Humans in nature

Isobel Todd visits The Wonder Project, in Wakehurst, Ardingly.

There’s an air of Night at the Museum to Wakehurst at dusk. The day’s visitors have all exited through the National Trust gift shop. Now this wild botanic garden in Sussex, with its 500 acres rich with woodland and meadow, is left to its own devices. The trees seem to muster, the colours of the flowers pop dramatically in the half-light, and bracken fills the empty paths with its thick, earthy scent.

Managed by Kew, and home to the Millennium Seed Bank, Wakehurst has hosted after-hours events before. The winter lantern trail, Glow Wild, is an annual sell-out. But for The Wonder Project they are collaborating with arts collective Shrinking Space. Informed by conversations with the seed bank’s scientists, the resulting installation trail dims down the visual spectacle of Glow Wild and turns up the volume on the conservationist message. A sign at the start announces that The Wonder Project is about ‘humans as part of nature’, and invites us to ‘connect with the site with the level of focus attributed to artists and scientists’. Guides in blue boiler suits suggest we take our shoes off to feel the ground beneath our feet.

Then we’re off, wandering a two-mile trail dotted with sculptures and soundscapes. Voices of the South American Yanomami tribe call from the trees via hidden speakers. Mirrors embedded in a grassy bank are an opportunity to reflect on ‘your place in the ecosystem’. In a collaboration between British-Ghanaian artist Larry Achiampong and writer Aida Amoako, chalkboards are propped against the trunks of North American trees. They warn us that mankind’s fate is inextricably linked with that of the trees, and the indigenous peoples, we exploit.

Most evocative, by a country mile, is sound installation Sonic Woodland. In a quiet glade, we listen as the trees seem to talk to each other in musical phrases. Brighton’s Hidden Orchestra set out to represent the underground network of fungi that allows trees to communicate. Their piece has the depth and strangeness of whale song, and plays in surround-sound like an avian chorus.

Also effective is Colourfield, by artists Eloise Moody and Vicky Long – a playful attempt to catalogue nature’s colours while embracing the subjectivity of colour perception. At points on the trail, the colours of plants have been labelled without using colour words. A rhododendron is ‘sunlight blinking off a rock pool’. The orange fungus on a tree trunk is ‘Irn-Bru fruit’. We are invited to contribute by spotting and describing a natural shade, then painting one based on another’s written description. It’s an addictive game that really does encourage close observation – though you can’t help feeling Dulux got there first.   

As a recent graduate in psychodynamic therapy, I’ve thought a good deal about my role in groups, my relationships with people. But I’ve rarely been encouraged to consider my place in the ecosystem, or my connection with perhaps the ultimate primary object – Mother Nature. Despite the implications of the biophilia hypothesis for mental health, and the continuing growth of ecotherapy, psychotherapy still spends far too much time in rooms – albeit rooms with photos of bluebell woods on the walls, and the odd ailing pot plant in the corner.

But The Wonder Project doesn’t reconnect me with nature as powerfully as I’d hoped. Some installations are unnecessary intermediaries. Some are barriers: it is hard to get any conceptual or emotional purchase on several pieces without reading the overly abstract signs first. With the exception of Sonic Woodland and Colourfield, the installations feel grafted on to Wakehurst rather than rooted here. The overall effect is incohesive and incoherent, and parts of the trail become a diligent trudge.

Yet there is, for the psychologist or psychotherapist at least, something fascinating about watching your fellow participants as they engage – or disengage – with the trail. I’m amused by the couple discussing boxsets and bank accounts as they peer down at an installation based around seeding squares. I’m irritated by the number of people who watch the finale, titled Sunset and Smoke, through their cameraphones. But I’m also captivated by the boy gently stroking his mother’s neck with bracken as they listen to the musical trees. The Wonder Project, if not in quite the way its creators intended, is very much about ‘humans in nature’.

- Reviewed by Isobel Todd, a Psychodynamic Counsellor and arts journalist. 

Find out more about the Wonder Project.

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