Alice McCabe’s beautiful tapestries weave millet, flowers, paper and wire together as a timely reminder of our dependency on nature and its residual energy to heal, writes Miriam Al Jamil.
A pub, wines and spirits merchant, language school, Chinese medicine and martial arts college, and now host to the Glass Cloud Gallery, the tall Victorian building on the corner of Drummond Street in north-west London is emblematic of the vivid and ever-evolving communities of the area. It is fitting that it is now one of the growing number of Window Galleries in many European and American cities which offer unique possibilities for artists to display their work. Using a standard commercial showcase for retail goods designed to entice the casual shopper inside, they are at the intersection of indoor and outdoor space, an intersection which is now transformed into a primarily creative transaction for artist and viewer independent of opening hours or curatorial oversight. The viewer remains outside and engages with individual art forms and installations normally constructed and seen in closely controlled gallery conditions. However, encouragement of business sponsorship and new opportunities for commissions are still essential components of these projects. Here, the bustling street life, noises of construction work and traffic, and the snatched conversations of passers-by constitue a backdrop for this interaction. The commerce of the city is reflected in the gallery windows and overlays its own synchronicity to the static but gradually changing natural forms of the artwork, as they react to the changing light and progress of time. We confront ourselves in the windows, not quite like the furtive voyeurs invoked in ‘The Hoerengracht’, an exhibition staged at the National Gallery in 2010 which examined a less innocent kind of window viewing. But we unavoidably weave our own transitory presence into the work on show here and add our own shades of meaning. The encounter may take place as a spontaneous brief pause within an entirely unrelated daily schedule, or may represent a planned trip to view the installation.
In this case, I went especially to see the display Fieldworks by Alice McCabe, which shares the venue’s large window spaces with painter and Glass Cloud director Hannah Luxton‘s In the Garden of the Sun. The original nineteenth-century deep brown and terracotta glazed tiles which surround the windows add a pleasing historical frame to the works, reminiscent of so many years of conviviality that defined the purpose of the building. McCabe describes herself as a flower artist and her floral work for galleries and events demonstrates her inventive and intuitive understanding of structure, design and colour. Nevertheless, Fieldworks draws on the wilder and perhaps more potent power of nature influenced by the philosophy of ‘inaction’ developed by Japanese ‘natural farmer’ Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008). He questioned the excessive interventions of farming practices and promoted trust in nature’s own ability to strengthen soil fertility and replenish crops. Fukuoko’s solutions are part of the debate which informs much of McCabe’s artistic practice. The display says something about the potential for healing and the residual energy of nature which, as current crisis conditions have shown, are even more essential for our survival.
McCabe’s display is a pleasing multi-textural design incorporating simple repurposed materials from other artists. Her work thus represents a network of friends and colleagues and the mutual support they value. It also conceals complex cultural associations which may or may not be apparent at first. Fieldworks consists of two large oval wire structures or ‘floral tapestries’ through which delicate dried plants and hanging paper tokens are woven. Tapestry is an art form dating back many hundreds of years, the best examples more prized by their wealthy owners than other ostensibly valuable possessions. It is often associated with female invention and industry, the subtle assertion of control by the mythical Penelope as she fended off suitors during the long absence of Odysseus, or the Romantic helplessness of the Lady of Shalott doomed to know the world only through the images she wove.
The connection of flowers and tapestry conjures vistas of folklore, feminine imagery and artistic symbolism. The first of McCabe’s tapestries presents a halo of millet sprays that fan out like a native American feathered headdress, but also suggests the traditional shape of a shield replicated across many different cultures. To complement archetypal feminine tropes, more martial masculine emblems of protection, defence, pride and inheritance are additional woven sub-texts. The millet plant itself has particular significance. Many farmers in countries struggling to adapt to climate change now grow millet to replace water-intensive grain crops as an eco-friendly alternative which adapts to the drier conditions. McCabe’s Fieldworks evokes both the wild grasses of untamed nature and the original grain crop adapted and farmed by man, the earliest settled human communities and the crises facing us all today.
Wild flowers, vivid purple dried statice and delicate bleached and faded rose buds add colour to the tapestries and mingle with the paper ‘badges’ or ‘tokens’ that festoon the structures, along with spiralling tracks of cut petal shapes which are each strung and tied to the wire. As McCabe suggests, they ‘insert a sense of distance from the floral material and reading of landscape, teasing our ability to understand nature and our representation of it’. They incorporate text and image and are cut from drawings and catalogues and the artist’s own photographs. Frustratingly many are not decipherable, but in some ways this is another layer of concealment and potential meaning. They might be drops under a microscope, teeming with the usually invisible cell and insect life that once astonished seventeenth-century scientists. They frame the second tapestry like the sequin fringe of a dancer’s dress, embodying the frozen movement and arrested seductive sway we imagine. They conjure up the miniature padlock love tokens which accumulated on Parisian bridges over the years or the more poignant night lights, flowers and mementoes that mark a site of mourning in our streets and city centres. As McCabe remarks, such roadside tributes are ‘collective’ and have evolved from ‘the roadside shrine to the roadside accident’. They often spread ‘without consideration of the whole’, random collections that evolve in a chaotic way but charged with emotion. The flowers fade and die, never removed from their cellophane shrouds. The knotted strands of twine that fill the gaps of McCabe’s second less crowded tapestry do not offer us any more clues or closure.
Before I leave, I look up to the top floor of the building and notice a stragggling shrub clinging to the ledge and hanging over the street, a precarious existence but also an eloquent feat of survival if ever we needed a metaphor. McCabe’s installation is a rich and satisfying work: it is a display of harvest from all the seasons, a reminder of the complexity of our relationship with nature and that we are all inextricably woven together, as we try to make sense of our strange and challenging world.
Alice McCabe’s Fieldworks will be shown at the Glass Cloud Gallery, Camden Peoples Theatre Windows until 19 October. Click here for more information. Follow Alice McCabe and see more of her work on Instagram @popsymag and @meta_fleur, as well as alicemccabe.com
Feature image is a detail from Ben Deakin’s photograph of Alice McCabe’s Fieldworks at the Glass Cloud Gallery, 2020.