If Dan Fern’s early work in Die was a non-figurative response to the landscape of the region experienced as a totality, his recent pieces take off from a minute concentration on the natural details of this environment, a shift one might liken to the difference of orientation and perspective between a map and a botanical drawing. ‘In studying the stones and roots,’ he explains, ‘and reflecting on their extraordinary character, I began to see them as objects in their own right: each stone, each section of root, with a unique individual character and history and a sometimes almost mystical aura – a stone which has spent millions of years being sculpted into an “artefact” as perfect as, say, a Japanese ceramic; or a section of pine root, after perhaps a century or more of struggle under the forest floor, now dead and exposed, sun-baked into a sort of timeline, a three-dimensional record of its subterranean encounters with stones, other roots, and insect life.’

This interest in the particular character of natural objects lies behind the images and poetry in the book 44N5E: Stones of the Vercors, exhibited in 2009 at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center in New York. In a note for the show, Fern meditates on the stones’ long journeys, in ‘great winding queues down the high tracks’, to the flood plains and banks of the local rivers: the Roanne, the Bez and the Drôme. He imagines the possible histories of these perfectly resolved stones, whittled and shaped through the ages, and their inextricable link to the history of the valley. In a series of painted photographs, he memorialises individual stones held for contemplation in the void between dark or coloured strata, as though they are floating within a force field created by the poles of irresistible magnets. His films, made more recently, deal with the same theme. In Voyageurs the blurred stones seem to tremble almost ecstatically under the pressure of the camera’s relentless inspection; the light changes, specks of matter blow into the shots, and the stones, carriers of a silent and invisible history that can only be conjectured, radiate the mystery of pure ‘thingness’.

In 2010, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London commissioned Fern to design and construct two large-scale multimedia installations for a four-day arts festival given the theme of ‘Forest’. For one of these installations, he worked for the first time in three dimensions, using seven-metre branches of hornbeam to create a sculptural piece that stood outside in a corner of the piazza, forming a ‘gateway’ to the entrance of the festival. The branches ascended the wall of the opera house, and Fern used hand-painted ropes to bind the wood and provide a backdrop against which films were projected, including one of his own. This was an entirely new area of activity for Fern, requiring novel materials and tools, and a need to think differently about scale and ensure the work could be viewed from many angles. The project opened up a new direction that he has subsequently applied to his foraging in the Vercors.

The outcome is a series of works derived from roots that Fern finds, gathers and carries in bundles back to his studio in Die. As with his earlier pieces based on long walks, the physicality of this harvesting, the risk of injury it sometimes entails, becomes part of its energy and meaning. In a sequence of talismanic collage-drawings, Fern combines painted fabric and photographic material to ‘draw’ a single sharply outlined root-form across the page in a series of sinuous twists and turns, like an aerial view of a coursing stream or a pathway between the rocks. Sometimes he makes direct allusions to the local landscape by adding the identification numbers of hiking trails across the Vercors; these painted annotations could equally be read as ciphers. In the three-dimensional pieces fashioned from roots, Fern will often focus his attention on a single discovery, polishing it, painting it and binding it with coloured strings and ropes and sections of coarse fabric. He forms many other pieces by binding several congruently shaped roots together. As his source photographs indicate, Fern has found many cases where a root has grown around a stone, enfolding it in an intimate and oddly affecting embrace that now conjoins – for who knows how long – their two histories. In a meeting of the parallel strands of his landscape inquiry, he arranges similar marriages of grainy wood and egg-smooth stone. Pictures of his studio show all these pieces – the L’Aup, Sapet, and Solaure series named after the state-owned forests of the Diois region – wriggling in formation across his studio floor, while vertically composed roots from the Jocu series find support against the hard stone walls.

Even the simplest of these pieces transmit a startling totemic power. They break loose from their creator, like any persuasively formed work of art, encouraging lines of interpretation that may not be intended. Could they be ethnographic artefacts crafted for use in some unknown animist ritual? What cannot be mistaken is their deeply felt attachment to the ancient landscape they came from.

Rick Poynor, 2012

(Adapted and expanded from the introductory essay to Walks with Colour, 2006)