Monday, September 10, 2007

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Had a fascinating day out at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park today. Fantastic weather, just perfect.

The main reason we wanted to go was the Andy Goldsworthy exhibition. It's a good show, with some major new works plus a couple of galleries of retrospective stuff, with photographs of earlier installations. The main focus of the exhibition is in the four indoor galleries at the main centre. These represent wood, clay, stone and space. The first installation is a giant assemblage of cut logs, looking like some enormous termites nest, and resting on one another to a height of around twelve feet with nothing fixing them in place.

Next is a room full of clay mounds, each one forming a characteristic Goldsworthy 'hole'. This man has a real hole fetish, and these mounds are extraordinary. It's difficult to tell if it's a real hole or a piece of velvet placed on top of the mound. The effect becomes unsettling, and it's odd that something as regulated and clearly "created" still has such an organic feel to it.

Not as unsettling as the next room, which is an open expanse, with the walls covered in clay which is drying out and leaving crazed cracks everywhere. This immediately put me in mind of the Guiseppe Penone installation at the Pompidou Centre, Respirare l'Ombra, in which he covered the walls with an inches deep layer of laurel leaves, held in place by chicken wire. The smell was astonishing, and the room felt like the most comforting, comfortable, womb-like expanse. The centre-piece was a bronze cast of human lungs, neatly bringing together life and humanity, nature and mankind.

The Goldsworthy felt its opposite, a parched, sparse, dying space. I'm not much of an environmentalist, but if you want a statement about global warming and the like, the comparison of Goldworthy with Penone would be an interesting one.

And the next room had an even stronger resonance with the Penone. It was truly inspiring. It was completely in darkness and with the brightness of the sunshine outside it was an unsettling experience walking inside. Gradually, out of the blackness, shapes emerged, long lines, horizontal but not regular, and as your eyes adapted to the light it became clear that they were coppiced chestnut branches, hundreds of them, all piled up around the walls and climbing, forming a tent-like experience. It was like being in the roundhouse they've reconstructed at Flag Fen, but everything is much, much denser, the logs packed more closely together. Goldsworthy himself says of this room in an article in the Telegraph:

"I hope the room feels like entering the stomach of a tree," Goldsworthy says. "It's very intestinal." The piece was inspired by his memory of a visit to the park in 1983. A much skinnier Goldsworthy tried to wriggle through a small opening at the base of a sycamore into a rotting cavity (the manoeuvre is recorded in a series of photographs also on display in the show). "I was under threat when I went inside that dead tree," he recalls. "I really didn't know if I'd get stuck halfway."

The final room in this sequence is possibly the most striking, but if I'm honest it interested me least. Technically, it's astounding, an assemblage of chestnut twigs, over 10,000 of them, all kept together only by thorns. It looks sumptuous, like some Japanese curtain, and it's impossible not to be amazed by the skill that must have been involved in its making; but for me it was less interesting precisely because it felt crafted. I could see the artist in it, where with the others I saw nature, I saw the art.

Goldsworthy, of course, is predominantly an outdoor artist, and there was more in the Sculpture Park itself. The Hanging Trees are probably the best known of this exhibition. I'd seen pictures of them before and thought them clever, but I hadn't realised that they are actually built into the walls themselves. I guess the clue's in the title - Hanging trees - but sometimes I'm not literal enough... Anyway, they are thought provoking, the way they emerge and disappear into the walls themselves, and the walls appear out of the landscape, creating a bizarre enclosure.

Also on the sculpture park walk was Basket, an installation by Winter and Horbelt. This is a two-storey construction, double-skinned, made of wire mesh. It gives a stunning view over the valley and is quite unsettling: there's something about the mesh which distorts your vision, particularly because there are two, one behind the other, so that when you move the grids appear to move as well. And when the wind suddenly blows, coming straight through the "walls" of the building, it is actually quite frightening, at least for someone with vertigo, like me.

There's time for one further Goldsworthy, a round, completely enclosed wall, about ten feet high, which leaves you wondering what can possibly be inside it. A couple who were viewing at the same time as us had the answer: stretch as high as you can and take a photo with your digital camera. I guess it worked. Hope there was nothing unpleasant in there...

And the final leg is at the Longside Gallery. This must be one of the most remote art galleries in the world - it's at the end of a two mile hike down and up the valley. If you were to be uncharitable about this exhibition, you might say that two miles is a bloody long way to walk to find a gallery with a single, giant rock in the middle of it and sheep shit all over the walls and windows, because that's what the Goldsworthy exhibition is.

Except it does work. Goldsworthy says of his new work in an Observer article:

"I find some of my new works disturbing, just as I find nature as a whole disturbing. The landscape is often perceived as pastoral, pretty, beautiful - something to be enjoyed as a backdrop to your weekend before going back to the nitty-gritty of urban life. But anybody who works the land knows it's not like that. Nature can be harsh - difficult and brutal, as well as beautiful. You couldn't walk five minutes from here without coming across something that is dead or decaying."

What we see here is country life. The paintings are made with sheep shit and with their hoof prints and with hare's blood and with other manifestations of nature. One of the hare's blood paintings is mind-boggling. It is almost vertiginously three-dimensional; it contracts inwards to this central point which seems to be deep, deep inside the painting, as though you are being dragged through it into some spectral place. Unfortunately, I haven't found a copy of that one, but this is another of the hare's blood paintings.

And then it's a walk back to the Sculpture Park centre again. It's a very fine public space, I have to say, beautifully kept, very clean, with a friendly atmosphere. The shop has some really good stuff as well, not the usual tat you find in most galleries.

Definitely a day out to be recommended.

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