There’s something about August that has left me with a form of blog-blankness.
It may be due to my first bout of covid leaving me in a congested fog. Or the fact that the news and politics are too depressing to listen to let alone engage with. I mean, just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, we are faced with the increasingly likely prospect of Liz Truss becoming prime minister!
Whichever way you look, there’s evidence of climate change, stories of polluted rivers, strikes, shortages, waste, price hikes, incompetency… Seeking out the positives is possible, there are plenty of them around. But most people are having to dig deep to find resources of resilience. For some, these will be primarily financial: basic survival – food, heating, shelter. For others, the focus might be on mental or physical health, practicalities, business strategies… or a mix of all of the above. Somehow it all feels so huge.
Today I did something I haven’t done for a while. I went to an art exhibition. Entitled EARTH: Digging Deep in British Art 1781-2022, it was the fourth in Bristol’s RWA series based on the four elements. Earth has made a regular appearance in my work. It was a major component of my mud paintings, of my exhibition Re-dressing Absence about the paupers buried in Stroud Cemetery in unmarked graves, and it features prominently in my recently published book In My Grandfather’s Shadow (IMGS) both literally and metaphorically.
I can’t say the RWA’s EARTH was the most interesting exhibition I’ve ever been to in my life, but in my current mind-fog state of finding it hard to form a coherent narrative about anything, I’d like to intermingle some of my thoughts, experiences and passages from my book relating to ‘earth’ with loosely corresponding artworks by some of the exhibiting artists.
For me, the earth – as old as time itself – holds the memories of history. ‘Like a smell or tune or piece of material heritage, a particular location can instantly evoke a past that appears to have been buried.’ (IMGS p. 145)
It absorbs the blood, sweat and tears of humanity’s passage over its surface.
It is the life-giving womb of Mother Nature and a resting place for most of us after death.
Earth offers a metaphor for our hidden roots. ‘Though at times it felt like it, I am, of course far from the only person to try to rattle and sieve the truth from the soil of the past. But the truth is not easily dislodged when it is triple-bound by trauma, guilt and accusations of complicity.’ (IMGS p. 279)
It’s a place of darkness, difficult to access, but also the guardian of precious secrets, materials and gems. ‘While I continued to pursue answers to unresolved questions, sometimes I dreaded having to descend like a miner into the darkness of the Second World War. It always took so long to adjust to the lack of light and air…’ (IMGS p. 314)
It became part of my process to come to terms with my German heritage. ‘There was one more task to accomplish before we left La Stanga: my soil ritual. With its fusion of site-specific rite, remembrance and reconciliation, I had come to see this… as a form of acupuncture, using a trowel instead of needles to stimulate the healing of wounded places and wounded people…’ (IMGS p. 150)
The earth holds energy. And as David Malone says in his beautiful BBC documentary The Secret Life of Waves, ‘Energy can never be destroyed, it can only change from one form to another. That is the premise of the intergenerational transmission of emotions that I have written about in In My Grandfather’s Shadow. That is why I instinctively traveled to significant places as part of my research. That is why I used earth in my art and my ritual. I wanted to feel the energy and work with that energy in order to understand.
Maybe, if we just keep noticing and moving towards those little moments when all the elements are in perfect harmony, we will find the inner resilience we need to get through the more challenging times.
EVENTS COMING UP:
Thursday 22nd September, 2pm: The Chelsea History Festival at the National Army Museum, London.
Join Angela Findlay as she discusses the process of coming to terms with her grandfather’s wartime service in the German Army and the heritability of guilt. Book tickets here
Monday 26th September, 3-6.30pm: Online Training: Developing a Shame-Informed Approach Information and Registration here
Sunday 9th October, 4pm: Cuckfield Book Festival. Julia Boyd and Angela Findlay in conversation about A Village in the Third Reich and In My Grandfather’s Shadow. More information and tickets here
Wednesday 12th October, 4pm: Mere Literary Festival. Angela Findlay in conversation with Jo Hall. More information and tickets here