Antony Gormley's Angel of the North having been credited with bringing cohesion and a sense of identity to an area that had been lacking these attributes, it was inevitable, perhaps, that there should be pressure brought to bear for an Angel of the South to bring those same qualities to the yet-to-be-realised Ebbsfleet Valley development close to the Thames Estuary. The rules for the competition for the new Angel do not say that it must bean angel, merely that it should be twice the height of the Angel of the North. Twice the cohesion and twice the sense of identity, no doubt! The news that Mark Wallinger's proposal for a naturalistic horse is by many a long length the public's choice for the project seems less inevitable to me. And less inevitable still, the gooey enthusiasm of Jonathan Jones, "a leading art critic", for the Wallinger solution of a horse thirty-three times life-size standing in a field one times life-size. Does it not strike Jones - or any of the many other backers of this particular horse - that a perfect, laser-copied, reproduction of an actual horse, blown-up to thirty-three times its actual size - i.e. out of scale with its environment by a factor of thirty-three, so big that it will nedd shipbuilding techniques to realise it in steel plate - is anything but "naturalistic". Had nature decided the horse should be that size, she would not have been so foolish as to retain its present proportions. It would never have managed to rise on its spindly legs, let alone gallop across the countryside. Other proposals seem more in keeping with the natural scale of the area.
However, Jones maintains that the horse is in the English tradition. He points to the white horses on the hills of Southern England. And so he might, for they have been there since 1000 B.C. Or at least, one of them has, The White horse at Uffington. The rest were carved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He inveighs against such installations as the Antony Gormley figures standing sentinel along the Crosby sea shore, comparing them unfavourably ("trite") with the henge monuments and Neolithic stone circles, yet to me, Wallinger's vision of how his white horse will look is grotesque. Unlike the other white horses of which Jones speaks, it will stand in no relationship to its environment, and contrary to what Jones maintains, it exhibits none of the qualities that must have entranced the creators - and others - of those ancient chalk figures. For that matter, it will display none of the qualities Jones admires so much in the Angel of the North.
This flying in the face of the obvious (as I saw it) started me thinking in more general terms about the relationship between art, and specifically sculpture (including installations), on the one hand, and the landscape on the other. I began to think, in other words, about the matter of Environmental Art. There are now two distinct concepts of art that are commonly referred to by that phrase. I had, only a few days before, chanced to read an article, in a National Geographic magazine, on Christo and Jeanne-Claude, two people who call themselves environmental artists and represent one of the two strains of environmental art.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude achieved fame, and some notoriety, way back, wrapping objects and people, before moving on to larger stuff like islands and sea shores wrapped in polypropylene. Their latest project, not to be realized before 2011, is to suspend translucent panels of fabric, horizontally, over the Arkansas River in the State of Colorado. The panels will be seen as shimmering screens waving high above the water level and, when seen from below, will have "projected" on them, the silhouetted forms of clouds, mountains and vegetation.
Typically, their projects take decades to come to fruition, most of which time is consumed by the need to survey perhaps dozens of potential sites to find the perfect one, to complete all the paperwork, obtain all the permits, reassure the locals at public meetings, modify the plans to meet any objections and/or the requirements of local use and health and safety issues. Indeed, most projects never see the light of day, and those that do, Christo and Jeanne-Claude insist, are dismantled after a fortnight.
When it was put to Christo that it must be very difficult, thinking of the concepts for their projects, he disagreed: "Any fool can get a good idea," he said, "the difficult part is doing it".
Art such as Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's tends to grab the limelight and so has become what most folk know as Environmental Art. It is one of the two forms I mentioned earlier. It is Site Specific art. It should have much going for it, but it has had its failures. Christo, for example, once wrapped the coast of Little Bay, near Sydney, Australia, as a result of which a seal and some penguins became trapped. The fabric had to be cut to allow them to escape; an incident which caused the creatures concerned no little trauma and set in train a great deal of rethinking on the issues of environmental art.
This brings me to a consideration of the other form, which has been with us since the days of early man. We might think of Cro-Magnon man painting the walls of his cave, for example, or of the megaliths and stone circles already mentioned to realize for how long man has sought to connect with the powers of nature and to interpret their images and patterns, their structures and their systems.
It has usually been a gentle art form, but whenever the world has been thrown into some sort of religious, political or technological turmoil, man has come up with new art forms to forge new connections between himself and his changed or changing environment. Most recently, perhaps, during the 1960's some Western artists began to reject the traditions of formalism which had governed painting, and set out to find ways to bring mankind into some more direct relationship with his environment. One of the things they did was to begin to sculpt the landscape itself. At first some of these attempts were crude by today's standards, and did more harm than good to the environment. Since then, of course, the issues have multiplied, concern has deepened immeasurably and the terms by which we know, what was then simply environmental art, have proliferated. We may now speak of eco-art, land art, art in nature, urban art and others, but whatever the term, the three key, defining attributes of the art are that it should do no harm to the environment, that it should be sensitive to environmental issues, and that it should sensitize us to those same issues. In the meeting of those goals we might expect it to:- look for ways in which we might more happily co-exist with our environment; highlight ways in which our fragile eco-systems are being damaged and how they might be repaired and/or sustained; use natural materials (feathers, twigs, leaves, mud etc) and where appropriate power its art works using natural forces; alert us to our abuses of nature in all its forms.
No doubt that sounds like a counsel of perfection, and certainly, I feel this post is becoming something of a sermon, which was not intended, so I will leave the issues now and move on to a consideration of artists who fall into this second category. Or rather, I will choose two to represent the breed, my first choice being Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy is one who might be known to some. His use of such materials as flowers, leaves, soil, moss, icicles, twigs and branches, stone, rocks, snow and pinecones has become a trademark. He has become famous as the founder of modern rock balancing. He produces two distinct forms of art: ephemeral and permanent. For the latter he will use machinery such as earth-moving equipment, whatever is necessary, but for his more impermanent works he uses only his hands and teeth - with a little help from tools which he finds in nature. Goldsworthy maintains that his ephemeral works grow, stay a while, and then decay, and he is at pains to photograph them at every stage, producing a complete record of the processes of nature. The images, he believes, show the work when it is at its height (i.e. is most alive) at each stage. Do find the time to look at one or more of the following videos. I guarantee you will not be disappointed - and there are more on the pages to which the links will take you.Andy Goldsworthy Video :Collaboration with Nature Andy Goldsworthy Video : Yorkshire Sculpture Park Nature and Nature : Andy Goldsworthy Video
Richard Long is my second choice. I probably could do no better to introduce him than to quote from the home page of his official website: Art made by walking in landscapes. Photographs of sculptures made along the way. Walks made into textworks. That seems to me to sum up the whole spirit, not only of Richard Long's work, but of the genre as a whole.
Richard Long's "Sahara Line" installation - and my proposal for an Angel of the West, bringing the nations together... or just milking the concept?
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