After seeing the profound and meditative works by Ai Weiwei in the chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park last week, I spent some time looking at the current exhibition in the Longside Gallery there: Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966 – 1979.
Artists operating in the category of Land Art have created some of the most intriguing and inspiring art works that we have seen over the years, so I was interested in an exhibition that sets out to explore the early years of the movement in Britain. Featuring works by many artists, Uncommon Ground – a touring exhibition from the Arts Council Collection – is described on the YSP website as ‘the most comprehensive exhibition of British Land art to date.’ Fair enough – but note the dates. The range of this exhibition’s is limited, with most works dating from the late 1970s.
Nevertheless, that still means that you have the opportunity of direct encounters with some seminal works in the story of British Land Art – key pieces by Richard Long, Antony Gormley, Andy Goldsworthy and David Nash alone are worth the trip.
In the late 1960s, as the exhibition guide notes, artists on both sides of the Atlantic turned away from the enclosed spaces of the studio and gallery and went out into the landscape to forge new forms of art:
This art encompassed a wide range of practices and attitudes, including elements of sculpture, performance and photography, and went under several names: Land art, earth art, process art and ecological art, among others. Of these terms, Land art has come to be most widely used internationally. Artists working in Britain were part of this phenomenon, but here Land art took distinct forms: predominantly Conceptual and ephemeral, handmade and organic. The key strategies developed in the UK included the photographic documentation of actions, the positioning of walking and travelling as creative acts, an exploration of locality and a keen awareness of rural traditions and contexts. […] At the same time, the term ‘landscape’ was also being questioned and transformed by artists, provoking a renewed interest in older forms of landscape art, and in historic landscapes. From being seen as something old-fashioned and redundant, landscape became the ground of radical artistic experiment.
One of the first things you see when you enter the Longridge gallery is Antony Gormley’s ‘Flat Tree’ (1978), made while he was still a postgraduate student at The Slade School of Fine Art, and one of his earliest ‘tree works’. The work was made from the trunk of a small larch that was sawn into thin slices and then, starting with the smallest slices, arranged on the floor of the gallery in the form of a spiral.
Richard Long, Stone Circle, 1972 (photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy of YSP)
A key figure in British Land Art right up to the present has been Richard Long. ‘Stone Circle’ is one of Long’s first indoor gallery works made of stones he had gathered while out walking. It consists of 61 stones, collected on the seashore near Portishead, not far from where he lives. Since then Long has travelled extensively to make his work and has used a vast range of stones gathered during his long walks. Often, he sources stones that are local to the place where an exhibition is staged. Even in this small selection of local stones there is a diversity of colour and shape, suggestive of the richness that can be seen in the environment anywhere if its constituent elements are looked at closely.
Many of the works on show are typical of the genre in that they existed in their original format for only the brief moment of their creation, but were captured by the artist in text, photo or drawing. Such is Richard Long’s ‘Footstones’ from 1979, which consists of five black and white photographs, plus text, recording a 126 mile walk by Long across England, from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. At five points along the way, Long made cairns of local stones by the path (as walkers often do), and then photographed them. The accompanying text is suggestive of the topography of the land which Long had traversed, and of the effort involved:
82 stones at 82 feet above sea level. 1450 stones at 1450 feet above sea level. 754 stones at 754 feet above sea level.
And so on…
Another series of black-and-white photographs documents a walk that Long made in 1979, from the neolithic settlement Windmill Hill in Wiltshire to Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, site of the world’s first cast iron bridge. The text that Long has added to the photographs reinforce a point succinctly made by Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man six years earlier: ‘Man is not a figure on the landscape – he is a shaper of the landscape.’ To his image of the mound on Windmill Hill, Long adds the words: ‘The Windmill Hill folk were the first inhabitants of England to make permanent changes in the landscape.’ To the image of the Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale – looking beautiful in mist and a scattering of snow – he simply appends the statement that ‘Coalbrookdale was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’.
In a statement made in 1969 and displayed alongside ‘Stone Circle’, Richard Long said;
Well, England is covered with huge mounds and converted hill and probably you know Stonehenge, although that is one of the least impressive of all the things. In fact, most of England has had its shape changed – practically the whole place, because it has been ploughed over for centuries – rounded off.
Once, in an article for the Guardian, Jonathan Jones described Long’s work as ‘A hymn of love to the earth‘:
Here is an artist who set out, in the 1960s, to relate to nature in a new way, making art in the landscape without scarring it. A deep respect for the earth is manifest in everything he does. Long’s art was biodegradable before anyone used the word. It remembers the first human marks, so simple they seem part of nature – megalithic mounds, stone circles.
Richard Long, ‘Windmill Hill to Coalbrookdale’, 1979
Similar to Long’s work in its documentation of walks through photography and text are the pieces displayed here by Hamish Fulton. In common with several other artists in the Uncommon Ground exhibition, he studied at St Martins School of Art in the late 1960s. Fulton’s early works were photographic montages that established connections between different sites and times. In 1973, having walked 1,022 miles in 47 days from Duncansby Head to Land’s End, Fulton resolved to ‘only make art resulting from the experience of individual walks. He stated ‘If I do not walk I cannot make a work of art’. From this point on, single images and succinct descriptive texts give essential information about his walks and allow the viewer to engage with Fulton’s own experience.
Hamish Fulton, A Four Day One Hundred Mile Walk, Iceland 1976
The most striking work here is ‘A Four Day One Hundred Mile Walk, Iceland’ from 1976, a stunning panaromic landscape with a dark storm cloud at its centre. Fulton’s photograph captures the storm cloud as it expands outwards towards the diminishing light at the edges of the frame.
Boyle Family, Bonfire Study, 1976
Why confine your investigation of land and landscape to the countryside? That’s what the Boyle Family seem to be arguing in their work, several examples of which are displayed here. The Boyle Family were a collaborative family project, active in London primarily in the 1960s and 1970s. The Boyles began to make ‘site studies’ of randomly selected locations (often in urban wastelands) which resulted minutely detailed relief sculptures of the ground displayed as large relief blocks that look as if they have been sliced directly from the terrain. They are, in fact, detailed reconstructions using fibreglass, soil, resin and paint. ‘Olaf Street Study’ (1966) is from a series of London studies selected at random from a map of London, and is made from brick, mixed media, resin and board. ‘Bonfire Study’ (1976) consists of coal, wood, stones, ash and earth on a bed of fibre glass. It’s a kind of contemporary urban archaeology.
Andy Goldsworthy, Hanging Trees
Perhaps the artist most closely identified with the British Land Art movement is Andy Goldsworthy. On the walk up to Longridge gallery you pass two examples of his work that have had a permanent home at YSP since he created them here in 2007 to mark the YSP’s 30th anniversary. ‘Hanging Trees’, built into one of the estate’s ha-has, was intended by Goldsworthy to be suggestive of the changes that have taken place on this land:
The tension between tree and wall is evocative of the historical tension between a forested landscape and one which is farmed. A field, cleared of trees, is the site of a battle that has occurred between a farmer and the land.
‘Hanging Trees’ also reflects Goldsworthy’s thoughts on the complex relationship between wood and stone – something that has been central to his work, with stone traditionally viewed as permanent and trees symbolic of mortal life.
Meanwhile, ‘Outclosure’ is a demonstration, both of Goldsworthy’s dry stonewalling skills and his reflections on the significance of this traditional feature of the farmed landscape. Dry stone walls are evidence of human control of the land, and have been the cause of much social conflict. The issue of land access has been a thread running through Goldsworthy’s work for a long time. ‘Outclosure’ is a direct, physical illustration of the act of making a place inaccessible: a circular high stone wall seals off a space inexplicably.
Andy Goldsworthy, Outclosure
In the Longridge gallery four photographs,grouped in a grid, represent another aspect of Goldsworthy’s work – the documentation by photography of a fleeting, ephemeral intervention into nature by the artist. ‘Forked Twigs in Water- Bentham’ (1979) and ‘Balanced Rocks’ (1978) are displayed along side each other, a contrast of positive and negative space.
Andy Goldsworthy, Forked Twigs in Water, Bentham, 1979
Andy Goldsworthy, Balanced rocks. Morecambe Bay, Lancashire May 1978
These works are some of Andy Goldsworthy’s earliest. They were made in the landscape using only the materials available on site. Goldsworthy worked with his hands and used only natural materials such as rocks, leaves, branches – or snow and ice, as in the two snowball works displayed here. The works were ephemeral, photographed at the moment of completion, and then left to erode or decay. Although using photography, Goldsworthy sees himself as a sculptor, exploring the properties of different materials and engaging with sculptural ideas such as mass, balance, space and form.
Andy Goldsworthy, Black (soil covered) Snowball, 1979
Andy Goldsworthy, Snowball made from last remaining patch of snow left in the shadow of a tall hedge, High Bentham, Yorkshire, February 1979
Like several other artists who became central to British Land Art, Goldsworthy studied at St Martins School of Art in London in the sixties. Unhappy with the restrictions of the studio, he began to work several days each week at Morecambe Bay, where he made exploratory work with sand, stones and his own body, sculptural work and actions that he documented photographically. Goldsworthy had little awareness of the Land Art movement until 1976 when Richard Long and David Nash visited Preston Polytechnic to lecture. In the late 1970s he received important support and encouragement from Nash, working at Nash’s home in Wales for a period.
Andy Goldsworthy, Slate Throw, Blaenau Ffestiniog, 1980
There is a brilliant documentary film about Andy Goldsworthy’s work (that also features an excellent, complementary musical score by Fred Frith. The whole film is available to watch on YouTube. I can’t recommend it too highly:
As for David Nash (who had a major exhibition at YSP in 2010), he is represented here by two works – ‘Pods in a Trough’ and ‘Silver birch Tripod’, both from 1975. Like Goldsworthy, Nash turned his back on urban life and art, hungering for a simpler existence and closer ties to the natural world. He moved to Blaenau Ffestiniog in 1967, interested in art that was ‘woven into’ nature, rather than hidden behind the imposing doors of the art gallery.
David Nash, Pods in Trough and Silver Birch Tripod, 1975 (photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy of YSP)
Since the late 1960s, Nash has worked almost exclusively in wood, working with wind-fallen, dead or dying trees to create his roughly hewn sculptures which echo tables, standing stones and geometric 3D forms. Nash always worked outside in the landscape surrounded by the source of his material. As well as carved sculptures, he has also made works in which structures are assembled with minimal intervention. ‘Silver Birch Tripod’ is one such extremely simple, self-supporting construction.
Tony Cragg, New Stones – Newton’s Tones, 1978 (photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy of YSP)
So far, all the works I have highlighted were created largely using natural materials. TonyCragg’s ‘New Stones – Newton’s Tones’ consists totally, however, of plastic objects and fragments found and collected by Cragg along the Rhine near his home. Cragg made this work in 1978, at a time of growing ecological concern, with the profusion of plastic detritus discarded in the environment seen evidence of the wider impact of humans on the planet. The collected fragments were later sorted and arranged on the floor in the approximate sequence of colours in the spectrum of white light, as identified by Sir Isaac Newton.
‘Looking hard at real things’
Afterwards, sitting outside the gallery and waiting for the shuttlebus back to the YSP Centre, I read a few pages of the book I had brought with me to read on the train from Liverpool – Tim Dee’s brilliant The Running Sky, which will be the subject of a future post. I reached a passage in which Dee refers to Keats’s idea of a man of ‘negative capability’: ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. Dee argues that this needn’t imply the ‘hackneyed polarities of science and poetry’; instead, it could be:
A way of bringing both together and letting each inform the other. Science makes discoveries when it admits to not knowing, poetry endures if it looks hard at real things … truth and beauty.
‘Truth and beauty’, ‘looking hard at real things’: those seem apposite words for an exhibition of Land Art. Then I realise that the wall I’m leaning against has another pertinent quotation printed on it. It’s by Rainer Maria Rilke:
Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsay able than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.
There are more quotations on this wall, including this one, from Rachel Carson:
Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.
Then I see an elephant. An iron elephant, standing outside the workshop across the way from the gallery. Falling into conversation with a guy wielding a blowtorch, I discover it’s destined for Merseyside – commissioned by Tesco to stand outside their new store in Kirkby as part of a transformation of the town centre. It will stand in a Viking longboat, symbolizing the town’s Norse heritage and the Edward Lear poem, ‘The Enthusiastic Elephant’. What jolly nonsense!
‘The Enthusiastic Elephant, who ferried himself across the water with the Kitchen Poker and a New pair of Ear-rings.’