Gathering [below the] Surface

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

***

Katie Hart Potapoff, gathering, graphite on paper, 2023.

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.

growing recognition

always ever included within

what it means to be world

human in the world

gather hints

within the material

world within     and around

only slightly

(therefore dangerous)

unknown

leans into

makes room                  hospitable

symbiotic community

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

Katie Hart Potapoff, burrows, graphite on paper, 2023.

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

Katie Hart Potapoff, below the surface, graphite on paper, 2023.

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.

mass noun

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

Katie Hart Potapoff, undulations, graphite on paper, 2023.

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

lying in

            sounds altered

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.

work entangled

where it differs              enmeshing into             world

initial shock

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

Katie Hart Potapoff, periphery, graphite on paper, 2023

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

‘betweens’                    blurred

distinctions lost over the duration

surface             not a fixed thing

constantly changing

surfaces are dynamic

threshold

searching                      searching again

Author

  • Katie Hart Potapoff (she/her), a fourth-generation Canadian settler, is an artist, writer, and researcher in Scotland. Through iterative material and place-based encounters, Katie employs methods comprised of what she describes as explicit ambiguity, which provides an intimate and attentive perspective through which to consider sited practice. In the context of her practice research, Katie is interested in the speculative nature of ambiguity, which is performed not as a provocation but as an invitation to reconsider human relationships with our more-than-human-kin.

1. This form of writing gestures to the Haibun, a combination of prose and haiku originating in Japan, that is often used in describing travels through a landscape. Gerald England, ed., The Art of Haiku 2000: A Guide to Haiku, Senryu, Tanka, Haibun, Renga, Sedoka, Sijo and Related Genres, New Hope International [Writing], v. 21, nos. 1 & 2 (Hyde: New Hope International, 2000).
2. Dan Drage, St Andrews Botanic Garden, 7 September 2023, unpublished, 4.
Tags from the story
, ,
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

1,546,045 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments