SCULPTURE AND NATURE
Beijing, 15 June 2014
My wife and I were watching TV with one eye the other day when the BBC passed a programme which caught our attention. It was about the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the north of England. I think a few words of explanation are required for those readers who have never heard of this Park (our situation before watching the BBC programme). It was established back in 1977 in the grounds of a stately home the last of whose aristocratic owners (Viscount Allendale) had sold it to the local council after World War II, no doubt to save his financial skin (I mentioned the financial woes of the UK’s stately homes in an earlier posting of mine). The idea is a simple one: rather than displaying modern sculpture in open spaces in cities like plazas
or using the atriums of posh buildings
My wife and I agree on many things, and one of them is that modern sculptures are enhanced by being seen in a natural, organic setting rather than in the built urban environment. Personally, I think it has to do with the contrast between the dead surfaces of the sculptures and the much softer, living surfaces of the surrounding landscapes. It sounds a bit fancy, but the dead sculpture comes alive when in contact with organic life.
This was brought home to us very strongly when, 25 years ago, and on the advice of a friend who worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we visited the Storm King Art Centre, which is an hour’s drive north of New York City, near the Hudson River. Here again, a few words of introduction. It’s really the classic American story (as much as the history of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is the classic British story of modern times – decay of the old order and birth of a new one). A certain Mr. Ogden, after a successful career in the family business, purchased the land and property of Storm King and started collecting. He initially bought small sculptures which he exhibited around the house. At some point, he expanded out into the surrounding landscape, installing much bigger pieces. That’s it, in a nutshell. But the result – for us at least – was epiphanic.
In wonder we wandered along the rides mown through the grass, walking from one towering sculpture to another
from hilltops, we discovered long views across the surrounding landscape, where sculpture and land merged into one
we walked through glades in the woods, each with their own sculpture
we entered the woods to find smaller, more intimate sculptures scattered under the trees
we also found a sculpture-wall meandering through them
(better seen in this photo taken during the winter)
we turned our steps back to the house, discovering other smaller sculptures set down in more formal gardens around the house.
And finally, we entered the house and fell upon a sculpture which in all these years I have never forgotten: a group of robotic-looking statues with small motors making their jaws work up and down and with a closed-loop recording of voices quietly droning “chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter …” on and on, endlessly. Wonderful. Every time I find myself in one of those meetings where people blather on and on and on I recall this statue group with intense clarity.
So taken were we with Storm King that the very first time we went back to New York after an absence of fifteen years we made sure to find time to go up there. It cast the same spell over us – although sadly the chattering statues had vanished (smashed to smithereens, no doubt, by an employee crazed by their endless droning).
As I contemplate these photos, it occurs to me that many of the megalithic structures scattered across the face of Europe could pass as modern sculptures set down in the surrounding landscape. Stonehenge, the most iconic of all megalithic structures, is probably too much like a ruin to make this comparison
but Avebury, like Stonehenge located in Wiltshire, has something of the abstraction of sculpture parks
or the Ring of Brodgar, in the Orkney islands?
And even further afield, although not from the Mesolithic period, we have this intimate collection of upright stones in Toraja, Indonesia
Of course, the people who built these structures were not building sculpture parks, but I have to think that they too were stirred by the same feeling of connectedness between their standing stones and nature as we have between sculpture and nature. They attributed this feeling to a divine grace in the place, we simply enjoy the feeling.
Sculpture in cities-1: http://percivalhenry.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/52af841ee4b0b09acc808041-lost3f3f3f-1387234862071-flamingo.jpg [in http://percivalhenry.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/art-history-martch-madness-first-round-new-york-regional/comment-page-1/%5D
Sculptures in cities-2: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/26/Juilliard_School-Manhattan-New_york.jpg [in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Juilliard_School-Manhattan-New_york.jpg%5D
Sculpture in cities-3: http://i3.mirror.co.uk/incoming/article740970.ece/alternates/s615/A%20new%20sculpture%20on%20the%20fourth%20plinth%20in%20Trafalgar%20Square,%20central%20London%20The%20work%20by%20sculptor%20Bill%20Woodrow,%20entitled%20%27Regardless%20of%20History%27,%20%20shows%20a%20tree%20resting%20on%20a%20head%20and%20a%20book [in http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/love-it-or-hate-it-bronze-rocking-741129%5D
Sculpture in cities-4: http://womenworld.org/image/082012/Paris%20-%20Beaubourg%20and%20Les%20Halles_1.jpg [in http://womenworld.org/travel/paris—around-town—beaubourg-and-les-halles-%28part-1%29.aspx%5D
SK-2: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-OWDq8YQCBog/UA6M17c9N6I/AAAAAAAAYI4/OqODfTIunKU/s1600/Mountainville_NY_A_Calder_Storm_King_AC_photo_S_Gruber_June_2012_+%2888%29.JPG [in http://publicartandmemory.blogspot.com/2012_07_01_archive.html%5D
SK-6: http://inhabitat.com/nyc/wp-content/blogs.dir/2/files/2011/07/storm-king-boulders.jpg [in http://inhabitat.com/nyc/storm-king-art-center-a-summer-retreat-for-the-artsy-nature-loving-new-yorker/storm-king-boulders/%5D