We Hear All About Hart of the Wood, the Immersive Event That Highlighted the Importance of the Country’s Magical Woodlands

Words: Adam Pickering
Thursday 07 July 2022
reading time: min, words

Wanting to promote the importance of protecting our environment without giving out lectures, Nottingham artist Benjamin Wigley decided to emphasise the magic of our woodlands through more immersive, enchanting means. And so, at the National Trust’s Comer Woods, he put together an engaging event like no other. Our Environment Editor hears all about it…


There are worse spots for an interview than Colwick Woods. A sprawling nature reserve taking in dense deciduous woodland, some of which is classed as ancient (meaning it’s been continually wooded since at least 1600), it also hosts the only geologically-based Site of Special Scientific Interest in Nottingham City - a cliff of sedimentary rock formed in the Triassic period around 200-250 million years ago. It’s here that I meet Artdocs’ Benjamin Wigley to discuss his latest work, Hart of the Wood.  

Within a minute we're perusing the local flora and nibbling at nettle seeds, before stepping aside to make way for a young boy on a mini dirt bike. This is a well-used wood, for all sorts of exploits. We’re en route to one of the locations where part of the film aspect of this “multi-modal” work was shot. Hart of the Wood will get its first public outing as we go to press, as part of an immersive in-person trail at the National Trust’s Comer Woods (which is actually just past Birmingham, making an in-person trip a little hard to justify, environmentally-speaking). 

“The film is a future archaeology,” Ben explains. “It's something that's been dug up by the main character, having been hidden in the ground, which is why there's so much muck and filth on the actual film itself. It’s about ​​human relationships with the woods, and folklore, really - that’s the driving thread through much of the work.”

The universal message is that we need to make a bigger connection with nature

I ask what the multi-modal bit means. “The live event is one, and it contains a combination of two of the other parts. One of them is the film sculptures which are in the woods - three hand crank celluloid film projector boxes, called kinetoscopes, that you put your head inside, crank the handle and then you see a film and a soundscape within the projectors. The film itself is another, which takes in a lot of folklore and mythology, and we've created our own characters in there as well as existing characters.

“There’s Long Tongue, who represents humanity’s greed, and there’s a Green Man character, and it reflects the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where he chops off the Green Man’s head and comes back a year later, and it's a play on Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The Long Tongue character is in this sort of game of chance with death.”

I sense there are a lot of layers to pick apart, and that fully appreciating Hart of the Wood probably requires a level of immersion that might be hard to communicate with a few words and pictures. I’ve managed to see some outtakes from the film before I arrive and it’s easy to get the energy of the piece from Ben’s lucid and detailed descriptions, as he excitedly reenacts the shot of said protagonist digging down into “the rabbit hole, or the hole to the fairy kings, or wherever you want to imagine”. But for you, dropping into all this, I ask Ben to boil down what the intended takeaway is.

“The universal message is that we need to make a bigger connection with nature, and maybe we need to look a little bit towards the past to be able to understand what to do in the future. I'm interested in the distant future and the deep past because in recorded, and more recent, history, perhaps we haven't had a great relationship with the woods. If you go back to the Bronze Age, there’s chopping down the woods for bronze, or you can look at the King’s Forest, the Spanish Armada and mass shipbuilding, or The Age of Reason and The Enlightenment, and then of course capitalism.”

I'm interested in using different modes and methods to explore how maybe we can discover and learn a bit more about that deeper history with nature

Ben visibly yearns as he tries to get to the bottom of what this piece is all about, as though reaching for something not quite available to touch, outside of our usual repertoire of understanding. There’s something counter-intuitive about his work, and maybe about the nature of the task ahead.

“Perhaps we need to look into something more instinctive and further back, like paganism, or shamanism,” he muses. “Maybe we’ve forgotten, or never really knew, how to live harmoniously with nature, but there are a few people exploring this, like intentional communities. I'm interested in using different modes and methods to explore how maybe we can discover and learn a bit more about that deeper history, the side that is a little bit more mysterious and magical and folkloric and connected to instinct.”

Hart of the Wood seems intended to provoke the asking of questions and the challenging of learned assumptions via experimental, hands-on, multi-sensory approaches. It’s not your typical terrifying problem/brilliant solution format loved by Netflix, focusing on finger-pointing or some rousing, one-size-fits-all solution. Ben’s is a more esoteric gaze. He draws a line between this and his earlier work - a ten-minute feature on Paul Smith that features poet Benjamin Zephaniah, which takes the viewer on a journey into Smith’s subconscious, and Paa Joe and the Lion, which (unusually for the documentary format) features flashbacks and dream sequences to tell the fantasy coffin-maker’s story via the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

“I'm not trying to tell anybody any answers,” Ben affirms. “I'm just trying to put forward things that I've seen and experienced in an enjoyable, magical way, and to enable people to have a firmer appreciation of the woods, and our place within them. We're not trying to overly venerate trees, but maybe we should be looking at how people used to do that a little bit more.”


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