Creating a Global Soil Culture

Marc Ricard, Associate Writer for the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World

Building up to the International Year of Soils 2015, there has been a concerted and widespread call for a global reassessment of the land we live on led both by international bodies including the UN and EU. In a world increasingly insulated from the material concerns of terra firma by urbanisation, industrialisation and the pervasion of virtual spaces; the purpose of the Soil Culture Programme is to reacquaint people en masse with the very material that has sustained life on Earth, which is now under threat.

Not only is it the cornerstone of agricultural output and the source of almost all farmed foods, but soil also acts as a ‘carbon sink’ filtering CO2 from the atmosphere. Soil today faces threats from pollution [both direct through pesticides and chemical fertilisers], erosion, drought and salinisation. Yet the ignorance and inactivity regarding soil issues has persisted for over a century, and we believe this is due to the relegation of soil and land to the hinterlands of the urban public consciousness.

Globally, since the industrial revolution, there has been a tendency to regard the working of soil and earth as either a symbol of quaint pastoral purity, or simply impoverished backwardness. Cities, the centre of cultural and artistic output are both spatially, and intellectually far-removed from the concerns of the land; and this has been reflected with the cultural and artistic output of the industrial age. The Soil Culture Programme is bringing artistic consciousness out of the concrete and dragging it through the fertile mud of the globe’s soils, to immerse the public’s consciousness in the elemental origin of all civilisation; to bring soil from the rural periphery to every urban centre globally. Only then can a truly holistic appreciation and representation of the natural world exist; to focus solely on the picturesque surface of ‘nature’ is both reductive, and ultimately destructive as it ignores, quite literally, the roots of all life.

We believe that the best way to accomplish the reappraisal of soil’s importance and centrality to life on Earth is through art, creating opportunities for young artists to produce work through which lasting and potent social change can be enacted. By bringing soil to people and educating them through various interactive and educative projects and art works it is possible to create this Soil Culture. Reminding that it is the foundation on which they build their very lives and is the common, primordial source of all life on the planet. At present, CCANW is involved with an opportunity for emerging or mid-career artists to be a part of this cultural movement – offering a dozen artists’ residencies in London and across South West England from 2014-2015. The positions are open to international applicants, the qualifying criteria is simply to show a conceptual blueprint for an art project which can help elucidate, and bring greater attention to, the soil crisis of the modern age.

The deployment of art to tackle issues of soil awareness is not a new innovation however, and has been successfully carried out by a number of practitioners globally. Taking this notion one step further, there are instances where the replenishment of soil becomes an art practice itself, we have the work of Mel Chin’s Revival Field. Began in 1991 in collaboration with the America’s Department of Agriculture, Chin allocated a small patch of land in rural Minnesota, which had been marred by landfill and industry with the permeation of hostile metals into the soil, creating wastelands. Within the enclosure, Chin planted a number of plants known as ‘hyper-accumulators’ which were believed to leech some of the metals out of the soil to reclaim the land for wider cultivation and habitation. The passing back and forth of the invisible particulates of cadmium conceptually illustrates the symbiotic relationship between humans and soil, whilst showing the power and potential for change.

Whilst some artists raise awareness of soil’s ties to humanity, or its power to replenish, others try simply to bring it into a context in which it can be treated and evaluated properly. Claire Pentecost’s soil-erg takes casts of gold bars found stockpiled in vaults the world over and replaces it with moulds of compacted soil. The message is transparent; Gold, the ultimate commodity, is prized above almost all other substances in the hierarchy of materials, at which we find ‘dirt’ – soil, at the bottom. By literally moulding soil to fit into the parameters of something which is deemed precious, the visual language forces the viewer to reconsider the value placed on materials that serve no physical purpose, to the detriment of the common ground which sustains all life. All that glitters is not gold, but soil.

Of the artists featured, Mel Chin and Claire Pentecost will both feature in a travelling exhibition in the South West from 2015-2016, alongside herman de vries, Richard Long, Daro Montag, Paolo Barrile and Amy Franceschini/Future Farmers. The exhibition is organised by CCANW and will endeavour to bring the dynamics of soil culture to a broader audience.




CCANW is based at the University of Exeter; Soil Culture is a collaboration with Falmouth University supported by Arts Council England. If you would like to receive residency information please email Sally Lai, our residency coordinator at and for further information: