Another day at Another Place: looking to the horizon in silent expectation

Another day at Another Place: looking to the horizon in silent expectation

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Friday was a glorious day here in the north-west. The November sun shone in a cloudless sky of brilliant blue.  An old friend was visiting, back in Liverpool for the first time in years.  She had never seen Anthony Gormley’s Another Place on Crosby beach so we took her there, happy to return no matter how many times to a public art work that has grown in the affections of the public on Merseyside, and – along with Capital of Culture year in 2008 – helped to put Liverpool and Merseyside on the tourist map.

It was a perfect morning to see the installation – crisp and clear, with views across to the Wirral and beyond to the Welsh mountains.  In three hours it would be high tide, and the estuary was busy with traffic taking advantage of the high water – ferries leaving, container vessels moving up-river.

Another Place 6

We walked the length of the beach, from the low numbers to the high: Another Place consists of 100 cast-iron, life-size figures, each one numbered, spread out for about two miles along the shore, with some figures situated nearly half a mile out to sea. The figures were each made from casts of the Gormley’s own body.  They stand on the beach, all of them looking out to sea, staring at the horizon in silent expectation.  Gormley once said:

I think there’s that thing in Another Place of looking out.  It’s what we all do: that’s why people go to the seaside, to see the edge of the world, because most of us spend most of our time in rooms.

Another Place is now a permanent fixture on Crosby beach.  But we nearly lost it.  The work had previously been installed at Cuxhaven in Germany, Stavangar in Norway and De Panne in Belgium before it came to Crosby in 2005 with the benefit of funding from the Mersey Waterfront Programme, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company and Arts Council England.

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However, Sefton Council had only granted temporary planning permission that was due to expire in November 2006. Despite the work attracting huge interest and drawing 600,000 visitors in 18 months, it looked as if it was destined to leave Merseyside for New York state.  A second application was made extend planning permission for four months, to allow time to raise the £2.2m needed to buy the work from Gormley and maintain it thereafter. The application was rejected because of representations made to the authority that ‘several people had had to be rescued after being caught by the tide when walking out to see the most distant figures’.

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But the tide of support in favour of the work’s retention was substantial: so much so that in March 2007 Sefton borough council finally announced that permission had been granted for the work to remain in place permanently.  Since then Another Place has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors and now regularly features in Liverpool tourism promotional material.

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Visitors engage positively with the figures, dressing them with wigs, bikinis, hula skirts, Liverpool and Everton football shirts, seaweed dreadlocks and costumes of every description.  People photograph each other with the iron men in all sorts of poses. And they pause awhile, contemplating the meaning of this artwork’s dramatic intervention in the broad sweep and big skies of the estuary landscape.

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Another Place 11

Each person leaves the beach with their own sense of the work’s meaning. For Gormley, Another Place was a poetic response to the individual and universal experience of emigration: sadness at leaving, and the hope of a new future in another place. He was interested in the motivations that link contemporary migrants, such as those who risk their lives making the perilous sea crossing from from north Africa seeking a home in Europe.  He suggests that in an unequal world in which we accept the massive mobility of monetary instruments across borders, we seem to have difficulty in accepting the movement of living people.

If the work was envisaged as a response to the theme of migration, the complex administrative negotiations and arrangements in locating it here – and then ensuring it could remain – raised issues about the impact of a public artwork on the landscape. Gormley has said that the struggle over Another Place:

Illustrated that no landscape is innocent, no landscape is uncontrolled. Every landscape has a hidden social dimension to do with both its natural usage and the politics of territory. I like the idea that attempting to ask questions about the place of art in our lives reveals these complex human and social matrices.

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Visiting Another Place now, nearly seven years after its installation along this shoreline, the work seems to be becoming inexorably an organic, barnacle-encrusted element in the landscape.  This was Gormley’s intention: he saw the work as harnessing the ebb and flow of the tide to explore man’s relationship with nature, asking what it is to be human:

The seaside is a good place to do this. Here time is tested by tide, architecture by the elements and the prevalence of sky seems to question the earth’s substance. In this work human life is tested against planetary time. This sculpture exposes to light and time the nakedness of a particular and peculiar body. It is no hero, no ideal, just the industrially reproduced body of a middle-aged man trying to remain standing and trying to breathe, facing a horizon busy with ships moving materials and manufactured things around the planet.

Another Place 9

The construction of Gormley’s Angel of the North in 1998 was a watershed moment in the recent story of public art; since then, Another Place has joined a lengthening catalogue of public art installations.  But the public funding of art works in public places is not without its critics.

Projects such as Another Place generate a great deal of enthusiasm among local authorities (keen to promote regeneration through tourist numbers) and the arts world (keen for commissions), but sceptics believe they leave the intended audience – the public – feeling a mixture of bemusement, indifference and outright hostility. Is public art rarely more than a vanity project for those involved, reducing art to the same bracket as other civic amenities? Should genuinely public art be funded by voluntary subscription rather than tax-payers’ money? Or does state-funded public art provide a vital function in engaging those who rarely venture into galleries and enliven otherwise drab public spaces?

Gormley, when asked, ‘What’s the point of public art?’ responded simply, ‘To make the world a little bit more interesting’.

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Another Place … another day.  I took these photos of the installation at sunset on a March evening in 2010.

Crosby beach December sunset

Crosby beach December sunset 2

Crosby March 2010

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Making a beeline for Richard Long

Making a beeline for Richard Long

Writing the other day about Rebecca Solnit’s history of walking, Wanderlust, I mentioned her discussion of the work of Richard Long, the land artist whose work has been dedicated to making ‘a new way of walking: walking as art’.  He began in 1967 by making what was then a radically new kind of work, A Line Made by Walking,created  by Long repeatedly walking a straight line in a field.  Since then, he has continued to develop this idea, presenting the walks as art in three forms: maps, photographs, or text works.  Each walk expresses a particular idea: so there have been walks in a straight line for a predetermined distance; walks between the sources of rivers; walks measured by tides, and walks delineated by stones dropped into a succession of rivers crossed.

Thinking about Long, I realised I had only a few days left to see the exhibition of his work that has been running all summer at the Hepworth gallery in Wakefield, with a linked exhibit at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  So, I set a course and made a beeline (quite literally as it turned out) for Yorkshire and Richard Long.

At the Yorkshire Sculpture Park I learned that the Richard Long exhibit had been located at the most distant point in the park.  It seemed entirely appropriate that seeing an example of this artist’s work should require the effort of a modest walk. So follow me…

I set off down the hillside toward the lake.  I love the YSP, the sense of space and varied landscapes in this vast expanse of rolling parkland, and the surprise of unexpected encounters with sculptures as you crest a rise, turn a corner or enter a glade.  Currently there is a major exhibition of Joan Miro’s sculptures and other artworks, and the lawns are dotted with large bronze sculptures rarely seen outside his foundations in Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca, like Personnage, 1970 (below).  Personally, I can take or leave Miro’s forms; I suppose I just don’t get them.  It was interesting to browse the exhibits and read Miro’s comments on Catalan culture and art,  rooted in his deep sense of national identity, in the month when the Catalan Parliament has voted to call a referendum on Catalan independence.  But, like Laura Cummings in her review of last year’s Tate exhibition, Miro’s works don’t come across to me as political statements.

Walking on down the hillside I passed Jonathan Borofsky’s Molecule Man (below), aluminium gleaming in the sunlight that poured through the hundreds of holes in the sculpture that made it seem to float, light as air, giving form to the artist’s  idea that the molecule structure of humans is composed of little more than water and air.

Further down, I found Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz’s monumental Ten Seated Figures, which,  like most of her work, reflects her experience of war and political oppression.  Abakanowicz was born in an aristocratic Polish-Russian family on her parent’s estate in Poland. The Second World war broke out when she was nine years old.  The forces of Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union swept through the land, followed by forty-five years of Soviet domination.  In her work headless human figures often appear identical on the surface but on closer inspection reveal individuality, a commentary on societies which repress individual creativity in favour of collective goals and values:

My work comes from the experience of crowds, injustice and aggression…

By way of a complete contrast, near the Camellia House and in a wooded glade I encountered two works by Sophie Ryder, the artist who first drew us to the YSP many years ago with our young daughter.  Crawling Lady Hare is a work behind after her exhibition here in 2008.  Manus and the Running Dogs is a much earlier work from 1987, which shares a similarity – a group of animals running –  to Crossing Place which we saw, again with our daughter, on the Forest of Dean sculpture trail in 1992. I love watching the faces – of children and adults alike – light up when they see a Ryder sculpture.

Emerging from the trees where leaves fell in all the colours of autumn – reds and yellows as bright as the Catalan colours of Miro’s painted sculptures back in the gallery – a cacophony of rooks or crows rose from the branches.  It’s a sound that, for some inexplicable reason, always makes my heart soar.

Where the parkland slopes down to the lake, I mingled with Barbara Hepworth’s Family of Man: a group work from 1970 that consists of nine bronze upright abstract forms arranged across the sloping lawn.  Each one is a simple, geometric shape, but Hepworth manages to imbue each figure with a distinctive personality. There are larger, more complex forms that seem to have distinctive  male personalities, while smaller figures seem more timid, children perhaps, scared of speaking out of turn.   This is a work that is best experienced outdoors, and the YSP have positioned it superbly here. As Hepworth once said:

All my sculpture comes out of landscape. No sculpture really lives until it goes back into landscape.

Down by the lake I saw a shed with a large reflective globe perched upon the roof .  Now, I’ve built two sheds this year on our allotment, so I was intrigued.  It turned out to be a recent work, Spiegelei, by Jem Finer, first made for the Tatton Park Biennial in 2010 and now resited here. According to the YSP’s interpretation:

‘visitors are invited into Spiegelei to experience a shift in reality, in which the world becomes inverted and sounds distorted, allowing a new and wonderful perspective on the familiar landscape of the Bretton Estate. This has been achieved through the construction of a 360-degree camera obscura using three lenses housed inside a sphere, angled to take full advantage of the views.

None of that worked for me, yet on a trip to Kent some time ago I enjoyed his Score for a Hole in the Ground located in a wood in the Stour Valley. A  seven metre high steel horn, like an old-fashioned gramophone, generates sound through rainfall.  And I have been captivated by the idea of his Artangel commission Longplayer, a 1000-year long musical composition  the longest non-repeating piece of music ever composed – that has been playing continuously since the first moments of the millennium, performed by computers around the world.

Then it was into the wood that surround the Lower Lake, walking a line to Richard Long.

Following the trail through the wood, every now and then I’d notice an object dangling from a tree branch, looking something like a garden bird house.  In fact, collectively they are an artwork that is also an ecological intervention.  The Bee Library comprises a collection of twenty-four bee-related books selected by Alec Finlay that were initially on display in the YSP Centre during springtime. Once read, each book was made into a nest for wild or ‘solitary’ bees in the grounds of the YSP.   Together the library now forms an installation on a walking route which I was now following around the Upper Lake.  Constructed from a book, bamboo, wire-netting and water-proofing, each nest offers shelter for solitary bees, whose numbers are in steep decline. New nests will be added in other places, building a global bee library. The Bee Poems are a collection of texts composed from a close reading of the books, published online.

I walked on, looking for Richard Long.  He has written:

A footpath is a place.

It also goes from place to place, from here to there, and back again.

Any place along it is a stopping place.

Its perceived length could depend on the speed of the traveller, or its steepness, or its difficulty.

Reversing direction does not reverse the travelling time.

A path can be followed, or crossed.

A path is practical; it takes the line of least resistance, or the easiest, or most direct, route.

Sometimes it can be the only line of access through an area.

Paths are shared by all who use them.

Each user could be on a different overall journey, and for a different reason.

A path is made by movement, by the accumulated footprints of its users.

Paths are maintained by repeated use, and would disappear without use.

The characteristics of a path depend upon the nature of the land, but the characteristics can be universal.

My path finally brought me to Red Slate Line, a 1986 work made by Richard Long from slate found at the border of Vermont and New York State, and relocated here at the YSP for the summer.  One strand of Long’s work is making sculptures in the landscape that are made by rearranging rocks and sticks into lines and circles without relocating them from the scene (the work is photographed, just as Andy Goldsworthy does with those works he creates that last fleetingly before they are washed or blown away, melt or decay).  Meanwhile, another branch of Richard Long’s work collects up rocks, sticks or other materials to lay out  those lines, circles or labyrinths on the gallery floor. In both cases, though, the landscape and the walk through it remains the primary focus.

Red Slate Line belongs to the second category – a gallery piece, now set down in a woodland setting, the shards of red slate arranged like a path leading down to the water’s edge.  Rebecca Solnit wrote that these lines and circles record Long’s walks in ‘a reductive geometry that evokes everything – cyclical and linear time, the finite and the infinite, roads and routines – and says nothing’ (by which she means that we, the viewers, are given very little information about the walk that inspired them:

In some ways, Long’s work resemble travel writing, but rather than tell us what he felt, what he ate, and other such details, his brief texts and uninhabited images leave most of the journey up to the viewer’s imagination .. to do a great deal of work, to interpret the ambiguous, imagine the unseen.  It gives is not a walk nor even the representation of a walk, only the idea of a walk, and an evocation of its location (the map) or one of its views (the photograph).  Formal and quantifiable aspects are emphasized: geometry, measurement, number, duration.

Richard Long: Line Made By Walking, 1967

Before visiting the YSP, I had spent some time at the Hepworth Gallery, just 15 minutes drive away in Wakefield.  There, a small exhibition of work by Richard Long is just drawing to a close. The exhibition presents Long as a key figure in the emergence of land art, but notes too, that Long was also associated with Arte Povera, which questioned the boundary between art and life through the use of everyday materials and spontaneous events.

Journeying from his home town of Bristol to London, whilst a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art, Long created A Line Made by Walking (1967, above) in a grass field in Wiltshire, by continually treading the same path. It’s now been acknowledged as a pioneering artwork, incorporating performance art, land art and sculpture. The work also introduced Long’s intention to consider walking as art, exploring relationships between time, distance, geography and measurement. Long developed this intention throughout the 1970s and 1980s, making works in increasingly challenging and remote terrains and documenting the walks as texts, maps and photographs, such as Walking a Line in Peru (1972) and Sahara Line (1988).  An important aspect of these works is the evidence of human activity that Long leaves as he walks, the trace of an encounter that is at the centre of the artist’s practice:

In the nature of things:
Art about mobility, lightness and freedom.
Simple creative acts of walking and marking
about place, locality, time, distance and
Works using raw materials and my human
scale in the reality of landscapes.

Long’s sculptures occur either in the landscape, made along the way on a walk, or in the gallery, made as a response to a particular place. He works with natural materials such as sticks or slate to make sculptures and often uses mud or clay in his drawings and wall-works.  This exhibition contains works from across Long’s career. It includes early photographs of his sculptures in the landscape such as Line Made By Walking and England 1968 where two paths cross in a field full of daisies.

Richard Long: England, 1968

The works in this exhibition, although made at different  points in Long’s career, reflect the consistency of his approach, the same elements constant through the years:

My work has become a simple metaphor for life. A figure walking down his road, making his mark. It is an affirmation of my human scale and senses: how far I walk, what stones I pick up, my particular experiences. Nature has more effect on me than I on it. I am content with the vocabulary of  universal and common means: walking, placing, stones, sticks, water, circles, lines, days, nights, roads.

– Richard Long,1983

Other photographed works on display include A Line in Japan – Mount Fuji (1979), A Circle in Alaska (1977), made of driftwood gathered on the Arctic Circle on the shore of the Bering Strait, and Circle in Africa (1978).

Richard Long: A Line in Japan – Mount Fuji, 1979
Richard Long: A Circle in Alaska 1977
Richard Long: Circle in Africa, 1978

Circle in Africa depicts a circle made of burnt cactus branches on a rocky outcrop on Mulanje Mountain in Malawi.  Long has explained how the circumstances in which Circle in Africa came about:

I was going to make a circle of stones on a high mountain in Malawi and then, when I got there, I couldn’t find any stones because there was no ice and snow to break the rock up. So I kept the idea of a circle and changed the material to burnt cacti which were lying around, that had been burnt in lightning storms. … I am an opportunist; I just take advantage of the places and situations I find myself in.

Alongside these photographs there is an annotated OS map of an area of the Cairngorms  – Concentric Days, 1996 – with concentric circles superimposed, each representing a day and ‘a meandering walk within and to the edge of each circle’.  You look and you imagine.  There are two hand-made books – Nile (Pages of River Mud), 1990 and River Avon (1979) – both of which are assembled from papers dipped in the mud of those rivers.

In an adjoining room are two contrasting pieces – Somerset Willow Line (1980) constructed from willow twigs arranged in a large rectangle across the gallery floor, and, spelt out in large capitals across the length of one wall, one of his text works: A DAYS WALK ACROSS DARTMOOR FOLLOWING THE DRIFT OF THE CLOUDS.

Richard Long Somerset Willow Line and Dartmoor Walk
Richard Long Somerset Willow Line 1980

Another room brings together three more contrasting examples of Long’s work: Water Falls, a large piece like a painting created for this exhibition from paint overlain with scraped and scoured  china clay, along with floor pieces, Cornish Slate Ellipse and Blaenau Festiniog Circle, constructed from blocks of Welsh slate in an arrangement that reminded me strongly of pieces exhibited by David Nash at the YSP last year.

Richard Long: Water Falls 2012
Richard Long: Water Falls, Cornish Slate Ellipse and Blaenau Festiniog Circle

I’ll finish with that other great walker, Robert Macfarlane.  This is how he concluded an appreciation of Richard Long’s work he wrote for The Guardian:

I like his unpretentiousness. It’s probably what appeals to me most about Long and his work. He practises a kind of ritualised folk art. His circles, lines and crosses are radiantly symbolic, but also childishly simple; or, rather, they’re radiantly symbolic because they’re childishly simple. It’s for this reason that Long is ill-served by those interpreters who draw a cowl of Zennish mysticism over his sculptures, or who interpret his textworks (strings of words and phrases, often superimposed on to a photograph of the landscape that has been walked) as koan-like chants.[…]

No, Long is no magus. More of a high-end hobo. Among my favourite of his pieces is Walking Music, a textwork that records the songs that trundle through his mind as he walks 168 miles in six days across Ireland, the music keeping at bay the loneliness of the long-distance walker. Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Sinéad O’Connor singing “On Raglan Road”, Jimmie Rodgers’s “Waiting for a Train”, Róisín Dubh played on the pibroch …

Samuel Beckett – who, like Long, found much to meditate on and much to laugh at in the act of walking; and who, like Long, loved country lanes and bicycles, pebbles and circles – once observed that it is impossible to walk in a straight line, because of the curvature of the earth. There’s a great deal of Long in that remark. His art reminds us of the simple strangeness of the walked world, of the surprises and beauties that landscape can spring on the pedestrian. It’s good that Long is out there, knackering another pair of boots, singing Johnny Cash to himself as he walks the line.

River Po Line, Italy,2001

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From Earth, Light: back to Sutton Manor’s Dream

From Earth, Light: back to Sutton Manor’s Dream

I’m writing this on a morning when the seasons seem to have shifted on their axis.  Summer heat came late to these parts this year: we had to wait until September for the warmest days.  Last night I lay in bed listening to the pounding of a terrific rainstorm, and this morning a brisk breeze is blowing, the temperature has dropped by ten degrees, and it is raining hailstones.

So uploading these photos taken only last Saturday feels like looking back to another season.  I had some business to attend to in St Helens, so I thought I’d take the dog with me and go for a walk afterwards up to Dream at Sutton Manor.  It’s been more than three years since I last went up there – soon after Jaume Plensa’s sculpture had been installed following the successful pitch by a group of former miners to Channel 4’s Big Art competition.

It was a hot afternoon – it felt like the hottest this year – as spaniel and me wound our way along the paths that wind uphill through the 230 acre site where once there were enormous slag heaps.  Now it is an evolving park of young woodland managed by the Forestry Commission.  At the summit there are expansive views across to the Pennines and the Clywdian hills.  Plensa’s elegant, luminous sculpture stands at the centre of Bold Forest Park, itself part of the Mersey Forest, the evolving network of woodlands and green spaces being created across Merseyside and North Cheshire.  The paths wander through maturing woodland and wild flower meadows (apparently, in spring, there are great displays of Bee orchids).

Sutton Manor Colliery was the only St Helens pit to be opened in the 20th century, and it was the last to close. The first shaft was sunk in 1906, followed by a second, with the mine fully functional by 1912.  Driving along the newly built M62 motorway into Liverpool in the late 1970s and 1980s, the great slag heaps and winding wheels of Sutton Manor were a visible marker that you were nearing your destination.  The mine’s closure came abruptly in 1991, leaving a great amount of coal still underground, and only a year after it had reached its all-time productivity record.  A year later, the buildings were knocked down and equipment removed.  The land became a bare wasteland. Many of the miners had to leave the village to find new jobs. It was the end of an era.

Plensa’s sculpture honours the human heritage of a site where miners toiled and many died deep underground for nearly a century.  But the artwork also symbolises the optimism that spurred a group of ex-miners to visualise the post-industrial transformation of the site, which has now become something of an iconic landmark which it is hoped will generate economic and environmental benefits, help preserve a community’s collective memory, and enhance local pride.

At the time of its installation, there were some who grumbled that Plensa’s sculpture didn’t literally represent the mining past. In fact, Plensa’s first design, thankfully rejected by the miners themselves, was for a giant illuminated miner’s lantern. The design they chose represents something more powerful and inspirational: a young girl reflecting, perhaps, on the past, but also looking to the future.  At the time, Jaume Plensa commented:

My work is first and foremost about celebrating life and the human experience of standing in between past and present, present and future, knowledge and ignorance.

But since I was last here new artworks have been installed across the site: six flame-like structures grow from the ground, containing poems dedicated to the memory of miners past and present who worked at the pit at Sutton Manor. Entitle From Earth, Light, the flames, which start close to the old colliery gates can be seen at various locations.  They were created by pupils from Sutton Manor Primary School, in collaboration with local artists Collette and Bernadette Hughes and the Shining Lights Heritage Group.  It all dates back to 2006 when the primary school successfully applied for a £34,000 Heritage Lottery Grant to produce a project about the former colliery. They immediately involved a small group of ex-miners and borrowed a wide variety of artefacts which were exhibited at the school in June 2007. Two DVDs were produced that featured ex-Manor miners being interviewed by the schoolchildren about their lives in the pit.

Older voices echo deep
in this world-within-a-world
And in stone dust and darkness
We trace and retrace
The footsteps of our fathers

Where shattered men no longer drink
A flask of tea, or have a sleep;
Where the birds have fallen silent
We remain, and we remember
And blink the dust from our eyes.

Beneath us there’s a labyrinth
A tangle of forgotten pathways.
We walk alone in dreams
Among the twisted, rusted shapes
That litter memory’s lanes.

We make our own pathways
They disappear into serenity and sunlight
For beneath this world lies another
Filled with dreams and scattered memories
The footsteps of our fathers.

There is wisdom in our bones,
In our aching backs and blistered feet.
We blink the dust from our eyes
Every time we awake
And because we remember, we remain.

The former motto of St Helens and Sutton Manor was ex terra lucem – ‘from the earth comes light’. The miners dreamt of seeing the light again at the end of their long shifts working underground. Dream represents the idea of dreaming of a new future for the site and for the area.

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Ai Weiwei: throwing stones at autocracy

Ai Weiwei:  throwing stones at autocracy

There are a lot of cats hanging around Ai Weiwei’s  family compound in Beijing.  One of them has actually learned how to open doors.  In Alison Klayman’s superb first documentary, Ai Weiwei:  Never Sorry, Ai remarks that the difference between human beings and cats is that when cats open a door, they don’t close it behind them. Klayman’s film is a celebration of a subversive artist who turns resistance into a creative act. Continue reading “Ai Weiwei: throwing stones at autocracy”

Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel

Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel

It was a study in contrasts as I made my way across the courtyard of Somerset House where London Fashion Week was being hosted, and fashion models in glitzy outfits and extraordinary hats posed for photographers with big cameras.  I was headed for Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel, a small but brilliant exhibition at the Courtauld, in which the relationship between the two artists is recounted through just 18 works, from the moment when Nicholson visited Mondrian’s studio in Paris early in 1934 to the time when the two went their separate geographical ways some seven years later. Continue reading “Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel”

Jaume Plensa at YSP

I’ve had a soft spot for Jaume Plensa’s sculpture ever since he bequeathed the ex-miners of St Helens and the rest of us who dwell on Merseyside the graceful beauty of Dream, the 20-metre tall head of a girl carved  in gleaming dolomite, poetry in stone that can be seen by all who are heading for Liverpool on the M62.  I had seen more of his work at Chatsworth in 2009.  Now, visiting the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for his enormously successful exhibition (extended by popular demand to December), I had a chance to consider more of his work and the ideas that underpin it.

Dream is an example of that aspect of Plensa’s practice for which he has gained most renown – producing work for the public realm.  He has permanent works installed in Spain, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, Korea, Germany, Canada, and USA.  Best known are Breathing, a 10-metre high sculpture on top of BBC Broadcasting House in central London that is a memorial to journalists killed carrying out their work, and his most popular work, Crown Fountain, in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

Jaume Plensa, Breathing

Breathing takes the form of a glowing beacon of light emanating from an inverted glass cone. A poem by the artist is inscribed into its surface, which refers to the life of the building. Its presence alters at night when, for a short time, a thin vertical line of transparent white light projects from the sculpture, connecting the building to the night sky.

Crown Fountain

Crown Fountain, a monumental public sculpture comprising twin 15-metre towers facing each other across a thin sheet of water that forms a 70-metre pool level with the adjacent walkways. Children and adults can splash across the water, while video portraits made from the faces of more than a thousand Chicago residents are projected on LED displays behind the glass blocks of which the towers are built. Every twelve minutes a spout of water emerges from the mouth of a projected face before the image disappears in a shower of water.

Crown Fountain met with derision in certain quarters, but Plensa described what happened on the evening before the inauguration when they decided to remove the barriers around the work to see what would happen:

It was as if we had put a magnet: children filled the space and then got back home totally wet. And the next day the newspapers printed a lot of critical articles. I argued that I hadn’t done a fountain to look at, but a space of freedom, where everyone could decide whether to go or not. That it was a space containing water, of course, because water is a metaphor of human life: our body is made up of water for 60%. Water is our natural state. I wanted to create an empty square (a concept exported from my Mediterranean culture), so that people could fill it. It’s empty because otherwise the space wouldn’t be left for people. The thousand faces in the work belong to the citizens, to those who really make up the city: a city for me is not made up of buildings. It is made up of people. But what do I mean by people? Everyone born, lives, dies and disappears and there is still people. We are anonymous, but unique: when a person dies he leaves an immense void.

Jaume Plensa, Ojima's Soul
Ojima’s Soul

Ogijima’s Soul has something in common with St Helens’ Dream: Jaume Plensa: both are artistic responses to places which needed to regenerate their economy.  In St Helens the question was: what would follow the closure of the Sutton Manor coal mine?  In the case of Ogijima, a tiny Japanese island, the problem was one of an ageing community, declining population, empty housing and the near extinction of the traditional fishing economy.  Plensa once spoke of the parallels in an interview:

When Margaret Thatcher closed the mines, all the residents became unemployed. It took twenty years to rebuild the economy of that place. Only now people are beginning to raise their heads a little. The machines were dismantled. A hill 86 meters above the sea level made by the residual materials rose.

A group of former miners, the mayor, the curators of the Liverpool Biennial … and some people from Channel 4, really interested in this case, decided to make a park of that hill. But they wanted it to be a park with a soul. They choose me among some other artists. Then I made a first visit. I noticed that we had to extract the soul of that place. It was hidden somewhere. This was my challenge….

Dream, which received the award for the best sculpture of 2009 in England, was built during the crisis and received much criticism. It’s typical: everybody talks about the lack of banks and hospitals and you suggest spending money on some sculptures in public spaces. The leader of this group of former miners said something very beautiful on television: ‘Crisis
passes, art is forever’.

At Ogijima, he explained, the concept of the project was to create not just an interchange building but also a gathering place, a place where Ogijima’s community could welcome visitors and guests:

The translucent space of the house allows people to see permanently the landscape of the island, the beauty of the little town on the hill and the inland sea that opens in front of the harbour.  The house is covered and protected by a roof made out with different alphabets.  Like a poetical cloud, the roof projects shadows of these alphabets to the ground during the day and to the sky in the evening.

The letters composing the roof are random. They are just simple letters, no words, and they aim to represent the different cultures composing our world, using the following alphabets: Japanese, Hebrew, Arabi, Latin, Chinese, Greek, Russian and Hindi.  An alphabet is probably the most precise expression of one culture. It is the product that results after centuries of traditions, developing and transformations. Alphabets are the self-portraits of cultures and the best example of world’s diversity.

The project is homage to Ogijima’s people. The shape of the project is inspired by the shape of shellfish that is always building its own house around its own body.  This project recalls the huge effort that island communities have made through the ages to create and protect their own culture. It is a homage to the sea as a bridge connecting cultures.

We had seen Plensa’s work, too, in Nice in 2009, where the main square – the Place Massena – had only recently been completely redesigned as a car-free space with fountains and benches presided over by the delightful sculptures of Plensa’s Conversation in Nice, seven statues representing the continents seated atop tall steel poles and colourfully illuminated at night.

Conversation in Nice

At Yorkshire Sculpture Park, our first sight as we drove into the park was of La Llarga Nit (Blind), another piece from the same family of sculptures as Conversation in Nice.  The idea for these works was drawn from the stylites or pillar saints of the early Byzantine Empire, Christian ascetics who sought spiritual fulfilment residing for years on small platforms raised high above the ground.  This sculpture takes its title from a poem by the Valencian poet Vicent Andres Estelles which refers to the poet’s duty to interpret a society’s fears and hopes.  Plensa sees the artist as a spiritual guide, revealing ways of seeing and understanding life.  But this figure’s hands are over its eyes; he is blind to his surroundings.

La Llarga Nit (Blind)

Nuria and Irma, on the roof of the Underground Gallery, is, like Dream, a monumental portrait.  Whereas Dream portrayed his own daughter, this piece represents two ordinary girls, one the daughter of the owner of a Chinese restaurant near Plensa’s home. Plensa means these figures to represent us all, irrespective of sex, race or age.  The portrait of the two girls is formed by an organic mesh that allows us to see inside and through the heads.  Plensa comments:

What I got from that piece was the capacity to explore the other side of the skin.  … It’s very Taoist in some ways – it’s this little thin line that separates full and empty. … We are so beautiful outside but you can’t believe how beautiful we are inside.

Nuria and Irma
Nuria and Irma

Jaume Plensa has described the exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park as the most complete he has ever staged. The Exhibition Guide states:

Plensa’s work always deals with humanity, with body and soul, and is largely figurative. Even when the body is physically absent it is implied: gongs need to be struck by a mallet held in a hand to create sound … and text needs to be read and absorbed by the human mind. Whether fashioned in steel, glass, bronze or alabaster or with light, vibration or sound, the ideas and associations are the central concern. Plensa believes that sculpture is an extraordinary vehicle through which to access our emotions and thoughts.  […]

The artist’s work is particularly concerned with the fact  that people are losing the ability to converse, both with others and with themselves, and his work actively sets out to make us reconnect with our own souls. To Plensa, life is the key concern and he describes art as merely a consequence of life, but one which possesses an enormous capacity to touch people deeply, to introduce beauty into any situation, to celebrate our potential.

Plensa is very widely read and often refers to how his family home was filled with books as a child. Throughout his life he has discovered poems and texts that have moved him profoundly and it is these rather than the visual arts that have provided the broadest source of inspiration, often being directly referenced in his own work. Yet it is not just works of literature that fascinate him, but language itself.

An abundance of letters and words, often forming the outline or shell of the human body, has come to characterise his sculpture and drawing. Plensa’s use of both language and the figure makes his work particularly accessible and poignant as it exists directly in the world we inhabit; it is universal. Yet through these material elements it reaches out
to the immaterial, to the mind and the soul; even when alluding to life’s adversity it is hopeful and unashamedly beautiful.

Twenty-Nine Palms

29 Palms is a curtain of text composed of poems by Plensa’s favourite authors.  It is the physical embodiment of his notion that we are surrounded by an invisible cloud of poetry. The poems are represented by suspended, cut steel
letters that cast shifting shadows onto the walls and floor. Plensa makes text physical,  freeing it from the page and transforming it into three dimensions.  Children and adults are encouraged to make the poetry sing by gently running their palms along the curtain.

Plensa often refers to his belief that our life experiences leave indelible yet invisible marks on us which can be read by those who know us best. This belief is expressed through a family of figurative works with text imprinted on their surface.
In See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, three internally lit fibreglass figures have the terms panic, stress, anxiety, insomnia, hysteria and amnesia inscribed on their faces. The Exhibition Guide adds:

The physicality of these words branded on the skin openly reveals conditions of the mind that are usually internal and hidden. Their posture reflects a natural method of defence, to make the body small, curling it in on itself for safety, echoing the protected position of a baby in its mother’s womb.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

Plensa describes Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil as ‘angels rooted to the walls, unable to fly, yet still radiating light from within’.

Alabaster Heads

One of the most striking rooms in the exhibition contains Alabaster Heads, a series of heads carved from alabaster.  They are based on photographs of children from different ethnic groups which are then digitally elongated and carved into the stone.

In The Midst of Dreams

Plensa uses light in his sculptures in many ways. In In the Midst of Dreams, Plensa speaks of wanting to represent
the soul. Whilst the human form is solid and recognisable, the human spirit is the opposite: he attempts to represent  its ethereal nature by utilising the comparable properties of light.  The words on the faces are taken from Oscar Wilde’s letter written whilst in Reading Gaol which drew attention to the physical and mental consequences of poor conditions in prisons: hunger, disease, insomnia.

The long queue for Jerusalem

There was a long wait to enter the next exhibit, Jerusalem, as only a small number of people were allowed in at any one time. Jerusalem is a circle of suspended brass gongs engraved with quotes from the Song of Songs, in Plensa’s words ‘probably the most beautiful text about love, eroticism and the human condition’:

I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranate.

The gongs are exquisite objects, their surfaces marked with beautiful text. Each gong has  a mallet, and persons entering the room are encouraged to take a mallet and strike a gong.  The room resonates with a swelling sound (the attendant wears headphones).  For Plensa, the immaterial element of sound reflects William  Blake’s idea that ‘one thought fills immensity’.


Do not touch, only caress’

This is a rare exhibition because in that you are actually encouraged to touch and interact with the work (and photograph it for personal use).  In the case of the gongs in Jerusalem, Plensa is asserting his belief that sculpture has the potential to engage not only visually, emotionally and intellectually, but also through our bodies.

The Heart of Trees
Heart of Trees

On the lawn in front of the Underground Gallery is Heart of Trees, one of the family of works in which Plensa incorporates his self portrait.    In these seven sculptures the arms and legs of the figure are wrapped around a tree trunk. Each bronze cast covered in the names of composers important to Plensa.  The embrace is a recurrent feature of his work, reflecting Plensa’s desire to connect and to assert the importance of touch.  There is a statement here, too, about the relationship between body and soul, and the importance of nurture – the tree as a metaphor for growth and transformation.

Yorkshire Souls I and II
Yorkshire Souls III
Yorkshire Souls I

Yorkshire Souls I,II and III consist of figures made from letters from many different alphabets, each placed on a foundation of stone.  There is a subtle contrast between the airiness and lightness of the figures and the solidity of the stone.  The figures are grouped, as if in conversation.

House of Knowledge
House of Knowledge
House of Knowledge

House of Knowledge, placed in the Bothy Garden, is another piece in which the human body is shaped from a network of letters.  The figure is massive – eight metres high – and the front of the figure is open so that we were able to walk inside – for Plensa this is a metaphor, as we ‘complete the work ‘like a soul in a body’.

Filming for Yorkshire TV

While we were taking in the exhibits, a crew from Yorkshire ITV were filming a segment for the regional evening news programme Calendar, which has been asking viewers to vote for the best regional attraction.  At the moment YSP is in the lead.

I have enjoyed a great deal of Plensa’s work, especially Dream.  I found much that was enriching in this exhibition, but I think there is also a shallowness in some of the work.  The reliance on text and quotations results, in some cases, in a work that is prosaic and over-literal.  Twenty-Nine Palms, with its delicate array of suspended letters, is pleasing to look at, but as visitors of all ages drew their hands along the shimmering curtain of text, I did wonder whether it meant anything more significant for us than than the delicate, tinkling sound that we made.

Though Plensa explains his work in terms of deep philosophical thoughts, and draws on his extensive reading of literature from many cultures, his work can sometimes seem to express quite simplistic ideas.  Take, for example, this text from the limited edition print being sold in the YSP shop:

Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

David Nash revisited

On the final day of the wonderful David Nash exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, we felt we had to make a return visit after seeing it for the first time in August. The place was heaving with people of all ages – and extremely muddy!

Our first move was to set out across the fields, slithering and sliding in the mud,for Oxley Bank where Nash has installed a permanent piece commissioned by the YSP, which we didn’t have time to see in the summer.  Black Steps (above) consists of 71 charred oak steps embedded in a coal drift that usefully replace an original flight of steps leading up Oxley Bank from the lake which had rotted.  Between each step Nash has laid down coal, a reminder that beneath the grounds of the stately home and parkland created here in the 18th century lie extensive coal mines.  In this way the organic nature of the steps –  wood and coal – recapitulates the history of the local countryside and underlines man’s dependency on the natural world.

The path up Oxley Bank takes you past earlier permanent installations by Andy Goldsworthy, left behind after his major retrospective exhibition in 2007.  Hanging Trees (below) is another intervention in the landscape that works with rather than in opposition to forces which shape the landscape. It consists of three felled tree trunks and boughs embedded in pits of the Yorkshire stone that is characteristic of the area.

The trail brings you to the Longside Gallery, where we had a chance to explore again groups of sculptures and drawings that reveal how the themes and practices that Nash established in the late 1960s and early 1970s have evolved throughout his career.  Nash has said, ‘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’. This idea is beautifully illustrated in Nash’s huge drawing Family Tree which he updates regularly. (below, click to enlarge)

The works in Longside Gallery provide a vivid overview of Nash’s work to date. From  Nine Cracked Balls (1970), which encouraged Nash that he was on the right path in trying to learn the language of wood and the way that it warps, twists and cracks with time, through to recent pieces, it’s possible to trace Nash’s increasingly confident and sophisticated working of the material. I was particularly impressed this time (and after watching him in action on the recent BBC4 documentary) with the pieces that have been deftly and delicately sliced with the chainsaw. Many of the Crack and Warp pieces have been sawn along the horizontal, vertical and diagonal to produce thin slivers like the pages of a book that, as a result of the natural processes of certain woods as they dry out, have created cracks and warps.

Back at the main display in the Underground gallery, one piece I had overlooked before is Eighteen Thousand Tides (1996), a  large, weathered timber slightly worked by Nash that once formed part of a wooden sea defence on the English south coast.

This has been a truly memorable exhibition, and we were really glad to have seen it again before it closed.  Great too, that as part of the recent British sculpture season on BBC4 we were able to see the documentary Force of Nature: The Sculpture of David Nash. The film gave an intimate insight into Nash’s methods of working with his material. From sawing and gouging to charring and planting, it revealed how he has used his profound knowledge of trees and the forces of nature to inform his work.  Using archive footage, it traced Nash’s artistic journey from art school to the bleak mining landscape of Blaenau Ffestiniog in north Wales, culminating in the preparations for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park exhibition – his most significant to date.