University of Brighton
South East England

Listen to Air

An interactive exhibition, film, text and objects as part of MA PVP at the University of Brighton.

Clare Whistler has been Artist in Residence at Bunces Barn in the Sussex Weald since 2009. One of her ongoing projects has been based around thirty wildflowers harvested there for the Seed Bank at Kew. Clare’s practice encompasses dance, performance, writing and installation and she is a serial collaborator and enabler. During the three years of her Residency, she has worked with poets, visual artists, composers, dancers and a beekeeper, responding to and interpreting the location and its environment, creating events and performance. She has amassed a huge archive of photographs, video and writing which demonstrate the depth of the exploration which has taken place. Listen to Air is, finally, a crystallization of Whistler’s own personal relationship with this much loved place which has been at the centre of her life for these years and more.

This exhibition at the University of Brighton comes at the end of a two year MA in Performance and Visual Practices, during which, perhaps perversely, the artist has made the decision to exclude public performance from the work she is showing. Her years at the Barn have included many performative activities some of which I have personally witnessed and recorded, but there has been no performance here as part of this exhibition and no record of past performance is shown. Unless… might Whistler’s single flying lesson, taken in order to record the beloved landscape from the air and shown as a projection be considered a performative action? Or her ritualistic early morning visits to collect wild flowers for her wall drawing? Or the making of the drawing itself, rubbing, crushing and pressing the freshly picked flowers across an expanse of wall?

Let’s leave the questions and explore some of the work. The wall drawing is one of the most successful pieces in this show where the artist has unselfconsciously explored new ways in which she might make art. Covering a large expanse of wall in the space which Whistler calls The Vaults, where she has gathered together her materials, the wall drawing is a thing of beauty, reminding me of dappled woodland, Monet’s Garden, faded wallpaper and a summer dress all at the same time. Once a week for six weeks Whistler’s fingers smudged and smeared, crushed and rubbed and spread the pigments from wild flowers collected from the meadow at Bunces Barn, building up a patina from the crushed petals of borage and vetch and buttercup and dandelion (to name but a few). Each week the colours faded and changed before the next application of pollens and sap were squeezed from the flowers onto the once white painted surface of the wall. The plant remains lie below, heaped at the base of the wall, testament to the process which has taken place. The drawing enlivens the space as a celebration of Whistler’s meadow.

At right angles to the drawing, a bare, unadorned wall stretches across the width of the room. In the middle, at about hip height is a single small rectangular aperture with a hinged flap propped open. A plug of straw-coloured STUFF seems to have been squeezed out through the hole, extruded, swelling, as if pushed by a tremendous pressure of more STUFF behind the wall. The “stuff” seems to be a mixture of hay or grasses and seeds and vegetative debris. Bits of it have fallen on the floor and lie beneath. It reminds me of Ralph Rugoff’s writing in the catalogue for The Serpentine Gallery’s exhibition, The Greenhouse Effect, of “a dreamlike sense that the building itself is no longer an impervious container, but has become porous, unable to prevent the “nature” surrounding it – the chaos of uncontrolled and unwanted growths – from invading its immaculate preserve”.*

In the second part of Whistler’s show a different atmosphere prevails. Her second room across the corridor is light and airy and a circle of 7 plinths and stands are placed in pools of light in the centre of the room. A green ribbon “ties” a book placed on the floor to a window high up on the wall, open to the sky. A tangle of gold wire in the centre of the room sends out long tendrils to each of the plinths where Whistler has placed her series of altered wildflower books, “Meadowbooks”. For these works she has referred to many sources, exploring wildflower names and uses, myths, magic and medicines, “Enchantments for Spring”, “A Charm for Journeys”, old wives tales, poems and fairy stories. From each strand of wire stretching from the central tangle she has painstakingly twisted flower names into the tendrils of gold which now entwine themselves into and around the books on the plinths, sometimes almost smothering them, sometimes reaching beyond the book towards the ceiling, like bindweed or beanstalks.

The breadth and depth of Whistler’s work can not be appreciated in a fleeting visit; it requires an investment of time to engage with her instructional video which will guide you through a process of looking and listening, touching and exploring, reading and learning. It requires some physical commitment to lie on the floor and explore the images and texts she has positioned underneath some of the book stands. It requires an interaction with the artist herself as she invigilates or “watches over” her work and as she offers gifts of seeds and elderflower cordial and tiny envelopes with a hand written message inside which mimics the golden wire: “Listen to air, after this moment in here, go outside, find earth, some grass, lie down, look up to the sky, feel the air on your face, let go of time...”

There are challenges regarding the siting of the exhibition in a performance room with the associated clutter of stage lights and wiring which threatens to undermine the simplicity of the work and makes me cry out for a more sympathetic environment in which to enjoy it. But whatever the difficulties, there is no denying that this exhibition represents an honest attempt to share a deep and meaningful experience of a place where Whistler is at home. You can expect no slickness here, no well worn art pathway or formulaic art product, instead you will find an exploration of how an individual who has spent a life time engaged in the arts can re-invent and renew her creative practice in order to share a precious experience in a new way.

*Ralph Rugoff & Lisa Corrin, The Greenhouse Effect, London, The Serpentine Gallery, 2000