David Nash at Kew: the language of wood

In The Secret Life of Trees, Colin Tudge notes that the ancient Greek philosophers assumed that all material things, inert or living thing, were composed of earth, air, fire and water.   Although that belief might seem ridiculous to our scientific understanding, he goes on to explain that, in the case of trees, it makes sense.  Trees manufacture their own nutrients, drawing the energy to do this from the sun (fire), and then extracting nutrients and water from the soil, breathing in carbon dioxide from the air and releasing oxygen back into the atmosphere.

It’s an elemental process, and there is something elemental about the sculptures which David Nash creates, whether quarried from wood – carved, sawn and sliced, gouged or charred – or evoking woodiness, but cast in iron or bronze.  We had been over to the YSP twice a couple of years back to see the major Nash exhibition there, so when we spent a few days in London last week a visit to see the results of his recent residency at Kew Gardens was a must.

The YSP exhibition was truly memorable, but strolling around the exhibits at Kew, as flocks of parakeets screeched through the treetops and planes passed overhead every two minutes on the descent to Heathrow, it seemed to me that this one had something special: Nash had positioned each piece to engage in silent conversation with a tree nearby.

Indeed, before seeing any of the Nash pieces, it was a single tree before which we stood in awe. We had arrived at Kew exactly 25 years to the day since the Great Storm of 15 October 1987 that felled around 15 million trees nationwide. 700 trees were lost at Kew, but Turner’s Oak (above) survived, despite its root system being lifted right up before settling back down.  The tree is a cross between an English oak and a holm oak. It was created in the Essex nursery of Mr Turner in 1783 and planted in Kew’s original arboretum in 1798.  The Great Storm didn’t kill the tree: quite the opposite, it was given a new lease of life.  Before the storm the tree had shown signs of stress, its roots having become compacted by people sheltering under it for years. Afterwards its roots had been ‘decompacted’ and had more space, air and water to help it grow. Seeing this, Kew’s staff quickly developed decompaction methods for use on other trees.

I want a simple approach to living and doing.  I want a life and work that reflects the balance and continuity of nature.  Identifying with the time and energy of the tree and with its mortality.  I find myself drawn deeper into the joys and blows of nature.  Worn down and regenerated; broken off and reunited; a dormant faith revived in the new growth of old wood.
– David Nash

The Kew exhibition has had the creation of new works at its heart.  We arrived the day after David Nash finally ceased working on new pieces at the Wood Quarry established in the grounds in April, and where visitors were able to see Nash and his team cut and shape sculptures before being placed for display.

Many monumental sculptures were situated outdoors, throughout the gardens.  Two Sliced Cedars (below) was made in 2010 from wood sourced in Sussex. This is one of his works where Nash has chosen to char the sculpture to emphasise the form, the dense black reinforcing the sense of solid outline and dense weight.  At Kew, these pieces are situated within sight of a row of Atlas cedars.

Black Trunk was an old favourite from the YSP show in 2010, where it was charred by laying planks of wood all the way around the Californian redwood it in a conical teepee shape with dry kindling which was set on fire. Nash charred Black Trunk alongside Black Butt and in doing so, linked them, creating a pair (see my earlier post). They have since become separate as Nash feels that Black Trunk can stand on its own. Black Butt being a very old piece of elm would rapidly deteriorate outside so it has been cast into bronze.

The bronzes are quite disorienting: the finished surface of the bronze has taken on the the colour and original texture of the charred wood so convincingly that, until you touch them, you cannot tell that they are metal.  Nash has chosen to make bronze casts from wood sculptures that would not last well outside.  This is Black Butt in its bronze form and, below, with King and Queen II.

For Nash, sphere, cube and pyramid are ‘universal forms’ with a deep spiritual significance, and these forms were repeated in several different locations. Nash says, ‘these are basic geometric shapes that we do tend to see in the natural landscape when they are present, even as a mere suggestion.’  He believes that the visual arts bounce off this logic, where ‘artists find forms that are deeply recognised by our fellow human beings.’

Near to Nash’s home in North Wales, waste tips from the local slate mines make geometric shapes in the landscape:

For over thirty years, I have lived at the foot of one of Blaenau Ffestiniog’s slate tips, formed from unusable slate from the workings… the structure of the tip is one of horizontal and diagonal lines. My work involves geometric cuts into the natural form of the wood and I think that these geometrical forms have grown in me while I have lived among these slate tips.’

Black Sphere (above) is made from layers of 10 inch by 10 inch beams, stacked on top of one another. On two sides you can see all end-grain – the wood in cross section. On the other two sides, the wood is worked along the grain. This short video shows Nash’s team assembling the sculpture.

In the Temperate House, Nash’s sculptures play a game of hide and seek among the dense foliage, and the same geometric shapes are present.

The exciting thing for me is to see my work in the jungle. To put them among plants, which is where they came from.’
– David Nash

Nash curated these geometric shapes based on their structure and form in relation to each other and the surrounding organic forms of the tree ferns. The bronze forms of Cube Sphere and Pyramid (below) are suited to this moist setting since the bronze from which they are made can withstand the damp.

Many of Nash’s sculptures explore our dependence on nature – and specifically wood – for basic survival tools and utensils. He expresses it this way:

My lifework as an artist working mainly with wood has drawn me into the science and anthropology of trees. They have a profound wisdom evolved over millions of years. For every civilisation, wood is fundamental survival material for heating and building and so much more… I make objects based on this common language that are  motivated by an idea, an attitude, of a practical, healthy relationship with our outer skin, the environment.’
– David Nash

Mizunara Bowl is one such work. It was made from the trunk of a mizunara or Japanese oak in northern Japan. The oak’s lighter sapwood forms a natural edge to the bowl.  Mizunara Bowl is made from a single piece of wood, the ‘bowl’ sitting on a ‘table’. Nash describes the tipped-up form of the bowl as ‘speaking outward’ towards Throne in the centre of the glasshouse. He has also placed this work as a greeting to the Temperate House exhibition.

Throne (below) was originally made for the Mappin Art Gallery in Sheffield, where it was displayed in the gallery’s high-ceilinged apse. This gave Nash the opportunity to exploit a vertical space, which he has also been able to do here in the Temperate House.

Napa Ladders was made in California, from an evergreen species of oak. Tables, ladders, chairs and shelters are all basic human tools and utensils, and all recur in Nash’s work. Ladders are practical tools but Napa Ladders are symbolic objects. To Nash, they have taken on forms that allude to people’s dependence on wood. They almost look like they are staggering, wobbly, but also on the point of standing up and running.

Trees show their time-story through their form. In life they stand balanced, spreading, defiant, weaving the elemental forces of light, warmth, water, air and earth into their material body. In death their wood continues to change; bright and fresh at first, easy to split and work,  until it dries and cures into hard and useful lengths. We bring it inside: fuel for fires, heat and cooking,  for shelter in walls, doors and roofs, for our domestic life in table, stool, bowl and spoon.  In so doing we “borrow” it from its natural cycle of coming and going. Left outside it surrenders to insects and fungi that live and feed on it, taking it back, reintegrating it into the ground as humus.
– David Nash

Another superb piece in the Temperate House is Cave, made from yew which has been partially charred to bring enhance the contrast between the blackened areas and the rich reddish tones in the surrounding wood which replicate the red sandstone rocks which surround the sculpture.  Nash likens the texture of Cave to ‘scholar stones’– naturally occurring rock formations that have historically been valued by Chinese scholars and garden designers for their aesthetic forms.

Two of the most exciting works on show are Cork Dome and Cork Spire. Both are entirely new works assembled at Kew Gardens, and they also see Nash working with a new material, cork oak.  Cork Dome was inspired by a visit to Portugal in 2010 when Nash stayed on a cork farm during the cork harvest.

Cork oak forests are protected by the European Union.  In Portugal, which has the the world’s largest area of cork oak, the trees cannot be legally cut down, except as part of a forest management programme.  The trees are only harvested once they reach maturity, then they can be harvested every nine or ten years.  After being stripped, each tree is marked with the year of its harvest.  The first two harvests produce cork suitable for uses such as flooring and insulation.  Later harvests can also be used to manufacture wine stoppers. A close-up of Cork Dome reveals the texture and beauty of the arranged pieces of bark.

Cork Spire is a stunning piece, its rough textures contrasting sharply with the austere beauty of the Nash Conservatory where it is situated.It’s a towering structure with huge presence, and on the day we were there, its dimensions were being recorded and sketched by silently absorbed art students.

The Nash Conservatory is such a beautiful and wonderful space that I made the decision to make a single installation in here rather than a group of sculptures. I know the space, and then when the shapes come, it’s sort of like cooking; you’re bringing all the ingredients together.
– David Nash

Nash sees cork oak as illustrative of his own philosophy about our relationship with the natural world. Just as the cork back forms the outer shell of the tree, so he regards the environment as ‘our outer skin’. ‘We are in and of the environment; we are not apart from it or its master – and everything that we do impacts upon it, for better or for worse,’ he says. The farming of cork oak is one of the best examples of traditional sustainable land use because the trees can regenerate their spongy bark and therefore be stripped of it every ten years. Cork oak forests also support a rich community of many species. If we stop using cork, he insists, the trees will be cut down, the land re-used and this biodiversity lost.

One of the most striking exhibits at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2010 was Oculus Block, a gigantic piece of eucalyptus weighing 10,000 kilos.  At the entrance to the Princess of Wales Conservatory, Nash has sited a huge offcut from Oculus Block, named Oculus Slab. It’s a dramatic cross-section of the eucalyptus trunk: the hole in the middle of this piece runs vertically through the core of Oculus Block, between multiple trunks that had fused together.

In the Shirley Sherwood Gallery Nash has assembled a lavish display of works from all stages of his career, illustrating many of his recurring themes and forms.  There are works across a range of media – from wood sculptures of table forms, vessels, cubes and columns, to drawings, photographs and film.

There are some wonderful tree studies – charcoal drawings of trees at Kew, including lime, sweet chestnut, maple and beech that he did this spring – while Blue Ring (below) began as a living work when, in the winter of 1983, Nash planted thousands of bluebell bulbs in a 30 metre ring on an open slope at Cae’n-y-Coed. Every spring, just for two or three weeks, a circular concentration of blue was visible amidst a sparser sea of blue, gradually dispersing back into the general swathe of bluebells after four years.  As a way of recapturing this blueness, Nash has here gathered bluebell seeds, which are a deep indigo blue, to create a loosely scattered circle, accompanied by a loose blue pastel circle on canvas on the wall.

And then there is a Wooden Boulder Journey (below), an elegant calligraphic line signifying the journey of Wooden Boulder - a  rough sphere carved out of an old oak with a chainsaw – downhill, by river, to the Irish Sea.

During the next 24 years storms moved it down a local stream nine times, and eventually into the River Dwyrwyd where it floated frequently up and down the estuary according to the tides, wind and rainfall.  In 2003 it disappeared and after a long search it was assumed to have gone into the  sea. In 2008 it reappeared briefly in the estuary. It has not been seen since. Nash remarks:

It is not lost, it is where ever it is.

David Nash speaks the language of wood.  He says in the exhibition catalogue:

Working within the Gardens provides me with an opportunity to continue my explorations into the science and anthropology of trees. …Every activity that takes place under the name of Kew, from saving seeds for future generations at the Millenium Seed Bank, to caring for on-site plant-based artefacts and collections, as well as the overwhelming physicality of the Gardens themselves, carries a message that reminds us that we cannot separate ourselves from the natural world.  Our actions, from everyday activities to essential; industrial work, have an impact on it.  My work invites the same consideration.  Nature is the essence of our continued existence – it guides us spiritually and takes care of us practically.

On a last circuit of the Gardens, we encountered Kew’s Lucombe oak, a fine, spreading tree, nearly as old as the trees planted in the Gardens’ first years back in the 18th century. Remarkably, this tree has moved.  At the age of 73, it was moved when the great avenue of Syon Vista was being created nearby.  In what would have been a major operation, a sloping trench was dug from its old location to the present one. With the root ball prepared to preserve as much of the root system as possible, it was dragged up the slope by a horse or ox team and earth built up around it, forming the mound it sits on today.

Gallery

In this gallery (the first I have made using a great new WordPress feature), you can browse all of the David Nash sculptures that I saw at Kew.  Hover your mouse over an image for the name of the sculpture; click it to view it full size.

See also

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10 thoughts on “David Nash at Kew: the language of wood

  1. walk the Druids Grove at Mickleham, you will be in the company of some of the oldest living things on the face of this planet, that is a truly humbling experience. Consider also the mystery of the lime tree which once thrived here, but stopped reproducing itself after Britain was cut off from mainland Europe by the creation of the North Sea & the English Channel. The lime tree flowers at midsummer & I have argued that the Venerable Bede’s calendrical ‘Litha’ comment in fact references the lime tree month.

  2. That the ancient Greek said that everything is composed of water, fire, earth and air, does not sound ridiculous to me. Our scientific understanding may see things differently, having gone deeper in making artifical materials. I think that those Greek stood closer to the basic and more natural essence of things. Closer to nature. Something we have lost, almost.
    Trees. I have always had a love for trees. I stop on the road to look at one. I like touching them. They are directly connected to earth and air. Ancient peoples worshipped them. They can be found on special locations, like the crossings of li-lines.
    I like being with trees. I remember this special remote place in Chile where I went for a walk and suddenly found myself surrounded by some magnificent old trees. I sat down and spent some time there. It was special.
    The big tree in my parents’ garden has always had a special meaning to the whole family. It’s the place where we have gathered so many times.
    Unfortunately, very unfortunately, I don’t have a garden. But I do have wood in the house. Branches I pick up here and there. Even a 5 meter tall branch I found on the other side of town. It doesn’t fit in a car, nor a bus, nor a cab, nor an elevator. But I had to bring it home. So I walked, carrying it, making heads turn. When I moved apartments, I had to insist, almost beg the movers to put my tree in the truck.
    Well, i love trees. Guess that was clear.
    So you can guess how much i would love to see Nash’s trees!

    • I appreciate you stopping by, reading, and taking the time to write a lovely response. You capture many of the ways in which trees are very special for many people (see also the Thomas poem posted by Kris below).

  3. “I should prefer the truth
    Or nothing. Here, in fact, is nothing at all
    Except a silent place that once rang loud,
    And trees and us—imperfect friends, we men
    And trees since time began; and nevertheless
    Between us still we breed a mystery.”

    ‘The Chalk-Pit’

    Edward Thomas, [1878-1917].

    • Thanks, Kris, for both your responses. Those lines from Thomas are just perfect – especially as, at the end of a long poetic dialogue, they come, not from the romantic, but from the realist’s mouth. I recall, too, that the trees that once stood at the chalk pit were ash – now the UK’s ash trees are threatened by a killer fungus (see http://bit.ly/WFBBja and http://bit.ly/WFBRib) about which, as George Monbiot points out in a superb tirade in today’s Guardian, the government is doing bugger all (http://bit.ly/WFBWSV)

      • Hi Gerry,

        Thanks. Well Edward Thomas gave his life for those desk loving bureaucrats who today care for nothing except ‘status based on salary’, it is deeply saddening – our world is becoming culturally shallower by the moment despite new technology & probably also due to direct government intervention in state education dating back to the 1990s. Whitehall (what happened to Devolution?) cares nothing for wildlife or the countryside which it sees as obstacles to progress in terms of concreting over the British Isles – apart from golf courses of course – and raising, in the place of forests and green spaces, private and lucrative developments of affordable housing that no-one can afford.

  4. Beautiful post!
    In your presentation I especially like “Cork Dome 1″ & “Blue Ring”, very different in material and form, but still sharing a wonderful simplicity.

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