David Nash at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

damp and dry
burnt and buried
wood is given
we do not make it
in air it cracks
in fire it burns
in water floats
in earth returns

These words by David Nash contain the essence of his work as a sculptor: creating pieces, always in wood, shaping  living trees or carving ones that have died naturally or been felled for other purposes. His large wood sculptures are sometimes partially burned to produce blackening. His main tools are chainsaw, axe and blowtorch.  Some works are planned as ‘growing’ works to change organically over time – others as ‘disappearing’ works that will erode and decay.

Yesterday three of us visited the large David Nash exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park that presents new work – some of it monumental – as well as providing a definitive overview of his 40-year career.  It’s a magnificent and inspiring exhibition that is worth travelling some distance to see, because photographs can’t really capture the power and intensity of  these pieces. It’s on until January.

In the Gallery Gardens are a number of works created especially for this exhibition, situated alongside pieces of raw wood.  Chinese Irons (above) is a set of metal menhirs,  while Two Sliced Cedars (below) is a charred oak work.

Red Column (above) was carved at YSP from a large trunk of redwood sourced in California, and reminded me of  a totem pole from the same region.  The YSP exhibition guide states:

Red Column continues Nash’s interest in working with the vertical growth of a tree, in connecting earth and sky through root and branch, and relates to Constantin Brancusi’s famous 1938 sculpture Endless Column.  Nash … was inspired by his work as a student.

Nash’s pieces explore the different properties of wood as a material, something made apparent in the displays in the Underground Gallery.  The first sight that greets the visitor in room one is the dramatic weight and form of Oculus Block:

‘a stunning statement of Nash’s confidence in the language of his material and we are immediately confronted by the volume and density of the eucalyptus wood, its smell and texture. Oculus is Latin for eye but is used in this case to refer to a hole that runs down the centre of the piece. The wood cut from the sculpture is arranged against the walls, setting up a kind of rhythm between the centre and edges of the space. David Nash sourced the wood for Oculus Block in Northern California. He carved it there in a woodyard before it was sent to YSP by sea.’

Nash began to use the unseasoned wood of whole tree trunks and limbs after rediscovering forgotten pieces of timber that had continued to change without his intervention.  This approach celebrates his chosen material as it continues to dry, warp and crack, and change in appearance long after he has finished shaping it.

The massive size of Oculus Block suggests a mighty torso that has just sucked in a tremendous draught of air. Its shoulders bulge, it is bursting with power. And when we know that it is eucalyptus, one of the world’s most flammable trees, we understand it also contains incendiary power, a kind of compilation of all the roaring eucalyptus that have burned Australia in recent years. Once, walking in the Blue Mountains eucalypt forests with a fire-fighter friend, I learned that these trees also defy classification, their wild genetics producing new species every year. The resin-rich bark is very beautiful, a mottled skin of greys and tans, shaggy and peeling.
– Annie Proulx

The large, central space of the Underground Gallery contains several important sculptures, many from the artist’s own collection, which relate to each other.  These include Two Vessels (top, foreground), Red Dome (centre) and King and Queen in charred oak (bottom, centre right) and Crag and Cave (right, foreground), made from the crown of a giant yew tree, probably about 1500 years old, which Nash found neglected in a woodyard.

The next room features the striking Millennium Book (2000), two slabs of carved and charred timber with a grid of cut lines, bound together with rusty hinges.  It was made to mark the end of the twentieth century, which Nash felt had been doom-laden; its title “might refer to the wisdom that we had accrued, and possibly lost, as a species in that time”.

A further room documents all of the works created by Nash on his own woodland in North Wales, in particular Ash Dome: an example of a ‘growing’ work, a ring of ash trees he planted in 1977 and trained to form a domed shape. The dome is sited at a secret location somewhere in Snowdonia and whenever it’s filmed, crews are taken there by a circuitous route to guard its security. His planting of twenty two ash trees has committed him to more than thirty years of care, training and pruning and echoes his belief that he begins the works but they are completed by time and circumstance. Nash continues to maintain the Dome and records its changes in different contexts through drawing and photographs displayed here.

In the Bothy Gallery there’s a display and a film made by Nash of the most celebrated of his ‘disappearing’ works – Wooden Boulder, begun in 1978. This work involves the journey of a large wooden sphere down a Welsh mountain stream to the sea.

In Wildwood, Roger Deakin wrote:

If Ash Dome is about putting down roots, Wooden Boulder is an equally radical work about letting go.  It is adventurous in every sense, a great gesture of liberation in which Nash has surrendered his work to nature and the elements and set no limits.  In the summer of 1978 he heard of a great oak that had recently been felled directly uphill …Working the tree where it lay over a two-year period, Nash carved a dozen or more sculptures from it.  The first of these, a giant oak ball three feet in diameter, was originally intended to go into the studio…Nash had the idea of using the nearby stream … to carry the half-ton sphere down…Nash realised it was an opportunity…that would transform the work by enabling him to release it back into nature: to shed it like a leaf.  He would let it go its own way and be a rock in a stream, with water playing about it, freezing to it, papering it with autumn leaves.  From that moment on it became Wooden Boulder, a new kind of work with its own independent life, its own story and the sculptor as its biographer.

Over the years, the boulder has slipped, rolled and sometimes forced by flood through the landscape, following the course of stream and river until it was last seen in the estuary of the river Dwyryd. It may have been washed out to sea or buried in sand in the estuary.

‘It is an important part of the Wooden Boulder story that its material formed on the hill from the elements and minerals of that particular place.  The boulder’s origins go back to the tree as a sapling 200 years ago.’
– David Nash

Next, we took the gallery shuttle to Longside Gallery where pieces from David Nash’s own collection, the ‘congregation’ from the chapel at Capel Rhiw in Blaenau Ffestiniog have taken residence for the year. The arrangement of the pieces in the gallery is designed to recreate the atmosphere of Capel Rhiw (lower photo).

Roger Deakin wrote memorably about a visit to Capel Rhiw in Wildwood:

‘Capel Rhiw, the Victorian Methodist chapel where david Nash lives and works, stands almost grandly in  a row of slate miners’ cottages on the outskirts of the town.  There were once 18,000 people and twenty-six chapels in this Welsh Machu Picchu. […]

I step inside to a surprising burst of pagan colour: the warm glow of wood.  It is a beautiful, uplifting building with little nuggets of primary colour in the stained-glass friezes of its high windows that beam down blue, yellow and red.  I shall not forget the sheer drama of the exuberant throng of Nash’s work that fills the tiered space, literally to the lofty ceiling.  Moving through the chapel, I mingle with the wooden multitude, ‘the congregation’, as Nash calls it.  It is like meeting the family, an unusually big one, exciting and daunting at the same time: impossible to remember all their names, only a general impression that you want to get to know them much better one by one in due course.’

The Longside Gallery exhibits are engrossing, revealing the many ways in which Nash works the different woods, and the processes which he leaves to take their course, to warp and crack the green wood.  I found Standing Frame particularly interesting: a huge timber has been sliced and sawed, revealing how planks or boat hulls can emerge from the chrysalis of the wood.

‘I start with people’s familiarity with wood, through doors, floors, tables and domestic items. Most people are aware of how trees change during the seasons. The material is embedded into our daily lives. Then I enter into the deep history of trees and their culture. But I try to touch the wood as little as possible. I’m not interested in over-carving, polishing and craft. I don’t mind splinters, and I want it to crack. Trees stand for me as a threshold into the huge world of the environment.’
– David Nash, RA Magazine Summer 2010

Annie Proulx writes:

‘For me the most compelling attribute of David Nash’s work is this element of change. Unlike other artists he seems not interested in the static sculpture. The preservation and conservation of a petrified forest are not part of his style. Because he uses raw, uncured, untreated wood, change is inevitable. Wood splits, cracks, warps, opens fissures, changes colour, displays its knots and swellings, flaunts a grain, succumbs to fungal and microbial growths, to natural chemistries and mineralisation, softens and loses bits of itself, decays. Everything in the world moves toward decay…’

Here you can follow the ideas present in his work and see how each idea has inspired another. This is illustrated beautifully in the large-scale drawings of The Family Tree where the genealogy of each idea can be followed backwards and forwards through time:

If anyone looks at my work as a whole, it is a bit like a tree, there are different branches and different themes but there are cross references to them. Each new branch of forms feeds back into the central trunk of the tree.

Here, also is a very different kind of work:  Nash created An Awful Falling 9.11 in 2001 after seeing images and film footage of the attacks on the Twin Towers, New York. It was not his intention to make a work in response, the exhibition notes inform, but he realised that a piece of beech he was developing looked ‘hauntingly like’ one of the images he had seen of the aftermath. The installation is displayed on its own as Nash sees it as separate from the evolution of his own practice, being a direct reference to global events. In his career Nash strives to make positive interventions in his environment, to work with natural processes and to develop a practice that both attempts to make sense of, and also celebrates, the world around us and our place within it. His career is inspired by the lived experience, including the tragic, the profound, and the gently humorous.

Outside is Trunk & Butt (above), another monumental work of charred elm and redwood, looking back across the valley to Bretton Hall and the YSP Centre.  The pieces were charred on site: there’s an account of the slightly hair-raising process here on Culture Colony.

For some years now British landscape artists such as Goldsworthy, David Nash and Richard Long have been looked down upon by many in the art establishment. They have been regarded, despite their wide appeal and international success, as latter-day 1960s renegades, too metaphysical, too intense, too lyrical and unapologetically moral. This is an age that is more comfortable with cynicism than with the stench of dung and death. Yet never has there been a time when these artists’ work was more resonant, as the planet warms and old landscapes are destroyed. There is something inspirational in Goldsworthy’s devotion to the skills of handling wood and stone, to the crafts of stonewalling and forestry that are rapidly dying out in rural life. He deals with the big questions: those of mortality, memory, history and our place in the fast-disappearing natural world.
– Sue Hubbard, New Statesman, April 2007

‘I think Andy Goldsworthy and I, and Richard Long, and most of the British artists’ collectives associated with Land art would have been landscape painters a hundred years ago. But we don’t want to make portraits of the landscape. A landscape picture is a portrait. We don’t want that. We want to be in the land.’
– David Nash

‘Once I am installed with all my equipment and the sawdust starts to fly, a dynamic chain of possibilities begins to reveal itself.  The tree becomes a vein of material which I can excavate, the site becomes a quarry, vibrant with sawdust, big wood shapes, offcuts, branches, and the working tools – saws, levers, chain hoist, winch: a wood quarry.’
– David Nash


5 thoughts on “David Nash at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

  1. Engaging sculpture, impressively monumental and quite moving. I much prefer his works to his words though. They deserve to be viewed in complete silence

  2. Hello,

    I’m not quite sure how to email David Nash but I think, I hope, I may have some info on his piece of art Wooden Boulder. So if you could give me his email or his mine that would be super.

    Katrina Evans

    1. Katrina, I’m not in touch with David Nash – but why don’t you try contacting the Yorkshire Sculpture Park? I’m sure they’d have it, or pass on a message.

    2. Saw the film of the Wooden Boulder at the YSP a couple of years ago and wondered what happened to it.. My parents still visit the YSP an might be able to talk to someone there about it

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