Offered through interwoven poetry, prose, and visual images, this response reflects on the experience of Dan Drage’s artist-led walk through his exhibition, Gathering Surface, at the St Andrews Botanic Garden on 7 September 2023. This response documents an embodied, and at times speculative, series of interactions with the various works and questions posed by Drage. As a further entanglement with the multiple components of the exhibition, the following prose is interspersed with found poetry, poems which have surfaced directly from the scripted text of Drage’s artist talk, generously provided as additional textural material for this response.1
On a dry and brilliantly sunny afternoon in September, I entered the St Andrews Botanic Garden. Although it was my first visit to the lush space, I am assured it will not be my last. I was one of a large group of visitors who joined Dan Drage on his artist walk through the exhibition of his sculptural installations entitled Gathering Surface. Made up of six interventions, or perhaps ‘entanglements’ is a better descriptor, we spent time with each work installed throughout the garden. Together we listened to the contemplations offered by Drage on the language of ‘sacredness’, microscopic distances between elements and questions regarding the nature of dirt.
This was more than an opportunity to look and listen; it was a dialogue in which we were invited to offer our responses and queries, and to interact with the artworks along the way.
always ever included within
what it means to be world
human in the world
within the material
world within and around
makes room hospitable
seeing all as sacred
When we stopped at the Grove Pit-and-Mound pairs, our collective attention was drawn down to closely observe the ground at our feet. Drage had dug into the green grass to create a place to notice what typically remains hidden from ocular view. Although I spent time considering the overturned ground, I also became fascinated with my fellow visitors and their intrigued interactions with this pair of earthworks. I observed how, as they looked down and close to their shoes instead of up and out, the tension in their bodies changed from one of expectation towards that of contemplation. They began to interact with the artwork and each other, if only to ensure they provided space to one another.
unwind thin filaments
lose track of the separation
between ‘human’ and ‘humas’
sit in near observe smell listen
a mass of many things
As the group moved towards the next sculpture, Charred Cluster, a grouping of tall, thin, ever-so-slightly swaying, blackened lengths of wood which had been sunk deep into the ground, our attention [shifted] altered again. The close observations became more speculative as we pondered the question posed to us by Drage. He asked us to imagine the part of these wooden rods that remain hidden from view, ‘that which we cannot see […] but must believe exists’.2 It is this invocation that wove through my mind, began to wind down my spine and finally burrowed through the soles of my feet deep into the surface upon which I stood.
slight breeze gentle sway
see through to the world
capacity for a hole to anchor vision to particular site place
porous passageway already here
that which we cannot see exists
its hiddenness barely aware
Through these speculative imaginings, I descended deeper underground, following the disturbances created and reverberated by the sunken portions of the charred wooden rods. As I followed the lengths deeper into the soil, past roots, stones, worms and other beings, I began to imagine how the wood in this ‘cluster’ might extend its reach. It stretches, down the hill and underneath the path, and, in seeking out its compatriots of the other sculptural installations, perhaps finds ways to communicate with its kin.
I held onto this notion as we tread along the path to the subsequent [installation] entanglement, Rhododendron Cluster, the second of three ‘clusters’ of sunken wood lengths. My speculations began to echo the aboveground portion of the delightfully intertwined form of this next cluster. All the rhododendron branches were curved and twisted sharply into one another as I wondered about the ants, beetles and other microscopic matter that the creation of these sculptural artworks have forever changed. I also began to ponder how the garden itself would be altered, even if the sculptures were eventually removed, and finally, how we, myself and the rest of the visitors, might become transformed.
made up of space
almost white turn red then black
wrestling with tension
below-the-surface ‘critical zone’
where decision happens wonderfully messy
As we proceeded along the short distance to view Sleeping Fir, an unassuming grass-covered mound that contained a buried tree remnant, Drage shifted our attention once again to what remained hidden. However, instead of speculative imaginings of what might exist under the grassy mound, we looked back through the [lens] perspective of memory as Drage queried how we might remember our ancestors’ understanding of life as a cycle and, more importantly, life as a gift.
This remembering took a more direct and personal turn; I do not know if it is the shape of the buried tree or Drage’s reading a few lines of Psalm 104, but I was transported to a childhood memory of playing in the local cemetery. As I skipped up and down the rows of graves, those sleeping places, the light filtered through the tall evergreen trees to dapple across the heavy slabs of headstones. I wonder if this carefree playfulness and joy in a place usually attributed to loss and sadness is one that we may regain. When the hold of the memory faded, I found myself back at the buried fir tree, and the other visitors had travelled further along the path to Meadow Pit-and-Mound pairs.
have we forgotten
can we recover perspective
between a meshwork
opens up meaning
earth turns and conceals
lines delineate unite
holding of tension
With a light and playful skip in my step, I hurried along the path to catch up with Drage, who had led the [group] gather of visitors out of sight around a bend. I found them standing in a half-circle around an iteration of the earlier pit-and-mound works. Instead of the previous green grass and moist soil, this pair offered dry, dusty, shallow dips to lay in and slight mounds one could sit atop. I am quite sure I was not the only one to visualise these forms as reminiscent of places meant for eternal rest.
At Drage’s invitation, I laid down to find myself at the base of tall evergreens, what I imagine to be the family of the sleeping fir tree. As my gaze travelled up into the treetops, the blue sky and another world peeked back through, the scent of the earth so near, and the noise of the dust shifted beneath my ear. The immediate memory of the slightly swaying Charred Cluster resurfaced, along with the realisation that these works are not only entangled with their place of installation but also with one another as they echo form, material and meaning.
exposed soil hides absence
soil is hospitable
lie in it
alongside soil closer
undergoing of creation
undergoing creation together
all things evolved
as everything else
in this journey entangled
the process of being created together ?
After the group helped each other dust off bits of [dirt] clinging detritus, we turned and walked the short distance to Beech Cluster, a robust stand of tree remnants standing tall and sentry-like in the middle of a grassy area. This third iteration of the ‘cluster’ and final instalment along Drage’s sculptural art walk offered a reminder of the tensions between that which lies above and below and, by extension, between that which is alive and [dead] other-than-living.
There was also a tension between the upright posts, which were positioned in tight formation so that one had to come close to see through the separate components, another example of the intertwined nature of Drage’s work.
where it differs enmeshing into world
invading our same world resides in the same
look too close
precisely the point
weaving into the threads
breakdown dabblings of humans
take place within nature
As Drage offered his closing remarks, which were focused on the words that form the exhibition’s title, it was the sensibilities of what we conceptualise as ‘surface’ that have remained undulating in my periphery, waiting to emerge. Regardless of its material nature, a surface will remain in flux, not only what we can see and touch but also the many complex interwoven elements that constitute our presence with and in this moment. Similarly, Drage’s body of work will continue to transform, not only physically as the seasons change or conceptually through the many perspectives of the visitors to the garden but also now, through your reading of this response.
These various ways of knowing through our offering of attention, speculation and acts of remembering each provide a different way to gather [below the] surface.
surface a deceptive word
distinctions lost over the duration
surface not a fixed thing
surfaces are dynamic