‘We Need to Embrace the Gloom’: Artist Rosie Grace Ward on Environmental Apocalypse

With a solo show at London’s Hannah Barry Gallery, the artist talks cyber warfare, science fiction and cracks in the neoliberal order

In London-based artist Rosie Grace Ward’s solo exhibition ‘Yield’ at Peckham’s Hannah Barry Gallery, the Anthropocene has reached its inevitable, molten climax in a primeval alternate reality oozing with dusty, florid lunarscapes, rainbow-surfaced oily waters and drifting shoals of human waste. Perpetuating her research into ‘cyberpunk’ fiction and foetal-like pre-modern jewellery motifs; the atmosphere falls somewhere between seraphic, Neolithic scythes and the slimy cretin who rips out of Sigourney Weaver’s guts in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster movie Alien (1979). It centres around an imagined world-leading crop management conglomerate, NPN – a merge of Nestle, PepsiCo and Nutrien – who manufacture a globally-enforced, patented brand of a genetically engineered seed. According to Ward’s text piece Our Values (2019), NPN’s recombinant DNA technology guarantees the grain’s resilience to ‘extended periods of harsh climate’, pernicious water droughts and the ‘interference of airborne chemicals’, gases and pollution.  

Unwillingly locked into a divergent relationship with a monolithic corporation, a bedevilled group of agricultural labourers despair when the yield begins to decompose. Adopting a ‘fear is the mind-killer’ attitude, they stage an insurrection, mounting quad-bikes flecked in ginger soot, spewing viscous fuel from pale bleached jerrycans before setting it ablaze; carving the once fecund land with glittering embers that fade to ash in the shape of ethereal crop circles. I enter Ward’s show at this moment in her speculative story. 

Rosie Grace Ward, ​Crop Burn​, 2019, quad bike with custom hubcaps (resin, fiberglass), custom grille (mild steel), mud and reeds, 2 pewter ​In the Wheats ​medallions. Courtesy: Hannah Barry Gallery, London

Gabriella Pounds  Do you consider ‘Yield’ to be speculative foreboding? Or does it dilate and distend a political and environmental apocalypse that is, in many ways, already upon us? 

Rosie Grace Ward  The writer Ursula K. Le Guin said that science fiction is descriptive not predictive. I think this is the most honest way of comprehending the work I’m making – I’m not capable of envisaging the future but I can explore the ills of the world around me with unearthly criticality. Everything I’m describing here is based on existing structures of farm management and their contractual relationships with big agro–businesses. The only truly fictive element is the sculptures and the revolt narrative I created to illuminate a tangible story. There are farmers today who are hacking machinery they do not have a legal freedom to repair in order to bypass large companies who are infringing on their employment rights. The cracks in our failing world order are already aglow but in ‘Yield’ they’re burning. 

GP  As I crouched beneath the gallery’s spectral half-light to gaze at the pearlescent blades arranged on a glade of singed, auburn sand and decaying reeds – which comprise Putting down old tools, picking up new tools (2019)– a visitor behind me exclaimed ‘where did this guy study sculpture?’ Is there a gendered motivation behind your interest in the visual revivification of medieval mutiny and arms and armour? 

RGW  No – I don’t think so. My work is more of an exploration of the violence of capitalism, which is synonymous with virulent patriarchy. 

GP  I feel like as women interested in science fiction, weird fiction and fantasy – a literary genre that venerates the work of H.P. Lovecraft, William Gibson, Aldous Huxley, J.G. Ballard and Jeff VanderMeer, among others – it’s hard for us to extrapolate our work from the gender question. 

RGW  Completely. But the work is not really about me – it’s a reflection of our world. And this visitor’s comment actually eerily reinforces what I was trying to achieve in the show. If he were looking at the cultural ephemera of a hyper–capitalist company he would have said the same thing. 

Rosie Grace Ward, ​Our Values​, 2019, posters with spray paint. Courtesy: Hannah Barry Gallery, London

GP  I still think it’s quite powerful for women in art to brandish a phallic weapon. I’m thinking of the Holofernes art-historical leitmotif; the medieval and renaissance women, who emerge from swathes of oil and tempera, collapsing a severed male head that drools crimson blood, moments after an elegant, slick decapitation. 

RGW  I totally agree. I am definitely referencing a visceral, feudal form of violence. I aim for the blades to symbolise types of contemporary vehemence including and beyond gender inequality though – such as systemic pain ushered by austerity and cyber warfare – refracted through a visual language of bloodlust we are extremely well versed in. The ritualistic arrangement of the weapons on the soil is important, too. The tale ends with the character’s discarding their tools, turning their back on inflicting further harm – the success of the revolt is deliberately ominous. 

GP  It reminds me of Le Guin’s 1986 essay ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’. In this text she argues for an alternative to the classical Herculean/Promethean linear storytelling of a sword-wielding, male Hero and vaunts a feminist approach to the genre. She recalls beginning to write with a huge womb of ‘wimps and klutzes…an imperturbably functioning chronometer telling the time of another world, and a mouse’s skull; …full of spaceships that get stuck, missions that fail, and people who don’t understand’. 

RGW  Yeah I really see that. I feel very strongly that there are no heroes in real life. The most significant element of ‘Yield’ is the collective unity of the farmers. Nobody flaunts morality as an accessory or tries to rise above one another – their strength comes from their collusion. They’re equally flawed, feeble and pathetic. I especially resonate with Le Guin’s disposition politically: neoliberalism is bolstered by the inherent selfishness of the individual over the selflessness of the collective. There is no victor, no clear ‘winner’ here. 

Rosie Grace Ward, ‘Yield’, 2019, installation view, Hannah Barry Gallery, London. Courtesy: Hannah Barry Gallery

GP  In Virginia Woolf’s diaries one line glimmers with a strange luminescence: ‘The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be’. Do you think dystopian art is inherently nihilistic? Or is there an erring beauty, hope, lurking in the shadows? 

RGW  I’m not sure if I consider my work dystopian but I can see how others may think that. I really love the way artist and writer James Bridle paraphrases this Woolf quote in his recent book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (2018). He mentions how the dusk is a good place to reflect, contemplate. I think we need to reorganise our political and social structures to protect our environment and ourselves. This process will be murky, disquieting; hitherto unknown.

GP  It’s less terrifying to completely ignore these mounting crises but by facing our fears head on we can begin to change, evolve.

RGW  We need to embrace the gloom. The exhibition posits arsonists–as–revolutionaries but there is a positive hidden within the singed ruins. Fire is used to rejuvenate and nurture soil and so the damage is not nihilistic, fatalistic – it’s actually the counterpoint. 

Main image: Rosie Grace Ward, ​Putting down old tools, picking up new tools, 2019. Courtesy: Hannah Barry Gallery, London

Gabriella Pounds is a writer and poet who lives and works in London, United Kingdom.

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