If you follow Tate Liverpool on Twitter or Facebook you are likely to have spotted a mention about environmental artist Kerry Morrison working in Liverpool. She has been commissioned to run a companion set of concurrent projects alongside the current ‘Turner Monet Twombly’ exhibition, collectively titled Our Liverpool Landscape: From Turner to Today.
I bicycled over to Everton Park after one of those tweets and meandered around that hilly green space for a while, not really knowing what or whom to look for. Which is probably the best way to come across Kerry’s work: spontaneously and (almost) by accident. So I’ll honestly admit that, if you are already intrigued and plan to go, you probably should stop reading now and go experience it for yourself.
I did spot Kerry Morrison – clad in white, sitting on a sun chair in the midst of a square field of un-mowed and freely growing grass talking to a couple with a dog. Also in the picture: Lowri Evans, sitting on a second sun chair, and a small garden wagon that has been turned into a make-shift table, complete with cloth, pink tea set and Battenberg cake. After a brief introduction (are you the people from the Tate?) we discussed the project over tea.
In principle Running Wild (no shortcuts) is quite simple: The gardeners of Princes Park, Everton Park and Springfield Park were instructed to let specific parts of the lawns grow freely, not cutting the grass short, allowing wild flowers to spring up unhindered. Kerry and Lowri, on that particular day, had been busy dividing the square patch into running lanes, hand-cutting grass along transects lines using shears. As people – there are several planned events with the local community, schools, and whoever else is interested – run or dance through the grass, the hooked seeds of the wildflowers will stick to their clothes or shoes and be transported across Liverpool. Kerry has prepared felt gaiters that participants can wear and which can either be handed on to be used in different parks, spreading the seeds from one to another, or ‘planted’ and watered to make the seeds sprout. All of Kerry’s projects aim to highlight the city as an interconnected ecosystem and try to challenge the notion that we are living separate from nature.
In practice there is a lot more to it, of course. There is the element of a live-action landscape painting to Running Wild (no shortcuts). An impression created on purpose: Kerry and Lowri aimed to contrast those three dead male landscape painters in the gallery with women; alive, purposely clothed, feminine: a reminder that women, too, work with landscape – but also that art is alive and happening here and right now. The white dresses also allow for interaction between the grass and the artists – as the two cut their marks through the grass the plants in turn leave marks on them. And, of course, the white clothes alongside the clearly staged and ‘odd’ situation attract people to the project, get them interested and act as a conversation starter.
Kerry self-characterises her work as ‘Performance Happenings’ – neither pure performance art nor a happening but drawing from both and based very strongly on communication (Kerry’s term: communicative practice). It is in those conversations that the project really comes to life: We are joined, at one point, by two (recovering) addicts – it’s the well-trained young dog they walk that draws them in, as does the tea and cake. After the initial questions, after explaining the idea of the seeds being carried across town, after examining the dog’s coat (Pippa happily runs circles through the uncut grass) and, eventually, discovering, much to the owner’s joy, that some seeds did stick – suddenly there are two people here who never really connected much with art in their life (they didn’t even know about Tate Liverpool’s existence) and who happily explore an artwork, the conceptual space of the project and the implications of it. They do grasp much of what it all is about, even if implicit; as they see me as part of the team they fix the impression of a landscape painting: my clothes don’t fit so I get to wear Kerry’s sunhat. There’s questions about who pays for all that, which leads to Kerry explaining that there’s not much money in being an artist – that it is so much more about life balance and doing things that are worthwhile (they don’t entirely agree), that the dresses came from e-bay, the tea set had been borrowed from a friend and the Battenberg cake bought in. She highlights the history of the park – how it used to be slums that were cleared in the 70s, how the planters then ran out of money and were only able to plant the trees, and all of the other plans for the park being abandoned. Now nearly all of the trees are about the same height giving the park, alongside its hilly structure, a quite odd and unusual appearance. When the two leave (Pippa continues to dart from one group to the other) they directly aim for a couple on a park bench, talking to them, likely, about the project: no matter whether they liked or disliked what they experienced, it gets them involved with the community, giving them a story to share. Others take a more reserved approach to what happens, standing at a distance, texting about what they’ve just seen, or just sitting in their cars (the uncut patch of grass in Everton Park is not far from the car park) overlooking the scene. Like the seeds spread through the gaiters, the ideas and thoughts created in response to Running Wild (no shortcuts) may spread further.
My own conversation with Kerry ranges from the advantages and disadvantages of writing in one’s second language to ideas for art projects to, briefly, touching on Outdoor Education, to how much easier it is for Kerry to work with Tate Liverpool and having someone else do all the publicity work, planning events and covering the administrative details of working with the schools involved in Running Wild (no shortcuts). Also, among plenty more topics, an exchange on the value of Dandelions: despite their image as a representation of all things weed – watch nearly any advert of weed killers and it is the dandelions that are killed – it is one of the most useful plants as nearly all of it is edible and, particularly, bees love it. Later, back home, it strikes me just how differently the plant is seen here in the UK from how I remember its television presence back in Germany. There it serves as the title for a popular children’s TV series Löwenzahn (Dandelions). The intro, as I remember it, depicts it as a symbol of resilience rather than annoyance. Kerry comes up, on the spot, with a marketing-like slogan to up its profile: ‘Big it up, don’t dig it up’ and Lowri Evans plans to use dandelions as part of one of her performance pieces in Manchester later this year.
Kerry is good at facilitating these conversations. It is all very democratic, her guiding the exploration of her art rather than prescribing meaning by simply answering questions and helping those that visit along. She revealed to me earlier that the Fluxus movement is one she’s quite fond of, even if she doesn’t see her own work as, necessarily, inspired by it. But there definitely is that aspect of openness about art and of (re-)introducing and involving people that aren’t visitors to traditional art venues and, of course, of creating artworks that are alive, interactive and that allow for chance – alongside, not least, that all important element of humour.
When I catch up with Kerry again on July 14th – this time in Princes Park – she’s joined by beekeeper Alan Southgate, clothed in Victorian-like attire and, unlike Lowri, with the simple role of just sitting in a sun chair while Kerry labours on, cutting the grass. His props include The Guardian newspaper and a copy of The Origin of Species the latter of which he is quite willing – in line with the theme of Victorian gentleman – to denounce. (Meanwhile, in the background, the Brouhaha Festival rages on.) Naturally the conversation this time returns to bees: Sylvia Plath’s amazing poems about them; Maurice Maeterlinck’s wonderfully poetic and bizarre The Life of the Bee (I highly recommend it! It’s out of copyright and available through Project Gutenberg); how Nobel prize winner Karl Frish decoded the bee’s waggle dance using just paper, pen and his legs as tools; how very few people actually have read Darwin (and Marx) but nearly everyone has an opinion on him – and that he, too, divided wild grass into square patches (to study what lives within a specific space). Here, in Princes Park, Kerry isn’t creating running lanes, but adds a single not quite circular transect to the equally not perfectly round ‘dance stage’ – as Kerry’s intervention is more anti-gardening than gardening (perfect shapes are not intended). Later on, and largely unnoticed by the surrounding crowds, Merseyside Dance Initiative dance through the grass (wearing felt on their arms). Like Kerry herself Merseyside Dance Initiative have a program of performances coming up across the various parks and, likewise, aim to get whoever is nearby involved.
Kerry also mentions to me that Springfield Park’s grass is the hardest to cut across the three sites; she and Lowri only managed to shape three running lanes there rather than the four in Everton Park. She also mentions how much cutting the transects felt like an act of destruction to both of them: that, after having given the grass and wildflowers freedom to just exist, they both were appreciative of the whole interrelated ecosystem that had sprung up and how, by now, animals depend on the continued existence of these uncut spaces. She also fills me in on one of her favourite encounters since we last spoke: Two local school children (from different schools) who are best friends (one supporting Everton the other Liverpool) coming across her in Everton Park, shouting ‘I know this!’ They recognized her from a presentation at schools before the project started out and they – alongside Lowri – ran through the grass three times. One of the two, at that project launch, set a snail on his Five Steps to Discover Nature booklet, which left a yellowish slime on it. The resulting combination of colours had reminded Lowri and Kerry of one of the images re-printed in the ‘Turner Monet Twombly’ book released alongside the Tate’s exhibition. His response an enthusiastic, when they showed him: ‘I’m an artist!’ and ‘can I be in that book now?’
Another of Kerry’s projects – Birdsheet Music, also part of Our Liverpool Landscape: From Turner to Today – embraces results ruled by randomness even more than Running Wild (no shortcuts) does: Kerry has been laying a blank musical score sheet under trees that birds roost in, in the hope that their droppings will yield a melody. This is a project she’d hoped to realise for nine years, but that she’s never been able to link in with any of her previous commissions. Now, working with Tate Liverpool, composer John Hering is at hand to interpret and arrange the melody which will be performed live October 19 as part of Liverpool’s Long Night. So far the only result is a single note on the 19 metre long score: There’s a chance that the whole performance will end up as almost complete unbroken silence – but even that would give rise to potential meaning: there would be an echo – this, my own interpretation – of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But as the project continues there’s still time for more notes to appear on the musical score. Kerry will exhibit the score sheet later this year at the Tate alongside a soundtrack of bird and natural sound recordings by sound artist Helmut Lemke. Birdsheet Music also involves, as becomes clear if you visit Kerry Morrison’s connected blog, conducting species inventories Species Inventories while bird watching.
Then there’s Sunset Seekers – which brings the community aspect of the whole combined project to the foreground: Kerry, this time clothed in bright orange and with performer Andrew Pollard, explores good vantage points to watch sunsets within the three parks, climbing up trees or structures if needed. As with Running Wild (no shortcuts) they aim to involve passers-by (and those on Twitter) by allowing them to join in and recommend good spots: Kerry aims to remind us all to appreciate the aesthetic aspect of nature around us, to look up, sometimes, not just down.
Finally, Counter Culture Nature, the fourth in the series, is a re-visit of a project that Kerry presented as part of the Independent Biennial in 2006: She bicycled around Liverpool trying to locate and categorize brownfield spaces. Now, six years later, she wants to re-visit them, see what happened to them. She’s looking for a team of volunteers to help her cover all 100 miles of Liverpool, each with a tree (to make it easy to identify them) attached to their bicycle and who, like her, are willing to engage in conversations with the people they encounter. Counter Culture Nature will begin in August; there’s a training day for volunteers on Monday July 23rd, 10-13:00 at Tate Liverpool. Contact Julia Spencer (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you want to get involved.
Our Liverpool Landscape: from Turner to Today runs from June 22nd 2012 to October 31st. You can find out more about Kerry Morrison through her webpage, follow her progress through the project blog and communicate with her through twitter: @kerrymorrison. Follow Tate Liverpool’s twitter or facebook for updates on where she performs next.