CONVERGENCE WITH NATURE. A Daoist perspective David E. Cooper
Green Books, Devon, 2012, pbk. 168 pp., £10.95, 978-0-85784-023-3
Prof. Cooper’s closing words may disappoint some green-minded readers who, like myself some decades ago, have been enthused by bubbles of wisdom gleaned from interpretations of Buddhism, Native American, Ancient Celtic, and Whatnot – not to mention Daoist (Taoist) – traditions. As usual, the situation turns out to be less simple, more subtle, than the interpreters suggested. “Daoism’s contribution to environmental ethics is not a new principle for governing humankind’s treatment of the environment, nor a new plan to rescue the planet. It is, instead, a portrait of how an individual person, in making consonance with the source of things – with dao – may live well in relation to nature.”
Daoists, explains Cooper, will be noticeably few amongst factory-farm employees, but also amongst eco-warriors. They will be found feeding birds in winter, and – especially – they will be cultivating their gardens. They have, he says, aptly been described as the gardeners of the world. As may be seen from the art tradition, Daoists are as much at home in nature gardened as in nature wild.
Without over-burdening his text with quotations or references, and by writing in the first person, Cooper provides a succinct and readable guide through some of the meanings and implications of what he prefers to call Daodeism (dao – usually translated as ‘way’ or ‘path’; de – essence, power, excellence, etc.). He moves too fast at times, for instance referring to parallels in early Indian and Greek traditions without cameoing them, and leaving a blur between Daoism and Zen (which may indeed be there).The role of the classical Chinese language in Chinese thinking, the lack of a verb “to be”, for instance, keeping the focus on events rather than things, might have been made a little clearer. Dao thus does not need an external source for change, but as it were comes self-motivated. He several times says that a point will become clearer later – but by later I had forgotten the link. His subject is by no means straightforward, and I’m sure I’ve grasped the wrong ends of several sticks; his book, however, is stimulating, and likely to prove widely useful, and is to be recommended as a brief, careful, and personal insight into a philosophy that will undoubtedly continue to have a strong influence on parts of the environmental / conservation movements.
I found two chapters especially interesting. ‘Nature, feeling and appreciation’ makes a nice point clearly: “Despite Daoism’s reputation amongst New Agers as spiritual ecology, the classic texts are devoid of dithyrambic odes to nature.” ‘Sober joy’ is more characteristic of the Daoist’s appreciation. And that appreciation is deepened by mindfulness, and engagement. The dissolving of the feeling that Woody Allen called being “at two with nature” does not (I think) need an interpretation based on all of us being the same (or being ‘equal’), but on an acceptance of “the intimate co-dependence of beings”.
Sober joy in a way does make things more equal than we are inclined to see them. We find it difficult to take delight in the ordinary - we like things that are extra-ordinary, that are redletterday not everyday. Ordinary, everyday things, though, are merely following their dao, That seems something to be soberly joyful for.
“Give me…”, he quotes Thoreau, in ‘Wilderness, wildness, wildlife’, “the wilderness”. This is increasingly difficult, if not impossible; but we can certainly still have wildness, even in the midst of the city. Cooper points out that Daoism is not antagonistic towards real wilderness, but “nor is the ‘wilderness experience’ privileged by Daoists over engagement with human landscapes, with cultivated environments”. Humans can be ‘natural’ as much in the garden as in the wilderness. Indeed, harmoniousness and ‘convergence’ would seem to imply – if not require - some movement towards each other by both parties.
(Useful supplementary reading is http://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Phil%20100-08/Taoism/Tracing%20Dao%20To%20It's%20Source.html/)
U-N-F-O-L-D. A Cultural Response to Climate Change,
edited by David Buckland and Chris Wainwright, Springer, 2010, ISBN 978-3-7091-0220-6, £26.99
Not-with-standing the impending re-publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, as soon as the news broke, from the Tory Party Conference held in Birmingham in October, that the new, conservative Energy Minister, John Hayes, a climate change sceptic and vocal opponent of wind power, had proclaimed that “high-flown theories of bourgeois, left-wing academics will not override the interests of ordinary people who need fuel for heat, light and transport” and that the government would bend its own carbon-dioxide reduction rules and build new coal-fired power stations, I felt like uttering that iconic catch-phrase of Private Fraser, in Dad’s Army, “We’re doomed, we’re all doomed”. The green lobby, George Osborne’s “environmental Taliban”, are to be put to flight and what the right-wing commentator, Peter Hitchens, has called the “fanatical false religion of man-made global warming” is to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Since then there has been a relentless sequence of government policies and initiatives echoing that same theme. At the time of the international Doha Conference on climate change in November, the government came up with what it called its comprehensive energy bill, omitting any commitment to a decarbonising target, reducing the budget for energy efficiency measures by 44%. and containing no significant measures to reduce energy demand, rather predicting an increase in electricity usage by up to two-thirds in 2050, when Germany is planning for a 25% cut. Then, in December, conveniently associated with a particularly cold, though seasonal, few days it announced the resumption of exploratory drilling for shale gas (1).
In support of government policies, the Daily Mail, among a number of national dailies, published Met Office figures that showed that the world stopped heating up almost sixteen years ago. This use of limited, short-term statistics is to confuse the vagaries of the weather with the long-term consequences of climate change; to deny the scientific evidence of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2001) and the consensus of the scientific community at large; and to ignore the advice and recommendations of the Stern Report, in 2006, that received the backing of most world and UK organisations of note, including the IMF and the UN, the CBI and the TUC.
It also demonstrates, however absurd this might seem, that there is still an argument to be won against climate change deniers and that the environmental movement needs all the help it can get to set the planet on a more convincing path towards climate stability. To the extent that the arts and the wider creative community can contribute to this goal, then the environmental arts charity Cape Farewell has played its part since its first voyage to the high Arctic in 2003. U-N-F-O-L-D. A Cultural Response to Climate Change, edited by Cape Farewell’s founder David Buckland and his associate Professor Chris Wainwright, is the product of the most recent expeditions to the Arctic, in 2007 and 2008, and to the Andes in 2009. As well as illustrations of art works produced by artists who went on the voyages the book also contains a selection of articles by both artists and scientists, linking the two cultures in their examination of environmental issues. The book has been produced in tandem with a touring expedition, a follow-up to earlier exhibitions by Cape Farewell, such as Art of a Changing World, at the Royal Academy in early 2010 (2) and the Ice Garden exhibition in Oxford, in 2005 (3).
In his essay Energy, Climate, Humans, the recently appointed Professor of Climate Science at University College London, Chris Rapley, provides a useful primer on the current situation, his overarching thesis that since our civilisation depends on a combination of a stable world climate and cheap energy we are in grave peril, as the latter endangers the former, with our use of fossil fuel contributing to the raising of the earth’s temperature by 0.75 degrees Celcius since 1800, a rate one hundred times more than can be attributed to natural causes. At our current rate of carbon release we stand only a 50% chance of keeping the global temperature rise to 2 degrees celcius by 2050, a rise generally regarded as representing the Earth’s climate tipping point.
With Polar ice melting three times as fast as 20 years ago, in the words of David Buckland, ‘”When you’re in the Arctic the only question is climate change” and the only answer lies in cultural change and an end to our addiction to fossil fuel. The artists and scientists on these various expeditions were invited to respond to this cultural crisis, perhaps by absorbing the “great vats of strangeness that the Arctic offered up”( Michel Noach) and illustrations of many of their responses are included in the book.
Of the large number of images in the catalogue, many are photographic records of the artists’ work on-site in the Arctic or along the Amazon. Buckland has photographs of two of his signature neon signs, A Hot Wind More Terrible Than Darkness and Discounting the Future. Others are of works produced in the aftermath of the voyages, like the Vitrines and Windows on the World by Lucy and Jorge Orta, focal points for issues raised on the Amazon voyage.
All art is self-indulgent and there must be an essential contradiction in the entire concept of the voyages, confronted head-on by Francesca Galeazzi in her performance piece, Justifying Bad Behaviour. She discharged the entire content of a CO2 cylinder on the Greenland glacier, having previously compensated for her action through an on-line Gold Standard Carbon Offsetting scheme. Clare Twomey’s Specimen contains elements of broken ceramics, damaged on the journey, “highlighting the damaging effects of our curiosity.” Sunand Prasad has photographed four, red helium balloons representing one ton of CO2, the average emission per person per month in the UK, on a beach in Greenland only recently made accessible by the retreating ice.
Collaboration is the key to the construction of an effective strategy to deal with climate change and collaboration is at the heart of the Cape Farewell enterprise, both between scientists and artists and between the many art disciplines. Such collaboration reached a high point on the 2008 Disko Bay voyage to Greenland when “Robin Hitchcock wrote the song ‘There Goes The Ice’ after Chris Wainwright asked him to spell out ‘Here Comes The Sun’ with semaphore lights on the deck of the ship. Robyn took the song to KT Tunstall in the next-door cabin and they recorded it there and then”.
In the case of RANE-CHAR the collaborative process reaches out to all of us, the spectators, as does the process of dealing with climate change itself. Biochar is a porous charcoal that helps soil retain nutrients and water as well as reducing green house gas emissions by storing carbon. Members of the public can buy bags of biochar, bury them near their home and return the label to RANE at University College, Falmouth, to help complete a global map of RANE-CHAR sites. The bag can either be kept as an artist’s multiple or composted.
The literary contribution by Ian McEwan, The Hot Breath of Civilisation, might be viewed as a prelude to a possible epitaph for the planet or, rather, for humankind on Earth: “We resemble successful lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mould enveloping a fruit.... Are we at the beginning of an unprecedented era of international cooperation or are we living in an Edwardian summer of reckless denial? Is this the beginning, or the beginning of the end?”
1. For comment on Canadian attitudes to shale oil exploitation see Paint It or Rape It: The Group of Seven , artthreat on-line, February 2012
2. A Guernica for Gaia: The UK Art World Gets Serious About Climate Change, artthreat on-line, March 2010: artreview on-line, May 2010
3. Whatever Happened to the Polar Bears? L&AN Journal, April 2006
ST. IVES ARTISTS A biography
of place and time
RAW MATERIALS A FIELD
GUIDE TO ICE
BATU-ANGAS. Envisioning Nature with Alfred Russel Wallace
Bridgend: Seren Books,2009, pbk., 78 pp., £8.99, ISBN 978-1-85411-464-8
The sorts of scientific questions that motivated Alfred Russel Wallace – “to know the causes of things” – were, says Anne Cluysenaar, not what drew her to “the very life I respond to so intensely as a poet”. Not that Wallace was merely a scientist. He was keenly aware of the importance of the arts, urging that we should “see the advantage possessed by him whose studies have been in various directions”. In his autobiography, he asks: “Can we believe that we are fulfilling the purpose of our existence while so many of the wonders and beauties of nature remain unnoticed around us?”. He wonders what pleasure would be left if we couldn’t gaze on what was called ‘the face of nature’ – he clearly found every detail of that face charming. And Cluysenaar is his disciple in this.
It is a pity Wallace is so overshadowed by Darwin – and his books by Darwin’s. He has much of importance to say. His writings impressed Anne Cluysenaar, who has used quotations from several of Wallace’s publications to frame a sequence of poems that are reflections on or are prompted by his global travels, and the wonders he brought back to Britain – or found here. Her book is as gem. Her poems respond to Wallace finding such wonders as a birdwing butterfly in Malaya and bright beetle in the Welsh Beacons, an orang-utan and birds of paradise, and a flower in forest gloom shining as if gold.
She experiences those things through Wallace’s words, and specimens. These are not brilliant poems – but effective, and sometimes provocative:
What stays with me is this –
the feel of where we both were:
my foot about to step on,
his wings bunching to fly ... ....
Written simply, and with feeling, they suit the quotes well in most cases. The quotations are the springboards of the poetry. Sometimes Anne echoes Wallace; sometimes she takes a tangent. She visits the Natural History Museum:
On the phone to Entomology
from the desk in the vast hall
(Diplodocus behind me
I mention these poems on Wallace) ....
“Knowing”, she says “is never enough. / We have to see...”. There is an “extraordinary insect” illustrated in Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago; the drawing of the beetle is included in Batu-Angas:
............................. his arms
arc, pulling him forward,
stretch, feel for a grip,
and Cluysenaar describes the museum specimen:
Now, in the case, it glows chestnut
as if it might still blend
into bark shining damp at dusk.
I might almost be watching the life
Wallace witnessed in morning light,
As it clambered between his hands.
Some things she reads disturb her, in particular the killing of ‘specimens’, including Pomgo pygmaeus the orang-utan.
How often his fingers unfolded
loose wings, tilted to the light
brilliances now without fnction
I share the smell of blood
while I reach for his understandings.
Wallace’s sketch of his ideas on evolution which he sent to Charles Darwin precipitated the publication of On the origin of species, of which 2009 is the 150th. anniversary in which writer and book have been much celebrated. In a way, Batu-Angas (an Indonesian term for cooled lava, which Wallace saw) is a kindly contribution to a celebration of the overshadowed Wallace. It perhaps doesn’t increase our direct understanding of what Wallace is telling us (...or does it? Poetry can speak science in its own ways...), but is helps anchor his experiences and thoughts in our own. The poems are supported by succinct introductory essays, and contemporary and modern illustrations – including a photo of an old, flattened museum specimen of Pongo.
[All royalties from this book are donated to W.W.F..]
Birkhauser Verlag, 2008, pbk., 574 pages, £39.90 ISBN 978-3-7643-8824-4
Rivers had a pivotal role in the development of early civilisations and yet human responses to their presence have often been, at best, ambivalent, especially in more modern times. They provide arteries for transport but also barriers between communities; they bring trade and with it the detritus of commercial activity. Wharves and warehouses and the slums that accompanied them made no-go areas out of urban river banks - in the case of London right up until the final decade of the last century. This was not always the case and Boston, Massachusetts was amongst the first river-bank cities to find a creative solution to the problem of riverside decay. In 1969, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts created the exhibition Back Bay Boston: The City as a Work of Art to “pay tribute to those who created the Back Bay from the dank and foul-smelling waters of the tidal marsh” of the Charles River, a process carried out between 1840 and 1890.
Figure 1. The plan for the Charles River Embankment, 1874 from the exhibition catalogue, Museum of fine Art, Boston 1969.
These forerunners of the luxury, warehouse, loft apartments along the Thames in London appeared along the Charles River a generation before. And yet, in the early years of the current century it was still possible for the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art to find an undeveloped waterfront site for their new building that opened in the summer of 2006. Clearly, the development of riverscapes continues to present a pressing challenge to architects and landscape architects today. How they have risen to this challenge in Europe is the subject of this book.
Riverscapes is a German publication and focuses on rivers in Germany. The Rhine dominates the book just as it dominates the reunified state and not only geographically but also culturally, economically and mythically. The text, whilst mostly descriptive and technical, is interspersed with brief introductory pieces by the German architect and urban planner, Thomas Sieverts, that provide a kind of philosophic grounding for the architectural and landscape design work on display - all of 82 successful projects. He outlines the spiritual importance of the Rhine in Germany’s pre-industrial period and appeals to that utopian past as a weapon to save the river today from “drowning in a sea of architectural mediocrity” and to recreate riverscapes that welcome and do not repel a human presence.
In detail and with literally hundreds of illustrations the book shows how the task of creating a “cohesively articulated attitude on the part of the region to its river” is progressing and how industrial degradation is being replaced with a part-realised vision of riverside walks through sewage plants and green oases on former hazardous waste deposits, all the while acknowledging the reality of global warming and its effects on river levels and flood plains and with plans for sustainability that will last for (only!) 200 years.
Amidst much talk of marketing strategies for leisure and tourism and design workshops on riverside urban and industrial planning there is still space for aesthetics and for landscape art and cultural activities generally. Promenades and parks provide opportunities for Land Art and earthworks and for sculptural “art objects” as waymarkers.
Figure 2. Sculptural Waymarker, Millingen, on the Rhine Delta (page 449)
The banks of rivers provide sites for museums and galleries, like the art museum in Linz on the Danube in Austria. The Kulturbunker on the Main at Frankfurt particularly caught my attention. I spent some time in Hoechst, a waterside suburb of Frankfurt, in 1955, on a school exchange - one of the first, I suspect, after the Second World War - and now, here, in 2008, housed in an old, grey World War Two air-raid shelter, was the brand new Institute for New Media as well as five fine artists’ studios. As the book, without irony, puts it “Looking for low-priced accommodation for artistic purposes, the city, being short of funds, remembered the potential of this structure and decided to convert it into a cultural ‘impulse location’ ”. Long may the impulse continue, though the history of artists’ studios along the Thames in Wapping is against it.
The book does not confine itself to Germany alone nor to mainland Europe. These off-shore islands are represented by the Clyde, with the Titan Crane the symbol of regeneration; by the Waterfront Riverside park on the Mersey, the Ribble and the Dee; the three architectural highlights on the Tyne, the Millennium Bridge, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and the Sage Music Centre; and by the Albert Dock development in Liverpool and the Iron Men by Anthony Gormley, just up the coast at Crosby.
Figure 3. The Iron Men at Crosby Beach (page 299)
There is a section on Navigation. It refers to the process of locating examples of good riverside design rather than the navigation of the rivers themselves. The editors might have taken some of their own advice and paid more attention to the issue of navigating the complex and piecemeal contents of this book. Readers might then not have needed to employ the wit of Theseus, let alone the thread of Ariadne, to find their way through its labyrinthine structure.
Virtual Safari - From Falmouth to the Arctic Circle.
Virtual Safari - From Falmouth to the Arctic Circle.
ART IN ACTION.
ARTFUL ECOLOGIES [papers from Art, Nature & Environment conference, 2006]
Research in Art, Nature & Environment
RANE, University College Falmouth, 2007, 145pp. available free as pdf from http://rane.falmouth.ac.uk/home.html [printed edition pending]
ETHICS, PLACE & ENVIRONMENT vol. 10 nr.,
3 October 2007 Special issue on Environmental & land art, ed. EmilyBrady Colchester: Routledge, ISSN 1366-879X, www.tandf.co.uk
"The need to speak differently”, urges Chris Desser, in an article on the Green Museum website [http://greenmuseum.org], “has never been so urgent; speaking differently is what artists do best.”Involvement – or at least academic interest – in what we variously call environmental art, ecoart, etc. is spreading. It is, then, ironic that one of the best sources of ideas and commentary on the matter, the Green Museum, is having to solicit supporters to avoid closing its virtual doors. Heaven forfend! Meanwhile, exhibitions, publications, websites, and meetings come thick and fast. Such art may not have yet impressed itself on the Wider Public, and it is looked on askance by parts of the Art world, but it is present in a spectrum of situations from coffee-tables to research programmes. Here are samples from three points of the range. In their different ways, each has plenty to offer. I shall save the colour photos until last.
Do not expect many pictures in the themed issue of Ethics, place & environment. This is a geography-oriented academic journal – which is not said to put you off, though it is a relatively strong read. This is not surprising: it is concerned with ‘I think this is what is, and why’ arguments, rather than merely ’I like / don’t like it’ statements. Research into environment & art now surfaces in many interesting places. It is encouraging, for instance, that the current issue of Environmental Ethics includes a contribution to the debate on environmental art as an affront to nature. Though in their specialised language, such writings point even a mere browser to the deeper facets of environmental art, so often left unnoticed or ignored by practitioners, their public, and indeed critics.
The papers begin with Sheila Lintott exploring the complexity of making ethical evaluations of land art, Or, indeed, of Art: even Michelangelo’s ‘David’ can be looked at disapprovingly, remembering that even a masterpiece has resulted in a deeper hole in the ground and a tad more waste or pollution. John Fisher echoes the concern for a broad basis for evaluation for artworks which “unlike representations of nature ... self-consciously alter it”. Emily Brady ponders to what extent environmental art-making fosters “positive aesthetic-moral relationships between nature and humans”, concluding that yes: such ‘artistically generated relationships’ [including the likes of ‘Spiral Jetty’] can stretch and offer new insights into the understanding of aesthetic value, “drawing attention to deeper forms of aesthetic environmental engagement”. Jason Simus, in response, wonders if environmental art should further these relationships even if at expense to the environment, and urges a better knowledge of the balance between aesthetic regard and ecological cost.
‘Unauthorised interventions’ means things like art graffiti and a little door someone has playfully fitted to a hole in a forest tree. I must thank Isis for alerting me to the fact that in the depths of Wastwater in the Lake District “is a gnome garden complete with picket fence”, its 40-plus occupants helped down there by divers. She uses this as an entree to discussing our tendency to mark– engage with, intervene in -- our environments. Picking up this interest in whimsy and ‘edginess’, Jim Toub points out similarities to the evaluation of avant-garde modern art.
Jonathan Maskit’s interest is in the aesthetics of post-industrial environments, usually neglected because of our focus on the so-called natural. His illustrated paper looks into aspects of the relationship between art and nature. Thomas Heyd focuses on artists’ involvement with degraded land, in particular the prospects for ‘artistic reclamation’; and Alison Hagerman’s response is to stress the importance of not perpetuating the ecological damage that has been causes by drawing attention to it. Environmental art may indeed help propagate the “inclusive and progressive mindset of environmentalism” [Lintott], but it is not without misunderstandings and potential dangers.
Some work from University College Falmouth’s Research in Art, Nature & Environment group was noted in L&A online 43 [February 2008]. A more substantial RANE product is the write-up of its 2006 conference. Learned journals are expensive. As a free download, Artful ecologies is good value. The eight conference talks fill about 90 pages. There is the briefest of introductions to them, and no summary or overview follows, which is disappointing - if only for not pointing up ‘Where do we go from here?’. [In fact, a second Artful Ecologies conference runs this summer.] What does follow the essays, however, is as interesting as them: seven RANE projects that were exhibited at the meeting. Artful ecologies is an easier read than Ethics, place & environment, but it, too, opens windows onto hazily distant views. In a sort of honorary opener, Alan Sonfist reiterates the significance of his ‘Time-Landscapes’, and his feeling that – along with those to fellow humans – we should make civic monuments in honour of “another part of the community: natural phenomena”. George Steinmann signs off the last of the essays with “Artists have at their heart the task of transformation. This task is to provide the existential ground for the human condition. It is necessary for a full and dignified life.”
Here are a few other glimpses.
Resonating with some of the E,P&E writers, Suzi Gablik observes that [ in the West] art is usually seen in the context of an aesthetic paradigm that exempts it “from any moral tasks, and denies it any redemptive potential for social change”. From an interest in environmental aesthetics, Tim Collins sees the function of art is to serve as an “... open space within contemporary culture” where things can be discussed that are unwelcome elsewhere – environmental matters and ecological relationships included, and, I guess, the function[s] of art.
The RANE projects include former miner Stephen Turner’s exploration into the history of the local Carnon Valley through an examination of its soils and their contaminants. Jane Atkinson collected and analysed water samples, in order to produce maps of trace elements in Cornish rivers, finding that art and science “sit side by side in importance and relevance” in her work. David Pritchard’s “fresh way of seeing” led to an exhibition of photos of trees with metalwork embedded in their wood, and grew into a consideration of tree biology, phenology [seasonal events in relation to climate], and consequences of climate change.
Andy Webster and Jon Bird lead us back to questions of ethics and of art changing people’s values. They make the comment of some Andy Goldsworthy’s work, for instance, that it represents [or at least presents] nature “as beautiful and ordered, but his process reveals a world controlled and mediated by human intervention”. And Martin Prothero, asking how one could imagine a new relationship with the natural world, tells of ways in which he put himself into closer contact – by foraging from the land, or sitting for a day, just being.
The final contribution, by Kerry Morrison, is a little different. It is very hesitant, but I think rather important. It begins to work out the impact the Artful Ecologies conference itself had, by counting the CO2-generation caused by participants attending that conference. All activities leave footprints. Understanding that is becoming increasingly important. ‘What to do?’ is an increasingly important question. Here is one participant’s comment Kerry includes, from John Grande: “Flew to London from ... Montreal, then train Gatwick to Truro, same vice versa – planted 120 trees in Laurentians north of Montreal... nature is art”. More such research, please....
Art in action brings us to the colour photos. Published in California, printed in China, two trees will be planted for each one used in its production. The copy I am reading was flown from New York. Two is a low number, and the trees will be small.... but this is an attractive and stimulating book, ‘presented’ by the ‘official Art partner’ for the U. N. Environment Programme, the Natural World Museum [a ‘museum without walls’: www.naturalworldmuseum.org ].
Its purpose is to show works by “a range of renowned and emerging artists that demonstrate our connection to the environment” through a diversity of ‘creative expressions’. Like other publications of its kind, it is prompted by the belief that artists can awaken society – to the dangers of environmental disruptions. Its forewords and afterword, and many individual artists’ statements throughout, assume this is so.
One hopes the assumption is merited: I think it is, but looking though Art in action doesn’t remove the doubt. There seems a persistent need for interpretation, because the ‘message’ is often uncertain – perhaps simply hidden behind a work’s immediate beauty. And inevitably some is naive. Nonetheless, this is a useful sampler of what concerned 2D and 3D and some performance artists are doing, briefly introduced in their own words or at second-hand.
Contributions are in chapters labelled Celebrate, Reflect, Interact, and Protect, with a final chapter, Act – mostly biographies, credits and contacts. Contributions come from a wide range of artists, from Joseph Beuys and the Mayer Harrisons to Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, The Icelandic Love Corporation and many others I am grateful for having brought to my attention. Names are predominantly Western; there is one Native Australian painter. The contents of the various chapters seem occasionally arbitrary. No matter: what is [to me] more worrying is how one is to see – without it being spelled our in words – how, for example [in Interact], a 360 by 223 feet wall of 13,000 brightly coloured oil barrels, built inside a giant gasometer awakens us anywhere on the scale from, as Natural World Museum’s Mia Hanak puts it, glorification of nature to political critique of contemporary issues. Except, that is, in the way Emily Brady sees Spiral Jetty, or as whimsy in Isis Brook’s sense.
The environmentalist messages of many other examples read more readily: Chris Jordan’s photo of dried, cracked silt completely flooring a room in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina[Reflect]; Cai Guo Qiang’s gallery of leaping tigers beshot with arrows, and his noonday thunderclap and puff of black cloud performed daily over the N.Y. Metropolitan Museum’s roofgarden [Interact]; Ruud van Empel’s generated images of a Black child, eyes somehow questioning, in somehow questionably lush vegetation [Reflect]; Shana & Robert ParkeHarrison’s manipulated, nearly colourless, photo 'Reclamation’, in which two suit-wearing men strain to tug a carpet of sward over a wide, bleak, indefinite landscape [Protect].
None of these ‘levels’ is more important than the others. Although their occupants may largely be distinct, they do share some; and creators, recipients, and students of environmental art in its several forms can all benefit from visits to these examples. I may appear to emphasise the unquestioning nature of the sort of book Art in action exemplifies, but I would play that down. This is – as the academic journal’s papers show – difficult territory. Each publication in its way, and in a world where “weeks, even months, go by without our bare feet ever touching the earth”, is exploring the question “Can art really change the environment?”. As curator Randy Rosenberg hints, “science provides the facts while art tells the stories”.
Cornel Windlin & Rolf Fehlbaum, eds Birkhauser, 2008, hbk., 396 pp., £20, ISBN 978-3-7643-8593-4
I have often thought that using the rearrangement of chairs on the deck of the Titanic as a metaphor for futility does the chairs an injustice, as if they were somehow to blame or, at the very least, could never play a role in a problem-solving situation. Well, it all depends on the chairs and it all depends on the situation! Page 314 of this lavish volume on the life and times of Project Vitra shows a group of Eames chairs democratically deployed around a round table, Arthurian style, whilst smiling at the camera sit a dazzling array of world leaders from the 1990s - Clinton, Blair, Yeltsin and others - poised in summit mode to solve the problems of the world. Some chairs! Some situation!
Project Vitra 1957-2007 is a celebration of design, a history of the impact of one company on the evolution of the realm of the interior environment over the last half century, a company “no less interested in ergonomics, ecology, logistics and quality assurance than in the anthropology of dwelling.” Reflecting the same degree of Teutonic thoroughness as suggested by the title of Daniel Kehlmann’s 2005 best-selling novel Measuring the World, it was the bold intention of the founders of Vitra to design it! Eschewing divisive categorisation they embarked on a holistic assault on design problems across the disciplines of interior design, furniture, architecture and landscape design - “We do not regard homes, offices and public venues as strictly separate spaces but as related environments”. Vitra’s visual impact on our world has been remarkable, whether in terms of their own grandiloquent claims or the existence of retro-stores stocking their wares or the proliferation of imitators and mass-produced, job-lot alternatives. And Vitra begat IKEA!
In fact the book looks rather like an IKEA catalogue but with the addition of frequent messages from the chairman, members of the founding Fehlbaum family, designers and hired intellectual luminaries. Divided into seven or eight sections, each comprises an impressive photographic section with accompanying texts effusively extolling the virtues of the company’s achievements - and not always without good reason, though it would be disingenuous not to point out the lack of any sense of balance or proportion. This is, after all, little more than an up-market trade journal and rather less than an official corporate history.
In the section entitled ‘Sites’, the photographic record shows the Vitra Campus at Weil am Rhine as worthy of architectural pilgrimages yet scarcely meriting the hyperbolic claim that the “year in which the Berlin Wall fell was also the year Vitra entered the history of architecture”, and certainly not the implication that mere coincidence means historical equivalence. But pre-Bilbao Gehry is there, and Grimshaw and Hadid (her first building), and Herzog and Meuren, together with the giant Balancing Tools sculpture by Oldenburg and van Bruggen in the grounds of Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum. This is an architectural campus to die for with its three decades of ‘architectural masterpieces’.
‘Products’ sits at the heart of the book and is dominated by the ground-breaking creations of Ray/Charles Eames and George Nelson with crowds of chairs and flocks of stools and herds of desks and clutches of office interiors, often randomly roaming the pages but sometimes tastefully posed for a photo-shoot like so many angular or sometimes rounded but always emaciated models. Everything is utilitarian - design based on the “recognition of need”- but everything is also designed to please - “every design task should be approached with the attitude of a good host” (Charles Eames), in the home, the office, the airport lounge.
The influence of Willi and Erica Fehlbaum and their Vitra Project on the built environment over the past half century has been a profound one. The book makes clear that the project is ‘a work in progress’ both as a business and as an inspirational and aesthetic activity, so watch out for future developments and in the meantime have a look at this book to see what has been achieved so far.
FINDINGS ON ICE
Findings on Ice belongs to that recent publishing genre that focuses on a specific commodity - like silk or salt or cod - though unlike other works in the genre this one is no straight-forward narrative history. It is made up of ‘thought notations’ on ice and is the product - not of an author, but of 46 artists and scientists, a charitable foundation and a graphic designer. As a consequence, whilst it looks good, it is as difficult to navigate as the Northwest Passage, unless you start on page 161 - “If in doubt read me first”! The book is the brainchild of the Pars Foundation. Rather like the UK’s NESTA, it is an organisation set up to explore ideas and visions from the perspective of both scientists and artists. Treating the world as both playground and laboratory, the intention is to produce a whole series of Findings that together will comprise an atlas of creative thinking. Findings on Ice is the first.
Ice is an exemplar of the simple and the natural which turns out ultimately to be neither. It is rarely white, for example, and when used to create art is often not natural. The romantic lyricism of the artist contributors is sometimes at odds with the science or, indeed, with the art, of ice: “Absolute, unadulterated, just so; if you have a deep love of the pure, how can you not love ice?” (Han Dong - Chinese poet, p154). - and, yet, ice is often manufactured in industrial plants or transported half-way round the world to realise an art commission.
The work is a scrap book on ice, the raw materials for a ‘textual guide’ - everything you ever wanted to know about ice... and, probably, a good deal more. I was not gripped by the statistics on the coefficients of ice friction that determine the speed of ice skaters but I did marvel at the photographs of the work of Olafur Eliasson and Dmitri Kourlianski, the delicate pencil drawings of Michaela Fruehwirth and the exquisite colour in the photograph of an ice crystal(?) by the botanist, Wolfgang Stuppy. There are literary gems here, too, and you can even play the music of ice.
“He asked me, ‘What’s ice?’” I answered, simply, “The stopping of time.” He didn’t ask for an explanation. He just nodded his head as if he knew exactly what I meant.” (Iman Mersal - poet, p150).
GRADING for LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS and ARCHITECTS
Birkhauser Verlag, 2008, pbk., 220 pages,
£24.90 ISBN 978-3-7643-8502-6
Never judge a book by its cover – nor in this case by its title. Sounding like a dry, overly technical work most likely to be found in the engineering department, the book is, in fact, an inspirational delight. Just as the good landscape architect responds to concerns that are not only technical but also ecological and aesthetic, so too does this book. There is much here to satisfy those whose main interest is in the mathematics of stable inclines and tables and charts of site data or whose boys’ own passion is for the vital statistics of dump trucks and earth moving equipment. But equally the book is a feast for those who would rather dwell on an early sixteenth topographical map of Tuscany by Leonado da Vinci or photographs of Charles Jencks’ Earthwork outside the National Museum of Modern Art in Edinburgh.
The book is a paean to ground-down rock - to soil, “an elementary material in nature’s household” - the essence of the seventeenth century Katsura Rikyu Gardens in Kyoto; the earlier Hohokam Native American Indian “football pitch” in Pueblo Grande, outside Phoenix, Arizona; Graeco-Roman recreational facilities, English landscape gardens, islands off the coast of Dubai, modern Olympic sites.
Whilst little if any mention is made of Land Art or land artists - Jenck’s work is controversial in this respect - the many illustrations are reminiscent of the work of Robert Morris and Robert Smithson, and some of the information on gradients and slope stabilisation will not be unfamiliar to any would-be maker of earthworks who has attended one of Jim Buchanan’s seminars at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park or who has struggled to use Land Art as a tool for reclaiming despoiled industrial sites.
This is a book for professionals but also for anyone with an interest in how man has shaped the landscape throughout history and how best he might continue to shape it in the future.
BRENDAN STUART BURNS
This sixty-four page volume covers the career to date of painter Brendan Stuart Burns (b. 1963). David Alston, who is currently Arts Director of Arts Council, Wales, has written previously on a number of Welsh artists and knows his way around Welsh painting. Indeed Burns himself has commented on Alston, saying of him, “He truly looks; always with an acute eye”, and that he values “the painting, always the painting”, and Burn’s view is backed up in this book.
This “looking,” informs Alston’s critical writing. He is particularly sensitive to the images that Burns produces and is careful to outline the ideas and experiences that gave foundation to each painting. Alston covers the early ‘political ‘paintings of Burns and continues through until his current work which focuses on Druidston Haven in Pembrokeshire.
Alston sees Burns’ works as visual conundrums of depth and surface, flatness and planes, colour and forms. And indeed, Burns’ ‘Druidston’ works are supreme achievements – gems of slow, light movement and texture in which you can taste and smell the landscape of sand and sea. Alston fills in the background to these achievements with the understanding and care of a writer who really appreciates committed painting. He notes that Burns’ paintings are a record of rocks and rock pools and formations on the shoreline left by interactions of time, tide, weather, light and atmospheric conditions, and at the same time they are paintings which have “their own logic and dictates away from nature”.
He compares Burns’ singular focus on Druidston Haven with other precedents for this kind of focus, including Lanyon’s relationship with depths of the land and the skies of Cornwall. Alston outlines, amongst others with long-term fascinations, Adrian Berg’s twenty years of obsessive attention to the trees seen from his flat near Regent’s Park in London.
This book makes enlightening reading for those who already know the paintings of Burns and who wish to learn more about the processes and experiences that go into the making of his pictures and the links with other modern landscape painters. It is fully illustrated, covering the range of his paintings, photographs and drawings and therefore provides additional insight for those interested in contemporary landscape painting.
This is a timely and wide-ranging anthology of poems from Bloodaxe Books. Its theme is the Earth, and our continuing and ever-deepening environmental crisis. It is not preachy, or full of negativity. The poets in this anthology say things as they are, from the heart, without flinching.
Yu hav been fighting wars an destroying de scene
An now dat yu dying
Yu start turn Green
Benjamin Zephaniah, from ‘Me green poem’.
Earth Shattering contains an astonishing range of contributions. It includes works by significant writers from around the world, both past and present - from William Wordsworth to Ken Saro-Wiwa to Pablo Neruda to Margaret Atwood. As Neil Astley says in the book's introduction: "It is the first anthology to show the full range of ecopoetry, from the wilderness poetry of ancient China to 21st-century Native American poetry."
The book is divided into categories, making for comfortable browsing, if not necessarily comfortable reading. From the category labelled ‘Rooted in Nature’, we read:
The birds have vanished into deep skies.
A last cloud drifts away, all idleness.
Inexhaustible, this mountain and I
Gaze at each other, it alone remaining.
Li-Po, ‘Reverence-Pavilion Mountain, Sitting Alone’. Translation David Hinton.
And here is an excerpt from the ‘Unbalance of Nature’ category, which addresses interference with the processes of nature, and the effects of pollution:
The fish faced into the current,
Its mouth agape
Its whole head opened like a valve.
You said ’It’s diseased.’
Seamus Heaney, from ‘Augury’.
The words of each and every poet are potent - speaking out clearly on behalf of the earth and its myriad life-forms. Reading one of these poems a day is a moving experience, guaranteed to strengthen one's resolve to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem. But, for me, the anthology's greatest impact lies in the sheer range and diversity of poems - giving a sense of a great and unstoppable environmental movement, with the potential to change the world.
Throughout the book, there are fascinating contextual notes and biographical details about all the poets – plus there are some carefully placed prose pieces, such as James Lovelock’s ‘What is Gaia?’ and Caroline Tisdall’s description of Joseph Beuys’ seminal Coyote performance. This greatly enriches the reading experience, makes one look again, think again - and draws one into further and deeper exploration.
Earth Shattering, with its concerted voices, takes us to that place where we know the truth of what that old Native American chief is supposed to have said: "... we are a part of the Earth, and the Earth is part of us."
LAND, ART. A cultural ecology handbook
Edited by Max Andrews
London: RSA [Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce] in partnership with the Arts Council, England, 2006.
Distributed worldwide by: Cornerhouse Publications www.cornerhouse.org/books
Hardback, 280 pp., illus., £20 ISBN 978-0-901469-57-1
At first this book puzzled me: what is it about? Then I heard - or saw - the voices. The first word, sharply cut out of the first page, is democracy. A compass rose on the end papers point out our North and South, showing that, far away, they look similar icy wastes while, of course, nearer to us the north and south are ‘worlds apart’. There is something of an American feel to it all, of 40-ish contributors over 20 apparently work and or live in America. Nonetheless, this is part of the Arts and Ecology programme initiated by the RSA and developed with the Arts Council England in 2005. The programme aimed to profile, encourage and support artists in addressing ecological concernsin an interdisciplinary and international arena. The entire programme is informed by the notion of ecology as the study of relationships between an individual and their cultural, social, political, economic and natural environments, and by the belief that the arts can play a central role in providing creative insights into the challenges facing contemporary society. Over the three years 2005 – 08, the ambition of the RSA Arts & Ecology programme is to become an international hub and a portal to increase the level of information and exchange.
This book is not art interpreting landscape; there is very little that is lyrical here; flicking through, it looks a jumble of photos and a lot of small grey type.Most of the book is ‘art’, often art which is very directly campaigning. So, there are pieces about land non-ownership [i.e. the fate of the commons]; endangered species: Chinese town planning; farming; oil pipelines; re-claiming the streets; high-tech injustice; Marlborough cowboys; and the special green issue cover of Vanity Fair. Even a piece called ‘Alas for the Dreams of a Dreamer!’: Art Museums and Sustainability. Some of the texts are interviews about this work and/or activism. Throughout the heavy volume are drop-in pages of graphs and tables of figures. These are key indicators from the Worldwatch Institute showing the state of the world, e.g. grain harvests, gross world product, world air travel by distance, international refugees, wars and armed conflicts. There is no escape from what we do, how it is, our world.
I am not an ecologist but I have worked and worried in landscape and about land management for years. I started adult life at art college, read E F Schumacher and came out thinking I would save the world with effective design. (Or as one of the sections in the book is titled – Design like you give a damn). Along my way, I found cause with the environmental interpreters wanting to nurture love of place, and said 'It is all about environmental art!’ (No definition of environmental art here, grab a definition that fits, if you need one!) Then I got absorbed with saving the planet and fed up with environmental art, often wishing that places had been left alone. This book is art and ecology - I immediately gave up making any distinction between ‘the artists and the activists’; we are all activists here and this book shows an impressive variety and quality of activism. Definitely a cultural ecology handbook.
The American slant shows at the end of the book with an interview of Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus who in 2004 published ‘The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World’. This message is a lot less progressive than much of the rest of the content. This piece seems to reflect attitudes (calling for a big vision) that we surfaced in Europe in the 90s, post Rio, with the great joining-up of environmental activism with radical social and economic agendas: the realisation that our places, our environment, is a product of the societies we create and what we do with our money and time and attention. Lots of the artists featured here show that understanding.
Among the pieces I especially liked is the few pages about Tokyo playgrounds. A page of text explains that Tim Gill and Nils Norman went to photograph these ‘creative playscapes’ while doing a book about perceptions of risk in children’s lives. The six pages of photos show how these places are created in empty city spaces using what comes to hand [and, as you would expect, elegant bamboo]: outdoor kitchens, composting facilities, and tool cupboards to support a do-it- yourself approach. As the text says, the playgrounds successfully combine themes of sustainability, ecological design with little cash and great creativity.
Something of a tension in much of the book’s contents is shown up in Paul Schmelzer’s interview with Rirkrit Tiravanija about the land foundation in Northern Thailand – a sort of centre for rural sustainability experiment with a softer, slower (more Buddhist?) approach ‘about a moment-to-moment relationship with the earth’. The interviewer suggests complication, and seeks a more intellectual understanding – e.g. by quoting from Felix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies and talking about ecosophy - whereas the replies he gets suggest a simplicity – e.g. it’s about enough to be content; it’s about doing the least possible in order to respond to our needs and situation and make a better job of it. My response to sensing this tension is to be glad that there are artists who want to help us see this simplicity and keep reminding us that sustainability is very much about how we see things, often about how less is so much more and about how we can see the wealth in that.
This book has made me re-think, changed my understanding of art in my world, and I am grateful for that.
With a thoughtful foreword by Edward Lucie-Smith, this book offers
insights into the work of twenty two contemporary ‘environmental
artists’, hailing from North America and across Europe – some very
well known and well documented elsewhere, for example, David Nash, Chris
Drury , Hamish Fulton and Alan Sonfist, and others likely to be new to the
reader- at least this reader. Only three are women.
at least one artist, Alfio Bonanno, it is quite a simple, straight-forward
relationship, but none the less powerful for that:
University of New York Press, Albany, 2004, pbk., 251pp., $24.95,
0 7914 6194 7
& Arts nr 33, 2005]
The Elephant in the Room
A review of http://www.greenmuseum.org
We are defined by our memories. Even in the nature versus nurture debate, no-one would seriously question the value of memory in shaping our responses to the world. Those events that we can recall directly give us a generational fix. For example, if you can remember the first time you saw a computer, and, if it was the size of an elephant and more than filled an average-sized room, you will, in all probability, belong to the Saga generation and have a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the technology associated with computing and the world-wide-web.
I remember my first sight of the elephant in the room - and thinking that it was unlikely to impinge significantly on either my professional or my personal life. And now... I still find the PC little short of miraculous. The computer makes everything too easy. It offends against the Protestant work ethic – ‘no pain, no gain!’ Things that come too easily might be taken for granted or not taken (in) at all. Research should be done in libraries not curled up on a sofa....
So, is a lap-top the place to find out about art in nature? If it means typing in www.greenmuseum.org then the answer may well be yes. Presbyterian prejudices are soon put aside. With a modicum of mouse skills, the elephant in the box reveals its extraordinary capacity for retaining and making more-or-less readily available a vast amount of material. It is encouraging, too, to find that The Greenmuseum regards itself as no more than a first step, an introduction to the world of environmental art. It is, after all, only a virtual museum “a traditional museum turned inside out...directing our visitors out and into the world to visit outdoor environmental artworks first hand”.
I first googled Greenmuseum in 2003 in search of artists for a proposed European edition of the Network’s journal. With self-effacing modesty, the site offered only a very tentative answer to the question ‘What is environmental art?’ suggesting little more than that it was art that “helps improve our relationship with the natural world” but that the definition was “ a work in progress.” Three years on and the definition offered is the same but a simple link to the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World reveals the Network’s very own Clive Adams elaborating on the question and placing it in its historical context.
Adams also offers an accurate definition of the e-museum as “a web-based source of information on both established and emerging artists, linked to a network of like-minded organisations around the world.” It is perhaps the networking aspect of the site that is of particular value. It may be California based but its reach extends as far as www. implies. The calendar for last November provides details of events in London, Paris and Cumbria as well as Oakland and other US venues and, whilst its catalogue of over one hundred “eco-artists” – an A to Z from Allan to Zakai - may show a West Coast bias, with a curatorial board made up of a South Korean, a (North) American and two Europeans, including Clive Adams, there is no reason why this current imbalance should persist.
Click on “Community - Events and Opportunities” and there is an even clearer bias towards the USA, though “Community- Links” shows a much broader awareness of events world wide, including, encouragingly, the activities of L&AN, AiNIN and the RSA.
Educational material comes mostly from US sources, too, but there is much in the “Educators’ Toolbox - Case Studies” to stimulate teachers on this side of the Atlantic - see, for example, “Artists Respond to Global Warming, Reach Across Generations” - if you can find it!
Navigating the site can prove a little problematic, though here my own lack of experience in these matters is probably a factor. I stumbled over “Artists Respond...” and could not retrieve it easily, whilst the Home Page seemed accessible only from the initial google. A pity, since it directs you straight to an excellent article by Martin Spray on an issue raised recently on the landartnet.org Forum website on the fate of the polar bear.[ “Whatever Happened to the Polar Bears” morphs into “Can Art Save the Polar Bear?”] Clearly, the overall architecture of greenmuseum.org is beyond my ken.
Ease of operation and access are the keys to a successful website. Seen as either a memory bank or as a virtual museum, the Greenmuseum site must of necessity grow. Already it carries so much material and so many links that, labyrinth-like, it can catch out the unwary and the inexperienced. As it grows, so will the need for an increasingly effective system of categorisation and retrieval. Just as the current world-wide-web has outgrown itself, according to its inventor Tim Berners-Lee, so too has greenmuseum.org in terms of its ability to provide navigation tools that make exploration a pleasurable experience - a matter of site-aesthetics as much as technology.
Where greenmuseum.org is effective is in creating an on-line environment that positively encourages interaction between the site and its visitors. “Send Us Info” - about events, opportunities or articles or other pieces of writing or your own details as an artist - could not be simpler to use, whilst comments can be made and discussion joined through either the Wiki page or the Forum, the latter, a successful operation that has attracted over 1300 postings.
Like all good websites it fulfills the public access role of the internet, which is an essentially democratic force in a media context, open and inclusive, an accessible source of information, an inexpensive method of communication. Unlike the Network’s website, all of its content is available to everyone who happens to drop or surf by. There is no membership fee, but, as a not-for-profit organisation, it needs direct funding and will suggest you sign up and give them some money.
To keep bang up-to-date, get onto the monthly mailing list. The October email from Sam Bower echoed my sentiments. “It's a busy time of year for many (at least around here) but with luck this online information will inspire you to all to get outside and connect with the unpixelated world as well. As an online museum, we see ourselves as a resource to link people and ideas and to facilitate the creation of new work. To really serve our communities and ecosystems, art eventually needs to change things on the ground somehow. So, please enjoy these Fall offerings both virtual and out-in-the-world physical. There's much to be grateful for and much to do.”
Bridgend: Seren in collaboration with Cywaith Cymru / Artworks Wales, 2005, pbk., 159pp., illus., £19.99, ISBN 1-85411-341-0
Seren has published a variety of interesting books from and about Wales, and this one follows suit. It marks the quarter-century of Cywaith Cymru / Artworks Wales and its precursor the Welsh Sculpture Trust. Artist Iwan Bala sets the scene for eight contributors, who, in their several ways, review some of the recent events in public art in the country, and some of the artists’ experiences.
Cywaith Cymru’s director, Tamara Krikorian, sketches the history, from the first large outdoor exhibition of sculpture in Wales, in Margam Country Park in 1981, to the exhibits, installations and performances at recent Eisteddfodau. The ‘art’ ranges from the established permanence of Moores and Hepburns to Catrin Williams’s distribution of the traditional fruit-bread bara brith at Eisteddfod Bro Conwy. “The only thing that’s new about public art”, Krikorian begins, “is the art.”
In a substantial essay, Hugh Adams wonders what public art is, and whether it is a thing different from ’art’. The term was “initially employed for bureaucratic convenience.” And as Bala puts it, public artists work to briefs that are not their own. Adams touches on several important issues, such as the extent to which public art should be ‘discrete’, the ‘anything anywhere’ approach, the folly of journalists who dig for a ”juicy ‘art row’”, and the ongoing debate on the value of public art in urban [and indeed rural] social, cultural, and economic renewal. Although only pointed to, these are quite well set in a national and historical context.
Shelagh Hourahane, in chatty but informative mode, takes the reader on a Sites Revisited tour, fleshing out and adding footnotes to the history. Impressed by early Grizedale, she sought something similar in Wales as an aid to cultural development. She discusses Margam, Glynllifon, Cofeb Hywel Dda at Whitland, Caerphilly, Ebbw Vale Garden Festival, the Slate Valleys Initiative and Waunfawr, both in Gwynedd, and several other projects. Her trip north reminds her that art can – whatever else – help people realise their own creativity and communities explore their ‘sense of place’. She, too, points to issues and questions: the question of “identity through public art”, for instance – central to the messages coming from subsequent contributors to the book. A comment all [public] artists might make a note of – or might have heeded – is that works intended to be permanent are, with the fading of their creators’ intentions to “make a statement, to share a vision or a memory”, likely to be “misunderstood, disfavoured or plain forgotten.” The landscape has already accumulated several.
Before John Gingell’s chapter, take fresh air: the title – Public art as vision, praxis, civitas – signals the coming linguistic struggle. I admit to admiring “There is a large Third World in every large city.” “That which can be ‘imagined’ can be created and made.” swings me between clarity and doubt. But.. “The spirit of the city – civitas – is distilled and defined in the universities and is the legacy of the argument for knowledge and its application.”... surely a sterner editorial stance was needed – throughout. Gingell’s lengthy essay falls in two parts. The first elaborates his statement, which many will agree with, that “the realm of action is now the urban”. The second is a very first-person survey of some of his work, including the Baglan ‘Lightpoint’.
The Good King Hywel Dda made the first code of Welsh law in the tenth century. In 1982, proposals for a memorial in Whitland were invited. Peter Lord won what quickly became “the commission from Hell”. Cofeb Hywel Dda was begun – in a constituency with a Plaid Cymru M.P.. Its national[ist] connotations caused consternation in the rival party – Labour. Lord describes his work, and the enthusiastic trashing of it. A sad experience: but... once bitten¸twice bitten! His Narrative continues with the political machinations over Parc Glynllifon, and the vandalising of part of the ‘Celebration of the Writers of Gwynedd’ series of installations there. Clearly, [public] art prompts some strong reactions in Wales. Lord’s conclusion is worth quoting from. He guesses that the damage to Gwerin y Graith, a work inspired by writings about [as the Gwynedd council’s website has it] “the exploitation and oppression [the local] communities suffered at the hands of an alien class, church and culture” – and which was made mainly by “social and geographical outsiders”, was done by members of the local, strongly Welsh, community. “To those few who know what has been lost ... perhaps the ruins of Gwerin y Graith retain the power to move the emotions. Indeed, it may be that for some the site has more power than if it had been maintained as it was conceived.” Little remains to tell what has been lost; and it is curious that, apart from bland references on the park owner’s – the County Council’s – website and a few items in Welsh [which I can’t read], googling yields nothing of this story. However, “as at Whitland, [this] destruction reinforces the argument that narrative content gives the artwork immediate life and, through the dialogue generated, however disagreeable its form, the potential for subsequent incorporation into new narratives of our history.”
Not intended to be so, Gwerin y Graith was apparently confrontational. Robin Campbell suspects that the most-visited Welsh public artwork is in the pavement at Swansea station, where the words ‘Ambition is critical’ seek “to cleanse the well-known malediction of Swansea being ‘the graveyard of ambition’.” Swansea was the 1995 ‘City of Literature’. Campbell [of ‘apART’] briefly looks at still more agony – a rage in the local press; one street sculpture surviving just 28 hours; etc. – between artist and community, as part of the celebration.
Stephen West’s interest is focused on artists and rural communities. He looks at a variety of projects and residencies, including the Slate Valleys Initiative, Deborah Jones and Pippa Taylor in the Coed y Brenin forest, and Trudi Entwistle on Ynys Enlli [a.k.a. Bardsey Island]. These cases are dealt with enthusiastically. Doubtless there are some hidden problems, but the positive conclusion is that “fresh, truthful and unpredictable” outcomes are here easier to foster than in an urban context.
Simon Fenhoulhet’s essay illustrates a range of scales of work, including a garden roller from the 1988 Powis Castle ‘Stoneworks’ to the land-art scale of Richard Harris’s ‘Walking with the Sea’ for the Llanelli Millennium Coastal Path. “Some have argued”, he says, “that public art has helped to rehabilitate the artist in the public psyche since the post was separation of fine art from other areas of design.” He favours the view that public art, although now generally accepted, is subject to ‘filtering’ by funders and authorities, and that this tends to lead to ‘middle ground’ products. This final, upbeat, essay explores collaboration as part of the public art process, in particular as shown by the ‘Dyfi Millennium Bridge project at Machynlleth. Fenhoulhet seeks a balance between artist and other professionals, where ‘poetry and pragmatism’ can be shared. Jon Mills’s experience at Machynlleth seems of a different nature to Lord’s or Gingell’s...! And he wants this involvement of the artist not for mere decorating of outside spaces but for the fostering of diversity, visionary qualities, and originality.
In spite of the unease – and anger – seen on the way, optimism and enthusiasm finally resurface. There is, though, a feeling that the eight contributions remain separate, and need to be melled into a more coherent story – perhaps by a Conclusions chapter by the editor. The book feels a little ‘raw’ as it is. Nonetheless, it is an interesting, enlightening, and in its way provocative, contribution to the discussion of outdoors art in public. And it is an invitation to visit some fair art in some fascinating places.Martin Spray
Art Review nr. 2 [August]
The Landscape &
Arts Network has been a registered charity (No. 1073173) since January 1999.
This is a selection of reviews previously published by the Network. Further reviews will be added from time to time. Comments and suggestions for subjects for review – including broadcasts, websites, etc. – will be very welcome.
Martin Spray, Hillside,
Aston Bridge Road,
The Pludds, Ruardean,
Gloucestershire, GL17 9TZ.
Click on a title to go directly to the review