With Love. From an Invader is a year-long, intensive field study project. For one complete year, 17 March 2020 to 16 March 2021, the British-Chinese artist Yan Wang Preston walked to and photographed one love-heart-shaped Rhododendron ponticum bush every other day, always half an hour before sunset. The walks took place at Shedden Clough, a little-known area of approximately one square mile at the watershed of the South Pennines in Burnley, Lancashire, UK. Shedden Clough has a lunar-like landscape transformed by a succession of geological and human interventions including glacial shaping, lime mining, hunting, and grazing. Rhododendron ponticum thrive in the area as a legacy of the hunting estate at the site during the 19th century when the plants were grown to provide cover for gaming. The 182 walks were carried out during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the artist’s ‘daily walk allowance’. Each lasting between one and three hours across the four seasons, the ritualistic walks provided time and space for Yan Wang Preston to experience, observe, and explore the land from multiple perspectives.
The commitment for such an endurance test was prompted by several reasons. The British rhododendrons are all introduced plants, brought in from southern Europe and eastern Asia since the 18th century for science and horticulture. Once the subject of ‘rhodo-craze’ during the Victorian era, the rhododendron’s reputation has changed since the mid-20th century. Although still a common and much-loved sight in most British gardens, one hybrid species, Rhododendron ponticum, is often referred to as non-native invasive in conservation management, treated as targets of removal with often violent means. For example, Forestry and Land Scotland (https://forestryandland.gov.scot/, accessed on 1 May 2023) has ‘used chainsaws, pesticides, and considerable human power to remove this unwelcome alien’. Certainly not the only species treated in this way, the Rhododendron ponticum is a case study for such naturalised hierarchy between the native and the non-native. Such unquestioned hatred towards the non-native rang alarm for Wang Preston. Like millions of others, she is a migrant in the UK. The contested perceptions of the rhododendrons suggest that politics is at play within the apparent objectivity of science, together with the definition and ownership of the British landscape. What is a ‘national’ British landscape with its associated ‘national ecology’? Who defines these? For whose benefits? Searching to understand the rhododendrons, as well as her own position, within the British land, Yan Wang Preston set off to ‘walk out’ the answers.
The year turned out to be wet, windy, cold, muddy, icy, snowy, eerie, but always full of moonrises, rainbows, joy, and amazement. Other than walk, look, listen, touch, and play, the artist used a variety of methods to bring out the ‘invisible’ aspects of the otherwise bleak landscape. With two budget infrared cameras, she ‘discovered’ over 25 animal species who live under the shelter of the rhododendrons. With a macro lens, she got dizzy in the fantastically complex world of one rhododendron flower. Crawling inside a large rhododendron area with a GoPro camera, she became a child again. Meanwhile, for the first time in her practice, she had a collaborator. With Monty Adkins, a composer and professor of experimental music at the University of Huddersfield, they made hundreds of hours of sound recordings from the land, including both naturally occurring sounds, like birdsong, and artificially induced sound, like playing with the ice. Over 50 bird species and numerous rain sounds were recorded. For this land, the rhododendrons are certainly not invasive. Instead, they can be called a keystone species, playing a central role in the local ecology that is most definitely not native.
The presentation of With Love. From an Invader as an art piece celebrates the life and resilience of the rhododendron land with a four-screen audiovisual installation. It aims to provide an embodied aesthetic experience for audiences to contemplate the intimacy, beauty, and strength of nature, and the eternity of time within an ecological and political frame. As the exhibitions of With Love. From an Invader continue to tour, it has become apparent that the projected space has become a refuge and a meeting place. Most visitors, including children, would sit through its entire length, amazed at the liveliness of the animals while being constantly reminded of the passing of time and seasons. As the project name indicates, With Love. From an Invader is a love letter sent by a non-native species to the cosmopolitan ecology of contemporary Britain. It is also a love letter sent to the British land by its non-native people who are making Britain home for its multicultural residents, human and non-human.
Such empirical and sensorial information and discoveries were then reflected within several contexts, from the politics of conservation within the postcolonial and multicultural Britain to the hegemony of western science with its imperial and patriarchal roots. To return to the case of the rhododendrons, the UK now hosts the largest rhododendron collections outside of China, and the plant has been abundant in the British landscape since the mid-19th century. Yet they are often seen as a non-native invasive species: ‘an alien threatening the British landscape’ (Simons, 2017)*. The naturalised inferiority of non-native species mirrors the attitudes towards non-native, especially non-white, people. This explains why we chose the rhododendrons as a case study: for their particularly vulnerable status as natural species, the severe coloniality in their conservation science, and for them being a metaphor for the postcolonial and often unjust attitudes towards both human and non-human migrants in the UK. The urgency and importance of preserving the endangered plants and improving cultural as well as racial equality are the main motivations behind the project. On this level, With Love. From an Invader has become a pilot study, a beginning rather than an end for our exploration of the politics, especially coloniality within western environmental science, and our own respective art practices.
*This quote is taken from the essay ‘A spectacular thug is out of control’ by Paul Simons, published on The Guardian on 16 April 2017.
Developed from the difficult times of COVID-19, the project is generally supported by the University of Huddersfield. An array of people, including Dr Alan Elliott from Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Professor Ian Rotherham from Sheffield Hallam University, and curator Zelda Cheatle, have all provided crucial feedback, knowledge, and support. By September 2023, With Love. From an Invader has been screened at the following exhibitions:
The Time is Right, Jeddah Photo 2022
John Hope Gateway, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Field Studies – Land Body Botany
The exhibition is available for touring.