Artist Helen Sear’s nature exhibition in Bradford

The artist Helen Sear. (Picture: Lua Ribeira).
The artist Helen Sear. (Picture: Lua Ribeira).
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A new exhibition at Bradford’s Impressions Gallery explores our relationship with forests and woodlands. Yvette Huddleston spoke to artist Helen Sear.

There is something both enchanting and sinister about woodland – it is the stuff of fairytales and of nightmares – and it is this duality which is explored in a new exhibition at the Impressions Gallery in Bradford.

Internationally acclaimed artist Helen Sear’s show Prospect Refuge Hazard delves deep into the mythical and the everyday, using video, photography and sound to invite the viewer to consider the co-existence of humans, animals and the natural world in the forest.

Those themes are central to Sears’ creative practice and for over 30 years she has been making artworks that reflect how humans experience landscape and nature. “I’m interested in the idea of observing nature,” she says. “Even as a child I had a fascination with everything that is other than us. Nature has been there all the time for me but not as a romantic thing. It’s something I love but it’s connected to all sorts of other things as well. It’s about observation and spending time in places.” Last year Sear was artist in residence at Dalby Forest in North Yorkshire and key new works in the Bradford show were inspired by that residency. “I was in residence at Dalby over the course of a year and having that length of time was fantastic because it gave me the opportunity to observe all the different activities in the forest.” She spent time following the rangers as they worked, filming and photographing the various events – including paintballing, rock concerts and theatre – that took place. Out of that came the film Wahaha Biota (2018), an observational piece with a twist and a soundtrack that blends birdsong with deer calls and snippets of rock music lyrics. “Dalby forest isn’t a wild place it’s a working site, so I used that documentary footage and transformed it into something mythological, something that makes you look at it again.”

It is a great example of the kind depth and richness of Sear’s work that derives from her process of layering. “There is always a lot of layering in my work,” she says. “That’s why I really like photography because of its relationship with the lens. I’m always trying to play around with that. I’m trying to hide things in a way, to make the viewer more active, to draw people in. It allows people to use their imagination and fill in the gaps themselves.”

Another new work in the exhibition is Paintball Pictures (2018). A series of 24 photographs produced especially for the gallery and displayed for the first time, they depict woodland scenes transformed by the mysterious paraphenalia and splashes of bright colour associated with paintball battles. Other works include Altar (2015), a short film featuring blue tits and coal tits, Becoming Forest (2017) a series of photographs upon which tangles of new growth are digitally traced by the artist and Stack (2015) is a large-scale image of a wood pile.

The slightly chilling short film Company of Trees (2015) of a young woman in a red dress walking around a tree recalls Scandi Noir or the classic supernatural thriller Don’t Look Now. “Cinema is a very important influence and inspiration for me,” says Sears. “There is a narrative to all the pieces but the experience is the important thing. It’s all about hiding and camouflage and the forest is the perfect place for that.”

At the Impressions Gallery, to March 16.