Sculpture in the Parklands
John K. Grande
International art critic, curator and author (Art Nature Dialogues)
Earth specific sculpture actually is the landscape. Engendering a new relation to the land, Bord na Mona, Ireland’s national peat harvesting company founded in 1946, has generously offered 50 acres of its cut-away bog lands for the creation of Sculpture in the Parklands. Peat has been harvested in the Lough Boora area since the 1940s as a source of fuel and electricity production for the people of Ireland. Harvesting was completed in the late 1990s in the Lough Boora area, and alternative use plan have since been adopted. Sculpture in the Parklands founder Kevin O’Dwyer’s inspiration for land-based sculpture produced the first symposium in 2002 in which he asked artists to respond to the industrial and environmental heritage of the region. Eight large scale site-specific works and works were added in each subsequent year. The industrial sculptural aesthetic that permeates Sculpture in the Parklands carries echoes of history and re-use, recycling, combined with a growing natural presence as the land regenerates, finds new uses including recreational fishing, model airplane flying, education, and nature walks.
Bord na Mona’s action plan enacted in 2010 designates areas for nature conservation. Established in the 1940s and 1950s to develop Ireland’s peat resources, Bord na Mona now owns 7% or 80,000 hectares of Ireland’s lowland bogs. For decades since a source o fuel, the bog areas are likewise habitats for a great range of bird species and the increasingly rare grey partridge. Whooper swans, snipe, lapwing and golden plover are among the bird species visitors can interact with while visiting the sculptures on site along the trails. Nesting birds of concern to conservationists include the Snipe, tufted duck, little grebe, skylark, black-headed gull. The flora of the parklands includes Phragmite reeds, water horse tail water mint, march bedstraw, marsh arrow grass, bramble, hard fern and the bog cotton that contrasts the back of the peat landscape so beautifully. Scots pine, aspen, willow and Dowry birch predominate as tree species in the region.
Rehabilitation of the lands includes management of the hydrology; draining, damming, blocking outfall, planting of species receptive to the specifics of this environment, generating reed beds, scrub and invasive species clearance, and woodland management, and alternative energy development in the form of willow tree harvesting, wind farm, and new energy initiatives Sculpture in the Parklands is part of this new initiative. Art links to sustainability, and nature links to the human condition just as we humans have altered, adapted, and used nature, we must now manage, cultivate new uses and potential for re-use in nature, the house out of which all economies are dependent.
The artists working at Sculpture in the Parklands come from a variety of places in the world. Each has a particular way of working with nature, of expressing their art. Each brings their own specific cultural experience and this plays a role in the way their art manifests itself. It can involve aspects of dance, of music, of design, of ideation, or any number of aspects that enter into evolving this new paradigm of an art that works with nature. There is an awareness of the incredible versatility and variety of nature and its forms and manifestations. Many of the ideas initiated by artists working with nature today are seized on by “professionals” in others fields - landscapers, designers, architects, horticulturists, educators, and craftspeople. This gives a sense of how relevant an art that deals with the experience of nature really is, even more so in a world where new technological innovations are increasingly pulling us away from direct experience, the tactile world, into a parallel experience indulged on, and produced by the micro-screen technology.
The structures evolve, integrate, return to nature gradually and much is left to nature. The ephemeral takes over. Nature takes its course and art adapts. Nature itself is a monument. At the entranceway to the trails that extend some 20 kilometres through the parklands, Caelan Bristow has designed and produced a pavilion to commemorate the ancient enclosures and animal habitats from earlier times. Using disused machinery and recycled materials Bristow integrated one shelter into the embankment while the other stands adjacent to Patrick Dougherty’s walk-through woven willow Ruaille Buaille (2008) landscape nature sculpture. Nature is recycled, wrapped onto, and the architecture of the trees Dougherty weaves around are part of the art. These spaces reference habitat, yet are dynamic and living, with actual living trees into the forms, and the willow weaves all over. North Carolina-based Dougherty is a fine branch fitter who sense placement as he moves through the sculpture process in each individual work he creates. Dougherty’s approach challenges traditional and avant-gardist approaches to art making simultaneously, because there is no dogma to his approach, and it involves life itself. With the help of 6 local artists and community volunteer this woven willow environment of caverns, swirling chambers and walkways set into an Alder forest. Using over 10 tons of willow from the region, Dougherty’s piece is hands on, a real time environment that engages the viewer for its animated lines of willow drawn in space, one of Pat Dougherty’s largest outdoor sculpture works ever created. This is not purist the purist landscaper’s aesthetic, nor is it the object-based minimalist’s terrain. Instead it is art about life, ephemeral, it will disintegrate and eventually return to the earth. There is no museum, container, encasement to justify this brand of art. It is all about life!!! Life is Art one would hope and presumably we are a living species.
Naomi Seki’s Boora Stacks invokes memories of the industrial, and recombines it all, recycling steel cylinders from the Bord na Mona yards, a stone’s throw away from this site. The industrial becomes a home for re-growth as evidenced by the replanted heather and birch. And so though apparently minimal in conception the piece combines notions of regeneration and the multi-layered history of these parklands.
A Tree in a Sculpture is a second Seki piece, that challenges the upward reaching sketch-like line of art forms in wood with a tree. The native Birch tree Seki has planted with the piece, is a gesture enacted for the future, in that the tree “grows through” a flat planar piece of wood. The challenge is for the tree to surpass the man-made art, which it eventually should do thus establishing a harmony, a balance between the natural and the man-made, the organic resurges, and the geometries of Seki’s 8 metre high structural three-dimensional drawing will achieve more resonance when this gradual growth.
Marianne Jorgensen’s The Secret Garden has the word HAPPINESS inscribed in the peat rich landscape surface. Jorgensen invoked signology, and an imagery of the land by cutting and scripting her way into the landsurface with the help of two Bord na Mona senior workers. And so the workers actions become a kind of writing on the land, just as nature has unconsciously “written” its diversity into these ancient lands over the millennia. And now we have a simple action, ephemeral by nature, that will change as a result of nature, enacting the words WAR, PEACE, LOVE, WAR and HAPPINESS (a state one can achieve by recognizing our place in nature’s systems, and the freedom that accompanies living in the moment, in physical tactile space). Just as these words have eroded due to nature’s actions, and the physical space that combines with human perception to build language, words, grammar changes, so the cross cut into the peat by Jorgensen ha now vanished, apart of the process…. The actual sacking for The Secret Garden was brought over from Denmark, and filled on site with peat and hand stitched with embroidery thread.
Jorn Ronnau’s contemplative and time based Meditation Space, enables the visitor to actually sit down within 4000 year old yew and bogwood stacked like firewood in the triangular space. The landscape peers into and can be seen through the openings in these permeable nature walls, for nature is the membrane of our consciousness and the materials we live by. Indeed, nature is the art of which we are a part. … Indeed we ourselves and the materials we live by are time based, and the serpent stepping plate at the entrance is a simple tribute to the ancients, and the cultures we stem out of as peoples. Though the serpent could be threatening, it is also a friend guardian in this place. Framed in iron at its edges and with a seat made of yew, this is a truly accomplished and site sensitive work of nature, and a work of art as well.!
Caroline Madden’s Cycles (2006) results from the artist’s sensitive understanding of place, and specifically the Lough Boora Parklands where industrial, primordial, natural exists as a multi-layered pot pourri of traces, tracks, diverse growth forms and peat layering on clay. Just as this ancient place was once covered by waters at the end of the ice age, it still holds water due to the clay layerings beneath the peat. And Madden’s is the most feminine of sculptures, with its red seeds that extend out of the spirals atop the piece, symbolic of flame, of growth, of passion, and the fruit of a new life that will emerge as these Lough Borough land return to a variety of land uses that will generate biodiversity. The twelve plow blades form reflect the old peat harvests, while the regal red colours atop can likewise be suggestive of a decorative crown, a reference to the early Kingships of Ireland who would have traversed these lands inadvertently,
Just as Mesolithic people would have hunted and gathered for their livelihood here, as witnessed by the old shoreline site nearby, a beach in ancient times, now simply part of a landscape. Indeed the Mesolithic site on Lough Boora lands, discovered by former Bord na Mona employees Kieran Egan and Joe Craven and excavated by archaeologist Dr. Michael Ryan, contained artefacts dating back to 6800-7000 BC, the oldest recorded site of human activity in Ireland. New life, and a gradual transformation all this emblemized clearly and with subtle balance of forms, shapes are what mark Caroline Madden’s symbolic sculpture.
Johan Sietzema’s Bog Wood Road is an altogether different kind of sculpture. Like an army of trees stumps that advance across the landscape, they recreate and recall the ghost forest of oak and yew trees now trapped in the peatlands that can be up to 4000 years old.
Ironically this re-created forest of trees from under the bog, now stand under the original height of the bog. Inside history, inside nature, it is all a cycle that goes on through different changing landscape conditions, geologies, human interventions, and nature interventions. Outside history, outside nature Bog Wood Road, is imaginative, illusionistic. The trees are like people advancing as a group in the land, or could recreate an ancient forest out of those reclaimed and very old trees. On a rainy or foggy day, it is as if natural history itself were on the march, an ongoing event we are ever only partially conscious of, because nature changes gradually, over time, imperceptibly, almost without any of us noticing. The landscape changes, memories of place change, but the physics of site and place always carry a memory of it all.
Maurice MacDonagh’s Raised Line is closer to being a minimalist sculpture akin to the works of the 1960s sculptors such as than any nature integration. As a time line, or horizon line, or elongated bucket for harvested peat, this piece alludes to the container, containment, the artificial and the natural, and contrasts are created along the length of this track. One hundred metres of galvanized steel, this is a raised line alright, a kind of linear material drawing that contrasts the horizon line of the land surface behind, which was the height of the original bog railway and first harvests. So there is a sense of time and of history, and this sculpture stands outside it all, a kind of measurement, albeit aesthetic.
Kevin O’Dwyer’s 60 Degrees offsets the natural lighting of this textured landscape with a series of three triangular forms, the two outer ones made from disused bog railway track wood from the 1950s, and the central one from railway track, railway sleepers and stainless steel plate. Two wood forms invoked the industrial activity of peat harvesting while the stainless steel referenced the new use of the cut-away bog for recreation and community.
Shadows cast from these forms, which have been scaled so their sizes decrease in size, build contrasts between these three-dimensional forms and the peat lands around them. Enigmatic, hard edge, Kevin O’Dwyer’s likewise allude to the past industrial history of the place, as the materials all derive from the railways that moved the peat to the Ferbane Power Station, an essential and life supporting source of heat and electricity for the Irish people in the post-war era. More recently O’Dwyer has recycled one of the tipplers used to unload peat. Tippler Bridge has a cylindrical form. O’Dwyer’s walking bridge uses a hybrid assortment of materials that included corrugated steel that references the Nissan huts that housed over 400 men who worked the bogs in the 1950s. Both shelter and bridge, the Tippler Bridge’s view areas inside offer a cropped view of the surrounding lands, that contrasts the pervasive sky and arc of the horizon that predominates over this landscape. A cachet of local history, an industrial aesthetic, and a collaging of these elements with the landscape panorama all come together in O’Dwyer’s Tippler Bridge for passers by and visitors alike to experience.
Eileen MacDonagh’s Boora Pyramid is a popular site for visitors, and offers opportunities to stand at an elevation atop to witness the land surrounds. Measuring eight metres in width and six metres in height, MacDonagh’s piece is made from the unmortared glacial stone that exists at a level beneath the lay deposits, and peat layerings, a material that recalls the early geological history of the region. While the pyramid may recall Mayan, or Inca, or ancient Egyptian cultures, it is also a form that ascends, contrasting the flat lands of the peat bogs.
Dave Kinane’s Boora Convergence recreates something of the industrial aesthetic and places it in a nature site. The form itself recalls the twin Ferbane Cooling Towers that dominated the landscape. They were all you could see in the bog, and as the sole vertical elements, these enigmatic man-made artefacts of an energy supply system from an earlier, post-war era were simply what they were. Steel and wood recycled from the old railway, and with a playful rhythm of wood and steel ascending patterns that recall the cuts, drains and railways that criss-crossed the industrial bog, Kinane’s sculpture provides contrasts with the expanse of skies, and ever shifting weather systems at Lough Boora.
Maurice MacDonagh’s Raised Circle of recycled steel recalls the hundreds of miles of narrow gauge railway lines, line of life for industry that enabled the peat wagons to be brought through to the power stations, thus enabling an essential and new energy supply for the Irish people in the post-war era. Painted a Bord na Mona yellow on its exterior, a colour associated with all manner of machinery, from the turf harvesters, to locomotives, MacDonagh’s Raised Circle hovers above the landscape, and the heather, brush, almost illusionistic. Like a Celtic circle of steel, it brilliantly contrast the natural with the man-made, the industrial, with the post-industrial natural aesthetic that is emergent in our times.
Mike Buffin’s Sky-Train is somewhat nostalgic in its inspiration, and recalls the era of high peat harvesting activity at Bord na Mona with the ditchers, ridgers, and trains would traverse the land, moving to and fro on a flat horizon, animating the scene. Curving on the ridge in rainbow-like configuration, and overlooking the visitor’s trail the Sky-train moves along its imaginary, no longer extent track along the Lough Boora landscape. Sky-train has a Rustin engine (one of the oldest models) while the wagons are open, creel type, like those creels used to carry turf with the assistance of horse or donkey.
Julian Wild’s System No. 30 is the result of the artist’s gathering scrap like an archaeologist from the Bord na Mona yards nearby. Suggestive of a skipping stone, whose forward trajectory is circumscribed by curvilinear steel bands, System No. 30 alludes to the way fifty years of peat harvesting by Bord na Mona for fuel is like skimming the surface of a far greater, and deeper geological and human history that goes back to the Mesolithic era for us humans, and even farther back in time before we were here, in the Lough Boora Parklands.
Alan Counihan has referenced the permanence of land in ancestral cultural identity with earlier in situ sandstone sculptures such as Prayerhouse #2, The Shelter of the Bay (1996-97) set in the Allihies in Country Cork. With Idir Cruaiche is na Carraige (1997) what is revealed is concealed, a multi-layered process, and so we become aware of the way nature procreates its forms, some containers, others open and eroded. The language involves the physics of materials, the way environments, weather, and human culture all intertwine, as the ebb and flow of life’s rhythms go on and on.
For Sculpture in the Parklands 2009 commission, Alan Counihan’s Passage is a poetic piece if landscape intervention, and all about the passage of time, our memory of place, and the site sensitive moment in time. Time’s arrows leave us with a physical place and the passage is through the peat land. As a passage it is time bound yet exists as a way through matter, and we move through the contrasts of steel and black peat as if this were a tunnel of time, only to find the landscape expanding at the other end where we witness three vertical elements. The resonance of seeing these three elements reifies our sense of this living ever changing natural reality we are a part of. Passage links us to it all, and in a strange way are reminiscent of German artist Martin Kippenberger’s METRO-Net subway entrances set in Dawson City Yukon in 1995, and connecting to an island in Greece where a similar subway entrance was built, to thus form conceptual links to varying landscape sites. The difference is that Counihan’s art in situ is a time passage, minimal in its editing down of materials to the essential. Like a trench, that passes into a landscape of light, Passage references the material landscape, and its material ecology, something that has shaped our economies, our ways of living in relation to nature, and even the way we communicate in a very specific way, whatever bio-region of the world we live in. The narrow gauge rail tracks on the floor/ground of this “earth bridge” and the sleepers, recycle the industrial remnants and traces that link Bord na Mona to the land. The three rails point to the sky and a trail and path lead backwards into a backdrop of nature.
In July 2010, American bio-artist Brandon Ballengee spent two weeks engaging the public and researching the rich biodiversity of the bogland area. A large white canvas extended across the landscape along the waterways and path leading through the parklands. Ballengee’s Love Motel for Insects used ultra violet lights on the tabula rasa drawing the nocturnal insects into an amazing display exchange between visitors and this outdoor live insectarium. Previosuly seen around the world in tropical rain forests, inner city bus stops, Brownfield sites, Scottish Highlands, German city centres, and Venetian boats as part of the Venice Biennial Ballengee’s bio-event was an ongoing night time performance event at Lough Boora that documented the rich insect biodiversity in the landscape. The last week of the residency included a children’s education program and culminated with an Insect Festival and exhibition of artwork and insect documentation over the two preceding two weeks.
For the 2010 artist’s residency program at Sculpture in the Parklands, Danish sculptor Alfio Bonanno familiarized himself with the grounds at Lough Boora. Initially inspired by the vast dark peat landscape and ancient bogwood forest, upon hearing the sound of running water he recognized a powerfully symbolic site for his environmental project. With a central conical tower structure and a steel inner core made by and referencing the industrial history of the workers at Bord na Mona, Bonanno’s “shelter” involved the gathering and collecting of 4,000 year old bogwood from the peat lands. The collected bogwood was integrated as a textural and graphic outer wall for the work. A stream from the neighbouring wetlands flows through Bonanno’s structure into the centre. The energy and life generated by the sound of water as it enters, flows through and descends to a underground stream establishes links with the surrounding ecosystems of the peat lands. With sound as an animating element, entering into the inner space, and a series of found stones and boulders within, Alfio Bonanno’s eight metre high From Earth to Sky references the oldest archaeological site from the Megalithic era in Ireland less then a mile away. In Bonanno’s own words, “One of my earlier environmental sculptures from 1982, Granite Environment incorporated stones from ancient burial grounds in an area undergoing redevelopment in Denmark where they were found. I see the present Irish work being made here in Country Offaly as a continuity of this earlier work, in that both reference archaeology and our human links to ancient culture. This piece is an homage to our ancestors and the physical layered landscape of peat, clay and stone they lived upon.” Entering into Bonanno’s From Earth to Sky, the landscape surrounds seen through the light sensitive walls of bogwood create dramatic visual contrasts, while the circular ceiling of the structure remains an open sky vault. With the sound of moving water as it enters the heart of the structure, and moving skyscape above, Bonanno’s structure is a celebration of the long-standing and eternal cycle of exchange between culture of nature and humanity.
Art exists within the continuum of life, and working with nature involves, a gradual transformation process, as well as patience and perseverance, on the part of the artist. Viewing the landscape as a place where human activity can co-exist with nature - to work with, rather than against - nature is an essential part of the vocabulary of the artist who chooses to work with nature, on site. Bio-specific prototypes for creativity that are more than just a principle. Ephemeral sculptures embody an ethic that many designers, landscape architects, and artists are now considering an implicit part of future oriented design on a broader scale. This design embraces notions of sustainability and accepts the cycle of life as part of its vocabulary as artistic process. Sculpture in the Parklands is a living laboratory where sculptors are challenged to make earth sensitive works that integrate the industrial and natural with a sense of the history of the place. Using materials that reflect the natural and industrial history of the bog lands Sculpture in the Peatlands is an exciting place to be where culture and environment are in a constant dialogue, an experiential exchange.
Alfio Bonanno and John Grande