Each month one of our Directors chooses an art.earth member to become ‘Artist of the Month’. What follows is a conversation with that artist, together with some examples of his or her work.
Sue Palmer is an artist and producer working across media and form, making things with people, places and nature, based in Frome, Somerset.
- Is there a project you are currently working on that you’d like to discuss (perhaps in relation to process, or materials, or subject matter, or showing context)?
Thank you for inviting me to be your September artist! A lot of my work over the past 20 years has circulated around nature: I’ve made moving image works about lost gardens, transient landscapes and about a blackbird that died after flying into my bedroom window, as well as live work, including a performance talk about humans and tigers. The project I’m working on now connects back to past projects, but is also new and distinctive in its form and content.
I’m currently touring a work that I made in collaboration with the London-based artist Sheila Ghelani called Common Salt. The piece has grown out of a previous project called Rambles With Nature that Sheila made in 2014, which looked at the hedgerow from different perspectives using different art forms. Sheila invited me to collaborate with her on one of the strands of that project, and we started talking about mutual interests – colonial histories, economy and nature. Sheila had found a book called The Great Hedge of India by Roy Moxham, about a hedge planted across India by the East India Company and the British Raj which was used as an Inland Customs Line to tax salt – a particularly cruel tax, associated with devastating famines. Evidence of that history had almost entirely disappeared – Roy Moxham had just found a reference to it in a footnote of a book. This disappearance and erasure of history interested both me and Sheila. We drew different research strands about nature and money together for an initial sharing to an invited audience in London back in 2014.
4 years and 13 funding applications later, we finally received Arts Council England support this year which enabled us to make the work, and tour it to museums, libraries and arts venues in London and the South West. It was a long wait, but we were determined to realise the work. Over the last few years, there has been a long overdue receptivity to critiquing colonial history, and a heightened awareness of the true impact of the British Empire; it now feels like Common Salt has found its place. It’s been very interesting taking the live work to museums, like the South London Botanic Institute that was established by Octavian Hume, a highly respected botanist and collector, who was also one of the Commissioners overseeing the building of the Great Hedge of India.
Common Salt is a ‘show and tell’ for around 15 people, seated around a table. On the table, we lay out a ‘home museum’ of objects and stories; of the Great Hedge of India, of borders, and collections, taking the audience through a 400 year maze of history from the 1600s to the 21st century. We start with two significant events: the first Enclosure Act and the beginning of the East India Company, and travel forward looking for evidence connecting colonial history and erased memory to contemporary narratives of global power, race and culture.
It’s been an interesting and powerful work to make. And, as it has been so long in development, Sheila and I have had the time to do the wider research, following up the threads and ideas, and focusing on this knotty complexity of how nature is implicated in economies; the tension of ‘natural capital’ is one such contemporary manifestation.
Common Salt is showing in Bristol Library on Thursday 13 September, then at Bside Festival on Portland on 15-16 September, and at Dartington Hall (the Ship Studio) on Friday 28 September [BOOK HERE], with performances at 6pm and 8pm. Also at the Wellcome Collection Reading Room in London, 4-5 October, and at Frome Museum, Somerset on 20 October.
I also run an experimental Art Club in Frome on the second Tuesday of the month inspired by an artist friend from Portland Oregon. It’s a drop in space, and I set an initial theme or process and then the only rule is make. I started it up as a way to create a regular visual art making space that is open and social.
And I’m involved in parks – I work in one part-time, organising public activities. For me they are the meeting point across species and culture! I did some international research in 2016 around participation in parks with a focus on social arts practices in urban green spaces. I visited some truly inspiring projects in Vancouver CA, Portland US and Berlin.
- Is there an artist you would like to be better or more widely known – because you feel they are important or influential for you, or because you think they have particular significance now?
There are so many artists whose work I find resonant for our times. I saw Holy Smoke by Ultimate Dancer (Louise Ahl) in 2016, and I felt like I’d been waiting to see work like that for a long time – it stayed with me in image and feeling and had an ecology to it that was very strong.
Ultimate Dancer have just made a new work for now we see through a mirror, darkly and I need to see that! Louise has worked with Jo Hellier on that piece, another artist of whom I’m a huge fan, whose work often focuses on processes and ecologies. https://www.johellier.com/
Also, Isobel Adderley who makes work in relation to processes of time and structure, including performance work in relation to ‘glacial erratics’, the movement of rocks. https://www.isobeladderley.com/
I also love Tim Spooner’s work around materials and nature – it needs to tour and be seen. https://www.artsadmin.co.uk/artists/tim-spooner
- Is there a project or publication you would like to share or highlight because it has particular relevance or importance for you as a maker in a wider context of pressures on the environment, climate change, economic inequality, or other themes you feel are relevant to art.earth as a family of artists and thinkers?
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book The Mushroom at The End Of The World is astonishing me at the moment. It’s about what remains, what grows in the ruins of capitalism. I’m only a fifth of the way in so can’t write too much about it, except to say the language, her research, her brilliant articulation about the time and place we find ourselves in is necessary and perceptive: assemblages, lifeways, precarity, noticing, polyphony, contaminated diversity, collaboration. I’ve been underlining most sentences. I can’t recommend it enough. https://press.princeton.edu/titles/10581.html
Sue Palmer August 2018