Despite the Arts Council taking responsibility for museums in 2011, no real strategic push for integrated adventures with contemporary art has been evident. Initiative comes instead from commissioning bodies and individual venues like the Great North Museum: Hancock, hosts of the present exhibition.
Rob and Harriet Fraser are a photographer-writer duo who immerse themselves in multi-faceted encounters with the natural world; slowed down and marinated until the textures of bigger things are revealed.
The Long View is a great example. This elegant and open-ended project takes as its starting point a deceptively simple concept: seven lone trees in disparate locations, standing initially for nothing very much and nowhere in particular, but eventually interconnecting with everywhere and everything. For this exhibition, another seven in Newcastle have been added.
Seven is a number with mythic powers in many world traditions, and connects to the ‘chakras’ of bodily energy balance, here perhaps inviting questions about the health of the planet.
The modest two walls of this show then suddenly become a window onto the rest of the world. What initially appears as a display of photographs and texts is in fact a skilfully self-curated journey through poetry, research, community engagement, printmaking, storying, expeditions, place-philosophy, imagery, meditation and environmental concerns.
Rob’s immaculate photographs range from monochrome traceries mounted like archive drawings, to huge colour tree-portraits with ambiguous hovering viewpoints that seem to sense the very curvature of the earth.
Harriet’s thought-cloud journal musings, spare, haiku-inspired poems and silkscreened word-art pieces are interspersed with factual captions and titles etched on blocks cut from the relevant species. There are dates, altitudes and coordinates, but no botanical names – these are exercises in navigating inner and outer spaces, not laboratory deconstructions.
The most interesting part of this work is where the pair have found a closer fusion of their respective practices, with temporary ‘colour transformation’ interventions at the seven Cumbrian trees, documented in a variety of media and set alongside elements of a ‘walking art’ practice.
With lifespans that are comparable to a human’s, yet often extending way beyond, trees are one of our readiest ways of accessing the past and future. We mark their ringed witnessing of our ancestors, plant them as memorials for our grandchildren, and anthropomorphise their limbs and seasonal mood-shifts. The Long View takes this a step further, by isolating the experience of ‘unremarkable’ individual specimens, paradoxically making them more remarkable as a result. Intelligent sampling in this way may give us a better handle on the ‘big picture’ than trying to suck in as much data as possible. Like the tragic Syrian boy washed up at Bodrum who became a graspable symbol of the refugee crisis, a single tree might speak for the world’s forests and their perils.
Ultimately therefore perhaps The Long View is a morality meditation. Like the chakras, its seven trees offer a kind of cultural acupuncture: pinpoints of a stimulus that should awaken and invigorate our entire sensibility.
The Long View, Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle upon Tyne.
20 January – 4 March 2018.
Rob and Harriet Fraser will be giving a talk to accompany The Long View on Tuesday 20 February (6-8pm) at Great North Museum: Hancock. For more information, visit their website.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.