Trees, Song and Survival in the Russian North: a conversation about ‘A Forest Tale’

Ruth Maclennan

  • Talk

Event overview

Artist Ruth Maclennan and curator Ekaterina Sharova speak on art, activism, and forest ecologies of the Russian North, stimulated by Maclennan's A Forest Tale

In the deep midwinter of December 2021, artist Ruth Maclennan set out on a journey to and through the icy expanses of Arctic Russia. With temperatures plummeting, and storm clouds gathering as a result of an ominous geopolitical chill in the air, Maclennan’s intended destination was a tiny settlement in the taiga forests around Arkhangelsk. There, she had arranged to convene a meeting of a small group of artists, scientists and craftspeople from the locality and elsewhere, whose purpose was to consider a much wider threat to the stability of the region – the impending disaster of climate change. The far North is a frontline of planetary warming, an incontrovertible real-time barometer of its manifold effects. But it is also a repository of age-old knowledge and experience of living sustainably close to nature and with the renewable resources of the land.

As she travels through a wintry landscape that starts to take on its own beguiling, fairy-tale aspect, Maclennan encounters a cast of disparate characters (musicians, artisans and other locals), whose rooted connection to the land, and its traditional rituals, customs and practices, strikes a resonant chord with the wider circle of artists she has invited. In a final scene that is intimate and spontaneous and highly symbolic, the icy night is softened by a roaring fire around which the participants congregate to tell stories. Like the ‘forest tales’ from fiction and folklore that they echo and allude to, the stories flicker with intimations of hope and messages of universal humanity but are equally full of foreboding. The fire burns: a vibrant source of communal warmth but also an uncanny portent of inferno and apocalypse. 

A Forest Tale (2022) by Ruth Maclennan is co-commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella and Arctic Art Institute. 

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