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Cuddly Whales and the Art of Letting Go
by Martin Spray
NOT FAR from my study is a David Nash sculpture. No: I exaggerate: it is the decaying remnants of a David Nash sculpture. We found them in the silt of a tiny Forest stream, a little way in from the road, a couple of miles from home.
Nash, a famous British sculptor who usually works with wood, has two artworks in the Forest of Dean in England: the Black Dome of charred small logs, about 25 feet in diameter; and, in the rivulet and mud of a nearby gully, Fire & Water Boats. These canoe-shaped pieces of log are also charred - and all parts of both sculptures gleamed with blackness when they were new. Both sculptures, after a few years, reacted in the usual way to the presence of wood-eating fungi; they began to rot. Some of the most decayed of the 900 posts that made the Dome have been removed, and the gaps were grouted. Down in the gully, a second set of charred canoe shapes replaced the first. And visitors continued to visit.
In a comment on the Greenmuseum's blog pages, Sam Bower neatly catches a problem concerning art that is ever more widespread: "As cultural production increases, so does the flood of artworks to jar and pickle." It is a problem that is escalating in many parts of our culture. Even if it isn't human [universal] nature to pickle the past [and my study is good evidence that it is!], it is certainly a habit of so-called advanced civilizations. We seem to want to turn the world into a Museum of Everything, and we still act as though the attempt is feasible. We are already knee-deep in cultural sediments, and we still act as though the attempt is both affordable and accommodateable. It is neither.
In trying to be inclusive, and not to deny people or styles a representation in the heritage we ship to posterity - in treating everything done by humans as important [and this is as blatant a problem in the arts as in any other human activity] - we are taking up an unnecessary burden. More than that: we are imposing it on others.
The very characteristic of Nature that at the moment we usually regard as a major problem may help us out of this situation. Works of art [including Art] have the inconvenient tendency to behave like the rest of the material world. They age, and gradually fall apart. Ashes to ashes, and all that…
We could just let them decay, couldn't we? Probably not, because, although over the past half century the confines of the gallery have been partly escaped from, the confines of heritage largely have not! We all want to be represented in it. If art [and much else] isn't 'built to last', we try to prolong its life by the equivalent of pickling," This attitude sees decay as something unpleasing, to be cured. This, of course, is what curators are for.
However, an increasing [if still relatively small] number of artists are able to annul the problem, in rather the same way a gardener might eliminate weeds. Some weeds disappear if you discover that you actually want them. A fine example in Britain is the notoriously persistent perennial Ground Elder [a.k.a. Bishop's Weed, Goutweed]. Most of its sufferers don't realise that at least a partial cure is the very reason why the Romans brought it with them: to eat it. So: decay, disintegration, decomposition, decrepitude, and death, become much less troublesome if you want them to occur - or can at least accept them.
Notwithstanding the sadness I would share at the loss of [say] 'Mona Lisa' or the Lascaux Palaeolithic cave paintings, Angkor Wat or Beethoven's 9th. [though your priorities might be different, which may be rather significant...], most human-made things are probably best seen as ephemeral - to be let go, sooner or later. Indeed, history hints that it is wise to consider whole civilizations the same way: we build them up, enjoy them, then they fall to pieces! Ephemeral is not the same as disposable, let alone throw-away. It is not a label inviting waste - rather, it is inviting better use, and then an acceptance that it no longer does what we want it to do. Being temporary is, after all, a characteristic of individual lives. Pickled remnants of art may be mementoes or keepsakes, and are sustenance to the historian and the specialist. However, many seem to be kept in the hope of windfall ‘appreciation in value’. There is always a danger of throwing out the baby with its bath-water, but the occasional loss may be preferable to indiscriminate, inaccessible, clutter
Meanwhile, Nature's story just continues. Decay is a succession of changes, many of which have great - transient - beauty. The spore bodies of slime-moulds, the patterning of a slug's skin, the ecological succession of mosses or lichens: these and many others may temporarily enchant a sculpture; but also the form, texture, and colours, and indeed smells, of the materials the artist has used may develop and change intriguingly and beautifully as 'art' dissolve s back into 'nature'. [But aren't we just part of nature?] After Black Dome's pristine, glistening stage, weather and trampling feet of the many people who made good use of its invitation to play [unauthorized - but what are sculptures for, if not for touching?] wore off the glister, and reshaped the logs' tips from angular to curvaceous. More wear & tear, and the softening wood erupted clusters of small bracket fungi. What Nash had started, Nature was taking over... as he intended.
Nature is not an 'artist': it is just What Is. But I think many people would feel that by about the bracket-fungus stage, Black Dome as an artwork was being compromised. Intervention, by artist or by curator, they might say, was becoming necessary to halt the spoiling, and to prevent the loss, of the art. There was indeed an intervention, and, as well as meeting health-and-safety concerns, the inevitability of dis-integration was delayed. And down in the gully, a second set of charred canoe shapes replaced the first.
One might say that Black Dome and Boats today are not the same Black Dome and Boats that Nash made - that they are different works of art, or else mere replicas or shadows of the real things; but this is about as meaningful as saying that the David Nash today is not the David Nash we saw yesterday, because he's just come back from the dentist a couple of teeth lighter, with an appointment for fitting a denture
The point is that - for fairly sensible reasons - we want to live in the present with the best things from the past, in much the same way that we hope ourselves to survive into the future in at least as good a condition as we are in today. We always have. About 3,200 years ago, an Egyptian poet encouraged us:
Man dies. His body is dust...
Both ambitions come with costs and problems - and both look to be ultimately vain. Sam, in his blog comment, asks: "Is it OK for things to decay? Is it unrealistic to expect that they shouldn't?" Well: on one count I believe it is unrealistic - that count being in $, £, ¥, €, or any other wherewithal.
On a second count it is also unrealistic - and that is the inordinate amount of space needed to keep everything in, [The Library of Congress collections alone occupy some 530 miles [850 km] of shelves... ] Then there is a third count. The situation is unreasonable, and in some lights looks downright irresponsible. "Museums and art patrons might find it helpful to [re]consider the ecological footprint of their art collections." Everything, from paperclips to air-conditioning to insecticides, plus papers and inks, discs, and the rest of the paraphernalia of recording, publishing, and promoting... everything is part of the ecological account which Nature is keeping, even if we aren't. As with the $ and €, from time to time this account must be settled.
I see wry smiles at this point. Here, in this e-museum of environmental art [avoiding much of the $- and eco-costs of paperclips, insecticides, &c.], we see fascinating examples of work by artists who - as artists - are determined to do their bits - and more - to promote environmentalist or ecological understanding and attitudes, and we see ingenious examples of managers, curators, and academics, busy supporting them and protecting their creations. Meanwhile, outside and generally unseen, Mother Nature is keeping a careful and complete tally of the cost of it all! There is strong irony here.
Much as the e-museum needs relatively small resources and very little space, its resultant footprint is potentially huge, especially if it achieves its mission! It is, after all, of use only via a technology that in a few handfuls of years has spawned and linked billions of computers, with their energy demands and toxic components, many destined for the refuse dump, or a Third World salvaging enterprise.
I hope I don't appear too cynical! However lightly you live on the Earth, you leave footprints - and not only where you walk, because each of us marks the whole globe. Most individual contributions are small [though we might remember that, in rough averages, over a lifetime 1 U.S. American = 250 Sub-Saharan Africans], yet they all add up. We are inclined to forget that basic point: what each of us does counts. Even art. Even eco-art.
This is one of the score of sculptures that constituted the original Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail. ['Forest' in this case means plantations of hardwoods and conifers.] The Trail necessitated the upgrading of paths, the erection of guideposts, and the extension of carparks, picnic area, and toilets, the issuing of maps, leaflets, and a book, the establishing of publicity, management, and archiving systems, and doubtless other things I've forgotten. It proved very popular, bringing many thousands more visitors [nearly all in cars] to the area... necessitating the upgrading of paths, erection of [more] guideposts, and the extension of... &c.
Some sculptures have been removed from the Trail, having rotted and rusted beyond redemption. Two very ephemeral pieces, Stuart Frost's Bracken Knot and Bracken Ring, I never actually saw. Made of fern-frond stalks, they were supposed to by quickly 'recycled'. Frost makes an interesting point about the sophistication of the cotemporary artist: "Working in the forest I used only what came to hand. I remember when I first started working directly in the landscape, I took so much equipment with me that I really didn't know where to start or what to use first. It was almost like moving my studio outside, but without the plug sockets."
What ought concerned artists, their supporters, and their audiences do about eco-art's footprint? Giving up is not an option; that would surely be against [our] nature; but continuing without a bit of careful thinking wouldn't be entirely satisfactory. Perhaps a guide to a way forward was neatly formulated for contemporary culture in the seventies' slogan 'Live lightly on the Earth!' Less easy to do than say, of course!
I'm beginning to see the work of at least some environmental artists as akin to that of a cook. Most of humankind cooks - or at least we prepare meals, even if only by opening a can, and even when there is little to eat. Cooking doesn't have to be cordon bleu to be successful. Isn't dining out in a fine restaurant akin to enjoying art in a gallery? Both anticipate good quality. For the meal, we expect Art-cooking, let's call it; nonetheless, we prefer our other meals - art-cooking - to be of decent quality, within their own terms, too. Moreover, even a humble snack is many times more important than most Art-meals, because it nourishes ordinary, everyday existence. Although equating cooking and eco-art probably doesn't take me very far, I think it does have a point. The meal, however elaborate or costly, is to be eaten - and then it is gone. It was 'functional', but also aesthetic, had social associations, hopefully was pleasing while it lasted, and has lasting benefits. Purpose has been served.
The work of an art-maker can achieve its purpose in a rather similar way. This is probably seen more clearly where some performance is involved. A recent example comes to mind. For 'Cut/Stack/Burn' by Bruce Davies, a traditional but long-ignored wild-growing fuel in Britain - furze or gorse - was harvested, carted, stacked, and burned, where feasible using traditional methods, and involving local people as much as possible. After three months, it was burned in one impressive blaze. End of fire was end of art, but the purpose is continuous, and the project's 'outcome' may manifest over a long period.
The Greenmuseum rightly calls itself a high impact/low footprint organization. It is a great place. However - we are probably taking it largely on trust. We really don't know what are the 'footprints' of the art - whether sculpture, performance, ecovention, painting, or any other.
A most valuable new room for the museum would be one in which visitors could see the eco- and maybe the $ budgets, realistic 'making' costs, ongoing maintenance costs, recording, publication and promotion costs, &c, &c., for a selection of works. Costs could be in terms such as CO2 emissions, kilowatts of electricity, barrels of oil, cubic metres of quarried ground - or what I call the 'cuddly whale unit'. How many cwu are required [i.e. will die] in order to build [say] one Spiral Jetty, or a Black Dome, or [say] to plant and protect an acre of an Alan Sonfist Time Landscape for ten years? [I anticipate that last has a negative value for cwu…].
... Everything we do is accountable - though we may not yet know how to make the count. That new Greenmuseum room would be doubly valuable if visitors could also get hands-on practice in the eco-costing of art. But don't ask me how to do it! Theoretically, I ought to be able to work out the cwu expended in gathering bits from the Internet, magazines, &c., typing and correcting, emailing, and pleading for the posting of this essay. I'm only sure that it's not a negative value...
For the Forest of Dean sculptures and artists' statements, see Rupert Martin's The sculpted forest, Bristol: Redcliffe, 1990; www.forestofdean-sculpture.org.uk; and Martin Spray's 'Do you want the light on?' elsewhere on this site.
For Cut/Stack/Burn, see www.cut-stack-burn.blogspot.com; youtube.com/cutstackburn; Bruce Davies 'Cut/Stack/Burn - linking land, energy and climate', Ecos. A review of conservation 28[3/4] pages 50-57, 2007
The post-conference document Artful ecologies, Falmouth [UK]; RANE, 2007, includes Kerry Morrison's hesitant but interesting CO2-costing of attending that conference, 'The artful green sink'; pdf at http://rane.falmouth.ac.uk/papers_frm.html
Wombles are fictitious, diminutive, litter-picking denizens of Wimbledon Common, London.
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