Thorness and The Green Man (Mother Earth is Dying)

Victoria Rance LG on the evolution of her series “Thorness and the Green Man”, involving sculpture, collaboration, textiles, monoprints, drawings, performance and film.

About 25 years ago I had a dream that Mother Earth was dying. I was in a house in Normandy, in beautiful rural countryside, absolutely untouched, full of wildlife. It was a very odd dream to be having there and I couldn’t understand it at the time. We didn’t know about the biodiversity crisis, and climate change wasn’t really talked about. But over the years I started getting more political. I joined Friends of the Earth, then I joined the Green Party and I’ve campaigned and stood for parliament for the Green Party. I understand a lot more about biodiversity loss and climate change and so my work has started to try and deal with those subjects.

Thorness began as part of Otherworld, an exhibition with performances with Blanc Sceol held on Blackheath, about the loss of its flora and fauna such as natterjack toads, lizards, ring ouzels nightingales and hares which were recorded there in 1859. Thorness was made after I had found a thorny briar by the Thames in Streatley, where I grew up, and took two lethal stems home wrapped in newspaper. I used them for this small wax figure.

Thorness (2019) wax and thorns 10cm high, Victoria Rance

I had been thinking about the defence of animals and curses (having learnt a Celtic one) and wanted a powerful little spirit who was dangerous to those who harmed the environment. In the exhibition, I protected visitors from her.

“Placed in a glass dome was ‘Thorness’ constructed out of wax and thorns. Rance explained that ‘Thorness’ has the capacity to curse people that do bad things to the heath and that some visitors have found her quite scary. Rance also revealed that when she had installed Thorness in the gallery Thorness’ thorns had pricked her and drawn blood. For me Thorness was the standout piece of the show. Standing in profile there is a visceral yet fragile and timeless quality to Thorness. Viewed from the side in profile I was drawn to the tiny facial features of the piece. The piece for me had a fascinating spellbinding presence – it was as if Thorness owned the space in the gallery.”   Sarah Davies, OCA blog exhibition review.

Her sister piece Thorness Sleeps was made for another exhibition, Sleepy Heads and installed well protected by other figures in a glass cabinet at The Blyth Gallery, Imperial College.

“In Thorness Sleeps, Victoria Rance creates a universe of myth and magic in the shape of a small installation, in which a female, earthlier manifestation of Thor, Thorness, a tiny black creature covered in briar thorns, is guarded by a motley crew of imaginary entities, organic matter (including a dead spider), and talismans. Rance challenges divisions between human and animal, science and magic, and strives to restore the land to its ‘lost creatures and local spirits’. We will all sleep better if she succeeds.”  Alexandra Kokoli, Sleepy Heads, 2019

The Green Man developed after a visit to a house my great-grandmother lived in, in which she had built an altar to Pan. The current owners told me she had been part of an early ecological, anti-urbanization movement. I started my own search for Pan in rural Normandy by communing with goats. I then made a mural/installation in my studio and following that work for two performances – Pan and the goddess and Swallowhead – both collaborations with performance and sound artists Blanc Sceol. The first was based on early Sumerian poetry about Inanna and Dumuzi. The second on the Osiris, Tammuz and John Barleycorn myths of death and rebirth in the installation and performance at The Cello Factory in a show called In the Dark, Even Darker.

SWALLOW HEAD (2020) installation, Victoria Rance

In 2021 I showed another version of the figure in Gallery 46, in Can We Ever Know the Meaning of these Objects, this time as The Green Man, a landscape.

And then I started thinking about the relationship between Thornness and the Green Man. And I started to feel that Thorness was worn out. She had become the mother earth that was dying. She could not take any more. She was exhausted from protecting and cursing.

Monoprints in 2022 put the two together.

Thorness and the Green Man Deposition (2023) monoprint inks on paper, Victoria Rance

An embroidered version of my 2022-3 sketchbook (A Page a Day 2023) included drawings of the ideas using Christian iconography, with Thorness in the position of Christ, The Green Man as Mary, and a reference to the only inclusion of nature in those images, the crown of thorns.

Thorness and the Green Man Deposition (2023) cotton on canvas, Victoria Rance

These in turn became a series of larger embroideries, using childhood and found fabrics with motifs from nature. Valued only as subjects, but not being properly protected, the motifs represent species being destroyed in the real world. But in the last image, the Green Man restores the dying Thorness to life because I started to feel you cannot keep vegetation down. We might die, the human race might die out, but there will be life afterwards.

Thorness and the Green Man rebirth (2023) cotton, Victoria Rance

Then in collaboration with Hannah White and Stephen Shiell, with my film maker son Cole Pemberton, on a trip to Channelsea Island we re-enacted them for photographs and film.

Hannah White and Stephen Shiell as Thorness and the Green Man (2023) photograph, Victoria Rance

The film was made on Channelsea island, in the Channelsea River in Stratford, where Blanc Sceol have been working for the past five years both as artists and as co-directors of housing and conservation cooperative Surge Coop, finding new ways to tackle problems of neglect and misuse whilst navigating ancient acts of parliament and institutional backwaters to advocate on behalf of this waterway. The island was abandoned by industry over 60 years ago. It is now home to many self-seeded inhabitants, as birch, alder, bramble and buddleia make slow steady progress demolishing the former chemical works buildings.

The film was edited by myself and Cole Pemberton for a performance for Deptford X in September 2023 at Creekside Discovery Centre, an ecological centre next to my studio which educates people about the fauna and flora of Deptford Creek. Blanc Sceol brought the characters to life with voice, waterphone, fujara and shakers. The environment alive with its own sounds merging with theirs and amongst it all a stillness, as if a collective breath was being held.

Hannah White & Stephen Shiell in Thorness & the Green Man performance at Creekside Environmental Centre, for the launch of Deptford X 2023. Video still by Cole Pemberton of Blanc Sceol. See video here

We had all collected blackberries from the boat on our return from filming on the Channelsea. Over the summer I took the cloth Hannah had worn, and used the stains and seeds of these blackberries, along with thorns from Streatley and Normandy to make The Shroud of Thorness.

Victoria Rance LG, 2024

Shroud of Thorness (2023) cotton, blackberries, felt, pewter, aluminium, Victoria Rance