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BN1 talks to Fabrica’s director Liz Whitehead, as the much-loved Brighton contemporary gallery reopens with the landmark show, The Forked Forest Path

The Forked Forest Path comes to Fabrica – interview

With lockdown restrictions easing, it’s finally time for Brighton & Hove’s cultural industry to find its way back to ‘normal’. Leading the revival, with a compelling new show is Duke Street’s iconic Fabrica contemporary art gallery.

Evoking the sights of nature in the heart of the city, The Forked Forest Path marks a triumphant return for this much-loved venue. Running on Tues 18 May – Sun 20 June, as part of Brighton Festival, this free landmark show leads its audience around the twisting pathways of a fairy-tale forest which sprang up in the imagination of internationally renowned Danish–Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson.

Promising to be one of Fabrica’s most immersive and memorable exhibitions to date, The Forked Forest Path stands as a celebration of the gallery’s 25th anniversary year. This installation is filled with branches, saplings and thinnings, combined with a strong, earthy smell reminiscent of a forest floor that enfolds viewers in the sights, scents and textures of a wood in winter. Examining our relationship with nature and folklore, Eliasson stipulated the installation’s materials needed to be sourced locally and sustainably. The materials for this exhibition have been sourced from Foxwood Foresty near Lewes, Stanmer Park, Wilderness Wood and Laughton Greenwood.

BN1 talks to Fabrica’s director Liz Whitehead, as the much-loved Brighton contemporary gallery reopens with the landmark show, The Forked Forest Path

The Forked Forest Path is part of the Towner Collection on loan to Fabrica from Towner Eastbourne. It has previously been exhibited at Towner (twice) at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester and at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

​Olafur Eliasson’s art is driven by an interest in perception, movement, embodied experience, and feelings of self. He strives to make the concerns of art relevant to society at large. Art, for him, is a crucial means for turning thinking into doing in the world. Eliasson’s works span sculpture, painting, photography, film, and installation. Not limited to the confines of the museum and gallery, his practice engages the broader public sphere through architectural projects, interventions in civic space, arts education, policy-making, and issues of sustainability and climate change.

​He has transformed some of the world’s most iconic spaces with his large-scale installations and stunning visuals, including Tate Modern, where his The Weather Project memorably inhabited the vast Turbine Hall. – www.olafureliasson.netBN1 talks to Fabrica’s director Liz Whitehead, as the much-loved Brighton contemporary gallery reopens with the landmark show, The Forked Forest Path

As Fabrica prepares for its first show in a year, we speak to director Liz Whitehead, about the issues faced by the cultural sector, their exciting new show and marking a quarter century of world-class contemporary art.

As lockdown has progressed, many of us have developed a newfound connection with nature. Does The Forked Forest Path intersect with this?

Yes, although we have been planning to show this piece at Fabrica for a few years now, the pandemic does make it feel very timely.  Over the past year I think we’ve all taken notice of wildlife and found it necessary to get out into green space – whether it’s been in woods, or at parks or even just by the sea. Beyond the experience of the artwork – which is great – one thing we really want to do with this exhibition is encourage visitors to think more about woods as habitats for wildlife, and also as places as respite for us. There’s now a lot of evidence for how important woods are for supporting biodiversity of species and how brilliant they are for our mental health. There’ll be information in the gallery about this and information about where the local woods are that you can visit.

It’s a work which has been developed (literally) organically for the space. How exciting was it to work in this new way? Site-specific installations are reasonably common, but less so when the materials are gathered from nearby…

The exhibition has been 18 months to two years in the making. Sourcing local suppliers who could provide this amount of wood was the first task. We’ve worked with Foxwood Forestry near Lewes to provide about 3000 tree stems and they have been brilliant to work with. Most of the material has come from there but Wilderness Wood, Laughton Woods and Stanmer Woods have also supplied. At the end of the exhibition the stems will be chipped and go to Stanmer Woods to be used as mulch under their trees. So there’s a beautiful circularity in producing and de-constructing the work, that’s all in this locality.

Do you think Brighton & Hove residents appreciate how ‘green’ the city is? There’s an abundance of parks, and easy access to open countryside.

I hope so, I do! I suppose the sea, which creates such a sense of space and light might be the most obvious attraction but if you turn around 180 degrees you realise we are surrounded by downland. You can see this most clearly if you go up on the i360. This unique combination of sea, Downs and the urban centre, and how to live in it and enjoy it sustainably is what The Living Coast is all about.

You’ve collaborated with Towner Eastbourne for this landmark show. Will the current difficulties among the creative arts see the formation of more relationships like this?

I think so. To be honest it’s happening more and more, especially since public funding cuts began about ten years ago. And, of course, it makes sense to work in partnership where possible: sharing resources and expertise and as in this case, highlight Towner’s Collection to Brighton audiences out with their own space.

BN1 talks to Fabrica’s director Liz Whitehead, as the much-loved Brighton contemporary gallery reopens with the landmark show, The Forked Forest Path

Like many galleries, Fabrica has had to adapt to the impact of Covid-19. How much difference will your recent Arts Council grant make to your operations?

We’ve been fortunate to have been awarded grants from both rounds of the Cultural Recovery Fund. Like so many other recipients, we wouldn’t have survived financially without it. With it we’ve been able to keep on running many of our engagement programmes and open exhibitions between lockdown periods. We’ve also been able to invest small amounts in upskilling and diversifying our income generation into areas that are less likely to be affected by Covid-19, or a future pandemic. In the end I know that we’ll be even more resilient than before the pandemic.

Fabrica’s home is a former church of ease, which once provided parishioners with a local worship alternative. As you now provide an ambitious programme of work to the community, which is unique amongst the city, do you see the gallery as honouring this heritage?

Great question! Yes, I suppose so, although I’ve never thought about it in quite that way before. This September we’ll be publishing If These Walls Could Talk, about Holy Trinity Church’s 200-year history. The research is being led by a small team of volunteers and they’ve unearthed some really interesting information that I’ve only just scraped the surface of via their blog. By the time I’ve read the book I think I’m going to be finding all sorts of parallels with the past and what we are doing now

What’s the best part of your role?

At the moment, the best part of my role is being able to reflect on what Fabrica’s done and achieved over the past 25 years. I was one of four artists who initiated the organisation back in the early-mid 90s, and over the subsequent years I’ve had the privilege to work with the many creative people who’ve helped make the original vision for it come to pass. It’s taken a lot of hard work but it’s so satisfying to see. Otherwise, the joy is in working with artists to make their vision for their work come true, and of course seeing visitors enjoy, connect or be uplifted by it.

Can art offer a positive impact on wellbeing?

Absolutely! For many people (including me), just experiencing art that I’m curious about gives me a physical and psychological lift. But you don’t have to take my word for it, there’s lots of research out there about the health and wellbeing benefits of engaging with the arts. We run a year-round programme of arts engagement and much of our engagement work is focussed on achieving wellbeing outcomes for participants.

Fabrica is entering its 25th year, which is an incredible success. Can you pick any favourite shows from the last quarter century? 

Oh goodness, where to start… apart from The Forked Forest Path which we are just about to open with, the Fabrica favourites that first come to mind are: Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet; Woodlock by Jacques Nimki; The House of Vernacular by Martin Parr; Fragility by Elpida Hadzi Vasileva, Getting There by Jo Lathwood, The Messenger by Bill Viola, and the amazing and unstoppable Walter & Zoniel who produced A Simple Act of Wonder last summer.

What does the future offer for Fabrica? 

There are difficult times ahead (for everyone) to be sure. With all our lives, the economy and culture that have been so badly affected by the pandemic – the future is uncertain and actually it’s pretty difficult to plan at the moment. However, I do feel very buoyed by how we’ve been able to come through the trials of the pandemic so far – it’s a testament to our resilience as an organisation and the commitment of the whole team and Trustees to keep on programming art and engaging with audiences. With that stirring thought in mind, here’s to the next ten years and more of Fabrica!

BN1 talks to Fabrica’s director Liz Whitehead, as the much-loved Brighton contemporary gallery reopens with the landmark show, The Forked Forest Path

The Forked Forest Path is art Fabrica, Duke Street Brighton, on Tues 18 May – Sun 20 June 2021. (Open 11am – 6pm every day, except Sunday.)

Although booking is not required your time in the artwork will be limited up to 10 mins. The piece will consist of one artwork that can be explored in around 10 minutes.  For more information about visiting Fabrica, visit their Plan Your Visit page.

The Forked Forest Path is produced In partnership with Brighton Festival 

Images by Tom Thistlethwaite

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