For Julie Brook, it’s a happy coincidence that she was approached by Abbot Hall in Kendal to exhibit a career’s worth of work, alongside pieces she’s selected from the gallery’s archive. Like many, her first memories of the wilderness were childhood holidays to nearby mountains and Lakes. As an artist, the wilderness has often been her environment and subject since the late 1980s, undertaking immersive experiences to create sculptural forms in remote destinations. Light, dark, stone, fire and water are the primary tools she uses to express her connectedness to landscape.
Now residing in Scotland, Brook’s practice has taken her to some of the most isolated places on earth. What is it That Will Last? is an exhibition of documents made of her live and performance work created out in the field. At an event programmed in conjunction with Kendal Mountain Festival, she spoke about the works and the act of bringing them into the gallery with nature writer Robert Macfarlane.
Due to the nature of Brook’s works, which exist in the Hebrides, Japan, Namibia and further afield, the most common (and realistic) form of encounter with her work is via the documentation. She says that, increasingly, she has started her projects from a standpoint of knowing what the documentation of her pieces will be, as well as what the works themselves will actually be. ‘As much as I want to connect with the landscape, I want to connect with you, the viewer’, she says. That means that capturing sound and lighting her works is part of the process from the very beginning.
One such work is ‘Firestack’, a sculptural work enacted between 2015-2016. Located on Jura, an island in the Inner Hebrides, the work plays with ideas of permanence and fleetingness. Using dry stone walling techniques, she (along with a close team of art students) creates a round fire pit on the beach during low tide. The piece is then ‘fired’, meaning that the fire is set, and the camera rolls as the tide returns. Firestacks are physical motifs Brook has returned to throughout her career.
From that moment, there is an inevitable dance between the elements: the tide coming in, the fire burning, the sun setting, and the relentless wind. One of the films in the exhibition captures this moment – a genuinely thrilling watch as the fight between the light and the dark takes on mesmeric qualities.
A behind-the-scenes film of the construction of this work is also available to view. Brook’s work often involves her exiling herself in remote spaces or working in places where there is no shared language between herself and the local community. This most recent Firestack piece, however, is intimately collaborative: from staying together in a bothy and sharing meals, to taking dawn hikes to the inlet where the work is located in horizontal snow. The human energy it takes to create these pieces is clear in these moments of openness between the artist, her assistants and the audience. She talks with great enthusiasm about the energy of making works with a group. ‘I need help,’ she admits, in the most joyful and inviting sense.
Invitations are a large part of Brook’s work, and something she discussed at length with Macfarlane. Working closely with the land requires various types of invitation, often needing formal permission from authorities to work in her chosen locations. She spoke about arriving at the Japanese quarry with just an idea, having not yet been granted permission by the city to make a work. The preposterous scale and ambition of some of her works are both a barrier and a reason for the works to exist. At the Kanagaso Quarry in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, Brook made ‘Ascending’ (2022), an unfathomable staircase in three parts, made of some of the oldest stone in the world. Often, the landscape invites Brook to create the work. She discusses often not knowing what she will make until she arrives at the site, with her ideas around what the piece will be, and how it will be documented being led by her in situ experiences. Often, she must invite others to work alongside her in harsh or limiting conditions. In many ways, there is a deep generosity and sharing in pieces like ‘Ascending’, ‘Firestack’ (2015-2016) and the dry stone wall sculpture of ‘Winter Wall’ (2021), which emits a sculpture in light when the sun aligns with it.
Meanwhile, at Abbott Hall, sketches of ‘Ascending’ are on display too: they are vast and drawn in yellow marks, the materiality of the sketch mirroring the stone of the quarry. Brook recalled explaining to her hosts her plan for ‘Ascending’, and their initial disbelief giving way to a community effort, with the local community eventually taking ownership of the work. Often the unseen human side of these pieces, which Brook and Macfarlane’s talk allows us glimpses of, is as evocative as the pieces themselves.
Sculptural works often come from sketches, but sketches come from sculptural works too. One of the gallery spaces features two large-scale charcoal drawings of an aspect of her ‘Parallel Space’ sculpture in Takigahara Quarry, Komatsu, Ishika. Hard stone edges and light-filled passages are recreated in this drawing which uses only the darkness of the charcoal marks and the lightness of the paper surface. Brook talks at length about being drawn to the quality of the darkness she experienced while working underground on her sculptural pieces, and these painstakingly rendered drawings are an attempt to evoke the depth of the darkness.
In what is a full gallery takeover, Brook has selected pieces from the Abbott Hall archive to complement the exhibition. Works by Kurt Schwitters, Barbara Hepworth, John Ruskin, and more are on display, each pulling on a different thread of Brook’s wider work, whether that be landscape, sculpture or the body’s relationship to the land. The exhibition extends to the grounds of Holker Hall, where a monumental sculpture titled ‘Out of the Ground, A Thread of Air’ resides. Created in partnership with Burlington stone and the Holker Group, the sculpture is made from stone excavated from quarries in Brathay.
What is it That Will Last? is figured deliberately as a question, one which is posed to Brook during a Q&A. With her characteristic curiosity and openness, she explains that ‘what is it that will last?’ isn’t a question she seeks to answer in her works (most of her works will last for a very long time indeed), but rather a constant state of mind she uses to approach landscape. She approaches her works with this as a live and kinetic question in her mind, not seeking a resolution, but approaching the landscape as an open invitation to make work which challenges our notions of permanence.
Julie Brook: What is it That Will Last?, Abbot Hall, 20 May – 30 December 2023
Lucy Holt is a writer based in Manchester.
This review is supported by Lakeland Arts.