This week I went to Duke’s Auctioneers Gallery at Brewery Square in Dorchester to see ‘Exchange.’ A powerful exhibition celebrating the work of three organic farms in West Dorset, by artist Chris Drury and writer Kay Syrad. The focus of their work is a book, of words from Syrad and the farmers they collaborated with, and prints of grassland plants by Drury. The original book is on display in a glass case, open to show one double page, there are more prints framed on the walls, and a paperback copy is available to read.
It’s a wonderful piece of prose-poetry based on the words of farmers, descriptions of the land, and poetry by Wendell Berry. The book tells the story of farmers Will and Pam Best at Manor Farm in Godmanstone, John and S-J Morris at Huish Farm and Chris and Suzanne Legg at Dollens Farm, both in Sydling St Nicholas. They were pioneers of organic farming in Dorset and explain their reasons for adopting it and the benefits they have experienced. There is a chapter devoted to each farm and each page is usually a separate section, describing a day’s tasks on the farm for example, or how to lay a hedge, yet there is a rhythm that runs through the whole piece which keeps you reading and is very satisfying.
The artist Chris Drury buried a hundred sheets of cartridge paper on Dollens Farm and left them for eighteen months, to absorb the minerals and micro-organisms of the land as it was farmed. He also surveyed a cubit of land on the farm and recorded the types of grass and plant that he found there. He scanned each of the plants and printed them onto acetate, then pressed the images into the cartridge paper while the ink was still wet. As I looked, I wasn’t sure how it had been done. The result is a strangely digitised drawing, as though the plant has been catalogued, which of course it has.
I was conscious of the fact that this touring exhibition is just one manifestation of the project. One way of demonstrating the art, not a straightforward display of a series of art objects. The prints are a visual version of the act of exploring the farm in great detail. There are other visual equivalents for processes elsewhere in the show. Huge canvas wall hangings printed with heroic black and white photographs of the farmers from the book make sure that they are firmly represented in the gallery as well as on the page. The photographs have been printed over many layers of text from their own words, until a dense texture is created that gives the images the look of a woven tapestry. They represent, I think, the written side of the work. Poetry created by weaving together words from different sources, which is not only how it was written, but also how it feels to read it.
The project was commissioned by Cape Farewell, a not for profit organisation that uses art to change attitudes towards climate change. Their Rural Artists in Residence programme explores organic farming in the South West, in order to encourage sustainable agriculture and food consumption. As this is a touring exhibition, visiting my home town, what difference did the location make to the experience? I think seeing it in Dorchester made me feel particularly connected to the area and the land that was being talked about, maybe more aware of it as a place of work than I was before, and very impressed by the achievements and vision of these local people. Seeing it in Dorchester made it more personal to me, and in the context of the wider project, by rooting issues of global warming and food sustainability in West Dorset, it made me feel empowered to follow their example. What we do out here does matter and we share in the responsibility to make things better.
The exhibition runs until 31 August 2016 at Dukes Auctioneers Gallery in Brewery Square www.facebook.com/dukesauctions
‘Exchange’ the paperback book is available at www.littletoller.co.uk