In the late 1970s, the Northern Arts visual arts officer, Peter Davies, had just returned from a visit to America where he had observed artists working directly within the landscape. At that time the Land Art movement was a natural progression from process and conceptual art practices in both Europe and America, with artists such as Ana Mendieta, Alan Sonfist, Robert Smithson and Richard Long producing foundational works. Back in Cumbria, Davies recognised a lack of similar opportunities and initiated a program of artist residencies situated within the network of Forestry Commission plantation and ancient woodland of Grizedale Forest. The concept was simple: over a period of months and without too much prescription, selected artists would be free to experiment with an abundance of natural materials, seek out sites of resonance and explore their working processes. Out of this matrix of potentiality emerged what was to become the UK’s first sculpture forest, fostering a beneficial collaboration between artists producing site-specific artworks and the Forestry Commission (now Forestry England).
In 1977 the first successful applicant was a recent art school graduate called Richard Harris who had already established a preference for working outside, using found materials and producing large-scale sculptural pieces. He would later describe his experience at Grizedale as fundamental and responsible for formulating the guiding principles of his practice. Forty-five years later, a retrospective overview of selected works by Harris is currently on show at the Exhibition Space in Grizedale Forest’s Visitor Centre in Being Here (until 5 December 2022). Co-curated by Hazel Stone (Forestry England’s North District Arts Development Manager) and Peter Davies, the exhibition comprises drawings, diagrams and images detailing Harris’s major works, plus a central, free-standing domed structure, ‘Birch Dome’ (2017).
From his initial residency, which spanned 1977 and 1978, two of Harris’s artworks remain in-situ on the Grizedale Sculpture Trail: ‘Cliff Structure’ and ‘Quarry Structure’ (both completed 1978). A complete renovation of ‘Quarry Structure’ was carried out in 2009 after signs of decay were discovered. The first outcome, ‘Cliff Structure’, consists of a row of roughly-cleft struts from windblown oak, leaning up and away from a rocky outcrop. The ‘rafters’ support a line of large stone boulders salvaged from the crumbling walls that crisscross the forest site, the position of the stones intending to ‘draw’ back into position a three-dimensional description of an imagined earlier geological form. Situated on a sloping bank, this piece appears to defy the rules of gravity and presents a robust challenge to the passing of time, in place of the temporal transience suggested by other British Land Artists working during this period.
In an accompanying video in the current exhibition, Harris describes these works as structures rather than sculptures to avoid ‘the baggage that comes with calling it art’. The use of the word ‘structure’ implies functionality in the artworks, whose purpose becomes more apparent in the second outcome, ‘Quarry Structure’. Here the artist places the audience directly within the work. Constructed from timber slats supporting slabs of old Cumbrian slate, the structure invites interaction. The low to the ground, curving foot bridge guides the viewer to another vantage point within the site of an old quarry. Originally concealed behind a fence, this small, artificial hollow would have once been easily overlooked by passers-by. Now the site is filled with autumn leaves, sprouting moss and fungi and the work has integrated naturally into the space. These two works also evidence the influence of gothic architecture that Harris was interested in at the time, the ‘rafters’ and reciprocal nature of the interlocking timber frame forming both a supporting structure and an incidental interior shelter.
Since the 1970s Harris has returned to Grizedale on subsequent residencies. In 1982 he devised and constructed (with the help of a local craftsman) ‘Dry Stone Passage’ using local stone and traditional building methods. The curved, walled passage is designed to evoke a sense of discovery more often experienced when exploring the forest away from the predestined nature of existing footpaths. Now coated in moss, the artwork has become a living monument, providing further habitat for plants and wildlife. Here stone, moss and passageway exist quietly in symbiosis within the woodland.
Documenting the Grizedale Sculpture Project in 1989, Maggie Ellis’s dark, murky footage in A Sense of Place (1989) (excerpts of which are included in the exhibition video in Being Here) records Harris gathering and preparing branches for the sculpture ‘Hollow Spruce’ (1988). Cumbria is well known for its rainfall, and observing the artist working outside in often challenging weather conditions reminds the viewer that art is not separate from its formative processes. The physical demands, external elements, time of year, materials, and outlook at the time all filter into the finished work. The film also documents the sculpture shortly after completion, showing a human-scale, woven shelter intermingling with the branches of the surrounding pine trees. One of his more ephemeral pieces, this work no longer exists and has since dissolved back into the natural fabric of the forest.
Entering the Exhibition Space, visitors are offered an introductory insight into Harris’s thinking processes. Preliminary drawings and diagrams occupy a wall in the gallery entrance, forming a kind of idea cloud with titles such as ‘Stone Cloud’, ‘Arc’, ‘Arrow’, ‘Bonfire’, and ‘Walking with the Sea’ conjuring up an incantation dedicated to the earth and human rituals.
In the main gallery space photographic examples of Harris’s site-specific projects line the walls. Described in the artist’s biography as ‘often working at the interstices of engineering and nature’, a key feature of Harris’s structures appears to be an impulse to reveal rather than conceal the architecture. The skeletal nature and exposed frameworks apparent in many of his sculptures demonstrate an interest in construction processes and the mechanics of materials.
Harris states in the accompanying video that human interaction is central to his work, and this is evident when viewing images of pieces such as ‘Walking with the Sea Turning with the Sea’ (2000), ‘Kyo Undercurrent’ (1989), ‘Dry Stone Passage’ (1982), and ‘Bottle Bank’ (1982-86). Structures are made to be walked through, around or under and are often reminiscent of a bridge carrying the viewer through an experience, much like a considerate hand on the elbow. There is a sense of generosity to the arrangement, situating the audience within a non-hierarchical, harmonious scheme that sets him apart from other English land artists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Not made simply to be documented, looked at or be particularly ephemeral, the works appear steady and reassuringly long-lasting, integrating rather than disappearing into the environment.
Occupying the centre of the gallery space is ‘Birch Dome’ (2017), a large structure which visitors can clamber in and out of and explore from the inside. Experiencing Harris’s work within a gallery space is at first challenging; without the context of its natural setting, the work has an altered function as perhaps a craft object or a conceptual piece. ‘Birch Dome’ is constructed using a joint, used by Harris previously in ‘A River and a Tree’ (2014), which is designed to be flexible. The idea to float an articulated length of logs downstream before lifting it out and coiling it into a dome on the riverbank evolved from considering the traditional relationship between loggers and water. Each joint forms a continual reciprocal niche and becomes a metaphor for the efficacy of working together – how in a relationship of communal give-and-take an overall support system can be generated. Here the bark remains on the logs, the wood retaining an association with its origin, in a gesture that transforms the dome into an ode to the trees from which they came and the inextricable but complicated ties between the human and the non-human world.
Ben Tuffnell, a writer and curator with a specific interest in the Land Art movement, describes the key concepts of Land Art as ‘time, place, relativity, experience’. He also describes a divergence in the gestures and structures made by artists of the 1960s and 1970s in Europe and America, who he believes were influenced by specific topographical characteristics, with ephemeral, conceptual gestures emerging out of a deeply historicized, densely cultivated European landscape compared to more material, earth-bound and remote structures being produced by artists in the vast open spaces of America. Re-examining Harris’s work through this lens it is possible to identify a merging of both approaches: an architectural sensitivity to the environment combined with an understanding of the artwork’s impact on both the landscape and audience over time. Yet Harris’s practice also holds the potential to include a third element: the objective to generate environmental engagement and alternative perspectives. In this way, Harris’s work over the last five decades has been significant to the development of Land Art and Public Art. As ecological concerns accelerate, the understanding that humans are an integral part of the natural world rather than separate from it is now urgently communicated by contemporary environmental and social art practices. By continuously placing the viewer within art that becomes the landscape, Harris’s artworks have been nurturing a sense of interconnectedness since the beginning.
As an exhibition, Being Here requires concentration. The images displayed on the gallery walls successfully document forty-five years of consistent environmental and socially-considered art practice. Yet an irony emerges from the Exhibition Space: that despite Harris’s artworks being made primarily to be experienced in-situ, in their natural environments, it is only by reading the texts and watching the accompanying exhibition video that viewers can begin to understand the significance of Harris’s output.
Sam Pickett is a visual artist based in Lancaster.
This feature is supported by Forestry England.