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Birmingham-born artist John Newling (b. 1952) is a pioneer of public art with a social purpose. This major exhibition exemplifies his strong environmental proposition, whilst pushing at the boundaries of what defines art.
At the heart of Ikon’s exhibition is Dear Nature, a book published in 2018, comprising letters Newling wrote to nature every day for 81 days. The letters explore our relationship with the natural world – “part truth and reconciliation, part advocacy of an urgent need, part thoughts for future social ecologies”.
Recently Newling has produced Soil Books (2019), made with soil from his garden to embody the idea of the Anthropocene, our current geological age in which human impact is evident. He is determined to grasp “what is it to know that we have affected the effects of nature/our environment… you can trace our evolution to a point where we subdued nature, but to our own cost, because we will make ourselves extinct”.
The Soil Books are sculptures, derived from Newling’s everyday experience of walking from his house into his back garden, picking up leaves on the way: “It’s like a ritual, so that every leaf in those books – the language of the books – is from my garden.” The result is book-like stacks of panels of processed soil with the leaves, pressed and gilded, on the surfaces which are then stained with watercolour. The order of the books is crucial, indicating seasonal change, and once again conveying the artist’s preoccupation with physical transformation.
Newling’s plea for a closer connection with, and greater understanding of, the natural world is evident in his 2016 development of a new alphabet based on leaves he found at Nymans, a National Trust garden in West Sussex. Pressed and photographed, he matched these plant forms to letters in the modern English alphabet. At Ikon, Nymans Language (2017) occurs in a grid of marble slabs on the floor and also exists as an officially registered downloadable font.
Newling’s exhibition extends beyond the gallery space, with further works sited nearby in the cherry trees in Oozells Square, Brindleyplace.
Six Lockdown Walks
During lockdown artist John Newling and writer Alys Fowler exchange letters on their daily walks, through residential areas and open spaces in Nottingham and Birmingham. Reflecting on the pattern language of these environs and their own behaviours, some happy accidents and moments of connection occur.
The exhibition is supported by the Ikon Investment Fund.