Texts written by human beings are mediated, manipulated and framed by the subjective opinions, motives or time and space constraints of those who write them. They give the writer power to transmit and preserve their thoughts, influence others, veil the truth, or exclude those who cannot read or write. But the texts that nature writes on the surface of the Earth tell eternal truths that are accessible to all. This is the central theme of Helen Teede’s first solo show in Dubai, “The Material Presence of the Past”.
For the past few years the artist from Zimbabwe has been working with human texts to investigate the relationship between writing and power. But a recent trip with the Geological Society of Zimbabwe inspired her to explore the landscape of her country to look for texts inscribed by nature, and she found writings in fossilised dinosaur footprints, the bark of trees, in rocks and stones, in the striations on the skeleton of a hippopotamus and the rivulets made in sand by the wind.
By juxtaposing these writings of nature with texts derived from art, science, literature and philosophy, the artist invites viewers to contemplate their own relationship with writing, power, surfaces and objects, and to think about the ephemeral presence of human beings and the marks we leave behind on our environment.
“The geological trip took me deep into the Bush in an area in northern Zimbabwe where you can find hundreds of dinosaur footprints and skeletons. I saw how geologists can read the Earth’s surface and find detailed stories in fossils, rocks and topography. I also realised that although I do not have that scientific knowledge, I can still intuitively read something from these texts in nature and find stories that are rich, layered and fascinating. These texts allow me to traverse time, bringing the past — going as far back as 160 million years — into the present, and they make me intensely aware of my own fleeting and insignificant presence in the world,” Teede says.
The artist began this body of work by using graphite powder to create a series of rubbings of dinosaur footprints on fabric. “Seeing the footprints made me imagine the entire scene of dinosaur families walking around much more vividly than I could have ever done reading a book. So these traces are like a bridge between reality and text that indicate how marks made on the surface of the Earth can tell stories about human history,” she says.
In another work, “Tree of Life”, Teede has presented pieces of bark from a dead baobab tree. Written on the barks and on the canvas are verses from a poem by the artist. “These trees can live for 3,000 years and they protect and sustain the wildlife in the area by storing water and providing shelter. But today these trees are being uprooted for transplantation in other areas as tourist attractions, and often do not survive.
“The peeling bark of this dead tree looked like the pages of a book on which is embedded the history that it must have witnessed. My poem is a tribute to the tree and a lament about human greed; but I deliberately blurred the words to highlight nature’s text on the bark, and the looming danger of losing these stories,” she says. “The work also plays on the idea of trees being destroyed to create paper for writing.”
Similar ideas are expressed in “Bone Book” featuring the rib cage of a hippopotamus that Teede found in a dry river bed. In a striking juxtaposition of human and natural texts, she has carefully written on the bones an extract on extinction from Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and part of a short story by Samuel Beckett about ugly human behaviour. To add to the irony, she has used recycled engine oil — a fossil fuel that is running out — to write the texts.
In other works titled “Imaginarium of the Past” Teede comments on the impact of human beings on the environment through paintings based on geological findings of an ancient fish species and collages featuring oysters — an ancient species that was once abundant and is now threatened.
Her search for texts in nature also inspired Teede to look more deeply at natural objects that she has been collecting over the years. She has tried to convey the energy she can feel in her collection of stones in a series of paintings titled “Bleeding Stones”. And in another series, she has arranged various objects such as barks, shells, seed pods, animal bones, baboon teeth, feathers, dried flowers, porcupine quills and bird and wasp nests in glass cabinets.
“I have been collecting such objects all my life, but now I can see that they are palimpsests with their histories embedded in the marks on their surfaces. And I want to share these stories with others. I have arranged them on a canvas bearing an old painting of a cliff, which thus has a history of its own. And I have covered the canvas with a text about the role objects play in our life, which has been blurred to convey the sense of the obscurity of texts versus the solidity of objects,” she says.
Teede once again used graphite powder to create a final set of works titled “Landwritten”. “I wanted the wind and water to make these paintings. So I opened the doors and windows of my studio, allowing the breeze to blow graphite powder over a canvas covered with water to create these ever changing swirling patterns. I see this as a reminder that while humans write texts to preserve them, the wind continuously writes and rewrites new stories on the surface of the Earth,” she says.
“The Material Presence of the Past” will run at Showcase Gallery, Al Quoz, until January 16, 2016.