To mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which takes the climate as its theme, we speak to Natalie Field, a South African artist, activist and bio-surrealist. The climate’s central role in this century and ones to come makes this year’s Earth Day theme undoubtedly the event’s most important, and in this respect Field’s work and approach resonates strongly with what is needed now, making it especially relevant.
It took an existential crisis four years ago “to put things in perspective” for Field, causing her to “focus on what she had to offer as an artist and activist”. This has been the drive and motivation in her work and life ever since: to not only create art that addresses environmental issues but to also trigger “conversation around conservation”.
Field´s artistic expression is not only educated, poetic and intense, it also has a magnifying effect – a highly compelling way of bringing the viewer close up with “this infinite cycle of life”.
In other words, Natalie Field’s work celebrates our Earth and its greatest creation: Nature
Conversations around conservation
Which of these elements (space, air, fire, water, earth) would you choose in relation to your practice and/or yourself, and why?
Definitely Earth. I am a carbon-based life form living on a carbon-based planet, drawing inspiration from my surroundings to create.
My practice revolves around deconstructing Nature, capturing botanical, entomological and zoological elements to reconstruct images that reveal the interconnectedness of all matter on Earth.
Is there a particular situation you can remember that inspired you to become an artist?
I have always expressed myself through art, but I didn’t fully answer the call to be an artist until I experienced an existential crisis in early 2016.
That put things into perspective for me.
I realized then that life is a gift.
Every day an opportunity to experience the beauty of this incredible planet.
I wanted to live in the moment and spend more time in the wild places of the Earth.
And focus on what value I have to offer as an artist and activist.
This is what motivates me to create art around environmental issues and start conversations around conservation.
Perhaps now, with our planet experiencing an existential crisis due to COVID-19, we will see more people awaken to their true purpose.
Artist and activist Natalie Field
Life, the universe and everything
Do you consider yourself spiritual and how does this feed into your work?
I kickstarted this new artistic journey by attending an artist residency at the Arteles Creative Center in Finland in October 2016. I needed time process my mortality and began questioning my own beliefs about “life, the universe and everything”.
Through the series “Human.Nature”, I explored the mercurial and ephemeral nature of Nature through concepts around creation, evolution, metamorphosis and the transmigration of the soul.
After much contemplation, I don’t know if I would call myself spiritual, but I do believe there is an eternal energy that resonates through all the universe.
After all, the first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. In time, this energy that was once you will transmute to form new life.
To me, this continuation of the life-force is the transmigration of the soul.
My work celebrates this infinite cycle of life, a theme that has become prevalent throughout my projects.
Is there a book you are reading you want to share here with us?
I recently read Robyn Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass” and have been recommending it to everyone! Kimmerer combines her scientific views as a botanist with her indigenous knowledge as a Potawatomi woman to compile a beautifully written book that makes you want to go outside and reconnect with the gifts of Nature, whether it is in your garden or in the wilderness.
She shares her personal journey back to her roots as a member of the Potawatomi through anecdotal stories and curious revelations as she follows the connections between science and indigenous knowledge.
She gives me hope that we can live in harmony with our environment.
Aesthetics and Process aside, is there a certain emotion you want to trigger with your work?
To be honest, I don’t care what people feel when they look at my work, as long as they feel something. I know some of the work in the “Hole in your Soul” series, like “The Hunger that Devoured the World” triggered discomfort in people suffering from trypophobia.*
And I’m okay with that. These images are intended to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” (Finley Peter Dunne, 1902).
*Trypophobia is an aversion to the sight of irregular patterns or clusters of small holes or bumps.
But if I had to choose one emotion, it would be a longing, best described by the Portuguese word:
Saudade — the deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.
Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return.
If you could, what would you change in the art market?
Everyone has a story to tell. I think that due to expensive submission fees to awards, shows and residencies; we don’t always get to experience stories and art from talent in developing countries (like my own).
I am fortunate to be financially able to enter select applications, but I know that there are many in my country of South Africa who would never be in a position to afford those fees. Consequently, their stories go untold.
Perhaps fees could be reduced or dropped for those countries so that we can have more equal representation in the art world.
The gardens wild specimen
Please tell us what you are currently working on!
My plans for 2020 were to focus on completing my current project, Merkaba: Vehicle of Light, a study of the species and ecology in a 1 km radius around my house in Johannesburg.
During this site-specific project, sustainably collected specimen are photographed in studio against a clean background, isolating them from the context of their environment.
These neatly classified specimen will be of scientific “value” for their documentation of the biodiversity of the area and will accompany the printed works to make it educational for the public as well.
However, by deconstructing the ecology of the landscape, I begin to question our perception of the natural world, mimicking our experience of nature as commodity and resource removed from its “natural environment”.
Inspired by observation and discovery, the isolated objects are reunited and transformed into hyper collages that illustrate the connections between fauna and flora and the cataclysmic implications of the loss of biodiversity; not only for humans, but for the Natural World.
Even now, under complete lockdown by order of the government as they try to contain COVID-19, I continue this important work by photographing wild specimen in my garden (like birds, insects and fungi) and sharing the data with the iNaturalist community in support of the Half-Earth Project.
I am thankful that I had two major exhibitions last year and had not invested anything into 2020 as yet.
But I am looking forward to seeing many great exhibitions online this year as the art world goes virtual.
The future is .. ?
…anything we want it to be.
We find ourselves in a unique liminal space.
Our actions have led to this moment.
We pushed the Earth to the limits of human consumption, took everything we could from it without giving of ourselves in return, until something finally broke.
Throughout 2019, activists (including myself) have been calling for government, public sector and individuals to take drastic action in the face of the climate crisis and 6th mass extinction.
It turns out it is not impossible for us to change our habits.
If only we could take this drastic action in support of the climate crisis.
We need to come out of this knowing that it can be done.
We can change.
We must use this time to reimagine the world we live in.
There has never been a greater opportunity for a new beginning.
Natalie Field, Beneath the Surface, 2019,
10/10 + 2AP, 840 x 840 mm, Ilford Textured Silk
Header Photo: Natalie Field, Beneath the Surface, 2019, 10/10 + 2AP, 840 x 840 mm, Ilford Textured Silk
Author: Esther Harrison