From Lucie Winterson: afterthoughts...

I came to Madre de Dios on 9 December 2015 and stayed till 8 January 2016   I arrived with the intention of experiencing a new nature.  Nature has always been at the core of my practice and I have many years of familiarity with certain British landscapes: north west Scotland, Devon, and east anglia.   I was, however, thrilled with the idea of turning this over and going to the other side of the globe and to a different terrain — the tropical rainforest, the greatest biodiversity of all.   The most pressing need I had was simply to be in the rainforest.  I wanted to feel it, get to know it, to have time for it to be imprinted on my psyche - and to allow that hoped-for engagement to generate thought and artistic practice.

I didn’t want to predict what I would do but laid out some plans and ideas just in case.   I knew I’d make cyanotypes of plants from the forest.  I’d envisioned this from home with anticipation.  I knew I would take photographs and with any luck work with local earth — and the rest, I would see.    

I had brought prepared cyanotype paper carefully sealed in light fast bags, I’d packed gum arabic to mix with earth so it would adhere to paper, I brought lots of drawing equipment, watercolours and  a good camera.   Along came, also, the good old laptop so as well as writing I could reel through the hundreds of photographs I knew I would take.  Actually it was in the thousands.

I couldn’t help taking photographs whenever I was astonished or amazed by something — which was very often indeed and this constitutes the main body of the work I did there — but I watched out for the point when taking photographs gets in the way of experience, when it becomes acquisitive rather than responsive.   Towards the end I walked in the forest with no camera, note book, or prop of any kind.

Most of my photographs are of looking into the forest at eye level, focusing into the distance to find the sense of the complexity and myriad variety of shape and form, light and shade.   It is different, obviously, from any forest I’ve seen because as well the general vertical tendancy of trees, branches, bromeliads and vines spread horizontally, crisscrossing diagonally and looping in curves.  

 With that and the extraordinary scale and radical shape variation of leaves there is a sense of sculpted space that I found endlessly fascinating and compelling.   Colour wise it is more uniform, the variations in tone coming from the changing light.  Sometimes when the sun is in a particular place and there is a gap in the canopy, light will come beaming down, lighting up just one small area or plant in a sudden incandescence.   And if the changing light wasn’t enough there is also the sudden rains, and the forest is lit up again, differently — leaves glistening and luminous, contrasting with the darkness of the sodden earth and bark.  

I also loved working with cyanotypes of plants from the rainforest, with a sense of experimentation and discovery, my paper running out too quickly.    There is such fine detail obtainable with cyanotypes, even tiny filigree root hairs becoming apparent.   They can also be strongly poetically charged.  The ones I was most pleased with were those where the plant or plants become quite abstract and morphed into a different kind of beings.   When there are two or more plants, it can suggest a dialogue between them but I also enjoyed the bold poetry of a single plant.    Also significant is the way in which the living plant is so directly registered.  It has touched the paper, lain on it, left a resonance, more than a trace.   It was a wonderful way to feel attuned to the forest and is a way of working I will be taking forward in other ways to other places.


I wanted to work with the rain — and this proved quite difficult.  Partly because due to El Niño it didn’t rain as much as usual, and because timing was complex - I wanted to do cyanotypes with rain, but managed only one that I kept.  I needed more paper, more time, more rain!   More satisfactory was mud coated onto paper, and then left in the rain, to register the marks of the rainfall.   However even this was limited.    It would pour, I would prepare the mud on paper which needed to be at a particular point of dampness before exposing it to the rain.  Then I would go out, and of course the rain would have stopped. This happened unaccountably and infuriatingly often.

I also gathered mud to experiment with.  I made small studies of oval shaped mud puddles — reminiscent of eggs or stones.  These dried over a period of several days on the floor of my room and insects crept and hopped out of the mud and over the paper leaving light traces and marks, or in some instances nibbling at the mud and making patterns that way.  I took this all as part of the rhythm and life of the finished sketch.    

On a few occasions I took puddles of paint or mud and left them out over night in the forest, hoping for some action, of insects or rain.   Only one was moderately successful.   The procedure itself was too frustrating in the given working circumstances — and on the whole they were either rained out or they dried too fast for anything to happen.

Later I began to have a lot of satisfaction with drawings of plants made with a pipette using earth from the forest mixed with gum arabic as a binder.    I drew plants I collected from the forest, engaging with them very directly — sometimes only looking at the plant and not even at the paper at all as I followed the form, tracing my seeing.   This helped make as direct connection as I could with the nature of the forest through the process of looking, feeling, drawing.

There was poetry too.  Early on when I’d lost my bearings and was somewhat lonely, my phone threw at me some John Clare poetry.    Phones do this sometimes — when you sit on them or they do ‘bag calls’.  It never feels quite random.   Out of nowhere my phone had got itself into the Kindle app and produced a poem!  It was a minor wonder as the deep communication the poem provided was just what I needed.   I decided I wanted to read John Clare to the rainforest. This early 19th century english poet of nature had suffered chronically due to the loss of the nature he knew, through the enclosures, landowners blocking off access to fields, woods and meadows.  I thought I’d take him through space and time to a different hemisphere via his poetry to an encounter with a tropical nature of now.  I found a way to do this and film it, in a watery area of forest.

And now I’m back but it still feels very recent.   Just three weeks ago I was there and it will take a while to process it all.  Having made a personal connection to this extraordinary place, I’m wondering how to apply this more widely.  I’m also thinking further of contexts including that of climate change, the impact of damage and loss.  I’m not there yet, but I’m beginning to shape the exhibition I intend to have and thinking of what else I will be doing going forward. 

My feeling is that encounters with all variety of nature in this increasingly globalised world whose biosphere is in crisis, are radical and precious and that the creative language which emerges, in whatever art form, needs to be spoken out loudly.

(written 01.02.2016)

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