Lessons from Gaia: the Recognition and Hope of Nature within the Urban Setting

When SuperGlue Collective first asked me to write a piece on nature and art I was a little bit lost on where to start. So much art has been made about, with, from nature in the recent decades. Eco-art, environmental art, earth art. How do we define it? Is it decolonising? Is it historical? Is it attuned to the survival of our planet and the fear of climate change?

On a global scale, oceanic art has been gaining popularity in the eye of the public in symbiosis, perhaps, with the UN Ocean Decade 2020-2030. Here we find beautiful videos shot in the depth of oceans, often combined with digitised renditions – an art and technology parallel that’s very much in vogue. While artists working near and by the ocean have long had an acute interest for its magic, the amount of money allocated by sponsors and grants to these (expensive, to say the least) art projects has been steadily increasing as fears for the future of our planet and our oceans become more and more widespread.

Hand in hand with oceanic art, works from deserts, mountains, landscapes, have become deeply entrenched in our understanding of nature and art. Something, however, didn’t fit right with me. While the hidden treasures of our planet are fascinating, there has always been a part of me that can’t fully relate – perhaps it’s too breathtaking to remember when you wake up every morning hearing the sound of the motorway and the DLR.

So I began to search deeper in my experience of the relationship between art and nature: art as the man-made, nature as that around us. Here, I found questions that have been resurfacing all the more frequently in the past fews years: what of the nature that is in the city? What of the fact that we, too, are of nature? And who should we listen to – the Earth, or the humans?

It all boiled down to one big question: what can we learn from nature if we lean in and listen? To my great joy, two artists that I’ve got to know lately had been working with this very question: Anna Cherednikova and Abigail Burt.

Working together with nature, Anna through photography and Abigail through pottery, sculptures and collective art, their artistic practices feel like invitations not of fear and stress over the disaster of climate change, but of hope that perhaps nature will be the one to guide us on our way not only to save our planet, but also to save ourselves.

Anna Cherednikova, Unwanted, 2018. Photograph, 60 x 40cm, courtesy of the artist.

Anna Cherednikova is a Russian-Swedish photographer exploring weeds. Yes, that’s right, weeds. Beautiful portraits of weeds growing between cracks in asphalt, walls, boulevards. Her works beg us to listen, and to ask: what can we learn from weeds? Like the line from a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva, ‘what can a bush want from me, the one who has from the one who has not?’ (my translation), Anna’s work asks: what if the weeds are the ones that have, and we the ones that don’t? What can we learn from the plants we deem as unwanted?

Anna’s series Unwanted is inspired by her personal history of migration, adaptation and – this is my reading – survival. It’s a project that explores the relationship of the urban landscape and the wild plants that grow within it even though we fight for their extinction from our lawns, roads and pathways. What makes a plant a weed? And why are they seen as undesirable? She writes, ‘They resist strong winds and temperatures; we try to prevent them from growing both in gardens and in public spaces, but they resist and grow and bloom.’

There’s a reciprocal relationship between the weeds and the artist. If we actually look around us, really look, we find nature everywhere. Unwanted nature, perhaps, but valuable nonetheless if we care to see it. Valuable if you’re seeking solace, inspiration, or strength. What can we learn about survival and adaptation by looking at these amazing plants? Can we find hope that will help us through the day when we don’t feel like we’re welcomed?

Anna Cherednikova, Unwanted, 2018. Photographic series, 60 x 40cm, courtesy of the artist.

The Garden of Migrations takes a similar tone, exploring the new species that are formed by the movement of goods, people and animals. As we migrate, so do seeds, plants, seedlings. ‘Only 1 of 1000 among these species will survive in new conditions because of the difference in environment and climate’, Anna writes. Those that do are the most resistant and adaptable, some multiplying so fast that they become a problem for the local environment or agriculture. These are species that take over, but they are also a sign of the reciprocal relationship of humans and nature and how it can be both of harm and of good – and, without doubt, beautiful.

In a later series, How to Question a Plant? Anna explores the topic further. On one of the most expensive streets of Stockholm, she finds weeds growing between cobblestones and peaking out in between pavement cracks. She notes down their addresses, as if they, too, were residents of that street and marks them down on a map. Some she takes back to her studio, scanning them, questioning them. A metaphor, perhaps, for how much attention we could be giving them.

Abigail Burt, on the other hand, works with collective art making that invites a direct dialogue between humans and the Earth – or Gaia, as the earth is often referred to when it comes to theories and practices that build on the reciprocity of material and living beings of the earth.

Abigail’s Earth Vessels Series project began when she found clay discarded by builders who were digging out the foundations of a house in Camden, and were more than happy to give it away. After a long process of purifying the clay, she used it to make earth vessels – first big ones, then smaller ones. The result was a series of ongoing projects connecting the soil found underneath our feet, the soil that builds up the very foundation of London, with an audience of passersby, gallery goers and workshop participants.

Abigail writes, ‘in an act of reciprocity, I hope that the daily rituals will inspire a network of expanding gratitude’. Part of her Earth Vessels Series involved making a large-scale earth vessel placed outside. The vessel, whose shape grew ‘organically as a conversation between the artist and the Earth’, was acting as a receptor for Gaia. Abigail then invited passersby to take small clay tokens, make a wish, and place them in the vessel. With time, the vessel and the tokens would return to the soil in a ritual of giving your wishes to the earth – a wishing well for Gaia. As small children, teenagers and adults came together to ask Gaia to grant their wishes, they were invited to thank the Earth and to rely on her for their desires to come true.

A more recent part of the Earth Vessels Series goes further in reconnecting us with the Earth. Instead of the audience being the ones speaking, we are invited to listen in, to tune in to what it has to say – similarly to how Anna first drew inspiration from the weeds in Unwanted and then began to ask the weeds questions in How to Question a Plant, the locus of power moves from the audience or artist to nature in Abigail’s work, too.

For this project, Abigail created 40 small earth vessels from the clay that were then used in workshops (still ongoing, so keep an eye on her instagram @abigailiburt if you’d like to join!).

The workshop starts as a guided meditation with the smaller vessels acting as the object of focus, an object that came from the very soil under our feet and that represents Gaia. As participants meditate on the presence of the Earth within, around and underneath us, they are asked to place the vessels to their ears and listen to the sound it makes. When you place a shell to your ears, you hear the sea – when you place an earth vessel and feel the rough surface of the clay, you hear the land, the earth, Gaia.

Abigail tells me that many participants were grateful for this moment of silence and thought, for this pause from hectic life. Perhaps meditation is not for everyone, but when you have something very concrete to focus on, an earth vessel to listen to, it eases calming your thoughts.

Afterwards, participants are given an earth vessel to take home and invited to take some time to listen to it and remind themselves of the earth below their feet. Central to the Earth Vessels Series is this idea of reciprocity, of giving: from the giving of the clay to the artist to the giving of the vessels to the participants, but also giving the Earth our attention. In both projects, attention and imagination are an entry point into the reciprocal relationship we are invited to find with Gaia.

Abigail Burt, Earth Vessels Project II, 2020. Series of clay sculptures, courtesy of the artist.

Amongst artistic practices on nature, Anna Cherednikova’s and Abigail Burt’s work tell us something we hear all too rarely but that strikes a note of recognition and hope. Many of us live in cities, far from the grandiose ocean waves, sand dunes and mountain ranges we find in a lot of the eco-art that has been gaining attention. Nature feels quite distant, perhaps a place we’d like to escape to but in the every day it’s something we know we need to care about by recycling and changing our habits, something we’re willing to fight for politically.

As both these artists work tells us, there’s more to it. Nature is all around us: it’s in the weeds growing between cobblestones, in the fishbones on the shore of the Thames, in the planted palm trees in Peckham’s front gardens and in the clay dug out from foundations of the houses. All we need to do is pay attention, lean in and listen. Question a plant, put an earth vessel to your ear, or just look around you.

For the sake of climate change, for the sake of mother earth, for the sake of the world and our own lives, perhaps we should try to stop listening to our own voices and learn from the nature that surrounds us? What would we learn if we lean in, listen and trust Gaia?

Recommended reading: 

The work of Robin Wall Kimmerer has inspired both myself, and the work of Abigail and Anna. An environmental biologist, botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Kimmerer builds a dialogue with nature as a way of living, of listening, and of being – and a way to save the planet that builds on indigenous knowledge, reciprocity, and love. A great introduction to her work is found on the OnBeing podcast, available anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Maria Kruglyak is a part of the exciting new art journal Culturala, which looks at bringing a fresh perspective to the world of art criticism. Join the ranks by signing up to their newsletter and opening your eyes to a whole new world of art!

Follow both Anna Cherednikova and Abigail Burt on instagram

And for goodness sake,

keep. it. glued.

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