Thoughts on Sculpture in the Landscape

Posted in News, Sited work by chrisfremantle on July 10, 2012

“Your head can be everywhere, but your feet have to be some place.” Peter Berg

The sculptures at Glenkiln outside Dumfries (several Moores, an Epstein and a Rodin) can be found because they exist on maps, even the AA Road Atlas. They are located on the side of a glen overlooking a reservoir because of the initiative of an individual – a patron and owner of a Scottish estate.

Is sculpture in the landscape anachronistic?

It’s not high on the agenda for public art development. That agenda, taken in no particular order, would probably include: interdisciplinarity, duration, design teams, publics, commons vs privatisation, spaces for dissent. It would be rooted in the APG rubric “context is half the work”.  It might be driven by social or environmental concern.

I’m sorry I’m not able to attend the symposium Sculpture in the Landscape at Scottish Sculpture Workshop in August. The symposium proposes to address and define new concepts for outdoor public sculpture collections, focusing on the existing Lumsden Sculpture Walk. The brief for the Symposium is as follows:

SSW founder Fred Bushe, RSA OBE, established the Lumsden Sculpture Walk in 1985 in partnership with the local council. It was to provide a showcase for the work carried out by SSW artists, integrate SSW with the village of Lumsden, and become an arts destination and cultural site. Moving on three decades, SSW would like to address the current state of the site and the artworks, and look into ways of rejuvenating the walk for future generations. In doing so, we feel it is pertinent to explore contemporary critical thinking regarding public art, and consider how outdoor sculpture collections can become dynamic and relevant in the 21st century.

Item one on the Agenda: The construction of the public and private realms, the revealing of difference, the imagining of spectacle. These are all deeply underpinned by the complexity of modern overdeveloped societies and the greater complexity of ecological systems on which we are reliant. It’s creating work “within a ‘mesh’ of social, political and phenomenal relations” (TJ Demos). Interdisciplinarity is not sexy and desirable – it’s the necessary response to complexity. It’s the necessary relinquishing of ego when faced with innumerable unnameable interwoven challenges – think of the Flow Chart of the Declaration of Occupy Wall Street, and the adoption of anonymity, not just for personal safety, but also to foreground issues over personalities. In The Guide to This World & Nearer Ones (2009), Creative Time’s temporary public art project on New York’s Governors Island, Nils Norman is quoted as saying,

“I’ve been looking at the history of bohemian artist movements to find a possible place of dissention. Is Bohemia still a place where artists can experiment and develop strategies outside the mainstream? The normalising effect of the market makes this now almost completely impossible, and Bohemia has been instrumentalised by people who make direct links to ‘creatives,’ bohemian lifestyles and a new class of urban entrepreneurs through city regeneration. Where can alternatives be developed? Where is it possible to drop out and develop new languages and codes.”

Item two: Geometry. Numbers, algebra and other truths, which by their essential nature appear to stand outside time, provide a false sense of certainty in a world which is in a state of constant change. The use of geometry in architecture and art makes the world we construct for ourselves seem to have something to do with the unchanging ideal, whereas our lived experience is caught between on the one hand organised growth and on the other entropy. The architects’ angle (Libeskind) or curve (Gehry) may be generated in digital space and realised through CAD driven routers and saws, but in 50 or 100 years the angle and curve will have changed in response to the environment. Duration, maintenance, care – these are perhaps the more interesting challenges. Merle Laderman Ukeles’ Manifesto for Maintenance Art written in 1967 remains a provocation. In response to a recent Workshop on time, it seemed to me that artists involved in work in public have developed strong skills around spatial strategies and critiques, but the discussion of time is less nuanced – the time of the project, exhibition, residency is dominant. Hamish Fulton’s work NO TALKING FOR SEVEN DAYS is a challenge I’ve stared at for 10 years.

Item three: Training requirements. Firstly teamwork. If the question is interdisciplinarity then we need training. Who are ‘we’? We are in particular visual and applied artists. We are better networked, better collaborators, and have more social capital than we did in 1985, let alone in 1958. But we still arrive in a place (meeting/site) and think “What (from my sketchbook/back pocket) will I do here?” We might no longer think “Which piece of work in my studio can I plop down here?” We might now think “What is this place about and which of my tactics will engage with this place in the most interesting way?” How does our training equip us to fully engage within teams and with inhabitants (human and other)? Do we speak each others’ languages? Can the artists communicate effectively with the (landscape) architects? Do the architects understand collaboration? Can the hierarchies of professional status be set aside?

Item four: Who pays? Pre-enclosure, pre-agricultural improvements, common land provided subsistence for the majority of the population. Subsistence meant collecting firewood, grazing beasts and fowl, harvesting leaves, fungi, roots and fruits. The question of commons and enclosure (for which we can read privatisation) is as sharp now as it was then. It is sharp in Scotland because of the 2003 Land Reform Act (and a new tranche of funding for community land purchases has just been announced). It is sharp in Lumsden because when you stand in the village the hills around are owned by just three estates. It’s also sharp because the new territory that we have discovered in the past 15 years, the territory of the digital, is also moving quickly from being one characterised by commons to one characterised by enclosure. Your personality is being enclosed and value extracted from it by Facebook. As someone recently said to me, Graphic Designers spend their time paying for and learning to use the next new iteration of software from Adobe and Apple. The development of Creative Commons licensing, Open Source software (OpenOffice, WordPress, VideoLAN, Mozilla‘s suite, etc) are all more than just free – they represent the ‘subsistence economy’ of the digital era.

So to the most important part of the agenda, open to the floor: how does a footpath along the side of a road, interrupted by a Primary School, enable anything useful to be developed in response to these issues?

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