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Tuesday 2 October 2012

David Nash at Kew: Art exhibition review

David Nash is a British sculptor, well known for his large outdoor works almost exclusively in wood. Nash is currently artist-in-residence at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. David Nash was born in Surrey in 1945, but has spent most of his working life based in Wales. I'd suggest that this time in Wales, in rural North Wales specifically, has helped shape his understanding of the natural environment, an understanding that is shown in his art and how he talks about his work in interviews. To my mind the Welsh landscape is undeniably beautiful, but it is also hard and rugged, it is a working landscape that bares the marks of the struggles to make a living throughout Welsh history. It is not therefore a landscape merely of 'scenery' but of living and working, of 'doing'. The slate tips that dominate the locality of Blaenau Ffestiniog, Nash’s adopted home, testify to this history. There is a practicality about this natural connection, fostered in this worked landscape that removes the potential for a pseudo-shamanic interaction, for Nash the spiritual is part of the physical; there is a combination in activity. As Nash says in an interview of 2001, "There is no shamanism. You can bring those associations to them, but my concerns are fundamentally practical. The spiritual is dovetailed into the physical, and the two are essentially linked with each other. To work the ground in a practical, basic commonsense way is a spiritual activity.”

Nash is often connected with Land Art, but this is itself problematic, as Land Art is no movement or anything as definable as an 'ism'. There are several fairly distinct strands and Nash could be described as taking part in a different approach, one that Ben Tufnell (in his excellent book Land Art) calls 'Working with Nature', that is, with growing art and planted projects like the ongoing work Ash Dome. Although denying the spiritual and ritualistic dimensions in his work (as employed, for example, by another 'working with nature' artist Chris Drury) there are definite and purposeful social and political aspects in Nash's work. The Ash Dome, for example, created/planted in 1977 was at a time of specific political upheaval and serious economic gloom in the UK when the threat of Cold War and nuclear annihilation seemed very real. The work is then a gesture for something for the future, when our focus had become so based in the short-term; the Ash Dome makes a commitment to the future, one with “an extended duty of care, a constant need for tending.” (p.91, Land Art)

His ambition also has a certain Walden element to it, as quoted in Tufnell 2006: “I want a simple approach to living and doing. I want a life and work that reflects the balance and continuity of nature. Identifying with the time and energy of the tree and with its mortality, I find myself drawn deeper into joys and blows of nature. Worn down and regenerated; broken off and reunited; a dormant faith revived in the new growth of wood.” (p.88)

This want, to ‘get back’ to the simplicity of nature isn’t especially new; we can see the traces of it in the Victorian morality of authors like Thomas Hardy, as well as Thoreau and many others, but it isn’t the age of the desire that is incongruous, rather it is the crypto-spiritualism of transcendence, the rejection of the practicalities of the world and of civilization that is striking. At once it seems to make the human un-natural and alien, it starts to distance the practical as a tool of anti-nature, but this paradox should be handled carefully. When Nash began to develop his green art, he only used natural or traditional tools, carving the tree slowly by hand. This reverence for the traditional arts would seem to emphasize the rejection of modern technology and if he had kept this approach one could see him slide towards a pseudo-shamanic ritual, however, Nash nowadays (and for some time) makes full use of all modern equipment and technology, sculpting his works using a chainsaw and using iron and bronze cast foundry pieces. Further, Nash makes an effort to show that the direction of the work is forward looking, with an eye on our future, one we share alongside and working with nature and that “we cannot separate ourselves from the natural world. Our actions, from everyday activities to essential industrial work, have an impact on it. My work invites the same consideration.” (From David Nash at Kew Gardens, 2012, p.7) It is perhaps a mixed message that Nash seeks to convey, certainly it is one that is laden with much ideological baggage, but it is this perceived questioning of man’s place in nature and of the relationship that seems to make Nash an appropriate artist for Kew Gardens.

A Map of Kew Gardens with the Sculpture locations

Kew Gardens is more than a visitor attraction. It, like Nash, is an amalgamation of contrasting ideals. One the one hand it is a Victorian hangover, a green cathedral that promotes a reverence of nature, and on the other it is a very contemporary place of active horticultural science, indeed, with the ark-like Millennium Seed Bank it also a store of science. There is an artificiality about Kew that seems to separate it from Nash’s work. It is a created display with plant species gathered from all over the world; and as such it represents a kind of plant zoo, as there is something distractingly out-of-place about a polar bear in London there is something like a lesser effect with the Gardens (this perhaps due to the fact that almost every British garden is something like a junior model to this Victorian monolith as it also contains so many foreign species). However, the effect is still there, this is not the practical worked landscape of Wales with its naturally occurring (although humanly cultivated) ash trees. Here then is the conundrum- at what point does human interaction become unnatural? Despite all of Nash’s attempts there is still an acceptance that the natural world must be shaped in some manner if we are to change it for our ends, it cannot be persuaded and we must accept responsibility, for it is we who alter for our own ends. This is something that Nash’s rejection of shamanism can achieve, with a spiritual focus to the work we find ourselves constantly shifted away from an immediate connection with nature (or art for that matter).

Nash's exhibition, which runs for nearly a year, is displayed in situ among the fantastic landscape of the gardens themselves, where he is also using the dying and dead trees of Kew to create new works. So, this is not just a retrospective of old works, but a collection of new works created from the gardens, using trees that have come to the end of their natural life. The illustration below shows how Nash operates his ‘Wood Quarries’. The sketches he makes have been compared to that of a butcher, with different ‘cuts’ representing different sculptural works.

I submit for consideration that it is this ‘butchering’ of the trees that some have found so rough, barbaric, and distasteful. This is because it goes against the reverent romanticism that many have for nature, or rather, for how we should appreciate nature. Perhaps then Nash is showing another way of seeing nature, not merely as an industrial product, but not as a distanced spiritual object either. To my mind this sort of falling our between Nash and the critic originates in a failure to grasp his concept of nature. Now, I would say that this is in no small part due to the locale, which muddies the waters, but it could also be the viewers own Romantic predilections (if any) and what (for them) constitutes proper art.

Charred Cross Egg. Brutal or beautiful or something else?
The work is a development of an earlier work, named 'big 'bud'
that was vandalised. Pragmatic rescue or not?

For many this won’t matter, they are striking objects in their own right anyway and loom in the landscape as do many public artworks, but this too is a problem, this is not ‘public’ art rightly considered – it is not made to decorate a building façade or plaza – but it is natural art made to bring us into the landscape and consider one’s relationship with the natural world. Thus it is best kind of conceptual art, it is more than just an idea loosely configured or an art object devoid of further thought, rather it is a something that asks questions of the viewer and demands something back.

Black Trunk. Mirrored against the Kew pagoda
it makes mankind's efforts appear rather fragile.

And yet, it is not just the juxtaposition with Kew that distorts the message. One might ask the works themselves for a continuity of this message and find them lacking. Nash has in the past (1994, but earlier versions exist) drawn up a ‘family free’ that shows how his works have developed, branched off, and grown. Rather than an explanation, this looks like an excuse, or worse, being caught red-handed trying to impose a later thought of order by retrospectively narrativizing one’s own life and work.

A section of Nash's 'Family Tree'

That Kew is hosting a Nash exhibition is something that places Nash as one of British art's grand old men, a person of renown and 'a name'. Certainly it is something that will make him better known to a larger amount of people by being at such an iconic location. That his work is defined by its relationship with the natural is something that I deeply appreciate and hope that some aspect of this message is conveyed. However, I am also sceptical of the clarity of the message and the method of conveyance, that is, the art works specifically in the location of Kew Gardens.

King and Queen I.
This title is too distracting, on first viewing
it was much more impressive without.

After viewing Nash’s work you cannot help but look differently at the natural surroundings and perhaps Kew itself emphasizes this effect. And this is perhaps the best compliment one can pay Nash’s work, for all its failings, that there is a type of artistic seeing that comes from repeated viewing, it gives you another perspective on the ordinary world around, makes you think again about the arrangement of nature, wondering about our impact and our meddling, all art, all good art gives us this, but perhaps in different types and/or manners.

A collection of the works in the temperate house.
From top left: Plateau (2011), Crossed Egg (2002), Red Frame (2008)

David Nash at Kew Gardens (Kew, 2012) - All images used
Ben Tufnell, Land Art (Tate, 2006)