Connie Brown — 2020 — Reviewed by Connie Brown for PhotoForum, 12 September 2020
Reviewed by Connie Brown for PhotoForum, 12 September 2020. Read on Photoforum
In Zurich, from certain traffic islands, and from the tiny frills of dirt at the base of some traffic lights, clusters of meadow sage and groves of hollyhocks in fuchsia and plum gush forth—little moments of fragrance and colour in a city whose grey is otherwise modulated only by advertisements for luxury watches and Lindt chocolate, and carefully maintained (read: contained) municipal parks. These moments are the handiwork of Maurice Maggi—his graffiti tag, if you will.
For the past thirty-years, Maggi has been walking around his home city equipped with a sack of seeds. He scatters their contents by the liberal handful, willing them to lodge themselves anywhere there is a crack in the concrete, and crack it open just a little bit further, much to the dislike of Zurich’s council gardeners.
I am reminded of Maggi’s floral anarchism while looking at the images of the Wairarapa Eco Farm featured in Ann Shelton’s latest body of work, mother lode. Each of the ten images offers a view from within the farm, a site crowded by trees, overgrown grass and discarded bracken, of golden-hour sunlight, tentative pathways and several rogue eruptions of cavolo nero. While the images are very much consumed by this wild landscape, I imagine how the farm must look from outside or above, nestled amongst the ploughed and apportioned cattle lots that prevail in the region. I imagine it, like Maggi’s flowers, bleeding lusciously into its surrounds. Like a crack in the pastures.
And so it is that Shelton perceives this place from which she has purchased her eggs and vegetables for the past thirteen years: “as a tiny salve on the open wound of the climate emergency”  that models an alternative to mainstream agricultural systems based in community support and biodynamic principals. mother lode pays tribute to the farm’s mission whilst also delving further into the relationship between plants, history and knowledge systems that the artist has already, adeptly laid out in series such as the missionaries and jane says.
Where the hyper-composed forms and traditions of floristry served as a point of entry into this relationship in these prior series (as means of suggesting artifice and something lurking beneath), in mother lode, Shelton effectively tills the photographic surface. She makes it lumpy and porous, aerates it, and brings the ‘something lurking’ and a glut of other microscopic content closer to the light.
In mother lode, Shelton enacts a sort of decomposition on the photograph which, as in soil, is just as much a process of renewal as it is of decay.
The images are unruly, containing so much to look at yet nothing to focus on. Shelton deliberately errs away from the renaissance perspective through which gardens are typically represented in art. That is, away from measured out lawns, heliocentric water features and bushes trimmed into impossible geometries—all things Shelton would consider part of our “aesthetically based relationship with garden landscapes.”
Before Shelton’s decomposed garden-scapes, I am asked not to look at the scenes so much as I am asked to fossick and forage through them, unsure of what I am looking for. The wildness of the images leaves me searching for some small details that might give the images form: some familiar crops, maybe, or a pair of forgotten gardening gloves, or the flash of a pīwakawaka’s white belly. With an eye out for these things, but without any indication from Shelton as to where or even if I might find them, I am forced to take in the whole. The shape of certain leaves and shafts of light, for example, or how the light engulfs the border between a tree’s outer reaches and the sky in the same way vining plants and lichen claim the water pylon in Untitled (Sol, Sinorhizobium). All things I might have missed were there a clear, well-weeded path for my eye to follow.
To forage is to gather up fragments, and to come into brief contact with the elusive complex that they are fragments of. Its principal delight is that of unexpected encounters and discoveries. Arguably, we can tend to be weary of these processes and removed from this delight when it comes to viewing art. Arguably, too, it is a joy we have lost when it comes to our food; neither the monocrop mega-farms in which most of it is grown, nor the supermarket aisles in which most of it is purchased encourage the curiosity, experimentation, resourcefulness, dynamism – or the willingness to climb trees to reach the best fruit – that are inherent in the practice of foraging.
mother lode, then, resists the rationalisation of both the art encounter and agricultural systems. It invites us instead to metaphorically play in the dirt, and ask what is to be discovered there, hidden beneath the bracken? The exhibition foregrounds the Community Supported Agriculture scheme employed by the Wairarapa Eco Farm as one such buried and marginalised possibility, it representing a form of farming that is both economically viable and ecologically sound.
But more than that, the works in mother lode underscore a sort of general and all-pervading abundance, some of which we can see if we look closely, some of which we must be content to just sense.
The ‘mother lode’ here is not the single abounding vein in the mine – and is not, therefore, something that can be extracted. It is the golden sheets of the sun that rises every day and makes things grow; it is the rotting, regenerating soil that warmly welcomes the seeds. It is the cracks in the concrete and in the pastures.
As Shelton asks us to get our hands in the dirt, the seven artists who contribute to Quicken also ask us to consider the multisensory capacities of the photograph.