Early Warning Sign – Ellie Harrison

As Ellie Harrison’s work Early Warning Sign leaves Fermynwoods and travels to Glasgow for the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, our Director James Steventon reflects on its time with us; one of global upheaval, uncertainty, and ultimate determination. We were home to the red on white sign, one of three made by Ellie Harrison in 2011.

Fermynwoods Contemporary Art adopted Ellie Harrison’s Early Warning Sign early 2020 – which we soon discovered was very different to the rest of 2020. It first arrived at my home to the fascination of my young son around the same time Fermynwoods Contemporary Art joined other cultural organisations in declaring a Climate and Ecological Emergency. The sign would end up staying with me through the intial the Covid-19 lockdowns in what became my home office – a stark reminder of the linkage between climate breakdown and pandemics and the realities of both on all of our daily lives.

Early Warning Sign was ultimately included as part of our In Steps of Sundew exhibition at The Arches, Fineshade Wood alongside works by Ikran Abdille, Tom Baskeyfield, Sarah Gillett, Liz Lake and Onya McCausland. Initially due to open in April 2020, the exhibition was postponed until July 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The exhibition focused on our experience of landscape, exploring the push and pull between nature and human presence and the effect that extracting resources from the landscape has upon those living within it. Sundew was the name of the largest walking dragline excavator in the world, used in mining operations in the area between 1957 and 1980. Sundews are also species of carnivorous plants, which digest insects through the glands on their leaves in order to supplement the poor mineral nutrition of the soil in which they grow. In Steps of Sundew retraced the movement of people and resources from the landscape as well as the dragline excavator’s Great Walk, posing questions about the relationship between the natural and the industrial and how these might coexist whilst avoiding climate breakdown.

When the exhibition opened I have to admit I was slightly nervous about the audience reaction to the sign following the first national lockdown. I’m aware there is only so much bad news people can take but climate breakdown isn’t going away. But for me, the work is intrinsically linked to our mission to support life through art. If anything 2020 has reminded us of the need for art to nourish and transport us, as well as to raise awareness and offer alternative ways of living. We really do need it to support life. Where much of the In Steps of Sundew exhibition was indeed very beautiful and nourishing, visitors were first greeted with Ellie Harrison’s rotating message – both attracting their attention and offering a warning; a matter of fact, in fact.

Watching visitors cross the courtyard at Fineshade Wood to our Arches gallery was an interesting experience. Adults were often a little cautious when confronted with the sign – possibly ashamed. Children on the other hand tended to be intrigued, familiar and comfortable with its message. “Look mum, climate change.” We can perhaps take some optimism for the future from this generation’s acceptance.

A further lockdown brought a premature end to the exhibition shortly before 2021. Due to the Covid-19 disruption Ellie invited us to extend the time we would look after the sign, which saw it move to our outreach venue, Sudborough Green Lodge in Fermyn Woods, becoming a fixture for many of the artist led workshops for young people that we host there. Sudborough Green Lodge is surrounded by the largest and richest biodiversity grassland in Northamptonshire. In many ways it feels like a place out of time – a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSi) due to the diversity of its species. It felt significant moving the sign here as acknowledgement of biodiversity loss. The sign in fact featured in a video created by students from The CE Academy participating in artist Emma K Thomas’ withNature2020 global collaborative artwork for biodiversity.

Students from The CE Academy make a giant Great Crested Newt for withNature2020

We were delighted to host the red on white Early Warning Sign, and be connected through time with previous hosting organisations with whom we have an affinity, such as Deveron Projects in Huntly, or BOM in Birmingham. The sign leaves us this month to be reunited with Ellie for her walk and talk at Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh discussing how the project has evolved over the last decade, before reuniting with the other three signs for the first time since 2011, in Glasgow for the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference.

James Steventon