Publication: The Times
Visual Art: Giles Sutherland
Natalie Taylor: Alchemy of Soil
Dunbar Town House
Until 21 June
STAR RATING: **** (FOUR)
The first thing you notice about Natalie Taylor, as she explains her passion for soil, seeds, and the amazing fecundity of our planet - Earth - is her hands. They are strong, with broad stubby fingers and short finger-nails. The skin is healthy and pink with traces of soil in its folds and patterns.
Taylor has just completed a short stint as first artist-in-residence under the aegis of Northlight Arts, a local arts charity. Dunbar was the birthplace, in 1838, of John Muir one of the world’s best known conservationists; the ultimate importance of soil was among his concerns. 2015 is also UN designated International Year of Soils.
These two facts are connected, for our planet is ailing under increasing pressure from industrialisation and population increase, leading to a depletion in soil health because of erosion, fertilisers and insecticides. Soil, like air and water, is a fundamental of life; without it, there would be no plants, animals or, indeed, any human life.
To illustrate the chemical and biological complexity of soil, Taylor has drawn a Buddhist style ‘mandala’ depicting its multiple interrelationships and hierarchies. At the centre are the basic constituents such as potassium, nitrogen and single celled organisms; while its outer ring represents human beings and their major food source, in the form of large supermarkets.
The delicate, intricate form has been painted using soil pigments from a variety of locations around East Lothian. In general, the darker the pigment, the healthier the soil. However, one third of the circle has been ‘washed away’, the complex lines and relationships breaking off in forlorn trails and runs. The message is clear: the intricate weave of life is breaking down, rapidly.
Taylor’s work takes a number of forms ? small, detailed watercolours; cast bronze sculpture; lead and silver ornament and digitally woven tapestry. The last grouping includes a reworking of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues ‘A Young Daughter of the Picts’ (c.1585), showing a naked and tattooed woman. But, like most of Taylor’s work, there’s a twist ? the face has been replaced by a skull, indicating that at the heart of de Morgues utopian vision of Nature and the ‘Noble Savage’ there is now a dystopian reality.
Elsewhere there small sculptures representing severed digits as chitted potatoes, and images of chitted potatoes like bizarrely deformed embryos.
For Taylor’s work is quietly angry. And so it should be. Each of a series of five apparently placid watercolours depicting the germinating stages of some of the world’s staple crops ? soya, wheat, rice, maize and peas ? contains a small detail, like an ironically placed brand name. One reads ‘Order 81’ below a clearly recognisable ‘Do Not Plant’ symbol. Taylor explains that it relates to a US imposed ban on saving and trading local seed in post-war Iraq, where local farmers were forced to buy US approved equivalents.
Despite the obvious force of the message, these works never feel hectoring or propagandising, remaining effective despite, not because of, their moral weight.