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Saturday 17 May 2008

Environmental Art

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?


Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say I love the Gormley Figures and I like the recent trend of incorporating lifelike and life size sculptures in public places like bus stations and pedestrian precincts. I've run across these in Glasgow, Perth and Dublin much to my great delight and I saw a recent photo on-line of a bench with the three wise monkeys and a gap for a fourth. Great fun.

Christo is well-known to me as is Richard Long. I wasn't aware of Andy Goldsworthy though the last two artists remind me of Robert Smithson's work especially his spiral jetty.

Ken Armstrong said...

I think the Angel of The North is a fantastically iconic image. I see it features in a new telly advert for contact lenses with Jonathan Edwards.

I wonder does the artist have any control over his work being used in this way?

Rachel Fox said...

We drove past the Angel of the North yesterday. It is quite spellbinding and I like it...in a very irrational way. It shows up the ugliness of a lot of other structures nearby (shopping centres, tower blocks, retail...developments...). The Angel could be ugly in a stereotypically beautiful countryside setting but because of its so urban surroundings it looks quite gorgeous - hope made metal. I'm all for hope!

Dave King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave King said...

Thanks for the feedback Jim. I pondered long and hard about whether or not to include the Spiral Jetty. Maybe Smithson should have a post all to himself. There have been doubts raised about the work - this, for example from
answers"In identifying Environmental art a crucial cut needs to be made between artists who damage the environment, and those who intend to cause no harm to nature, indeed, their work might involve restoring the immediate landscape to a natural state. For example, despite its aesthetic merits, the American artist Robert Smithson’s celebrated sculpture Spiral Jetty (1969) involved inflicting considerable permanent damage upon the landscape he worked with. The landscape became a form of wasteground, Smithson using a bulldozer to scrape and cut the land, impinging upon the lake. Art was effectively a form of pollution inflicted on the environment. This Environmental Art also raised awareness of the importance in recycling materials."

Dave King said...

Good point Ken. I don't know the answer - can't say it has ever occurred to me, but my guess would be that no, the artist has no control.

Dave King said...

Another excellent point, Rachel: yes, the ugliness of the environment is an essential component of the Angel's impact. The Ebbsfleet countryside is a similar Waste Land, of course.

Jon said...

I've never seen the Angel of The North, other than on television. However, it is an iconic and fascinating piece of art.

Marion McCready said...

I also love the Gormley Figures and I'm sorry but I really like the idea of the giant horse, for me it's a throw back to Classics - I love seeing sculpture in large scale!

Dave King said...

Hi Jon,
Thanks for dropping in. I, too, have only seen it at second hand, but I still feel that I can relate to it.

Dave King said...

I,m with you re the Gormley figures Sorlil, but the giant horse... as in the wooden horse of? No need to be sorry, though; there's room for all on board. Thanks for the comment.

Art Durkee said...

I'm glad you worked towards mentioning Goldsworthy and Long. I make the occasional site-specific landscape art sculpture, myself, and I openly admit Goldsworthy has been an influence. (And an acquaintance of mine, Zach Pine, does similar work in the San Francisco Bay Area.) I appreciate this kind of art very much.

What makes the best of it work for me, though, is precisely that ineffable spiritual (is that the right word?) component, that indefinable and unnameable presence that the best examples have. Goldsworthy's work is both lyrical and ephemeral, and very much in touch with the place where it is made. So it almost always fits in very smoothly, and feels neither imposed on or forced onto the landscape. At least in my book.

Great topic to think about. A post on Smithson would be great. Ditto re: Donald Judd, and his work at, say, Marfa, TX, which I have seen.

Marion McCready said...

yes I was thinking of the Trojan horse and Classical sculpture per se which tended towards the large scale - imagine the sight of the Colossus of Rhodes! Funnily enough on the site of Troy, which today is on the north west coast of Turkey, they've built a giant wooden horse you can climb inside!

Dave King said...

Thanks for that Art, a really interesting and helpful comment. Yes, I did have Goldsworthy in my sights, right from the off. In my book he's the top man - though I don't know Zach Pine's work - nor yours for that matter. I must do a bit of digging!
And yes, I do think spiritual is the right word. The best of such work definitely gives a feeling of the numinous - and why is it that the most ephemeral pieces seem to speak most clearly of the eternal? Thanks for stopping by.

Dave King said...

Hi Sorlil,
Thanks for coming back. I did actually think of the Colossus of Rhodes as I read your comment. My reference to the Trojan Horse was a slightly facetious remark for which I apologise, though you have elevated it and put it into its rightful context. Thanks for that. I do indeed take your point about large scale sculpture taking us back to Classical times - and other civilizations, too, of course. I still think the scale has to relate to something, the landscape, some tribal or religious belief, whatever, but I think we are not as far apart as perhaps we appear to be.

Conda Douglas said...

I love environmental art, Dave. Thank you for this entertaining post. I've seen the White Horse once when I visited England, but would love to see the other pieces, especially the egg.

I've been watching the kids on the Oregon Trail (an interpretive park) and I now believe that environmental art is instinctual. The kids take the lava stones that the pioneers turned over and so are now pure white and arrange those stones in some pretty fantastic arrays.

Dave King said...

Thanks Conda.
The more I see of environmental art, the more I am attracted to it. I am sure you are correct in thinking there is an important instinctual element. The stuff the kids are doing on the Oregon Trail sounds fascinating.

Lucy said...

Not a sermon at all but a really interesting and cogent piece of writing, a good read! (I enjoyed the ones about primitivism too).

Last year at a local house and gardens with an exhibition on art in the environment, I found out about the work of Nils Udo, which I found very inspiring (http://greenmuseum.org/content/artist_index/artist_id-36.html).

Photography of course plays a large part in this kind of ephemeral land art.

Dave King said...

Many thanks for the feedback Lucy. I have visited the Green Museum before, but somehow missed "The Nest", so very grateful for your steer. It is stunning, isn't it? Simplicity itself, but stunning. I had planned a follow-up to this post. It hasn't taken-off, due to problems with newly-installed anti-virus software. Maybe I still will. Thanks again

Unknown said...

My sincerest thanks to you David for you lovely comment! I have always wrote poetry as a child but because of the things life gives to us I had to take a long hiatus. I am still an amateur, so your praise is taken with much gratitude.

Anonymous said...

There are many more interesting Antony Gormley facts up for graps at his official fan site http://www.antonygormley.co.uk