Nature is a construct: sculpture at Grizedale Forest

Linda Pittwood
sculpture park The Wood for the Trees muf architecture art grizedale forest

In our new sculpture park series, we discover the UK’s largest haul of site-specific sculpture – in a forest in the Lakes.

When you think of Land Art, you might think of Robert Smithson’s epic earthworks hidden away in the desert of Utah. Or you might think of Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapping coastlines and monuments in tarpaulin. Or maybe, a bit closer to home, you might think of Antony Gormley’s high-profile urban interventions. Land Art doesn’t tend to be associated with intimacy, government departments, mountain bike trails, forest management or sudden showers of hail stones on an otherwise mild afternoon. But this is exactly what you encounter at Grizedale Forest, the home of two arts organisations and a permanent collection of around 60 sculptures.

The relationship between Grizedale Forest and the visual arts is as fascinating as it is complex. The Grizedale Society began commissioning sculptures in 1977, when its remit covered visual arts and also running a theatre. Many of the sculptors involved in the early days, such as David Nash and Richard Harris, have gone on to become household names. Since 1999, however, care of the artwork has been the responsibility of the Forestry Commission (operating under the title Grizedale Sculpture), while an international arts programme continues under the auspices of Grizedale Arts, a separate organisation based nearby. But the collection of sculptures isn’t static: Grizedale Sculpture still works with artists and has just launched an ambitious new commissioning programme, Art Roots.

The forest is also the subject of Edwina Fitzpatrick’s practice-based doctoral research, co-supervised by Glasgow University and Grizedale Sculpture. The artist tells me that her research takes the form of artworks or experiments, to explore the notion of mutability, change and “the landscape as a cultural archive”. She is also developing the archive held by Grizedale Sculpture; plugging holes by interviewing artists and producing the most basic of documents – a database of all of the artworks that have and do exist in the forest. Fitzpatrick describes Grizedale as having “many guises… it is many things all in one place, a strange mixture,” and definitely a place that’s ripe for both artistic inspiration and further research.

To see all the art could take days; you start in the centre of the forest and follow a network of trails to find it

When I meet Hayley Skipper, the Arts Development Officer for the Forestry Commission, she is keen to point out that “this is not Yorkshire Sculpture Park”. This isn’t a criticism; it’s just that the two couldn’t be more different. The experience of visiting Grizedale works best as one element of another activity: walking, cycling, a tree-top adventure weekend, a getaway from the city. To see all of the sculptures could take up to five days, and visitors access the forest, unusually, from the centre, where a network of trails lead to and around the artworks. Sculptures appear suddenly through the trees, either confrontationally like Robert Bryce Muir’s mythical “Mea Culpa” or shyly like Colin Rose’s “Ting”.

Skipper takes me to Carron Crag, the highest point in the forest. Despite it being early March, snow sparkles on the ground, and the climate here seems to be a law unto itself. At the peak we can see the extent of the forested area and how its valley location keeps it hidden from Windermere, Hawkshead and other nearby towns. We can see, too, a visual map of forest management: different tree types and ages being harvested and planted. On the ground, a monkey puzzle tree, holly bush or spruce occasionally appear due to test planting and self-seeding; these natural anomalies feel like sculptural objects in their own right.

Descending the mountain again, Skipper shows me the outcome of a 2011 commission by muf architecture/art (above). The simplicity of “The Wood for the Trees” – a fallen tree hovering between a car park and a thoroughfare – belies Muff’s research and engagement with the place. Clues as to the extent of this research appear in the sound work nearby, a combination of bird song and voices of the people of Grizedale Forest. It forms an intimate portrait of the delicate balance of people, industry, plant and animal life that has developed here.

It is no wonder that artists are keen to work within this ecology; the forest as a context for artworks is both beautiful and politically charged.  England’s total wooded area makes up around 10% of its land mass, one of the lowest percentages in Europe. Despite costing around 90p per household per year to manage, for two years the present government dithered over a decision to sell them off. A huge public outcry forced the government to reconsider; it is this context that Skipper believes will be addressed by future artists when using the forest as subject matter and site for their work.

Skipper already knows who some of those future artists will be thanks to Art Roots, a partnership between the Arts Council and the Forestry Commission that has seen Skipper and her team work with artists Tania Kovats, Laura Ford, Keith Wilson and others. Edwina Fitzpatrick says that artists coming to Grizedale “are attracted to working within nature in a romantic sense, but all end up having to confront the idea of forest management and the artificiality of the landscape. They realise that nature is a construct.” What she means is that everything at Grizedale is constructed, from dry stone walls to a forest established to shore up the area’s poor, shallow soil. The sculptures are simply another layer of construction, although they, like the forest, change and succumb to the elements over time.

The magic of Grizedale Forest is its ability to appeal to everyone, from super-fit mountain bikers to art lovers. It is day trip-able from Liverpool or Manchester, and surprisingly accessible from Leeds, Newcastle or London. One note of caution, though: having approached from both north and south, signage is less visible from the north – perhaps this is because us townies leaving the M6 at junction 36 need extra help. My advice? Take your time. You may well take a wrong turn, yet getting lost here can be a pleasure.

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