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Exhibition Review: Olafur Eliasson's 'The Forked Forest Path' at Fabrica Gallery

A wander through Olafur Eliasson's 'The Forked Forest Path', finding reflection as much as immersion.
Exhibition Review: Olafur Eliasson's 'The Forked Forest Path' at Fabrica Gallery

After discovering that Fabrica were about to open their doors and exhibit Olafur Eliasson’s ‘The Forked Forest Path’, I knew that I had to go and pay them a long- overdue visit. Having been blown away by more immersive installations at Fabrica before (Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva’s ‘Fragility’ and Michelangelo Pistoletto’s ‘The Third Paradise’), I was captured by the promotional shots and couldn’t wait to compare all of my recent explorations into local woods, with something more conceptual and man-made. I thought of Chris Drury’s woven shelters and outside pieces and wondered how bringing nature indoors would feel, having only seen the likes of Richard Long and Giuseppe Penone situated within white-washed walls in the past.

My sister and I caught the train on a sweltering early June morning last weekend, excited to be leaving our hometown and sharing this visit together. It didn’t take us long to wander into the North Laines and realising that Brighton took a while longer to arise than us skylark sisters, aimlessly traversing the colourful shopfronts as everything seemed to yawn and stretch its way slowly open. Stumbling into one of the only open shops at the time, we were instantly sprayed with some form of hand sanitiser, myself holding out my hands more in shock at what was happening - I hadn’t consented to this product being misted onto my skin. I felt uncomfortable, my hands absorbing the liquid and my mind self-flagellating that I hadn’t retorted or at least stopped to ask what the product was. We left fairly soon after and winded around the South Laines, eventually turning the corner onto Duke Street to see the wooden doors of Fabrica held open. We waited to be welcomed in by one of the staff, told to sanitise our hands and register our details at a gloomily-lit table, where another staff member recorded everything into a MacBook; all of these formalities and awkwardness not being a part of my experience there before - often wondering straight in to the work on show. Feeling as though I was signing-off my life in some sort of strange exchange to enter an unknown land, we were then plummeted immediately into a dark tunnel of trees.

Olafur Eliasson's 'The Forked Forest Path'

At once we were engulfed - it wasn’t a slow introduction; artificial light and sunbeams took their turns at creeping through the gaps in the branches, creating beautiful dappled shadows and trails that lit-up darker paths. What struck me at once was the muskiness - not the same damp, earthy smell of the woods that I had acquainted myself with; the inhale of chlorophyll air and mulch far away, perhaps evaporating out from the tops of the cut trees here, that reached up at a plastic mesh above us and the church beams farther ahead. Added to this, was my inability to inhale properly in the first place, thanks to the fabric mask tied onto my face - not a usual part of walking the forest path. It was also an instant jarring, being surrounded by trees that had no roots - propped up on the cement floor, this was a forest that once was, but was no longer - each turn in the path towards darker nooks and shadowy corners were bereft of the unease I sometimes feel in true forests. Instead, I felt mostly overcome with sadness. It felt somewhat like puppetry - human hands controlling the path, and yet not without beauty in some strange way - this wasn’t so much about connecting with nature as much as connecting with human intervention in nature; not focusing on my connection to the earth but making me question more of what our hands are capable of. Where usually I would forage in amongst the trees, either looking for plants or fungi, I wasn’t able to do this here, which felt strange; my body yearned to connect on that deeper level as I pulled dried catkins off of twigs that crumbled between my fingers - they had already been taken.

Knowing there was a set path provided a sense of ease and safety, catching glimpses of my sister through the young trees and faint voices of other gallery visitors who were starting their walk behind me. Stories and folklore are full of tales about the forest, often around the subject of getting lost within the trees, but this didn’t apply here - I felt contained by the gallery outside of this work, which gave a security that isn’t present outdoors. Claustrophobia is something I have experienced many times in ancient woods. Sometimes no matter the markers you try to capture in your mind (a particular shaped branch, a fallen trunk etc) I have looked around me and felt the air being sucked out of my chest as I stand surrounded by emerald green pages and feeling completely lost and removed from a path. In the gallery, the path was laid out for me, and due to COVID we were not permitted to turn back on ourselves - this was one-way travel, pre-cut, pre-destined. It was an intense bodily experience - small twigs pulled at my hair and clothes like bony fingers and brittle nails, gently scratching across my arms and face; I was taking myself in and through but the work was touching me (as opposed to the general rules of artworks that do not permiss you to make contact, to touch), breaking through my boundaries and reaching at all the edges of my body. This was the opposite of my experience that morning, my body being accosted by over-enthusiastic young shop assistants now being the branches of the exhibit - this time, consensual. I was making a purposeful journey, one I had chosen to take - I was open to the experience. This is what the whole exhibition evoked in itself, of taking a journey - having to walk through - the only exits were ahead and behind, with no turning back.

What I struggled with was my habitual need to explore every part available and accessible to me (something I battle with in true forests and nature reserves, when I have to retrace my steps and check out the paths I might have missed) - when I met the fork in the path, I didn’t want to choose. I wanted both. I started by choosing the darker right-hand side, kneeling at times on the stone cold floor (where I was used to feeling dead leaves and twigs against my legs) to take some photos on my phone and eventually leading out to a brightly-lit opening that met with the glass window of the gallery - the exit. Not feeling ready, I listened for others and sensed that no-one else was close-by, and crept back in. I called out to my sister and she was close to finishing her side of the path (she had taken the opposite one) and we agreed to swap back over, us both then being able to experience the whole piece in its entirety. I realised afterwards that this lent a very different experience of the work - where we had been asked to make a choice, we had overriden this (I like to think Nick Hayes would feel proud) but instead of leaving with unknowing, of leaving a part of this piece behind that we hadn’t seen, we had instead taken it all in. What could be seen as a product of consumption was to me, my deep desire to explore - not wanting to leave parts ‘untouched’, but of course in reflection that is what is necessary for the woods to regain their wildness - we must leave some of it completely untrodden. The more I listen to indigenous voices (most recently, Robin Wall Kimmerer) it is clear that humans do have a place within nature - we are a part of the ecosystem, and not separate. We are meant to intervene, to tread on the forest floor, but gently and in balance - like learning how to burn small areas of woods back, or gathering plants in small quantities, for new life to emerge. There is a symbiosis that is missing from most conversations around the environment, something that Farmer Rishi has pricked my ears up about recently. Though it is clear that the saplings used for this exhibit were carefully and locally sourced, it was explained in the accompanying film for the exhibition that these were to protect young oaks to grow, and I would have been interested to know what the oaks were being used for, by extension - for our own consumption, or to increase biodiversity, to give more trees to the earth? I hope for the latter. As I walked around the alternative path, it became a yin-yang of the previous trail - starting lighter and ending darker. The symbology of this weaving of light and dark, with humans and the earth, was hard to disregard.

Liz Whitehead (Director at Fabrica) touched on the fact that the ex-church gallery space was a welcome alternative to the typical white-painted one, and I agree - the wooden beams above us being made of the same material we were being led through in this work. I picked up a back issue of Weird Walk after visiting the exhibition, and in it Lily Doble says:

"I think people are trying to find something more wild, instinctive and trustworthy; a spirituality growing from the ground, rather than a hovering above the clouds".

This has stayed with me since reading it. We can go to the woods to seek solace, to get lost, to ask questions, to tend to the land or to forage for what we need, and the gallery setting itself framed the woods within a literal church. This all felt like a middle ground, like literally walking to an intersection; not simply sitting back and absorbing or taking an experience from nature, but encouraging further thought and questioning - namely, how we connect, and how we can connect better. Through raising questions I hope that it then increases the chances of others going out of that heavy glass exit door of Fabrica and mulling over their own relationships with nature - perhaps seeking out a few rooted trees in the wild to truly experience the smell of the waxy leaves, the rough bark, the earthy undergrowth, the insects and birds that live within them, and the cool shade that they provide - building more gratitude and forging a deeper bond, over time.

Olafur Eliasson's 'The Forked Forest Path'

It seemed that what was trying to be portrayed here was the urge to encourage others to care for and protect our woods, which of course is a vital part of our work as human beings on the earth. I don’t feel this installation brought nature into the city, or made it accessible for others who might not otherwise be able to access it, since it was something else entirely - this wasn’t living or breathing. But what it did forge was the very start of that connection journey, reminding me of the gravity of our actions, the way we interact with nature and what better ways we can make sure to take care of it, and others. This must include making land more accessible and widening the opportunities available for everyone to be able to experience the true forest - the fork in the path could symbolise those very thoughts themselves (for how can any of us care for the woods, if we are so often met with the denial of access in the first place?). Rishi’s incredible post last week got me questioning so many things, but especially the idea of nature not being this external ‘other’, outside thing - that we are nature itself; that we are the Earth - for how can we learn to care for things we cannot grasp, that seem so far away? If we integrate ourselves into this conversation, then our own bodies become the very earth - so in that sense, we are just as earthly as the woods, and deserve just as much care. The narrative is often one or the other - to focus in on caring for nature or caring for ourselves - but they are one and the same thing. The path is just the start of this journey into the woods, into us.

'The Forked Forest Path' is Fabrica's current exhibition, which closes on 20th June 2021. It is free to attend, but donations are welcome. See the Fabrica site for full details. You can find my sister, Em, writing and sharing over @grittrack on Instagram. Know someone who might enjoy a few minutes of nature writing emailed once a week to their inbox? Please share Creaturely with them!