Conversing with the Landscape

In the spirit of Tonya’s art practice, I decided to keep the tone of this text on a ‘first name basis’, both literally and figuratively. I want to celebrate the conversational, being-to-being, anecdotal, personal reflections and exchanges that, to me, form the core of her practice and the This Place residency at Millennium Court. Tonya is concerned with sustainability, our ecology, environment and climate. She maintains several beehives around Northern Ireland as part of an ongoing project Infinity Farm: a community interest company that aims to bring into focus the issues around the decline in pollinators, such as bees, and how these relate to our landscape. Togetherness feels like an integral part of Tonya’s artistic practice. Through practical workshops, such as honey tasting, apple pressing and making wax wraps (for use in place of plastic wrap), she is not just trying to tell people how to be more ecological; she is reconnecting us with elements of our landscape through a shared experience with each other.  An integral aspect of this is a mutual exchange of knowledge between Tonya and the participants. This is an exchange of local, engrained knowledge and broad, learned knowledge.

Recently I went to a seminar given by Tania Bruguera, an internationally recognised artist working in the field of social practice. On experiencing and investigating Tonya’s work it kept bringing me back to some of the things Tania had said. In order to explain her work and why it is art, Tania has coined the term, ‘Est-etica’: aesthetics for an ethical ecosystem[1]. For Tania, this is art that does not centre on production but on process. More specifically, a process that implements an ethical art into society as part of everyday life, serving the public and creating or transforming communities. To my mind, this is what Tonya has striven to do. Through a process of creative workshops she has brought her ecological ethic to the fore and shared her knowledge with local communities. In turn, participants in Tonya’s workshops shared their knowledge with her. This is a process which allows both the instigator and participants to not only enjoy the experience of working and learning together, but to take the knowledge they have gained and implement it in their daily lives. In this way room is made for artist/instigator and audience/participant to become collaborators and gain some equal footing with one another on common ground.

Tonya and I met a few times to talk about this text. I really enjoyed our conversations about her residency. She also, very generously, shared a little of that process with me through a honey tasting. Like Tonya, I also have an art practice that seeks to engage and interact with people. In addition to this I have a preoccupation with smell, and how it influences our perception of place. It was exciting to realize that my own area of interest overlapped with Tonya’s. To begin our honey tasting Tonya showed me a honey aroma and tasting wheel. It was very similar to fragrance/odour wheels that I have come across. I hadn’t thought about honey in that context before, even though much of what we think we are tasting, we are, in fact, smelling. We sat at the table in my house, with jars of honey and a pile of teaspoons in front of us. First we looked at the honey and Tonya explained to me why it had different colours and textures; some golden and unctuous, whilst others were pale (almost white) and solid, like butter. Tonya told me where they had come from and about the people who had produced them.

Then we each took a spoonful of honey from a jar, closed our eyes and sniffed. At first I felt a little nervous about closing my eyes. But being quiet enough to really appreciate the olfactory qualities of the honey quickly paid off and I was able to relax. I wonder how it was to go through this process as part of a group? If it created a sense of camaraderie? Each honey smelled different, and sometimes we went back to the previous honeys, to smell the difference. Even though I knew different honeys had different smells and flavours it still felt like a surprise. One smelled almost bitter, like Ivy; one like cheese, and another of grass or hay. As we looked at, smelled and tasted the honeys, we started to discuss why they had these different sensory qualities. What are the bees eating to make honey that smells of cheese? Does the honey change with the seasons? Do bees produce honey all year round? Has the quality and quantity of the honey produced changed over the years? What would honey from bees in the same area have tasted like 30, 40 or even 50 years ago? Why do these local honeys, produced on a small scale, taste so different from the mass produced ones I’ve been buying in the supermarket for all these years? It was fascinating.  

We began to discuss the cyclical nature of things. How as a year unfolds, each season, in each place, brings its own qualities to the landscape and how we are all part of that landscape, as humans, animals and vegetation. It made me think of a book I had been reading, “Aroma; The Cultural History of Smell”, by a group of sensory anthropologists, Constance Classen, David Howes and Anthony Synott[2]. They described how in the Andaman Islands, of the Indian Ocean, the islanders used scents to distinguish the seasons, and the scents of honey in particular. The landscape flavours and perfumes the honey. It takes on the tropical scents and flavours of the trees and flowers that are in bloom when it is produced. With the changing seasons the sensory qualities of the honeys change, allowing smells to be used to identify the time of year. This connection to the environment allows for a nuanced relationship with the passing of time that goes in tandem with the natural cycles of life. It is not about conforming to the tick of a clock or a date on the calendar, but a more embodied and sensory understanding of the process of seasonal changes in our landscapes.

The anthropologist Tim Ingold talks about the idea of landscapes as a plenum (in this context he means a space that is full) when discussing sustainability. In the mainstream consciousness sustainability is closely linked to ‘being green’, and ‘saving the planet’. I would like to shift that idea of sustainability, as Tim has, towards a more flexible definition of everything being sustainable. By this I mean that everything is sustainable because everything is in a constant state of change, transforming from one thing to the next in a constant stream. Every particle or molecule is being made and remade, combining seemingly disparate elements, both synthetic and natural, that ultimately are all part of the same thing; the world we occupy. As Tim says, “the rhythmic pattern of human activities nests within the wider pattern of activity for all animal life, which in turn nests within the pattern of activity for all so-called living things, which nests within the life-process of the world.”[3] (Tim, 1993).

I was recently chatting with two experienced ecologists. They were in a state of grief for all the parts of the natural world they felt have been lost, just in their lifetime. This idea of ecological grief has become more prevalent in recent years, as our physical landscapes and the other beings that we share it with begin to change or die out. It describes the feelings of loss and powerlessness that this invokes, especially when our rituals and connections to the land are disturbed by these physical changes. This resonates with the work of Chilean artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña[4]. Cecilia makes work that challenges the distinctions we make between our selves, our culture and our natural environment.

During one of Tonya’s workshops she and the participants made wall hangings, or little sculptures, using sticks from apple trees. When I saw these works I was immediately reminded of Cecilia’s Precarios; these too are small, usually fragile works, made from sticks, feathers and other found items. Sometimes they are displayed in galleries and sometimes they are made and left to break down and transform back into the earth. The original motivation for these Precarios was to make a dialogue with nature that left the lightest of footprints. Cecilia was trying to reconnect her physical surroundings with her psychological landscape. Tonya is attempting to make these same re-connections, and to change our understanding of the landscape away from the idea of it being something that we pass through on our way from A to B, to a place we nest in.

When we choose to do an activity with other people, as Tonya and the participants of her workshops did, that choice becomes part of our landscape. Be it through collectively drawing, gathering and pressing apples, tasting honey, or using bee’s wax to make beauty products or wax wraps, our choices influence the atmosphere of our communities and thus the landscape of our lives. In Tonya’s work specifically, we are making a choice to engage with our local, natural landscape of apple orchards and hedgerows. By being in nature when it’s so easy to keep it at a distance and by choosing to slow down for a moment and interact with one another and our environment, natural or otherwise, we make a choice to do things differently. We are taking some detours off course, and creating a little space in our lives; we are changing the horizons of our landscapes.

It got me thinking about the lack of wildness in our lives. We keep smoothing out the rough edges. We do it in the name of progress, to be more civilized, efficient, clean and polished. To make life easier. But what if our landscape was rougher, and we left some room for wildness and time for communication? Would the bees come back? Would the honey be sweeter? In the interests of finding out, Tonya and I have decided to share some of the recipes that she used in her workshops. So we can all discover what a lip or beard balm made using local honey or beeswax is like, or learn to know the seasons through the honey we spread on our toast.

Recipes:

Lip Balm

Ingredients

2 tablespoons coconut oil or olive oil

1 tablespoon beeswax (source locally be careful buying online)

1 teaspoon of honey (source from beekeeper)

2 – 5 drops of essential oil

Method

Melt the oil and beeswax; add in the honey and mix to combine. Pour mixture into lip-balm containers before adding in the drops of essential oils. Leave to harden.

Modern Man Beard Balm

Ingredients

4 Tablespoons of coconut oil

2 Tablespoons of shea butter

1 Tablespoons of beeswax (source locally be careful buying online)

3 -5 drops rosemary essential oil

3 – 5 drops lavender essential oil

Method

Melt the oil and beeswax; add in the honey and mix to combine. Pour mixture into lip balm containers before adding in the drops of essential oils. Leave to harden.


[1] http://www.taniabruguera.com/cms/609-0-.htm

[2] Classen, C., Howes, D. and Synnott, A. (1994) Aroma: the cultural history of smell. London; New York: Routledge.

[3] Tim Ingold (1993) ‘The Temporality of the Landscape’, World Archaeology, 25(2), p. 152. Available at: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.124811&site=eds-live (Accessed: 7 January 2020).

[4] http://www.ceciliavicuna.com/

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