Dr Gayle Chong Kwan is an artist and patron of the Wren Wildlife Group, with a particular interest in ecology, waste, landscape and nature. Here, the local resident reflects on her Epping Forest-inspired work
I am an international multidisciplinary artist and academic of Scottish-Chinese/Mauritian descent. At the core of my practice is an expanded and embodied notion of the visual, which I explore through photography, installation, video, pieces worn on the body and intimate and large-scale ritual and sensory experiences.
I create interventions in institutions, museums, galleries and the public realm that question and challenge their acquisitions, modes of public participation and the status of objects and collections and the ecologies in which they sit. I use a methodology of ‘imaginal travel’ (I have a PhD from the Royal College of Art) of propositional attitudes and ritual and immanent acts in collaboration and in contemplation of inner life.
I was delighted when the Wren Wildlife Group approached me and asked if I would like to be involved. They are a charity local to me that celebrates, explores and helps to protect important outdoor and green spaces. There is real in-depth knowledge, research, commitment and passion among the members. I am keen to help them develop creative activities around different aspects of the group, around seasonal activities and communal and creative experiences.
Art can play a role in bringing new perspectives in ways in which we might think about, model and put into practice new ways of experiencing and treating ecologies, people and places with which we engage. Many of my projects and artworks connect with aspects of ecology, waste, landscape and nature. I developed a major project around Epping Forest in 2017–18 entitled The People’s Forest. I was fascinated by the politics of the forest, both in terms of its history in the attempted enclosures and the Epping Forest Act of 1878, and more recent protests in the 1990s against the building of the M11 link road. I was struck by the liminal nature of the forest, as a place between rural and urban, and as a site of imagination, myths and possibilities. Like William Morris, I became fascinated by the forest’s unique pollarded trees, which were shaped by the commoners’ right to lop or cut off their own wood supply.
I also became interested in specific trees, such as the Fairlop Oak and its tradition of an annual feast that stood in Hainault Forest and which suffered incursion by private landlords in the 18th century, the George Green chestnut tree, which was a focus of the M11 protests, and trees as symbols and the focus of protest movements more generally.
I worked with a range of people to explore and walk with them in areas of the forest special to them, from which I made sculptural headdresses out of photographs I took, like the one pictured here.
I’ve lived in London for over 25 years now. I love this city. I never grow tired of it. I feel at home in Leytonstone. Through The People’s Forest and spending time in Epping Forest with my sons, the forest has rooted me in this special place.
Outdoor and green spaces can be amazing inspirations for making artwork – they are places where we bring our attentiveness, our sensory and elemental appreciation of nature. It’s not just about outdoor and green spaces being an inspiration but instead places where we are invited to experience our whole selves.
To view more of Gayle’s work, visit gaylechongkwan.com
For more information on the Wren Wildlife Group, visit wnstd.com/wren