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.

9th Jan 2020: Not dead, just dormant…

When I titled my last post Preparing to Move Indoors, I didn’t think I was being literal… but I guess the old adage is true, you become the things you spend the most time with, so I went dormant. From the outside at least, on the inside… wowsers.

Most winter rituals involve a great deal of plotting and planning – fantasising over seed catalogues and drawing out new areas to be renovated and transformed. I haven’t done that yet this year, and last night I dreamt that hundreds of bulbs suddenly appeared in the garden overnight, and there were purple tulips and bright gold something-or-others trying to push their heads out through carpets of thick frilly weeds, and I woke up thinking, ‘okay garden, I got the message, thanks. I’ll think about you more in the front part of the brain.’

It sends missives and emissaries like this: a cackling magpie to make me glance outside; a particularly loud dawn bird tapping its stubby little beak on my old crumbling window frame; leopard-printed slugs coming up through the kitchen sink. Little passive-aggressive callers from the wild.

You might say I should change my name – that no compulsive gardening has been in evidence over these past months – but that would suggest a rather narrow view of exactly what gardening means… 😉

 

All Photos by Yamtan for Notes from a Compulsive Gardener

April 26th 2018 – Intrigue and Mystery

As I’ve been investigating plant properties of late, and as I am something of a bibliophile, I’ve been nosing about all sorts of source material in my research.

From botanical journals to old wives’ lore, and those periodicals of note in between where plant and myth meet – the carry-on between thinking and planting is complex, and hearty.

The gardener might naturally take particular interest in any writings on nature, plants and the garden itself, but there’s always a new context to consider and steal from. Have you heard of a shadow garden, for example? A midnight garden? A physic garden in the front, with a hawthorn portal into various alternative dimensions in the back..? I mean, the design potential is inexhaustible…

I came across a concept recently, which I’ve doubtless read a hundred times before, but for some reason (probably my parallel literary research) it’s got my creative juices flowing.

This was the idea of something called The Hallow.

‘The Hallow is an old concept that retains the idea of an ancient center of equilibrium. It is unchanged by anything that has ever had contact with it […] No theology, religion or spiritual system has ever influenced its existence.

‘The Hallow stands between the material reality and non-material reality. It is neither, and it makes it possible for both dimensions to interact without collapsing either one.’

Raven Grimassi

Well, colour me intrigued.

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Ideas and concepts about in-betweenness – the liminal, the uncanny, the unnamable, the abject and obscure – have always been a personal fascination of mine (my favourite art is that which either manages to, or at least tries to, express the inarticulate). But the idea of this as a place is just thrilling. Especially as a place you can access! Not so much go to, perhaps, but draw from. What a sensation!

And it makes perfect sense.

Have you ever found yourself lost in a wild place? That sensation of being very much somewhere – surrounded by the natural, the real, the solid, the temporal – yet the creeping fear comes from a sensation of exactly the opposite?

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Gorgeous stuff.

Never judge a book by its cover! If you’re into plants, you might as well go really into plants. Good luck with it!

(As an aside, if you’re interested in gardens you can truly get lost in, I’ll be posting something about a genuinely terrifying garden at the weekend if I get round to it!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 29th – Easter week

Everyone’s getting excited about the Easter break – a beautiful four-day holiday. Gardeners all over rejoice…

I’m trying not to over-plan it. Instead I’ll enjoy the opportunity for seasonal reflection.

 

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Easter as a holiday gets a bit of an ambivalent response, I’ve noticed. It’s not the big annual blow-out like Christmas, and it doesn’t have the party spirit of Halloween. I’ve always thought it was a bit mysterious: for a start it shifts around the calendar so you always have to ask someone when it’s going to happen. It’s all linked to the moon, which adds to the silvery elusiveness of the whole affair.

You also have the deeply somber mood of Good Friday, which when we were little was somewhat laden with doom as we expected the sky to go black at about 3pm, and I’m sure I’m imagining it actually doing it – but Friday was spooky and glum (my sort of day altogether) when you have to eat special food and not go anywhere.

 

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Saturday is plonked in the middle with nothing happening, then Sunday is the Spring festival in all its glory.

Never mind Easter Egg hunts, it was the Easter tree I looked forward to: a branch of something like willow brought into the house and hung with little painted eggs, surrounded with bunnies and treats That tree became very important to me: the old green corduroy fabric Mum used to lay out to look like spring hills; the miniature birds’ nests and fuzzy yellow chicks…

 

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I’m not sure what the weather’s got planned this weekend, but as long as we bring Spring inside, I’m sure we’ll capture the strange Easter spirit. And before Sunday comes, I’ll take the opportunity for some deep inward thinking.

I’ve always thought it’s important for seasonal celebrations to reflect the darker, quieter, sadder aspects of life as well as the fantastical and joyful. We can never suppress the minor key altogether – think of all the beautiful melodies we’d lose out on if we did.

 

 

 

 

March 14th – a slight anomaly…

Do you know what I was lying awake thinking about last night?

Non-hierarchical data systems.

Why? Well, bear with me, it’s a gardening thing.

I work as something of a creativity aid – what I’m hired to do is listen to client’s jumbled information and assemble it into attractive, persuasive words and images. But what I actually do is try to nudge their own creativity into the fore – like an undercover creativity Mary Poppins! My personal and professional goal is to make myself unnecessary, which now I’ve written that down…

Anyway, one thing I keep butting my head against is a deep-seated problem about how information begins and ends on any page. If the subject or process I’m writing about is non-linear (dynamic, cross-disciplinary, multi-layered), what makes you decide on the where you start? And doesn’t that effect the position and absorption of the following information?

I’ve always kept within conventional forms before, but these days, I am desperate for more. And it was last night’s pondering that led me out into the garden realm and into the way plants can offer varying, inspiring solutions.

 

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We all know the tree system – the trunk is a subject, the branches can be fairly lateral, the leaves can intermingle – unless you have a rotating 3D model that brings in other dimensions, it’s hard to get away from a beginning and an end…

But what about the Rhizomes?

‘The word rhizome is used as a metaphor, to compare the growth and structure of rhizome navigation interfaces with the complex organic growth and structure of rhizomes, underground plant stems that send out roots and shoots from their nodes.’

 

running-bamboo-rhizome-lgImage from Bamboo Botanicals

 

Non-hierarchical?

But we still have the problem that we might be tempted to read from left to right, indicating a first and a last.

Why is any of this important?

An implicit hierarchy which is just generally accepted in information is one thing – on the most basic level, it really is just about reading information in its clearest form.

But data and information are worth big money to corporations, governments, companies and criminals for a reason.

Hierarchy of structure also reveals hierarchy in attitudes.

A general convention for the presentation of data can hide an implicit hierarchy in attitudes.

In a less sinister vein, flexibility is something humans need, in their bodies and their brains, as flexible attitudes, joints and open-mindedness all keep us younger for longer – so I assume that extends out into our greater communities; our work…

If I tipped a piece of paper on its side and rejected linear narrative information delivery, and created a dynamic structure where the reader decides their own path, how is information encountered? How is it absorbed? The answer might be: individually.

 

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Minakata Kumagusu created his own philosophy, called “Minakata Mandala,” collecting so-called cryptogam plants in the wild forests

 

We struggle to find the right word – people are paid thousands to hit the right subconscious notes, but I begin to wonder if the way to accessing all that potential in the minds of ourselves and others is simply to change things up. Access creativity. Expect creativity – allow creativity.

I can’t help but wonder, if the hierarchy falls away from how we write and receive a snippet of information, might it make lovely flexible ripples into the rest of our social norms and the way we communicate with and treat each other?

We might even stop clashing and rattling and start flexing and swaying!

 

download.jpgFedor van der Valk  – String Gardens

 

March 12th 2018 – Daniel Ost

I don’t know why I’m all arty-farty at the moment, but the day job is giving me headaches and it’s too wet to dig, so the mind ploughs a mile a minute.

I’m looking at the arresting sculptural forms of Daniel Ost and wondering… is this a rare example of genuinely reinventing the wheel..?

“Ost’ s works make us think not of ‘animal spirits’ but of ‘floral spirits’. Flowers and buds, new leaves and fallen leaves, the ‘floral spirits’ in them literally embody the life force. This is truly food for the soul; one can never tire of looking at such works.”

Hidetaro Sugimoto, owner and preserver of Sugimoto House

Sometimes I wonder if it’s just a matter of showing us familiar things in a way we could never imagine them.

 

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Obviously, these are more than ‘floral arrangements’. On one level it’s sculpture that uses flowers as materials, and we could look at it that way and think nothing of the fact they were once living things, or that the pristine lines and vibrancy and form will last only as long as these vegetable objects keep from rotting.

We might also think of Ikebana, which uses both the structure of living things and the negative space of the pause, the breath, the Ma in between – which is as essential to the rhythm of life as the rests and white spaces between the notes on a piece of music.

I feel certain that these amazing forms wouldn’t be nearly so arresting if they were made out of anything else, because no metal or textile or sculpted wood has the crisp vitality that is the newly burst life of a fresh-stemmed plant.

 

 

It is a sensory particular that gardeners understand on a foundational level – that green of spring and that squeak of life-full leaf, and that urgent, pushing, emerging brilliance.

To have captured that in an inanimate installation, in such a myriad of forms is what I would call (self-consciously) genius. There is no colour like living colour, there is no tension like the bend of a living thing, and there is no beauty like the beauty which we know to be fleeting.

That an artist would create so intricately with the full knowledge of pending destruction, I can only admire it. I am still in a state of fear about un-lasting things, but looking at these works, feeling if not completely dissecting the underlying ritual at work, helps me to realise there is so much more to life than simply living forever!

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P.S

Some weeks ago I said a veg patch wasn’t always a beautiful sight out of the window, and a very wise commenter pointed out that this was a woefully limited way to look at it, and she was right. So I’ve decided on the look for my new fruit-and-veg garden everyone… Many thanks, Mr Ost!

 

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8th March – Inspiration & Design (featuring Ishihara Kazuyuki’)

 

I’m putting this piece under ‘jobs for winter’ because I think finding inspiration is an important way of staying in touch with the garden when you might not be spending a great deal of time physically in it.

I know I’m not among a minority in the gardening community who feel more peaceful and restful and content out in the garden than anywhere else in life. The winter months can be particularly hard on folks for whom the garden is a soothing retreat. Sometimes you have to generate that peace and connection in other ways, and I find even just looking at gardens and plants can help keep the inner glow alight.

One designer I never get tired of looking at, is Ishihara Kazuyuki.

 

Gosho-No-Niwa-No-Wall-No-War-01Gosho No Niwa / No Wall No War

 

Everyone knows Kazuyuki from the Chelsea shows if nowhere else, and it’s not difficult to see why his gardens are always so popular. I have heard criticism that they are too traditional for some tastes, but I don’t personally see them through that contextual lens. I see exquisite, thoughtful, eloquent planting, and a wonderful flourish when it comes to materials and palettes. There are certainly echoes of a certain aesthetic and philosophy, but in those very elements are the un-traditional and the down-right bonkers.

Here are my top 5 passions for Kazuyuki’s designs:

The Master of Moss

 

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This image, taken by Caroline Banks, proves there is no bad view to these gardens. This is the ‘back-side’ of No Wall, No War, and the intricacy of it is staggering, considering this is not the part that wins the prizes.

Moss is a prime ingredient to a Kazuyuki garden, and its effects are manifold. From softening architecture in Togenkyo, to creating bold new textures (which almost err on the side of a humorous and childlike fantasy landscape), to filling the senses with absolute unequivocal green, moss is both a foundation and a highlight: the reliable staple and the star of the show.

 

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A Room of One’s Own

 

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I mean, you couldn’t design yourself a more ideal writing room!

But more than a garden with a bench or a seat, these designs fully incorporate the human into it. In times of trouble when nature is always being held aloof from us in a kind of ‘look what we’ve done, this is why we can’t have nice things’ telling-off, it’s wonderful to see we can have a place amongst natural, growing things which is harmonious and inviting.

Slightly elevated both for our viewing pleasure and to reassure with the sense we’re not disturbing anything.

 

Soothing Abundance

 

The multiple layers, the heights and depths – it’s hard sometimes to imagine these plots are often no bigger than a few squared feet, because there is, for want of a better word, coverage, and it is absolute.

 

 

 

The impression of centuries of established growth is automatically soothing. It feels like a garden which will always be there, cool, secluded, self-perpetuating. I think this above all the artifice in a garden is Kazuyuki’s real masterstroke.

 

Elementary, My Dear

 

The obvious elements and also the senses are all invited and stimulated. There’s nothing missing. But there is also a sense of ritual or worship – the arrangement of these elements like the points of the compass, or the carefully considered incantation on paper – that underlying sense of purpose creates a reassuring tranquility. You are gathered safely in, as it were.

 

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Harmony

The influence of Japanese gardens might seem very obvious, but these designs are perhaps what I always expect Japanese formal gardens to look like, which is why I feel faintly disappointed when I visit the real thing.

In actual fact, there is as much English tradition at work here as Japanese or Eastern tradition. And this is because some forms are universal. Garden fashions will come and go – and what a merry time we’ll have with all of them! But some things will always draw us close.

An abundance of green, some water, some coloured foliage and delicate flowers, and the soft velvet tapestry of moss… perhaps it is a return to woodland, or a culmination of all our most beloved things, I call it harmony because in a Kazuyuki garden, art meets nature and reaches out with a clear intention for the soul.

It may be a safe place, and a beautiful place, but I doubt we’re so far flung out in the world that these things could really be called bad taste.

I like to be challenged intellectually by art and design, but I will always return to this: the green and abundant home from which I came.

 

 

Three annotated images from gardens Illustrated:
(Words by Noel Kingsbury, photos by Claire Takacs)