On the 17th March 2020, one week before the UK national lockdown, Yan Wang Preston decided to photograph a single rhododendron tree every other day at half an hour before sunset, for a year, with sounds from the site recorded by Monty Adkins and Yan Wang Preston each month. The rhododendron was introduced to the UK by colonial botanists in the late 19th century as an ornamental plant, it is now seen as a highly invasive species by ecologists. Many of the rhododendron species currently grown here are originally from China, Yan’s motherland. Living as an immigrant in a country going through Brexit and COVID, Yan felt a strong personal connection with such invasive plants. They remind her of her homeland as well as the complex perceptions around nature, national identities, landscapes and migration.
The area, Shedden Clough at the outskirt of Burnley, was an open-cast limestone mine 400 years ago. Nearly 200 years ago the local landowners planted rhododendron and beech here, in an effort to change it to a hunting estate. Now it is an “ecological wasteland”, colonised by these non-native plants and by sheep-grazing farms. Hidden in the heartland of the South Pennines, the local landscape is simultaneously post-industrial and post-colonial. Yet the ecology can also be said as being cosmopolitan. This particular rhododendron tree happens to have a natural shape of a love heart. An alien species sending out love. As such it is a rich metaphor to anchor considerations of landscape and identity.
The repetitive photographic act over a year allows nature to run its own course. This has been the year of the global crisis caused by COVID-19. To date, over 4.95 million people have died from the virus. A natural disaster has also become a political issue, in which racial tensions re-surface over and over again. Yet the rhododendron carries on with its own rhythm of growing, flowering, seeding, and growing again. The art piece is therefore becoming a space: a context for us to consider such political issues within the context of nature. The fact that this nature is made of unwanted species further complicates the issues at hand.