Can We Survive Without Reconnecting to the Earth?

CORNWALL, England — “A neck! A neck!” This phrase was once ritually cried by Cornish farmers while cutting the last sheaf of corn at the end of the farming year. The symbolic “beheading” of the corn pays homage to the cycle of death and rebirth at the heart of agrarian culture. Such rituals might seem quaint or belonging to a distant past, but this very sense of archaism points to our contemporary separation from the rhythms of the earth and the agriculture that feeds us all. Eden Project’s group exhibition Acts of Gathering challenges this disconnection, interrogating the nature of food culture in a rapidly changing world.

“Crying the Neck” is a collaborative work produced by Cornwall-based artists Nina Royle and Lucy Stein. It takes the form of an altar-like harvest table adorned with paintings, photographs, corn dollies, reference books, and sculptural objects, including a stuffed doll representing Anne Boleyn, the famous beheaded queen. Drawing on the rural culture of the local area, the artists produce a sense of fertile abundance infused with a sinister edge, mourning the passing of the brighter half of the year. 

Joy and sorrow are similarly close companions in “Noko Y3 Dzen (Something in the World)” by Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey. This large-scale installation consists of a huge cloth-like sheet made of yellow plastic oil containers that have been cut up and draped in the form of a shelter with door and windows. The wire-linked material (an obvious nod to fellow Ghanaian artist El Anatsui) resembles tapestry or even gold mosaic, creating a sense of richness and regeneration from a humble material closely associated with petroleum pollution. 

The installation is brought to life through an audio component evoking ceremonial singing and chanting. The work is inspired by the Ghanaian harvest festival Homowo, in which participants conjure the memory of past famines in order to ward off food scarcity. The message in its title, “Better Days Are Coming,” sits uneasily alongside Clottey’s allusions to petrochemical culture and the looming climate crisis, in which future famines appear increasingly likely. 

As in Royle and Stein’s evocation of English farming traditions, Clottey demonstrates the intimate connections between abundance and lack, celebration and fear. Despite their origins on different continents, both works point to the importance of the rituals that connect people to the land via food culture. This dual narrative of simultaneous hyper-locality and globality runs throughout Acts of Gathering, which also features woven corn masks by Kent-based artist Jonathan Baldock and a straw sculpture by Brazilian artist Maria Nepomuceno made with similar woven basketry techniques and populated by small clay sculptures produced by visitors. 

The exhibition’s title refers to both the act of harvesting food and the act of gathering together to eat — communal experiences that engender food security and social bonds. Acts of Gathering is an understated but successful show that links its local rural context with wider global concerns, re-grounding visitors in a hyper-networked world. 

Acts of Gathering continues at the Eden Project (Bodelva, Cornwall, England) through April 14. The exhibition was curated by Eden’s Senior Arts Curator Misha Curson and Arts Curator Hannah Hooks. 

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