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Artist John Newling is Exhibiting at Syson Gallery

9 May 16 words: Wayne Burrows
"I think human beings need to be needed... we know our environment doesn't need us, but know that we need it"
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John Newling, Last Island exhibition at Syson Gallery. photo: Lousie Haywood Sheifer

You’ve been living in Nottingham for a long time. What first brought you here?
I did an MA at Chelsea and an MPhil at Wolverhampton as a resident artist, and was back living where I was born in Handsworth, going through the frustration that loads of young artists go through, waiting for the phone to ring. I had one day a week at Walsall, teaching film and photography, when in 1981 a job came up at NTU. I travelled from Birmingham to Nottingham and I got the job. Around the same time I was invited to do a show, Seven Trestles, at the Midland Group, making the work for it in my flat at the time. We were sitting among all these piles of timber, trying to peer through them to see the television.

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You were teaching film and photography, but you’re best known as a sculptor. Did you start out as a sculptor?
Early on my work was mostly about going out and talking to people or digging holes. The first sculpture I made was at North Staffs Polytechnic, a table football machine, because I loved table football and was working with technicians who could help me build it. I stuck it in a pub and people played on it there for a year. I was mostly curious about the relationship between the art, myself and the environment, in place and space. As for teaching film and photography, I don’t know how I managed to blag my way into that job.

Was it to do with using those media to document the things you were doing?
It was documentation, but also wet printing, as I think it’s called now. I taught the students about ideas and showed them how to process film, but I always felt slightly uncomfortable with it because it wasn’t really what I did. The concepts I was working with were translatable, though, and it was my first experience of teaching, so it was a positive experience but surprisingly draining.

The context your work was first seen in would have been that time in the early eighties when a kind of ’new sculpture’ emerged – would that be right?

There had been a show called Zeitgeist, which had refreshed a kind of dare to make visual gestures after the quite tough, rigorous approach of the seventies, when many of the shows you went to were basically the same, always very austere. So that did open things up. But there was also a hunger – which I had myself – to explore the transformation of materials. On a personal level, there was a strong feeling around asking what this art business was all about, what and who art was actually forBecause of that, the works I made on a Fulbright Fellowship in the States around 1985 were important, things like a series of pieces I made in Washington DC, outside the White House, buying plates from the tourist stands they have, drawing on them, then selling them back to people for the same value I’d bought them for. I made works in hotel rooms or out in the streets, where I’d put something together and just leave it there to be found.

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John Newling, Last Island exhibition at Syson Gallery. photo: Lousie Haywood Sheifer

There seem to be certain strands in your work, with questions around value and exchange, faith, doubt and knowledge, that come up again and again in the things you’ve made.
Yes, they are very consistent, and they cross over a lot. Another newer strand is the work with ecologies, and how that relates to art with practical uses, which I’m getting more and more interested in. The project around cultivating moringa plants is an example, because of the possibilities for growing them and harvesting their leaves for food in those countries where they’re really struggling to grow other kinds of crops. Since around 2005, I’ve also been looking quite closely at the construction of soils. I recently spent a week in Scotland talking to world experts in the sciences of soil, from forensics through to things like pH levels.

Your work often has this scientific aspect, so The Lemon Tree & Me takes the form of a diary built around an experiment, and echoes a kind of eighteenth century amateur naturalist’s approach.
I don’t think it’s that conscious but there probably is an element of that. The Lemon Tree & Me was a project where for 688 days I set out to grow a lemon tree in soil constructed from a newspaper that I’d made for another project. With the work I tried to map a relationship between the human species and nature. We do need to think a lot more deeply about what that relationship is and what it might become. I think human beings need to be needed, and one of of the things we’ve forgotten – or perhaps one of the things that through the ages has upset us – is that we know our environment doesn’t need us, but know that we need it. The project was about the wonder of this natural system that I’m observing, the system that can produce this tree. It led me to think about how the human species seems to want to control its environment completely, and about how we might be inventing, digitally or otherwise, a new set of environments for ourselves.

There seems to be a connection with Last Islands, in that these new works have the look of maps, like landscapes or field systems viewed from above.
Well, those works always start with a kind of mapping process, so there’ll be a plant I’ve grown that is pressed to a surface, then that surface is gilded and black paint added. The plant is removed and that’s the starting point. It’s another way of mapping this relationship between myself and the imprint of something natural, and mapping is probably the single most consistent thing I’ve done since childhood.

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You’ve also made many pieces in response to particular city spaces in Nottingham...
Yes, I’d like to develop some of the texts I work on, like “We needed to be needed but forgot where we lived” or “Be Kind”, installed permanently somewhere. A piece I made in 1991, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, started from the idea of putting three times the amount of light into the Market Square as Nottingham Forest had in their football ground, creating a warm space in the middle of winter. It led to the City Council talking about relighting the Square because it was a bit dark at the time and lots of people were scared to go there at night. When we see things like that in our environment it can wobble the standard etiquette a bit, help to ground us in where we are.

The exhibition also includes Human Nature Table and other sculptural pieces made with soil.
I’m interested in the ways soil can become a tool. I moulded those bowls from soil in my garden and was excited by the way they looked when I stacked them, working with what felt like the right colour strata for each piece. Human Nature Table is also about the architecture of that relationship between ourselves and the natural world, but it brings certain acquired things into play – feathers, rubber stamps, twigs and nibbed pens. I’m basically a boy from inner city Birmingham so I didn’t grow things until quite late in life. I’m still enchanted with the alchemy that occurs when you put stuff into soil and it grows. I think we’ve yet to fully grasp the significance of this earth we live on. We’ve forgotten where we are a little bit.

Last Islands continues at Syson Gallery, 19 Weekday Cross, until Saturday 21 May. Opening hours are Wednesday – Saturday 12 - 5pm.

John Newling website
Syson Gallery website

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