Monday, 16 September 2013

Alec Finlay's Propagator (the artwork I have seen recently that I liked the most)

Propagator, a work by Alec Finlay that highlights the poetic nature of art, life and sculpture, sits unobtrusively next to the high, curved brick lines of a walled garden at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Contemplating a willow tree, the work is housed in a greenhouse overlooking a lawn that stretches towards the undulating hills of the West Yorkshire countryside, striped with wavy lines as though someone has drawn a comb across them.
In the greenhouse – a place designed to concentrate light and warmth where time and its effects take on a different, accelerated quality – sit a series of artworks based around the art form of mesoteric poems. This way of writing takes its inspiration from a basic structure of nature, the tree, with the poem's name comprising the stem or trunk and words extending outwards like branches. Named after plants, and thereby reducing the essential nature of plants to poetry, Finlay's poems are succinct enough to fit on plaques similar to those used to distinguish between seedlings in cottage gardens: easy to miss but warranting a closer look.
Propagator was undertaken during Finlay's residency 'Avant-garde English landscape' at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and offers a new take on his work in the field of publishing, where he explores ways of finding and communicating meaning. In Propagator meaning is both textual and visual, threaded through the stem and around the name of each poem to conjure a recognisable sense of the plant and its context from the combination of constituent letters which make up its title. Plants are both described literally and by their metaphoric qualities, with the poems taking on the characteristics of the plants they are describing. In the neat conciseness of Tansy, no letter is out of place: 'Threads And buttoNs Sewn neatlY'. Others are humorous, as in the knowing onomatopoeia of wheat, 'Where tHe aliEns leAve signaTures'; humour is also used to great effect when Hop is described as 'Heads cOuld drooP'. Sometimes the plant's natural qualities are united with manmade, common experience. Sea kale is visually linked with 'dereK jArman's shingLe gardEn', a place of pilgrimage for fans of Jarman's art and films, and the soporific properties of Valeriana gain a new association with bedtime listening and the unobtrusive background company of 'Vague rAdio pLays'.
Finlay's mesoteric poems also exhort gentle suggestions and instructions about how these flowers can be encountered and experienced, subverting our expectations and casting these common plants in a new light. The reader is told that 'WinDs cArry the cottoN threaDs' of dandelions, making the viewer turn their head to the sky in the hope that they can 'pIck One Now'. Lichen, it is suggested, 'greyLy Clings Hold thE skyliNe', a poetic juxtaposition which elevates the plant from its lowly reputation. Propagator is a humble installation, but one that fits closely with its environment and effectively brings out the simple beauty and meaning in what is around it, and around us, every day.

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