Drawn to the show initially for its title, I wondered, boarding the overground—preferred for its sense of being above ground, but closer to earth than its contained concrete counterpart—whether really I was going because Tamara had been at Hospitalfield, and because really, I was missing Scotland. More precisely, I was missing Glasgow’s Queen’s Park, missing daily tracings of its circumference, for its proximity to woodland, for its promise of running into people, their conversations seedlings of comfort.
Soil seemingly moribund, shoots lessening. I am new to London and the land doesn’t feel the same, at least not yet. Reading Daisy Lafarge’s newest work Lovebug, the uncomfortable intimacy between my body and the parasites to which it is host, between myself and the surfaces around me, presses continuously. In weaving the personal with the pathological, Lovebug complicates the idea of coherent selfhood, revealing life as a site of vulnerability. Watching my housemate pack the garden away leaves a tightening in my chest, incites a reckoning.
Mind rewilded, I gravitate towards exhibitions that address ‘the garden’, echoing the voice of Derek Jarman in inscribing poetics in living scapes. I learn the word ‘slub’; a lump or thick place in thread, fabric with irregularities caused by uneven thickness of the warp. To draw out and twist (wool, cotton, silk). The fabric of my own being has become ragged and stretched. There is something in the move, in the shifting soils, that draw me to agrestal cinematics, most resonant in recent works by Tamara Henderson, Rhona Mühlebach and long-time collaborator, Isabelle Pead.
Rhona Mühlebach’s moving image work Ditch Me, at CCA Glasgow, draws on the history of the Antonine Wall in Scotland, transposing historical events into a new fictional world. My housemate transposes history—wrapped within soil and skin cell—into fictive meanings. Ditch Me explores ‘meta-humans’ and ‘meta-gardens’ through characters spanning slime mould, lice and lovers, each with their own anecdotes linked through the ditch world. Entering the dimly lit room, submersion into darkness feels aptly like dropping into a caving ditch, an earthly baptism. Illuminated gradually by the projections playing out, I wonder what these ‘meta’ entities might mean. I watch Rhona’s ditch world, the ditch offering the potential to cross into a new realm, notions of passing and crossing permeating through the show. Scenes confuse digital with the real, characters appearing part-avatar, part-human, as they debate the role of the ditch as a kind of corridor, one commenting that it functions as a ‘corridor of time’. The exhibition text refers to Ursula Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, how Ursula comes to tasks ‘lugging this great heavy sack of stuff, my carrier bag full of wimps and klutzes, and tiny grains of things smaller than a mustard seed, and intricately woven nets… full of beginnings without ends, of initiations, of losses, of transformations and translations.’ I think of the heavy blue sacks of stuff on my patio, these structures that hold matter as their own ‘corridors of time’, making room for the end of one season, of one time, but also perhaps to the beginning of many others.
Tamara Henderson’s show at Camden Arts Centre, Green in the Grooves, continues to offer such meditation on embodied knowing and growth. Throughout the show, Henderson dives into earthworm ecologies to address how human interventions disrupt and meld cyclical processes of degeneration and regeneration. From a constructed greenhouse of refracted glass shapes and metal dials, to the hum of a contact mic on a compost bin of live worms, the show is one of visceral vessels, like a cluster of seed heads shaking and scattering their possibilities. In this system of discoveries, meeting the smell of soil room to room, I become part of Tamara’s cartographic eco-system. My sensory pulse quickens.
In the same period, Isabelle Pead opens their duo show with ceramicist Solanne Bernard, the body, dissolving, at Deptford’s Studio Chapple. Housing Solanne’s ceramic forms, Isabelle shapes the space with a life-size greenhouse, through which a speaker choruses the titular words across the glass panes.
A point of meeting/cultivating/recollecting/ruminating, this is conveyed again in the gallery’s front window filter, a hue reminiscent of an internally lit greenhouse by night, green tints casting a biological glow over the walkway outside. My skin reaches for this nebulous green ozone. I think about my ability to photosynthesise. Speakers germinate and gesture throughout the space, inviting us to listen as they speak to us of the ground, and the body that tends to it, that abstracts from it, that disregards, to (perhaps painfully) return. A relationship of sorts. They sound out through the room on bespoke welded stands, an evolved hybrid form, melded by green fingers in the midst of this skyscraper sphere. An interpolation of movement in our ecosystem. The glass and sound stretch the room’s skin, and I sunk into its rhythm.
In London, greener land is strange and almost non-existent, and when you do find it—in a raised bed or wetland—it feels like a token of goodness. In the month I have dwelled in Walthamstow, new build towers have spiralled up to the firmament. They have windows and balconies but no space for planting. A garden is a ripe signifier, full with information, The White Pube write in a post. They say that nature loves a spiral… something tight (compact) that’s loosening (unfurling), something exiting (entering). I am tight, unfurling, entering. Entering a new terrain, new rhythm, new newness that has yet to show face. A garden is an act of tenderness, of being here and having to deal with it. Possibly futile, stoic, knowing there is work to be done.
Returning to my own sparse patio—the blue refuse sacks now three plastic cushions—I think about how ‘gardens’, how these spaces that hold, are shifting entities. From abundant to empty, embracing to detachment, joy to melancholia. I call Isabelle. I ask if there is something in the garden that speaks to feelings of being held, of intimacy, or of being alone? It’s a strange place and there is a sense of control in having a garden to tend, regarding the notion of cultivating, but also a being of its own, resistant to external factor, might I even say queer?
It’s interesting you ask this, I came to see the greenhouse as a stage, as comfort but also artifice. There’s this feeling of holding life in a false environment, neither interior nor exterior. And there’s certainty in the circular patterns of the garden, the indifference of the structure to inevitable decay. You relinquish an element of control to the garden as an individual being. A queer body/landscape, existing against all odds, cultivating beauty despite the most extreme growing conditions. I see it as rebellious and defiant (much like Jarman’s garden), taking up space with tender growth, renewal from the inhospitable.
And the circling sound piece, how did this surface, what were you reaching for through the sonic?
I was searching for a narrative echo. A memory of a voice, a touch. Something held in the reflection that slips and becomes fainter with each turning season. The cycle of harmony and dissonance that patterns nature, mimicked in continual sonic resolution. From dissonance to consonance. Voices that find each other are lost, grasping at a memory that has long passed. It’s seeing the space as a stage, a catalyst for voice, body and memory to merge, to percolate. Calling for voice and space that protects, that offers shelter.
I’ve been thinking about this period of adjustment I’m going through—of environ, of people, of matter. An initial feeling of loneliness—among so many new ‘gardens’—is still a focus, but in writing about others’ spaces, I find myself grasping a sense of longing to move through and beyond this aloneness, this nostalgia, for what once was.
Hmmm, maybe it’s as a space of renewal as well… not entombing oneself in memory but finding comfort in continuum. Accepting nostalgia but not becoming encumbered by it, and thinking where can I build my next garden? I was listening to some people talking about Palestine on Radio 4 today. They said that the only resolution for the conflict was for a new generation on both sides to come to the table and negotiate peace. The old scorched earth needs to be planted afresh with the next generation to break the cycle of generational conflict. There’s something so poignant and hard-hitting in this—a stripping back, a sitting with truths and what has to be done, the work required, to grow something from all that has happened.
The fabric of my own being has become ragged and stretched. Looking at Isabelle, Tamara and Rhona’s work, I’m realising my examinations have moved me to a new place. And slowly the land is undoing, petering, decomposing. At the time of writing this, there is land across the water forever being undone. The ground between London and Glasgow watches, holding onto itself, just. Threads fraying. Threads tightening. Slowly, my own fabric is making sense of its knots, the knots of others. To hold tighter to what can still be held, slower and attentive. This city might make me hardier. A perennial Rose; my middle name and foremothers’. I might grow with this city, broken down/apart/into something other, over and over.
Lucy Rose Cunningham is a curator and writer. Before a recent move to London, she studied on the MLitt Curatorial Practice programme at Glasgow School of Art, curating shows at Kiosk Gallery, The Pipe Factory and French Street.
Cunningham has written for and exhibited performances at Leeds Art Gallery, The Hepworth, South London Gallery, and HuMBase, Stuttgart. She is author of poetry pamphlets For Mary; Marie, Maria and Interval: House, Lover, Slippages, both published by Broken Sleep Books, the latter featuring in PN Review 2023. She has also written for Glasgow’s Pala Press and MAP Magazine. She loves starlings and red knitwear.
Tamara Henderson, ‘Grooves in The Green’, Camden Arts Centre, London, 6 October to 30 December 2023
Rhona Mühlebach, ‘Ditch Me’, CCA, Glasgow, 23 September to 2 December 2023
Isabelle Pead, ‘the body, dissolving’, Studio Chapple, London, 30 September to 18 November 2023