Forest, Field & Sky: Art out of Nature

Forest, Field & Sky: Art out of Nature

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. Continue reading “Forest, Field & Sky: Art out of Nature”

Total eclipse: darkness and light

Total eclipse: darkness and light

In anticipation of tomorrow’s great astronomical event, I have been recalling the last (and only) time I witnessed a total solar eclipse.

In Cornwall on 11 August 1999 we saw the last total eclipse that was visible over the UK (though, last time, totality was only fully visible along a limited path that crossed northern France and Cornwall). Typically, being Britain, the skies were cloudy, and we didn’t get to see the disc of the moon passing across the sun.  But, at 11 minutes past 11 in the morning, standing on the cliffs above Sennen Cove in Cornwall, it did go spookily dark – not total darkness, but the dark of deep dusk.  And we did see the moon’s shadow advancing towards us from the west, and the receding to the east. Continue reading “Total eclipse: darkness and light”

Uncommon Ground at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: ‘looking hard at real things’

<em>Uncommon Ground</em> at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: ‘looking hard at real things’

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. Continue reading Uncommon Ground at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: ‘looking hard at real things’”

Ai Weiwei in the chapel at YSP: ‘The art always wins’

Ai Weiwei in the chapel at YSP: ‘The art always wins’

Iron Tree 1

‘Iron tree’ by Ai Weiwei outside the chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

At Yorkshire Sculpture Park they recently completed the renovation of a sandstone chapel built in 1744 for the owners of Bretton Hall, the Palladian mansion that stands at the heart of the estate now devoted to art. The chapel was a place of worship for the owners of the estate and the local community for over 200 years until it was deconsecrated in the 1970s. Enter it now and you enter a contemplative space occupied by a new installation by Ai Weiwei, a profound and meditative work by an artist whose government has strictly limited his travel and confiscated his passport.

Fairytale – 1001 Chairs consists of 45 antique Chinese chairs dating from the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), each one different and yet arranged so uniformly in nine orderly rows in the nave, each chair occupying an identical, rigorously-defined space so that they seem to lose their individuality. And this is exactly Ai Weiwei’s point.

Unable to travel to Yorkshire, and working from plans and photographs of the chapel, Ai selected 45 chairs from a project displayed in Kassel in 2007 for which he brought (metaphorically) 1001 Chinese citizens to Kassel for 20 days, representing each person (otherwise unable to travel outside China) with an antique chair. Ai Weiwei chose 1001 to make a point about the collective and the individual: 1000 is a mass, one is an individual.

FairytaleAi Weiwei, Fairytale-1001 Chairs

Ai Weiwei, ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

In the chapel you are invited to choose a chair and sit.  You are handed poems to read by Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing (1910-1996).  For this is art that is both deeply political and more meditative than any other work by Ai that I have seen. The tranquil space, with its plain stone floor and bare whitewashed walls invokes stillness.  As sunlight slants through the unembellished windowpanes, Ai’s Fairytale Chairs and his father’s words combine to provoke thoughts about power, privilege and the freedom of individual.  The chapel is a refuge, a sanctuary in which thought can take wing.

Fairytale detail

The individual: detail from ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Each of these chairs is a valuable antique which once would have seated a privileged member of Chinese society, and now might be bought at a great price and leave China to stand in the room of a wealthy individual on the far side of the world. To be invited to sit on a chair like this is a freedom not granted to our Chinese contemporaries. These chairs were once the preserve of the privileged, but now – through Ai Weiwei’s intervention – as the crowds of visitors to the YSP sift through the chapel and sit for a moment’s contemplation, they represent democracy.

Society allows artists to explore what we don’t know in ways that are distinct from the approaches of science, religion and philosophy. As a result, art bears a unique responsibility in the search for truth.

Ai Weiwei’s work repeatedly draws attention to unethical government policies. He gained international attention for his collaborative work on the design of Beijing’s National Stadium,nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, built for the 2008 Olympics (he later said that he was ‘proud of the architecture, but hated the way it was used’). His work has often been angry and controversial, including the series of photographs in which he gave the finger to the Chinese government and other international leaders, and breathtaking installation in Munich created from 9,000 children’s backpacks which was his protest over the thousands of students killed when their schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (he blamed the death toll on the Chinese government corruption that permitted shoddy construction).

For nearly a decade, Ai has been harassed, placed under constant surveillance, and sometimes imprisoned. In 2011, state police seized him, threw a black bag over his head and drove him to an undisclosed location, where he languished for 81 days in a tiny prison cell. He is now banned from leaving China and his home remains under constant surveillance. Despite these restrictions, Ai has continued his criticism of the Chinese Communist leadership – which he regards as repressive, immoral and illegitimate – in works that demonstrate a deepening concern with autocratic power and the absence of human rjghts.  Were it not for his international celebrity and the worldwide protests last time he was jailed, Ai would probably be in prison like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence.

Ai’s political activism and confrontational art stem from a tumultuous childhood. In the chapel I sit for a while and read poems by his father, Ai Qing, one of China’s most revered poets, who was imprisoned by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party in 1932.  It was during the three years he spent in jail that Ai Qing began to write poetry. During the Sino-Japanese war (1931-45), swept along by the rising storm of patriotism in China, Ai Qing travelled to Yan’an, in northern China, the centre of the Communist-controlled area. He officially joined the Party in 1941, and was once close to Mao Tse-tung, who talked to him on several occasions about literary policy. His poems from this time reveal an empathy with China’s poor and their harsh existence.  One of the poems I had been given to read was ‘The North’, written in 1938 in Tongguan; this is the last stanza:

I love this wretched country,
This age-old country,
This country
That has nourished what I have loved:
The world’s most long-suffering 
And most venerable people

Ai Qing’s poems celebrated the natural world and the lives of ordinary people – and the Communist cause, as here in these lines from ‘The Announcement of the Dawn’, another poem available to read in the chapel:

For my sake,
Poet, arise.

And please tell them
That what they wait for is coming.

Tell them I have come, treading the dew,
Guided by the light of the last star.

I come out of the east,
From the sea of billowing waves.

I shall bring light to the world,
Carry warmth to humankind.

Poet, through the lips of a good man,
Please bring them the message.

Tell those whose eyes smart with longing,
Those distant cities and villages steeped in sorrow.

Let them welcome me,
The harbinger of day, messenger of light.

Open every window to welcome me,
Open all the gates to welcome me.

Please blow every whistle in welcome,
Sound every trumpet in welcome.

Let street-cleaners sweep the streets clean,
Let trucks come to remove the garbage,

Let the workers walk on the streets with big strides,
Let the trams pass the squares in splendid procession.

Let the villages wake up in the damp mist,
And open their gates to welcome me …

Ai Qing joined the Communist Party in 1941, and for a time was close to Mao Tse-tung, with whom he would sometimes discuss literary policy. When Ai Qing returned to Beijing in 1949 he was already a cadre in the new government, and began to concentrate his talents more and more on writing poems in praise of Mao Tse-tung and Stalin. Then, in 1958, he wrote a poem that extolled the virtues of a culture that celebrated rather than repressed multiple voices. For this he was publicly denounced as ‘a rightist’ and exiled with his family to a re-education camp, where he was humiliated, beaten and forced to clean toilets for nearly two decades. Ai Weiwei  was one year old and spent his early years in the camp, then another 16 years in exile before the family was allowed to return to Beijing in 1976 following the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution.  In an interview with David Sheff in 2013, Ai Weiwei recalled the years of exile:

I’m a person who likes to make an argument rather than just give emotion or expression a form and shape in art. I became an artist only because I was oppressed by society. I was born into a very political society. When I was a child, my father told me, as a joke, “You can be a politician.” I was 10 years old. I didn’t understand it, because I already knew that politicians were the enemy, the ones who crushed him. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But now I understand. I can be political. I can say something even though we grew up without true education, memorizing Chairman Mao’s slogans. I memorized hundreds of them. I can still sing his songs, recite his poetry. Every morning at school we stood in front of his image, memorizing one of his sentences telling what we should do today to make ourselves a better person.

Another poem by Ai Qing that I read as a sit in the stillness and light of the chapel at the YSP is ‘Wall’, written on a visit to Germany in 1979.  These are the opening and closing stanzas:

A wall is like a knife
It slices a city in half
One half is on the east
The other half is on the west

How tall is this wall?
How thick is it?
How long is it?
Even if it were taller, thicker and longer
It couldn’t be as tall, as thick and as long
As China’s Great Wall
It is only a vestige of history
A nation’s wound
Nobody likes this wall
And how could it block out
A billion people
Whose thoughts are freer than the wind?
Whose will is more entrenched than the earth?
Whose wishes are more infinite than time?

Ai Weiwei has selected three more works for the chapel. ‘Ruyi’ (which means ‘as as one wishes’ is a vividly-coloured porcelain sculpture in the form of a traditional Chinese sceptre of the same name, used by nobles, monks and scholars for around 2,000 years. Ruyi denoted authority and granted individuals the right to speak and be heard, ‘thus enabling orderly and democratic discourse’.

Ai Weiwei, Map of China, 2012. Courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photo Jonty WildeMap of China, 2008 made from wood reclaimed from Qing dynasty temples

Ai Weiwei, ‘Map of China’, 2008 (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Map of China is a massive piece, carved from wood reclaimed from dismantled Qing dynasty temples.  On the wall opposite are displayed two timelines. One consists of some of the terrible dates in China’s history in the last 100 years: the estimated famine deaths across China (five million in 1928-30; 10 million in 1943; 25-45 million after the end of the Great Leap Forward in 1961); troops opening fire on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Beijing in 1989; the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Sichuan province, killing tens of thousands in 2008.  In a parallel column are listed dates very personal to the artist: 1932, his father, the celebrated poet Ai Qing, begins to write because he cannot paint while imprisoned as a member of the League of Left Wing Artists; 1958, Ai Qing interned in a labour camp as a “rightist” with his family, including the baby Ai Weiwei, where he spends the next 16 years cleaning the village toilets.

Then there are recent dates from the artist’s own life: 2008, artistic adviser for the Olympic stadium; 2009, project to publish all the unacknowledged names of child victims of the earthquake, and cranial surgery following assault by police; 2010, house arrest as ‘Sunflower Seeds’ opens at Tate Modern; 2011, accused of ‘economic crimes’ and imprisoned for 81 days, his Shanghai studio demolished. The most recent date simply reads: ‘2014, passport confiscated’.


Ai Weiwei, Lantern, 2014 (Photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Upstairs is ‘Lantern’, carved in marble excavated from the same quarries used by emperors to build the Forbidden City, and more recently, to build Mao’s tomb. For some years the Chinese authorities have surrounded Ai’s home with surveillance cameras and every step he takes outside is recorded and monitored. In a gesture of mockery and defiance, Ai  began to decorate the CCTV cameras with red Chinese lanterns.  Then he began to carve the ‘Lantern’ series from marble. In this way the ephemeral becomes permanent, or – as Ai has said – ‘The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.’

Iron Tree 2

Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013

One tree, another tree,
Each standing alone and erect.
The wind and air
Tell their distance apart.

But beneath the cover of earth
Their roots reach out
And at depths that cannot be seen
The roots of the trees intertwine.
– Ai Qing, ‘Tree’,1940

Stepping out of the chapel into the sunlight you are confronted by one of Ai’s most recent works – the six-metre high ‘Iron Tree’, the largest and most complex sculpture to date in a tree series begun in  2009, and inspired by pieces of wood sold by street vendors.

Iron Tree detail 2 Iron Tree detail 1 Iron Tree 3

Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013, details

The work has been constructed from casts of branches, roots and trunks from different trees. Although like a living tree in form, the sculpture is very obviously pieced and joined together with large iron bolts.  ‘Iron Tree’ comprises 97 pieces cast in iron from parts of trees, and interlocked using a classic – and here exaggerated – Chinese method of joining, with prominent nuts and screws. The work ‘expresses Ai’s interest in fragments and the importance of the individual, without which the whole would not exist’.

Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential.  Simply put, aside from using one’s own imagination – perhaps more importantly – creativity is the power to act.  Only through our actions can our expectations for change turn into reality.
– Ai Weiwei


It’s 25 years since a million protesters demanding democratic freedoms gathered in Tiananmen Square, only for the protests to be brutally crushed.  Good piece in the Guardian by author of Beijing Coma, Ma Jian who took part in the protests and is now exiled.

See also


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

See also

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.


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


April …with dandelions

Plenty of dandelions around this April, which set me thinking about this  plant, regarded as a weed, hated if you’re a gardener (those damned taproots) and, in urban areas at least, an indication of  unkemptness. Yet subconciously we  recognise the dandelion as a welcome sign of spring, and associate it with childhood memories (blowing on the seed heads to tell the time of day, making dandelion chains). And I remember the wagon that came round every summer delivering dandelion and burdock in great stone jars.

The English name dandelion is a corruption of the French dent de lion meaning “lion’s tooth”, referring to the coarsely-toothed leaves.In modern French the plant is named pissenlit, which means “urinate in bed”, apparently referring to its diuretic properties. In Chaucer’s time the English called it ‘pissabed’ for the same reason.

I came across a book all about the dandelion: The Teeth of the Lion: The Story of the Beloved and Despised Dandelion by Anita Sanchez.  In it she outlines many of the bene-fits of this plant. It is packed with vitamins and minerals, full of antioxidants, and is great at breaking up poor soil and extracting nutrients from difficult soil. Ecologically, it is an important plant in the recovery of damaged systems, and can serve as a marker for the health of an ecosystem. Dandelions also provide nectar to bees, butterflies, and birds at times when other flowers are not blooming.

Within the context of the debate over whether dandelions are good or bad – whether they are fondly appreciated memories of childhood, pretty yellow flowers, or stubbornly wicked weeds – Sanchez confronts the widespread use of great volumes of herbicides on those recently adopted elements of the cultural landscape known as ‘lawns’. Perhaps no other plant is the target of such a barrage of deadly chemicals, but the herbicides not only fail to eliminate dandelions but also poison birds and other parts of the ecosystem.

Andy Goldsworthy is an artist who has utilised dandelions  on many occasions in his work; these were created at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, April-May 1987:

Not surprisingly, John Clare wrote about the dandelion:

Tis May; and yet the March flower Dandelion
Is still in bloom among the emerald grass,
Shining like guineas with the sun’s warm eye on–
We almost think they are gold as we pass,
Or fallen stars in a green sea of grass.
They shine in fields, or waste grounds near the town.
They closed like painter’s brush when even was.
At length they turn to nothing else but down,
While the rude winds blow off each shadowy crown.

Emily Dickinson’s The Dandelion’s Pallid Tube has similair reflections:

The Dandelion’s pallid tube
Astonishes the Grass,
And Winter instantly becomes
An infinite Alas —

The tube uplifts a signal Bud
And then a shouting Flower, —
The Proclamation of the Suns
That sepulture is o’er.

Looking back on this April, today’s Country Diary in The Guardian sums it up:

April saved the best till last: fine days full of the arrival songs of chiffchaff, blackcap, redstart and garden warblers; orchard blossom, wood anemone and stitchwort; high blue skies zipping with swallows. This has been one of the most beautiful months in a long time and spring is timely this year.

After the winter, spring emerged within the traditional timings of events such as migrant bird arrivals, frogspawn and leaf opening, unlike many previous years when it all went askew. Is this a return to a seasonal rhythm we thought had been lost, or an aberrancy? Time will tell. But for now, the old rhyme about tree leaf opening as an omen of the summer’s weather seems pertinent because it’s raining.

The oak leaves are out before the ash, which means we’re going to have a splash instead of a soak. Heavy rain has certainly been the soaking norm for the last couple of years, when the ash has leafed out before the oak. This year it’s the other way around, so the omens are for good weather.

If the leaves are loaded with omen, there are other auguries and symbols opening within spring wildflowers. As the bluebells and wild garlic flower in the woods, there seems a greater feeling this spring of what the German artists called Stimmung – a perhaps untranslatable word meaning something like sentiment, mood, emotive state which is a tuning of the soul to Nature.

Although many will feel this with birdsong and bluebells, I think it is strongest in more subtle appearances: the pale parasitic toothwort flowers and the deeply exotic early purple orchid. The rain has brought a quickening zing to the end of April as spring careers over hills and woods towards May Day.

Mary Newcomb: Dandelion Lands


Sophie Ryder at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Sophie Ryder at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

We’ve been to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park to see the new exhibition of Sophie Ryder’s work. We first encountered her wire sculptures at YSP in 1991 when, with our 7-year old daughter,  we saw an earlier show that featured a flock of sheep.

A year later, we saw Crossing Place: a herd of deer careering through a pond in the Forest of Dean.

Sophie Ryder’s association with YSP began in 1986 with a residency immediately after graduating from the RA Schools. This latest exhibition presents powerful sculpture made in the last decade alongside new pieces, large drawings in wire and works on paper.

Ryder’s work utilises anthropomorphic and dream imagery, combining animal and human forms, attitudes and instincts.She expresses emotion and sexuality within the female or mother figure (as in the Lady-Hare) and reveals her relationship to the child, the dog and the minotaur, which is the antithesis of the female persona or spirit of the hare.

Sophie herself is the model for her sculpture and drawing; she takes attitudes and poses from her own body which are repeatedly drawn and made in wire and bronze.

Around the park,  in the open air, monumental wire works and a series of bronzes continue to explore Ryderís iconic themes: the lady-hare, minotaur, and dog.

Eye,a large-scale wire work, is dramatically suspended against the landscape and sky on the walking route to Longside.

Installing in Longside
Kneeling Figure in progress


This slideshow requires JavaScript.