A new exhibition by John Newling opens at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

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A new exhibition by John Newling opens at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft
John Newling, Nests From the Human/Nature table (2015). Image courtesy the artist and Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft.

DITCHLING.- Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft will present an exhibition of John Newling (b. 1952, Birmingham, UK) spanning the past 40 years of the artist’s career and featuring new works created during the coronavirus lockdown, as well as three new commissions – a site-specific sculpture for Ditchling’s village green, a community project, and a musical performance. Newling’s socially engaged practice explores the relationship between nature and culture, and the transformative power of incorporating the natural world into everyday life. His oeuvre intends to elicit an emotional response that prompts viewers into action against climate change and Newling will present new worksinspired by the history of Ditchling village and its craftspeople, the surrounding landscape and society’s need to evolve in the face of the climate emergency.

In November 2019 Newling started working collaboratively with members of the Ditchling community. Using material collected by local allotment holders and gardeners, he has created a major new work Ditchling Leaves. The leaves have been gilded in copper such that they decay, leaving only their intricate skeletons behind, effectively drawn in copper. Exchange, a series of five smaller works using leaves, will be returned to the families who provided the plant material, creating a circular process from garden to gallery and back again. Newling often works with gold and copper to gild natural materials in his work, transforming nature’s ephemera into a kind of currency that explores notions of time, money and value.

Dear Nature, a film inspired by Newling’s 2018 book of the same title, will also be on display. The premise of Dear Nature is 81 letters that Newling wrote to nature over 81 days. Part impassioned plea, part exercise in truth and reconciliation, the letters are written frankly and intimately as if to a loved one. A specially commissioned sculptural installation linked to this body of work will be unveiled on the Ditchling village green, on a beech tree adjacent to the museum. The structure will be comprised of large steel text, running vertically along the tree’s trunk, that will read ‘…so sorry…’, offering a direct apology to nature for humankind’s environmental damage.

In response to Dear Nature, Composer Sally Beamish has written a new work for solo cello, co-commissioned by Brighton Festival. The performance is due to take place at the 2021 Brighton Festival and will exist as an appeal for a new state of mind for the future, rooted in hope, balance and respect. Newling’s letters will be read by representatives from the local community – schoolchildren, a woodsman, a climate activist, a carpenter – accompanied by a series of solo cello performances. Played in succession, the increasing length and complexity of the songs will reflect the growth and flourishing of a seed.

Four new works created during lockdown as a result of the global pandemic will be featured in the exhibition. Yellow sticks (105 lockdown walks) and another three works created for the months of March, April and May were created using material collected during the artist’s daily walks. Describing the work as a ‘collaboration with nature’, Newling records the need for routine, ritual and connection with nature to cope with social isolation.

Newling’s studies of the natural world will be displayed alongside works from Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft’s permanent collection in a conversation about place, nature and time. Also on display will be the original book of font Newling designed for The National Trust Garden Nymans in 2016. For this, he selected over 50 leaves from rare plants and worked with a typographer to turn them into a unique alphabet.

John Newling co-curated the exhibition alongside the museum’s Director and CEO Stephanie Fuller. He has said: “When I visited the museum, I was struck by works that had a rich history in debating and articulating invisible systems of power and control. Aligned to this seems to be a desire for a socially engaged art that was distributed through local printing works. Both resonate within my practice. I am really looking forward to bringing some of my works to this space.”

Museum Director Stephanie Fuller has said: “It has been a delight to work with John on putting this exhibition together. The chance to contribute to the creation of new artworks proved enormously engaging for local people who brought collections of leaves to the museum for John. His interest in nature is very much in the spirit of the original Ditchling artists and craftspeople and it is fascinating to see this reflected in a contemporary artist’s practice, and the conversation between his work and objects from our collection. We are lucky to be able to include some new works John has made during lockdown, which reflect the extraordinary period we have all shared. It’s wonderful to be re-opening the museum again with this exhibition, which feels like the perfect show for this time.”

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