We approached Forest, Field & Sky: Art out of Nature, last night’s documentary on BBC Four presented by Dr James Fox, with great anticipation since its subject was a form of art that has inspired us both – and provided the subject of many blog posts here. Fox didn’t disappoint, focussing on just a few brilliant examples of what is often labelled Land Art – art that is made directly in the landscape, from natural materials found in situ, such as rocks, tree branches or ice. Travelling across Britain, he discussed artists whose work explores our relationship to the natural world such as David Nash, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, and James Turrell, in some cases watching the artist in the process of creating a new work.
The high point came early on, as Fox discussed work that has been inspired by forest and woodland, employing wood and even living trees in its creation. In a secret location somewhere in Snowdonia he met David Nash beneath the boughs of one of his most iconic works – Ash Dome. We have seen drawings and short video clips of Ash Dome in Nash exhibitions, but here we were given a rare opportunity to see the work. Formed from a ring of 22 ash saplings Nash planted in a perfect circle in 1977 and then trained to form a domed shape, a living sculpture. For forty years it has been shaped and nurtured by Nash to create the living dome of leaves and branches that he envisaged in 1977.
James Fox spoke with emotion of how he had longed to come to this place ever since he had become interested in art; as he strolled around the leaf-canopied space created by the work he described it as being ‘more beautiful, and more moving’ than he could have imagined.
Fox described this work – planted before he was born – as ‘an inside made outside, a circle of life made from life itself’, while David Nash himself told Fox that he had wanted to create a work that belonged to the place, and which didn’t resist, but engaged with the elements. For Nash, Ash Dome is a reflection of the political turmoil of the 1970s and the onset of ecological anxieties in that decade – but also a sculpture ‘aimed at the 21st century’, a beacon of hope.
From North Wales, Fox moved on to the Scottish borders where perhaps the most celebrated British land artist, Andy Goldsworthy, lives and works, and to the Lake District to examine a series of works created by Goldsworthy that celebrate the ‘constant battle’ by local farmers to work the land and prevent it reverting back to woodland. Goldsworthy is best-known for the ephemeral works he makes in the landscape from materials at hand such as leaves, petals, twigs or ice – works which survive only as photographs. Here, though, Fox chose to focus on works in which Goldsworthy has engaged directly with age-old traditions and farming skills, transforming dozens of disused sheepfolds across Cumbria into a series of beautiful outdoor sculptures.
An interesting element of this programme was where Fox got to watch an artist in process of creating a work. In Goldworthy’s case the outcome couldn’t be considered an unalloyed success. Twice Fox followed Goldsworthy to a wood near his home in Dumfriesshire where he attempted a work that melded local rocks and stones with the wood of a dead tree trunk. Twice the stones collapsed as Goldworthy neared completion. The artist remained stoical, despite having spent two whole days on the work, but that’s what comes of taking a principled stand against concrete!
Still in Scotland, though a lot further north in the Hebrides, Fox watched as Julie Brook built one of her firestacks, rock cairns that she first built during a year she spent living rough on the island of Jura in the early 1990s. Brook builds a cairn by hand at low tide from beach boulders and stones. As the tide comes back in she builds and lights a fire of driftwood in a crater at the top of the stack. When the water rises, she adds more wood and fans the flames until she can no longer wade out to the cairn. Finally, the waves consume the fire. This is art which seems to document the human to overcome the elements and maintain order against natural forces which drive towards entropy and destruction. Before that, as Fox observed, ‘for a few glorious moments, the elements are in perfect balance and the result is spell-binding.’
Next, rather than observing an artist create a work, Fox followed – literally – in the artist’s footsteps. Richard Long is best known for documenting his solitary walks across a chosen landscape through photography, maps and text. In 1967 he made A Line Made By Walking by walking back and forth across the same path in Wiltshire, crushing the grass and leaving an impermanent trace of his passing. A year later, on Exmoor, Long drew a straight line on an OS map to mark a ten mile hike across the moor that ignored paths or detours around inconvenient aspects of the terrain. James Fox set out to follow the exact line of Long’s route in 1968.
Since Neolithic times humans have reshaped the landscape for both practical and spiritual reasons. But in the more modern period, we have remodelled the land – as Fox observed – ‘simply to make it more beautiful’ – in gardens. So, retreating from the wild terrain of Exmoor, Fox visited two gardens which, in their different ways, are an expression of how gardens can reflect the cultural concerns of their time.
Fox chose the beautiful Stourhead Garden in Wiltshire, as perhaps the epitome of the 18th century aim in garden design to achieve a balance between the real and the ideal. Laid out in the mid-18th century at the behest of the wealthy banker Henry Hoare, Stourhead is, said Fox, ‘a fantasy made real’.
After that, it was back to Scotland to see Charles Jencks’ extraordinary Garden of Cosmic Speculation, ‘as far from a naturalistic garden as it’s possible to get’. Yet it has been designed to reveal the underlying principles of nature, inspired by questions of modern science and the laws of physics. Themes explored in the garden include the science of complexity and chaos, fractals, black holes and DNA, and concepts of space and time. These themes are represented by the extensive manipulation of the landscape and siting of individual sculptures and forms. The entire 30 acre site is itself a deliberate, considered sculpture.
Finally, Fox went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park to see how one American artist has attempted the seemingly impossible task of turning the sky into art. He was there to see James Turrell’s Skyspace: ‘For me’, said Fox, ‘this is one of Britain’s most inspiring artworks.’
He stayed for hours, watching ‘the incredible drama of the sky’ unfold above him. It’s a work, Fox said, which teaches patience – ‘because you can’t come in here for just 30 seconds and then walk out. You have to wait, and you have to adjust to the rhythms of nature.’ Like the greatest art, he said, ‘it makes the familiar seem unfamiliar; it makes you see the world in an entirely new way.’ He stayed until dusk – when perfectly adjusted lights in the Skyspace room have a remarkable effect on the colour of the sky which ‘turns an overwhelmingly intense blue, deepening more and more as the night encroaches. It is like an abstract painting made by nature itself.’
I’ve seen several of the documentaries on art and culture which James Fox has presented for the BBC, including The Art of Cornwall (2010), the three-part series entitled British Masters (2011) with which I was not particularly impressed, A History of Art in Three Colours in 2013, and A Very British Renaissance in 2014. Most of them I’ve written about here.
- Ash Dome, a living artwork created by artist David Nash (BBC clip)
- James Turrell’s Skyspace at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (BBC clip)
- Land Art at the Tate (Tate)
- David Nash at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (2010)
- David Nash revisited (2011)
- David Nash at Kew: the language of wood (2012)
- Rivers and Tides: film about the work of Andy Goldsworthy (2004)
- Making a beeline for Richard Long (2012)
- The Garden of Cosmic Speculation (2011)
- Uncommon Ground at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: ‘looking hard at real things’ (2014)
- Total eclipse: darkness and light (Turrell’s Cornwall eclipse skyspace recalled in 2015, along with a visit to the YSP skyspace in 2006)
Links to posts here in response to James Fox’s art documentaries:
- Ben Nicholson’s Cornwall: post in response to the James Fox documentary The Art of Cornwall
- British Masters: We Are Making a New World: response to James Fox series British Masters
- British Masters: In search of England
- British Masters: A New Jerusalem: the final in the series
- My English Renaissance: presented by James Fox