Friday, May 06, 2016

Forest, Field & Sky

A programme about art in the landscape can currently be seen on the BBC iPlayer: Forest, Field & Sky: Art Out of Nature.  It is presented by Dr James Fox, who sets out his ambitions at the beginning of the programme: "I'll trek through forests and fields, around gorgeous gardens and to the very edges of our island and I'll gaze afresh at the skies above.  What I find will I hope change the way we think about the landscape and it might just change your view of modern art."  As this opening indicates, the programme was not written as a critical appraisal of British land art - it is more of an introduction for nature lovers who have a passing interest in art.  Nevertheless I found it an enjoyable hour's TV, well worth watching.

I'm afraid that what will remain most prominently in my memory is the moment (22 minutes in) when Andy Goldsworthy, having all but completed a stack of stones balanced laboriously against an old tree trunk, sees them overbalance and come crashing down.  There are no expletives, just a moment of sad resignation with bowed head, then a slow climb down his ladder.  After the broadcast, on Twitter, @doctorjamesfox revealed that this Sisyphean labour was in fact eventually completed, at the sixth attempt.  In addition to Goldsworthy the programme features four other famous names - David Nash, Richard Long, Charles Jencks and James Turrell - plus an artist whose work I had not seen before, Julie Brook.  In the early nineties she spent two years living in a cave on the island of Jura, abandoning painting in favour of making constructions called fire stacks.  Fox encounters her on a remote beach on the island of Lewis where she has been building one of these Goldsworthy-like circular structures at low tide, filling it with wood and seaweed to be set alight.  As the water rises and the sun goes down, the fire burns and the light of the flames flickers on the waves.

Ash Dome is a work of much longer duration.  David Nash tells James Fox that clips of him working on it over the years show the sculpture gradually growing while he just gets older (Fox tells us he wasn't even born when Nash planted the saplings in 1977).  The programme then moves on to Richard Long, shown only in archive footage; Fox gamely retraces his 1968 ten-mile straight-line walk across Exmoor - tough going but a lot shorter than some of Long's subsequent walks.  After a digression on eighteenth century landscaping at Stourhead, which brought back pleasant memories of my visit there a couple of years ago, Fox is shown round Jencks's Garden of Cosmic Speculation.  Finally he visits Turrell's Deer Shelter Skyspace at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and sits inside, gazing up at the blue aperture of sky as it slowly darkens.  He says that art like this teaches us patience, although in the programme's speeded up footage, night encroaches in a matter seconds.  It is a reminder perhaps of the central message of the film: that this art is about experience that can only be found away from our screens, outside in the landscape.

No comments: