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A fresh look at your daily cup. Artist Helen Pearce on New Progress/Novo Progresso, the latest installation at the Smallest Gallery in Soho

Helen Pearce is an artist and environmental specialist, interested in the traces of human activity etched onto the Earth's surface and what these patterns of development reveal about life today. New Progress/Novo Progresso, her installation made in collaboration with fellow artist Dan Sansome, is on show until the end of March at the Smallest Gallery in Soho, 62 Dean Street, London. Here she writes about her own experience of working on the project.

I had been studying art alongside my day job for several years when my friend Dan told me there could be an opportunity to exhibit at a new gallery in Soho. I felt like it was a long shot, but he suggested we speak to the gallery’s curators Philip Levine and Andreia Costa about what I do and what they were looking to achieve with the space. We met at my studio last summer to talk through some initial ideas, and it immediately felt like we could produce something exciting together.

The Smallest Gallery in Soho aims to display artwork that captures people’s attention on their journey through Soho, encouraging them to stop, think or be inspired. The local area is changing rapidly as a result of rising rents and redevelopment, and the creative community that was once so vibrant has largely dispersed. Set in a historic shopfront on Dean Street, the gallery hopes to counter these changes by exhibiting engaging artworks that can be seen for free by anyone who passes by. Managed by Moira Rizopoulos, the space was established by The Garage Soho, an early stage investor company that champions creativity.

As my first chance to think big as an artist and work with an interesting space, developing a show for the Smallest Gallery in Soho was an incredible opportunity. Dan and I share a mutual interest in both art and the environment, and I suggested we work on the project together. We were conscious of the constraints of the space and the need to produce something eye catching and relevant to the location and the people who would see it. Working with a shopfront in the heart of one of the world’s commercial capitals, focusing on the effects of consumption and trade seemed like a natural choice.


Image: ‘New Progress’ by Helen Pearce and Dan Sansome. Photograph credit: Opal Turner

The title of the installation is New Progress, which is a direct translation of the name of Novo Progresso, one of many communities which formed in the Amazon as rainforest was cleared for mining and agriculture and people moved in to take up the jobs that were created. A pile of golden coffee beans sits at the centre of the space, supported by a stack of pallets and surrounded by a backdrop of burnt and damaged wood. In this way, the work aims to reflect how our society values the commodities we can harvest from nature, while we discard the rest in the name of progress.

Large-scale deforestation is a stark example of the impacts we are causing in the environment to fulfil our hunger for resources. Nearly half of the world's original forest cover has already been destroyed, and natural forest is currently being lost at a rate of around 6.5 million hectares per year. Agriculture is the largest single cause of deforestation. Around the world, forests are being cleared to grow oil palm, soy, rubber, coffee, tea, rice and other crops, and plantations are expanding to meet rising demand.

Many people, ourselves included, have lost sight of where the things we eat and drink come from and how this affects the people and places that produce them. The installation aims to raise awareness of these issues and encourage people to make more informed choices, such as buying Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance certified products.

We ran a crowdfunding campaign in the autumn to cover the production costs, and were delighted with the generous support we received. Many cold winter days were spent in my studio designing and making the work, with Dan’s previous experience as a set-builder for theatre proving invaluable. We collected disused pallets left on and around the streets of south London and re-used the wood to construct the backdrop. The coffee beans were supplied by local Soho family business Algerian Coffee Stores, a moment’s walk from the gallery.

Philip, Andreia and Moira were extremely supportive and involved throughout, and lighting designer Ana Stojadinovic helped us with the finishing touches to make sure the display would shine. The project felt like a real team effort, and demonstrated what a fantastic forum the Smallest Gallery in Soho is for emerging artists to develop and showcase their work.

Instagram @helen_pearce_artist
Website www.helen-pearce.com

For more information about The Smallest Gallery in Soho visit www.thesmallestgalleryinsoho.com, or for general enquiries contact: gallery@thegaragesoho.london.


Image: ‘New Progress’ by Helen Pearce and Dan Sansome. Photograph credit: Opal Turner