John Berger, art critic, intellectual and novelist, has a parable about mice. A man systematically traps and removes them from his house, releasing them unhurt in a field, but as he lets the last one go he feels disappointment. “He had been hoping to see, one more time in his life, a prisoner fly, a prisoner realize his dream of freedom. ”.
(Norfolk Hawker: red listed species with Biodiversity Action Plan)
Freedom, it turns out, has been cost-benefit analysed by economists. Three hundred quid, apparently, is the worth of what I do refracted and rationalised through the spreadsheets of economists. We’ve known for ages now that ecological services underpin the economy to a huge degree, bees for example and their pollination (without which, we’re screwed, and we don’t seem to be unscrewing ourselves any time soon), but now we have a figure, not only for such services but for its psychological effects too. £300 for your mental wellbeing. It doesn’t sound a lot. It sounds rather expendable. Now we have a value, next we can look forward to the boom market. Then the crash. Imagine nature as an asset stripped, recession-struck waste land. Joseph Stalin, say hello the Aral Sea; Chairman Mao, greet my good friend the Tree Sparrow. His sparrowcide was a spectacularly horrible footshooting: the crops failed, harvests decimated and his people starved in the millions. At least Britain has form at fighting against the manipulation of nature for economic reasons. See the mass revulsion at the proposed Forestry Commission sell-off, that lead to a government U-turn. See similar forces at work in the proposed Badger cull. A green economy would of course be a wonderful thing, but what if the numbers go wrong?
Art doesn’t save the environment, people do. Art’s role is different. Art, good art, doesn’t proselytize, but provokes: showing why and the way to new thoughts, not telling how. Good galleries are complicit in this: Smiths Row, Bury St Edmunds, is one such place. A cavernous space in the Market Cross, an old town centre Georgian building, is an oasis from the heat, dust, grime and crowds of the town’s streets. Against a white washed wall, a flock of birds hang, splashed across a three hundred strong swathe of tiles. Stylised and innocently drawn, the birds’ colours are punchy primary reds and yellows, balanced with blacks, green and browns, and dull blues. Taken singularly they don’t stretch much beyond a naïve charm, but ‘in flock’ they’re almost overwhelming; the overlapping edges of individual paintings creates a patchwork type effect, that integrates all the images together. You can take your own meaning of course, I claim no great insight, but for me it’s a wonderfully vivid depiction of how enmeshed the global avifauna is, as well as its beauty and mystery. Take a moment to admire it from the quiet corner in which it restlessly sits.
(Copyright: Rosie Grieve/Smiths Row Gallery)
The opposite wall showed the dichotomy of art. Spread across small slips of paper pinned to the wall, were the stylised tattoo designs of the Ultimate Holding Company. From the obvious Golden and White-tailed Eagle designs, to the esoteric Mole Cricket, tattooing in the name of conservation is not only a very clever idea but a brilliantly original way of bonding person with animal. It’s another one of those all too often occurrences of things I wish I’d found out about; that Scottish Crossbill tattoo (perhaps a play on the traditional Scottish cross tattoo?) would’ve looked good on my arm. Would’ve doubled as a constant reminder to get back to Abernethy, too. There’s more to it than these two works, but they were the standouts for me. I haven’t mentioned the soundscapes, the additional paintings, the touch responsive flower (no really)…
(Copyright: Rosie Grieve/Smiths Row Gallery)
Art goes where photography can’t. Photographs are an everlasting portrait of a moment, art transcends that: the camera might never lie, but the paintbrush or pen tells us more.
I’m not alone in favouring art as a tool for conservation, see The Ghosts of Gone Birds phenomenon, Kurt Jackson taking Cornish hedgerows to the high art establishment, and the proliferation of art inspired nature writing. Where once a book might have been inspired by a series of statistics on the dimensions of a Yellowhammer nest, now we have authors expanding on John Clare, who got there first in a 19th century poem.
It’s a wonderful thing.
“The aesthetic emotion we feel before a man-made object … is a derivative of the emotion we feel before nature” John Berger (The White Bird)
[Smiths Row Gallery: http://www.smithsrow.org/
Is located in Bury St Edmunds town centre, and can be incorporated as part of a day trip to Lackford lakes, West Stow CP, Cavenham Heath, Thetford Forest and Lakenheath Fen. The exhibition runs until Saturday the 2nd of July. On Thursday the 23rd of June, Adrian Parr from the British Dragonfly Society will be doing a free talk, starting at 1:15.pm]