Interview by Òscar Ramírez Dolcet for Tarragona Digital (English translation below).
For the full interview in Spanish click here.
In a few days, you will be arriving in Mèdol to present your performance. Tell us who Sarah Misselbrook is and what message she conveys to society through her art.
I am someone who has always felt very uncomfortable within a body, a body that can be ‘prescribed to’, that can consume, judge, be judged, take up space. I have used this discomfort to try to communicate how it feels to be more ‘ant’ than ‘human. To feel more ‘bird’, ‘soil’, ‘spider’ than ‘woman’, ‘person’, ‘individual’. I have a sense of urgency to try to communicate this to whoever is willing to view or listen. I want to explore boundaries and borders between my skin and the skin of the fig, between my bones and the skull of the animal, the relationship that my ‘self’ has with and within the natural environment. In the past (living and working in the city of Southampton in the UK, this urgency culminated in the making of artworks, sculptures and drawings that were presented as final art ‘objects’ with a value prescribed to them. They became a paradox of artistic value and consumerism, when trying to portray the eco-centric above the ego.
You were born in the United Kingdom but now reside in Riba-roja d’Ebre. What led to the change, and how has it changed you personally and artistically?
This is what has been a catalyst for change. I lived temporarily in Cyprus to study a Post-Grad in 2006, then I found Riba-roja d’Ebre. I have lived and worked here for over 10 years and this place has become an integral part of the creative practice. The closeness to the natural environment, the quality of light and space, life and death, the soil, the weather, the seasons, the animals, the culture, the people, there seems to be something that ‘fits’ the urgency. To live and work ‘on the land’, as close as you can be to the ants after the rain, to the birdsong each morning, to the trees. I and so the work is now part of this forest. Feeling very welcomed, embraced by people and environment, I feel even closer to and even more protective of the place. I feel safe enough I realise now, that performance has become a large component of my art practice, with at times spoken word, even shouting as well as silent actions, the presence of my body within the work is now live and direct and feels empowering.
The Riu d’Art project is very important to you. What do you aim to achieve with it, and how is it implemented?
I am part of the Riba Rocks Cultural Association which organises this project each year, with the support of the Ajuntament. I work in a team of local people, who are all passionate about art and the changes it can bring about for a small, rural village. So, in 2016, we started to bring art to abandoned buildings, garage doors, facades, old walls and public spaces thanks to local, national and international artists and the collaboration of the inhabitants. With over 30 artworks; sculptures, installations, paintings, ceramics, photography, performance, the Riu d’art Open Air Gallery is something that can continue to integrate art with village life, including collaboration with people in the village, with artworks taking inspiration from the cultural heritage and natural environment.
You work with many elements, but especially with the body and nature. How do you develop your work in that regard?
I always start with the relationship between my body and the natural environment, whether that’s noticing the changes in the seasons, the trees losing their leaves, the hot scorched soil in summer, the drought, the floods and how this forms part of my body. It ‘informs’ me and my work. The materials that can be found in nature and used as part of the process or artwork, branches, soil, olive oil, ash, charcoal. The circular process of making my own charcoal, for example, to create drawings has become a sustainable obsession. When pruning an olive tree, to cut the small branches and create art materials on the fire, a closeness again to the context I find myself in.
One of your most prominent actions in recent years was carried out within the framework of the Cendrart project, focused on the Maials forest. Explain the history of this forest and the objective of the artistic intervention there.
One of the largest fires in over 25 years in Catalunya in the Maials forest was a devastating experience for human and non-human. The Capitonya Ateneu Maialenc Association organised this project as a ‘leave no trace’ art intervention across a weekend in October 2019. The site of the project was like a different planet, deep in ash and surrounded by scorched trunks, the occasional plastic farmer’s water tank as any sign of previous human activity. I wanted to create an ‘offering’ to the site, so set about casting 350 fig leaves in bright white plaster. Clinical and extremely fragile, these leaves were installed round the base of a burned tree, as if giving it balance, some kind of hope for regrowth. The fig being a resilient tree, surviving drought and fire and coming back stronger. The aesthetic created was a monochrome ‘alter’ like installation. I also wanted to get inside the cage that once contained the farmer’s plastic water tank and use my body in some way. I cleaned the area of lose branches, found objects, nails, etc and created a refuge to fit my body. Dressed entirely in black, under the warm October sun, I wanted to feel closer to the debris, so performed actions with the ash and brought it close to my body.
To what extent is human contact with nature and the environment necessary?
In my opinion, it is vital. We cannot fully understand our impact on nature unless we have contact with it. This can then prompt us to think about how we can have less of a negative impact, or how small interventions can assist. To witness how a bird, for example, leaves no trace, the use of natural materials to create their nest, we should be trying to emulate this ourselves. What can we use, reuse, make rather than purchase new, what circular systems can we create on a local, personal and artistic level?
How can art help achieve this?
Art challenges, it asks us to ask questions of ourselves and that is crucial, especially when we are surrounded by often self-affirming media/news/social channels or overly divisive forums where we cannot communicate effectively. Art can suggest other ways of thinking, of being. It does not simply reflect the world back to us, it has no alliance, it can achieve an ‘otherness’ and create conversation about what that world hopes for and wants.
What role should social transmission elements, such as artists, play in bringing about change?
For me, it is to foster empathy. So, for example, if I present a piece of artwork, a video or live performance or installation, I want to show my emotional connection to my subject and then to attempt to create an emotional connection in others, this in turn can lead to a greater understanding – of each other, of the world. Positive change and hope can always come from this.
In your case, you have worked with schools, with young people who are at the beginning of the social pyramid that we should protect. Is it easy to work with this audience to help them understand the need for coexistence between the environment and art?
Yes, I find that younger people are even more open to this crossover. Historically, the art world has been focussed on the the ego-centred, individual human artist creating objects to ‘put out into the world’. What we see now are art projects that include; people, places – a community approach, a more sustainable way of thinking and making. For example, I act as an art mentor to visiting students and graduates for the Riba Rocks Association on Erasmus+ and Turing Scheme UK placements. We combine art with ecological volunteering and local heritage and traditional skills, all of which can create a long lasting legacy for environmental and cultural protection through the channel of contemporary art practice.
In this edition of Cultura Verda, you will present the performance “Resilient.” What does this action tell us?
This performance has come from a sense of sadness and sorrow. Of fruitlessness of a fig tree near my studio. The first year without a crop of figs. The fig tree and it’s resilience offers us hope, the strength to continue. I will present a spoken word, written as a reflection upon what I have witnessed. Natural materials will be used as a kind of refuge to perform within. I have created a series of drawings which will become part of the performance. I intend to question the attribution of value towards the art object, over and above the natural environment itself.
Who is the target audience, and how do you think your message will be received?
I have created works in public spaces, outside churches, Ajuntament buildings, or isolated in the forest. So the audience always changes, or isn’t even there to begin with! This is an interesting part of live performance, as it depends on who is there to experience the feeling and hopefully a connection. If I can try to convey the ‘empathy’, ‘emotion’ with use of the natural materials, I hope the message will be received on some level. It is subjective and it is always interesting for me as to how individuals will react to the work. We’ll see!
Were you previously familiar with the Cultura Verda proposal? What are your thoughts on it?
I wasn’t previously aware of Cultura Verda’s work. Now that I am and have read more about the association, I am completely aligned with their dedication to environmental awareness and concerns. It seems like a perfect fit, offering within a contemporary art arena a communicative approach to this sense of loss, or grief. Having made site-specific artwork in forests, outdoor spaces and recorded performances in isolation, there seems to be an urgency to bring this to the gallery space. I am excited to continue this relationship with Cultura Verda.
What projects are you currently working on, and what are their objectives?
I am currently studying an online course offered by Eco Art Space in the USA, entitled ‘Sustainability and the art studio’. It is a wonderful opportunity to meet artists from around the globe and to share practices and processes which can assist in healing our natural environment. The project set, which I will present in December, will focus on the performance of ‘Resilient’ for Cultura Verda. I will use the ‘results’ of the performance back in the studio to create biochar, ash and more charcoal for drawing, completing the cycle of sustainability within my practice. I was part of the Dones Artistes Rurals this year and I would like to create a collaborative work with this group of artists in the region, focussing on natural materials and site-specific artwork. Further projects are recorded performances in the finca, organising the next Riu d’art for 2024. Continuing to and breath within this natural environment surrounding my studio, within the valley in which I live.