Neville Gabie, Experiments in Black and White, WOMAD 2014, Wiltshire

Fine art at festivals? Does it maintain its integrity or just become part of the entertainment? David Lillington went to see artist Neville Gabie at this year's WOMAD world music festival

By David Lillington

Neville Gabie, WOMAD 2014 commission 2014, film installations and swing, Courtesy the artist, photo: Stuart Ward Neville Gabie, WOMAD 2014 commission, film installation, Courtesy the artist, photo: Stuart Ward Neville Gabie, 'Collective Breath' tent, WOMAD 2014 commission, Courtesy the artist, photo: Stuart Ward Neville Gabie, WOMAD 2014 commission, collecting breath, Courtesy the artist, photo: Stuart Ward Neville Gabie, WOMAD 2014 commission, performance drawing, Courtesy the artist, photo: Stuart Ward Neville Gabie, WOMAD 2014 commission, performance drawing, Courtesy the artist, photo: Stuart Ward

When I first met artist Neville Gabie, in 2009, he'd just come back from Antarctica, after spending four months on the British Antarctic Survey Artists and Writers Programme. What I most remember about this is that firstly, he selected the grimmest place over the most beautiful (he had to choose between two survey stations) and secondly, he took Cormac McCarthy's The Border Trilogy with him, and read it. Neville is hard. Though you wouldn't guess it to meet him, he is the easiest, most personable man you could imagine. He tells me if I want to understand his work, it's his roots in South Africa that hold the key. His roots there, his friends, his frequent visits.

The collective title of his three projects (short films, a performative drawing and a participatory project) I’ve come to see at this year's WOMAD festival in Wiltshire, Experiments in Black and White, (commissioned for the festival), I assumed to have something to do with the nature of the event, with people and music from all races and nationalities, but it turned out it's about crude oil, ice, chalk – black and white materials. But then Gabie tells me: 'actually it is about those things, about people; it's an ongoing long-term title, with already a few sections and incarnations.' And chalk is about quarries, oil about wells, which both need people to work them.

the physical presence of the swing and the formidable array of electrics behind the film screens work perfectly in the landscape of nature plus machines plus people which is this environment

The short films, depicting the artist undertaking arduous tasks involving the different materials, are shown as open air installations, with the films involving repetitive actions using oil and chalk presented either side of a swing hung from a tree. His performative drawing is created by the artist dragging a chalk boulder along a tarmac path. They all fit in with the noise and festival ambience rather well. They bring politics, in a subtle but clear way. But also, in formal terms, the physical presence of the swing, the formidable array of electrics behind the film screens and even Gabie’s white-coated assistants – all work perfectly in the landscape of nature plus machines plus people which is this environment. As does the tent containing Gabie’s project about air, Collective Breath, in which festival-goers are invited to deposit their breath into a bag, to be transferred to a pressurised container. The collective breath is released at a later date and the sound recorded, highlighting a connection between breath and sound, a vital element in music-making, obviously relevant at a music festival.

The swing helps, Gabie says. 'Install a swing and you're guaranteed an audience. Actually the hardest thing about this whole project was convincing Lord Suffolk (who owns the site) that my swing wouldn't damage his tree', a huge Quercus Oak.

Gabie clearly has an audience, and even while I was there, which wasn't very long, people were watching the films, and some asked if he was the guy who had been dragging the boulder of chalk up and down every day, adding how much they liked this performance. 'Mad but curiously brilliant,' says one.

Going back to hardness: Gabie standing on a block of ice in the desert for six hours or painting a black room white with a rock, these are activities that relate to real people's lives, not just some idea of endurance performance on video. Nevertheless much of his art does seem to be about his body – ‘it is, very much,’ he says.

Gabie gets most excited when recounting a story about how interesting he found the pure mathematicians, with their blackboards and equations, during a recent year-long residency he undertook at the Cabot Institute in Bristol, where they were researching clean air.

‘It's really physical and intense. Chalk dust gathers in piles on the floor. One mathematician told me, "you can keep up with a piece of chalk in a way that you can't with a computer, or a pen and paper." So this sparked off the chalk thing for me. It's something about the physical doing of it, the standing up to work and so on.' So there is a body-mind connection for him here.

Then he tells me about going to the limestone quarry on South Africa’s Robben Island, where the limestone is very similar to chalk. 'The prisoners broke chalk and laid it, and then took it up again - so it was a pointless activity.'

Gabie on the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica - nothing but ice as far as the eye can see, shown on a screen in a field; Gabie pouring crude oil into buckets, while a swing swings - it all sits well in the grass and machinery of a festival. As Gabie says, 'the thing about working in a place like this is, you want to fit in, and properly, genuinely, but without compromising your integrity. The chalk drawing connects with work I've been doing in my studio. You just have to do what you do, but also give people a way in. The chalk-drawing performance is good because people see you doing something. If you are an artist working in a 'public domain' some people think it can't be serious. It's always that way. And I do want to connect with a wide public - but as I say, without compromising.'

Gabie makes connecting art and people look easy and it clearly is art and not visual spectacle or gimmick. The success is due, I think, to the fact that Gabie’s work – however process-based or abstract - is always at bottom about people, about the human situation. He is, for sure, an underrated artist. He is also a man going round and round things, or that's how he comes across, in person, here, and in his art. Whatever these things are, they probably do have their source in South Africa, where, as he says, 'you are constantly confronted. I don't mean in any violent way, I have never felt threatened there, I mean, just everything you encounter challenges you.'

Online exclusive August 2014