Text by Shelley Sacks

Fern Thomas’ Moon: or Bird in the Mind, Bird in the World

written  by Shelley Sacks, Director of the Social Sculpture Research Unit for the exhibition When the moon fell out of orbit: from the Institute for Imagined Futures & Unknown Lands held at Mission Gallery, Swansea, 2012


On my windowsill is a postcard of Thomas with a small dead bird resting on her forehead. The bird is on that sensitive area, just where the third eye is said to be. On the back of the image the words: …new organs of perception.

I carry several other compelling images of Thomas’s in me, poetic instruments that take me into new territory:  Thomas standing in a river, acting as intermediary, giving voice to the river for those who neither hear or speak its language nor understand its power and its pain; or kneeling amidst us, listening intently to a bell. As we listen with her to the bell’s circling sounds, she opens one hand to reveal a shard of porcelain unearthed in her childhood garden. With this fragment she shows us how ‘to open a mountain’.

With such phrases, spoken in her actions with penetrating quietness and written into her powerful, scratched drawings, Thomas confirms the connection between inner and outer fields, enabling us to understand the undervalued relationship between imagination and transformation, the psyche and the social.  On this “poetic continent”, as the philosopher Wolfgang Zumdick has described the region in which the social-transformative is inseparably related to the imaginative field, Fern Thomas is no apprentice.

‘When the Moon Fell Out of Orbit’ – the title of this compelling new body of work – refers to what Thomas describes as a ‘post apocalyptic’ world in which ‘there is a need for new images… instead of sinking into fear’. Magnified by her stillness she is the archetypal psychopomp, a highly skilled and perceptive artist-guide helping us open the doors of the everyday, the doors of perception; taking us across thresholds to reveal what can be known in this difficult yet astonishing world. The works in this exhibition – which include reassembling in our midst a wooden structure for supporting a long lost bell; the lion she encounters as she lets the image of a plateau unfold; or the ‘boat’ she makes to enable her to cross the dry floor of the gallery in the period between its formal exhibitions– are compelling instances of the way she connects the world of social historical substance and the domain of imaginal thought. They are also examples of her exceptional ability to take us into ‘imagined futures and unknown lands’.  This, the name of the new research institute she has recently founded, straddles the world of psyche and transformative action, and Thomas is the ferry person.

‘What do we do now that the moon has fallen out of orbit?’ – Thomas’s own question arising from a profound encounter with the world – is not simply a poetic way of acknowledging the enormous issues facing us whilst avoiding practical challenges. For as Thomas implies in emphasizing the need to develop new images, this kind of imaginal work, the work of the artist that is potential in all of us, is essential. We can no longer divide the imaginative tasks of the inner field from the transformative, solution seeking work ‘out there’.  It is therefore understandable that Thomas locates her enquiries in the field of social sculpture and connective aesthetic practices. This is work that is social and transformative not only because it is often participatory and future orientated, but most of all because it foregrounds the need to find new pictures, images and stories, as well as the new capacities and organs of perception needed to work like artists in the world.

Fern’s Thomas heightened engagement and embracing of the world is not without affinity to other Welsh poet-guides and adept enquirers. If we let her works take us into the enlivened poetic dimension we will begin to experience new connections to the world and to uncover and reconfigure with Thomas what seemed ‘buried, hidden or lost’.  Climb the tower in your mind and listen out for the lost bell.  With great skill and care, Thomas takes us there.  Come, journey with her into ‘imagined futures and unknown lands’.  You will not be disappointed.

Shelley Sacks, Professor of Social Sculpture at Oxford Brookes & Director of the Social Sculpture Research Unit, Oxford