Alternative Futures: Cooking Sections and Sakiya

Want to know how salmon help trees grow? How we can build low-carbon tiling from waste shells? Why giving land back to the community helps tackle the climate crisis? These are the questions raised by an inspiring new show, In the Eddy of the Stream, at Climate House at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. Created by UK-based artistic duo Cooking Sections and the Palestinian creative collective Sakiya, it includes mussel-shell terrazzo paving, salmon-scale sculptures, and selections of plants from the Botanic archives that show the relationship between botany and empire.

SCAN sat down to talk with Emma Nicolson, Head of Creative Programmes at the Botanic Garden, after a mind-expanding visit to the gallery. Scotland was still in the grips of a scorching heatwave, and the thinking behind this exhibition, and Nicolson’s wider plans to re-tool the artistic programme at the former Inverleith House for the age of global warming, seemed more timely than ever. The Climate House project, for example, which has created shows like In the Eddy of the Stream for Edinburgh, is “also about the practical work we do around the house: thinking about which materials that we use, and how to recycle artists’ work.”

Cooking Sections’ participatory art and events encourage us to think about our relationship with the natural world, including what we eat, and how to eat according to our “climatic conditions.” That means thinking about things like what food grows naturally where we live, and how it might help to develop local ecosystems and replenish soil. These are questions that we as audiences can take into our daily lives. They don’t require any specialist skills to act on, just information, an open mind, and an interest in making positive changes.

A close-up image of Emma Nicolson looking at a hanging scuplture, a two-dimensional sheet of metal that represents a blown-up salmon scale. The rings in the scale are represented by concentric semi-rings of gaps in the sculpture.

For this show the artists have expanded their work to consider how different flora and fauna can be sustainably used in a whole range of ways. Salmon-Breeding Forest, for example, is a set of sculptural works and wall-based pieces, including a beautiful, hanging silver salmon-scale, Salmon Records, exploring the idea of fish-breeding forests. “The idea dates back to a 10th-century practice in Japan,” Nicolson says. “Fishermen knew that if they depleted the forests around the river, the fish stocks sunk, so they’ve always gone up the river and planted trees to encourage the health of the river. At the turn of the 19th century this idea was put into the constitution in Japan. So, it’s not a radical idea.”

The relationship between fish and forest is to do with the “Phytoplankton” that salmon eat, providing them with iron, nitrogen, and phosphorus. The fish release these substances upstream where they nourish trees on the bank, or, the minerals reach the woodland via the droppings of birds that have eaten blowflies, which in turn have fed on the salmon. The trees grow and provide shading, making a healthier breeding ground for salmon. As part of the research for this show, the artists have been working with RBGE ecologist Chris Ellis to identify marine nutrients in the trunks of trees next to salmon breeding grounds in the Cairngorms. It’s a simple idea but one that has “blown people’s minds,” Nicolson says. Unfortunately, since the time of the Highland Clearances, much of Scotland’s rural land has been given over to sheep farming, with forests cleared and wild salmon numbers reduced as a result.

As this suggests, the question of how land and water are used is connected to the question of who owns them. For one of their artworks, Recalling Recollection, Palestinian collective Sakiya have gathered botanical specimens that were sent from Palestine to the Botanic Garden during the early 20th century. These plants, many of which are edible or have medicinal properties, were seen as weeds by the British Mandate which controlled the area. They cleared many of them using chemicals and uprooting. Today, the exhibition explains, contemporary seizures of Palestinian land are used to create areas of greenery: ecology can be a colonial project, too.

This show doesn’t shy away from these challenges, but it is also about optimism: from learning how we can create a healthier Highlands to marvelling at tiling made from crushed up mussel waste-shells used in food preparation (this involves much lower temperatures than are normally required). “I think it’s really important to provide a pathway for people to engage with the future,” Nicolson says. “Devising new materials, thinking about circular economies, changing diet, sparking imaginations to try to make a difference….I hope that’s what this exhibition does.”

Image 1: Emma Nicolson at the Cooking Sections and Sakiya exhibition In the Eddy of the Stream at Climate House, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. Photograph: Neil Hanna.
Image 2: Emma Nicolson looks at Cooking Sections’ 2022 artwork Salmon Records, pairing a blown-up model of a salmon scale with a tree-core taken from a Scots pine in the Cairngorms. Photograph: Neil Hanna.