Art-Think Outdoors: David Nash

I’m always interested in artwork that fills the space between what we experience and what we can adequately express with language.

David Nash is one of those artists for me that communicates with work what I don’t have a grasp on intellectually. I used to find that very challenging – not being able to think my way to an adequate conclusion – now I enjoy it more than anything else.

David Nash, studio, Wales, 2007

Photograph by Anne-Katrin Purkiss

I remember reading an article with Nash a few years ago about his living sculpture The Ash Dome’s unexpected short life: the monument which was designed to outlive him by many years was suddenly going to die before him because of the ash dieback fungal disease that is decimating the UK’s Ash tree population. It struck me then as a personal tragedy. It strikes me now that this has given the work a global significance that it might not otherwise have had.

But we won’t dwell on tragedy for long. Nature never does. Let’s always look for the light between the trees, and chase inspiration.

What I’m interested in is the human compulsion to monument nature, one way or another.

What is it about? How do we tend to prefer to do it? Why do some materials sing out loud, and others stay uninhabited by the spirit that moves us?

Why do we make ‘stuff’ to access and engage with other ‘stuff’? And I suppose the ultimate question is: are humans capable of feeling like they’re communing with something if they’re not in some way disturbing it?

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David Nash: 200 Seasons. Installation view, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, 2019. Photo: Rob Harris.

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I keep being reminded of Anselm Kiefer’s work as well, which has always been about living and dying in my mind, explored though the trickiest of materials: the soft metal lead in Kiefer’s hands is so fluid and malleable and natural as a wave, yet so poisonous and dark and deeply occult. David Nash’s sculptures are riddled with inherent deception because they speak so much of life and living things – they still glow with the woody vitality of their origins – yet wood as a sculptural material is dead. Otherwise it would still be a tree…

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Ash Dome. Image from Artnet

I wonder if that’s why his living sculpture has met such an end..? If it is only becoming what it was used for: stuff, to make stuff, about nature – no longer nature itself. The fungus is rather like an aggressive critic – this is nature, actually: Me, what I’m doing. Sorry. I can’t help looking at those original sketches and seeing them as rather clairvoyant.

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If Nash had set out to make monuments to nature, it was in the ways in which those monuments fell that he inadvertently managed to capture its true character. The Ash Dome falls sick, and his Wooden Boulder rolled into a river and is lost to the tide…

Nothing is forever. Beauty, calm, tranquility – these are things that we value, but they were never the whole story. There is decay, renewal, destruction and chaos. Those things are as much as part of nature as the bark of the trees and the blue of the sky, and how we respond to it? How we edit it when we think we are immersing ourselves in it? – well, that will ultimately determine our spiritual resilience.

Because if you can love a thing when it is at its most dangerous, and you can find joy and inspiration when confronted with chaos and difficulty, then you’ve probably discovered the very secret of life on earth: it thrives wherever, however, whatever. If it’s still comfort we seek, even after all this, then we can comfort ourselves with the details: there are creatures thriving in poisonous sulphur lakes, and in caves that haven’t seen sunlight for a thousand years; there are multitudes swarming around the boiling undersea chimneys of doom, and there are plants colonising the abandoned contaminated places in the world where radioactive wolves run free and trees are king once more.

We humans are part of something so much bigger, and our will to survive is a family trait.

I don’t think monuments are really about nature at all. I think they have always made us feel better by providing us with something permanent in disguise. Our monuments at least don’t change so swiftly as the landscapes around them. While we are busy writing Nature’s epitaph – as though it is on its last legs –  are we guilty of projecting our own mortality onto something that never dies, it just never stays the same for very long?

When I think about the Ash Dome in this context, I don’t feel bad for Nature: we’ll have resistant trees making a comeback in 50 yrs or so. If not them, it might be the great age of some other tree for a while. When trees fall, it will be the age of the ferns, or moss, or succulents. Or swathes of terra firma will give way to underwater forests of wavering fronds…

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Or, if my garden’s anything to go by, the weeds will have their day – those survival-of-the-fittest champions in their many endless forms, being exceptional at what they do, and burdened by nothing, contained by nothing, put-off by nothing.  And why not? They’ve got the qualifications – they pass muster. They’re adaptable, that’s all that counts in the end. The rest is archeology.

No, it’s not nature I think that will collapse and disappear.

…I look at Nash in his studio and feel a little bit sad.

Free Gold

 

With mulching playing such an important role in the health of the clay-based garden this summer, naturally thoughts go to the issue of mulching. I had time pressures this year and was forced to do two things I’m not fond of doing in the garden: spending money, and taking whatever was cheapest at the time.

I didn’t like it because I didn’t do due diligence about where the mulch comes from. Of course I checked for the sustainable tick etc, but to me that’s not enough of a guarantee, because my idea of sustainable and other peoples is vastly different.

I’m lucky enough to live close by ancient woodland. On the one hand, you don’t want to take more than woodland can spare – even collecting leaves from the ground needs to be done with caution, because that gentle coating on the ground is essential to the survival of growing things. But in late Summer, before the Autumn fall starts in earnest, I’ll skim a little litter for my garden, and that little goes a long, long way.

 

mulched roseFree leaf litter, to ward off the late summer weeds – an experiment in mulching for roses

 

I’ll also keep the freefall from the garden, for a neat winter covering should the winter be a hard one. Waste-not-want-not, as my kin have always said.

It bears thinking about when selecting trees for a garden: evergreen is wonderful for screening and reliability and much-needed winter colour, but the deciduous trees should always be our friends. Without their seasonal changes, what would this time of year really be? Without the stark bare branches in Winter, would we still delve inwards so deeply, seeking inspiration of a less material kind? I like to think huddling around fires has done us all the world of good at some point or another.

 

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Photo by Valmir Dzivielevski Junior

 

I already planted the first Spring bulbs back in early September, and the process goes on, like all Autumn rituals: a great gathering and planting plans for next year’s ease. Something buried for our emergence from the cold.

Autumn is my favourite time of year – coloured daubs of leaves, early mists, a wholesome chill in the air, and Halloween festivities. I wake up about this time of year – like the last five months have been a sluggish dream I can’t quite remember, and don’t much care about.

There are plans afoot now. The perfect meeting point between brash colour and natural darkness. Ritual fires and tender reflections – a harvesting of sleeping plans.

It’s all so very abundant, and that’s exactly what we want. Abundance is the perfect antidote to madness, sadness, stresses and grief.

 

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vertical red and yellow abstract painting
Osnat Tzadok

Summer Insomnia

It’s not all bad.

I was trying to take photographs of the moon on the night of the eclipse and supposed blood-moon. It was the one day we had cloud cover and thunderstorms. I could hardly begrudge that!

I’m not much of a photographer, but the arrangement of Venus and the Moon over the pines  was beguiling.

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A little murky, sadly, but I could see it with my eyes, and it was magical.

 

After spending the night with the moon, it would be rude not to hang around for the sun.

6th August

Well, what have I been up to in my absence? Battling with sun-baked clay, mostly.

 

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There’s not a whole lot you can do for the larger areas of ground, unless you have money and machinery (we have neither). The fissures turn into cracks, the soil turns into dust, the most worrying thing is that the rain pours down into the crevices and undermines the structural integrity of the ground, but I suspect this all part of some perfectly legitimate plan the earth has, so I don’t interfere. I’ll probably disappear into a sink hole one of these days!

With beds, I do try to intervene as best I can: mulching like it’s the end of the world and covering the topsoil with a dense layer of wood chips: I use it like sunblock, hoping the earth underneath will stay moist and protected (wood-chips sweat something chronic en masse), and it will all rot down to provide some much needed hummus. I’m hoping it will retain what little rain we get instead of letting it run straight through into those terrible dry gunnels as well.

 

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Having clay soil can be a little like having concrete when you get sudden downpours, so we get flooding, even though we’re surrounded by hedgerows and trees to drink it up. Inventing ways to slow down the water and retain it is an exciting prospect, and so-called ‘rain gardens’ are very fashionable in these parts for exactly this purpose.

Half of me wants to collect it for the dry seasons to come, but I can’t help wonder what effect that might have on the wider landscape? Dry rivers and streams need the run off, I’m not sure me hoarding it is the best course of action…

Anyway, for now, I just work on slowing it down rather than stopping it moving altogether.

I dug over two of the small beds and beefed them up with some home-made compost, but I was forced to use a bit more of the grass compost than I wanted, so I’m waiting to see now if that’s a bit too acidic.

The herbs seem alright, the verbenas are managing, the shrubs are fine, and really it’s only the roses which seem a bit bothered by it. I’m surprised because I’ve never known a rose to mind anything!

Still, even on a bad day, you’re guaranteed to get something.

 

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July 10th

We are not amused.

It is too hot.

I am an English gardener, not a sun worshipper – not a sitter-on-beaches or a basker-in-parks interloper. I should be at rest only during the harshest winter (after a long year’s work), and yet, here I am, not in the garden…

I hide in shade or lurk in cold baths, flashing mossy fangs at people suggesting social events during daylight hours. I don’t mind a summer thunderstorm – how can one resist the decadence of storms? When the cling-film sunshine is overcome by the velvet of actual weather? – But the sun these days is a bully.

Like the grass, I turn brittle in the heat. A newt left out on a paving slab. A dry seed-head rattled by the kick of a leaping grasshopper – legs scraping like nails on a comb. Everything papery and stubbled.

We islanders talk a good game about craving the sunshine, but we still need our regular watering…

I begin to dream seriously of Elsewhere.

 

The soul makes a katabasis. The mind dips deep below the surface, and in a cool place, shimmers. For everything there is a waiting time. Enforced stillness. Lessons whispered in the breath between phrases.

 

This, I suppose, makes the intensity lovely.

 

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A Cheeky Look Back at Spring…

June 17th 2018 – Purple Lace

 

A few left over photographs of stunning summer grasses I can’t get let go to waste…

 

Honey Garlic

 

With great thanks to Audrey, who correctly identified my mystery plant – this charming Honey Garlic (Allium Siculum) has been very shy coming out, so I can’t wait until all her bells have all opened…

 

June 11th 2018 – Neglect

Let us swear an oath, and keep it with equal mind,
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind…

Tennyson

 

A neglected garden tells its own story. Sometimes happy, sometimes sad. Almost always there is still beauty to be found.