You wouldn’t know it was here, unless I was with You: Meaning & Artistic Process in Dan Drage’s Gathering Surface

In Gathering Surface, artist Dan Drage offers us a complex series of artworks, and also an engagement with the nature of the artwork and, critically, the role of the artist. Gathering Surface, then, is simultaneously research on (or better: into) soil, and research on art and the process of making it. For these reasons I want to engage with the installation pieces themselves as well as the larger conversation in which they are located.

Meaning & explanation

Drage’s introductory remarks express hesitancy towards explaining his artwork, or even speaking about the piece at all. ‘A work of art should’, believes Drage, ‘be able to stand on its own…and not rely on lengthy explanatory writing to convince an audience of its merits’. Indeed, rather than a discursive overview of the work, Drage’s first inclination is to use words only for giving directions to the garden which houses Gathering Surface!

Part of Drage’s aversion to explanation comes from his view of the world, and therefore the artwork, as gift. When we notice our selves embodied in a material world, we begin to see that the material world is entangled with the spiritual. The world is at once given and, in Drage’s words, given ‘with a kind of more-than-material excess’. In light of the world’s givenness, of its excess, Drage views it not as something over which to exercise ownership, but as something to cherish and toward which to wonder. A poetics of soil, and Gathering Surface more particularly, is part of the cherish-and-wonder process. The installation project is a place where artist and soil entangle. There is an excess to the pieces that resists explanation, and for this reason (and others), Drage resists giving the meaning of the artworks.

I want to explore this view of meaning. At first blush, it appears as if the alternatives are two: either the artwork is offered, mutely, to the beholder; or it is explained, argued for through discursive reasoning. There is, it seems to me, middle ground. One way to approach the meaning of an artwork is by locating it in relation to some specific thinker (the intentions of the artist, for example, or the imaginative interpretations of the beholder, or the authoritative pronouncements of the artworld/critic). But such an approach loses sight of the overabundance of the artwork: from the divine source it receives being; the human artist in-forms it with intention and further (material, cognitive, emotional, volitional) structure; beholders wonder at this, finding and making meaning in the artwork,1 and are themselves informed by it.

Drage seeks to avoid too restrictive an account of meaning. But what the above starts to reveal is that ‘meaning’ is a rich concept. It can denote mere propositional-cognitive content but, like the Greek concept of logos and Latin ratio, a thing’s meaning is the way it shares in the divine being, its form and telos, the deep handiwork that prepares a thing for all the good for which it was created. In this richer, more fundamental sense, Gathering Surface abounds with meaning.

The installation pieces are intentionally crafted, the physical formal elements cohere internally in each of the nine pieces. Further, they are tied together around searching and porosity (among other themes), and cohere with the botanic garden which makes a fitting home for them; stated another way, the pieces are in relationship with one another and their framing context. Importantly, Gathering Surface gives the beholder an encounter with the garden’s soil – inviting us to search, to know and to love the soil.

A broader account of meaning allows the conversation about Gathering Surface to advance in helpful ways. It allows Drage, I suggest, a middle ground between, on the one hand, wordlessly presenting the work to passers-by in the garden, or on the other hand, dictating or delimiting the meaning to be found in the work while disallowing any meaning making by the viewer. Instead, Gathering Surface’s meaning is the fullness of its being. And while neither Drage nor the viewer can plumb all its depths, Drage can give explanation as a means of unfolding some of the work’s being.

Here, language (‘lengthy explanatory writing’) does not prevent us from entering more fully into relationship with Drage and his work. Instead, Drage’s words – and more acutely, the meaning expressed by those words – serve as a porous surface throughwhich the beholder gains access to the living stratum of his work, the ‘critical zone’ where we enter not as passive viewers, but as new members of the biome, complete with duties to soil (tending to it, stewarding it), and allowing it to meet our own needs. In short, discursive explanation is a mode by which beholders may encounter artwork and soil, more deeply appreciating the meaning of Gathering Surface.

I am proposing that Dan continue to include discursive methods – i.e., explanation and argument – as part of his larger process. By my lights, such a proposal fits well within the themes raised by Gathering Surface. For example, Charred Cluster is a porous ‘passageway’ through which we enter (visually, affectively, volitionally, intellectively) into the rest of the garden. The artwork itself draws the beholder: first, visually, through sheer material form; then, intellectively as it piques our interest, drives us to search for meaning, perhaps raising more questions than giving answers. Charred Cluster and its sister pieces are a passageway into further engagement with the garden and its soil. Similarly, Drage’s explanations are guides to those passages.

Process & research

The nine pieces within Gathering Surface are artworks in process. Wood and soil are, as you read this essay, in the processes of weathering, decomposition, recomposition. And, if somebody is beholding those pieces, the artwork is right now in process of being questioned, puzzled over, delighted in. For Drage, the artworks we find in the garden are not the completed results of the project. Rather, they are one step of an ongoing research project. Our beholding of the artworks and offering reflective feedback are not part of that research project. In a moment I will return to the beholder’s relationship to Drage’s project and artistic process. For now I want to dwell a bit longer on the process itself, on Drage’s research as I view it.

In Drage’s searching, he partners with soil, explores his place with it, learns from it. This process is an instance of research as practice, an epistemological method that returns proper value to embodied, first-hand knowledge. In her research, the artist does not prioritise knowledge that such-and-such is true. Instead of a myopic investment in mere propositional knowledge, the artist directs her attention to her subject matter and media themselves. Here the goal is knowledge of what is before the artist. In Drage’s case: the soil underfoot that he breathes as he digs, that he brings home with him underneath fingernails.

The sort of knowledge I have described is direct, experiential, personal. Personal knowledge is the knowledge that most firmly unites lover and beloved. Of all the types of knowledge, it is the most impervious to verbal explanation. Thus, the viewer does not figure predominantly in Drage’s poetics of soil. In an important sense, Gathering Surface is not about our viewing at all, but rather Drage’s gathering. Given the methodology of research as practice, this is all epistemologically laudable. Nevertheless, I want to dwell on the possibility for the viewer to find a larger place within Drage’s artistic process.

One motivation for placing greater attention on the beholder comes from the artwork itself. Gathering Surface is highly intentional, as Drage’s introductory essay underscores. The formal qualities of the artwork match those thoughtful intentions. As mentioned above, Charred Cluster – and indeed all the pieces – invite the beholder first visually into the garden. Then each piece draws the beholder into his own encounter with soil, wood and grass. Such encounters result in first-hand knowledge, which yields appreciation of both artwork and garden. My newfound appreciation of soil and artwork, though, is just another way of saying that I personally know and love soil and artwork. Gathering Surface, then, is not only Drage’s research, but it also potentially invites the beholder into his own research.

What I have just described is an optimal effect of the artwork on the beholder, an aesthetic best-case scenario. That is, Gathering Surface has the potential to draw us into itself and soil. But without some further explanation, the pieces are largely silent. This is not to say they are entirely without effect, since in the very seeing of Meadow-Pits, the beholder views both artwork and soil. The idea I am trying to express came most poignantly during the opening of Gathering Surface. As Drage gave the attending crowd a tour, he brought us to Sleeping Fir. Not long after its installation, it had already grown a layer of grass and leaves and flowers. When Drage stopped the group, many of us looked around, wondering where the artwork was! We looked at it, but did not see until Drage pointed it out, smiling, with the words, ‘You wouldn’t know it was here, unless I was with you’.

We find a tension, then, in Gathering Surface. On their own the pieces do little to let the beholder in. This is because they are part of research as practice, where the focus is on first-hand experiential knowledge. We may also recall that Drage has not laden the project with propositional content, which makes it difficult for the viewer to know when he has ‘got it’ (the belief that one has circumscribed the artwork by merely having the right ideas is something Drage explicitly seeks to avoid). The pieces are therefore silent, though with the potential to let the beholder enter into (the poetics of) the soil. Only with outside help, from the artist himself, do we really begin to enter into the complex relationship between artist, artwork, garden, soil and God.

Drage wonders if sacredness is a category helpful for moderns to see the world. I think it is. That same category can help us approach Gathering Surface, reminding us that even miracles need interpretation: Jesus’ saliva and soil (!) heal the blind man, but without further instruction, Jesus’ miracle is bare sign, pointing to that which is still unknown.2

In Christian spirituality, the Spirit must offer a charism – a grace gift – by which we are opened to the Father’s intended revelation. The Son enters our zone of perception, our bodily sensorium, by being himself bodily. But even as this occurs in a Christian’s experience, it needs explanation for her to most fully enter into the relational process. All wonders require interpretation so that we beholders may appreciate the sign. That is, explanation allows us to allow the miracle to bring us into knowledge, then understanding, and then loving relationship with the miracle-worker.

The question I leave for Drage is this: How might his future gatherings make space for more beholders? Even if it is not the primary goal, how can his work be unfolded, even if a little, so that more of us may contemplate profitably (and interact with, be challenged by, appreciate, and understand)? These are hard questions, ones that many in the contemporary artworld have given up on. My hunch is that Drage has already taken the first and largest step by giving us an extended reflection on his work and process. For the sake of future beholders, future poets of soil (and wood, and grass, and…), I encourage Drage to keep an eye (and ear, and hand, and nose) out as he searches, and then searches again.


  • Dennis P. Bray is Research Fellow in Theology and the Arts at the University of St Andrews. He is part of the Art as Revelation project, where he thinks about images and their power to connect us with invisible realities. Dennis also works on the nature and role of the artist.

1. That the world is always at once found and creatively imagined is a main theme in Judith Wolfe’s The Theological Imagination (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).
2. See John’s gospel, chapter nine for the full story.
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