Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Root and Branch

Southampton Water

It won't have escaped your notice that I have a thing about trees.  In a world where we measure everything exclusively by human standards, and where other life-forms are getting pushed hard to the periphery (unless they are good to eat, ineradicable, or highly adaptable -- crows score a laudable two out of three here), trees are a reminder that there are beings longer-lived, stronger, more essential to the ecosystem, and fundamentally more rooted than we are.  Trees are playing a longer game.

The discovery of the so-called Seahenge on what is now a Norfolk beach -- an inverted trunk buried roots-up within a wood circle -- seemed to confirm a widely-held belief that our ancestors held trees as sacred.  I'm not so sure about that, but it's clear that a tree makes a pretty good spiritual metaphor, in all sorts of ways; and wood, of course, makes pretty much anything.  It's brilliant stuff, wood, and knowing your trees and timber -- which ones burn well, which grows the best axe-handles and spear-shafts, which can be woven into baskets or carved into a bowl -- would have been essential knowledge for thousands of years.  These days, "oak" and "ash" are little more than different shades of laminate in IKEA.

Southampton Common

One Sunday afternoon recently, not feeling terribly energetic, we decided to go for a stroll around the grounds of Mottisfont Abbey.  As I have described before, I have had a long-standing relationship with this National Trust property near Romsey; it was where I held my first serious one-man exhibition, and it has been the site of two series of photographic work (you can see the resulting books Downward Skies and Water Gauge on the My Blurb Bookstore link over on the right).

However, it's been the same old story: a place that had been allowed to get interestingly ragged at the edges came under new management and all the interesting bits were tidied away, season by season.  I don't blame them: far more people visit the Abbey now, to the extent that it can be difficult to park at weekends.  "Footfall" is the measure of all things, in heritage circles.

Things can go too far, though.  It seems that the most desirable footfall at Mottisfont now comes in the smallest sizes: in the many months since we last visited, there have been artist-led interventions (uh oh!) in the grounds, designed to attract families with children in tow.  Adventure playgrounds, themed activity trails and the like have been constructed all over the place by the sort of enthusiastic Big Kids who, in more enlightened times, would have been usefully employed as primary teachers or, in extreme cases, safely quarantined in the asylum that is children's TV.

Mottisfont Abbey

It got stranger, though.  There has been a circle of beech trees in the grounds at Mottisfont for some time.  Originally, they surrounded the 19th century ice-house, but were replanted next to a tennis-court, now gone, in the 1960s.  I have always enjoyed the utter pointlessness of this feature, stuck over in a corner of the grounds that most visitors never saw; I don't think the word "henge" would ever have crossed the mind of its original planters, any more than "ley line" or "earth energy".  You could sit in the middle, gaze out across the surrounding fields, and enjoy a pleasant sense of free-roaming, undirected focus (I always think of Wallace Stevens' poem "Anecdote of the Jar").

But Macedonian artist Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva has been employed to improve it.  You can read all about it here.  Basically, she has constructed a new inner circle of inverted dead trees, with applied gilded patterns derived from the main house's "Whistler Room" (that's Rex Whistler, not James Abbott McNeill Whistler).  This intervention has turned a harmless, meaningless folly into a stage-prop temple to... Well, what?  Neopaganism?  Dutch elm disease?  Ornamental inversion? The dionysiac ecstasy of publicly-funded art practice?

To me, this work (Resuscitare) seems an example of what I call "heavy breathing" -- big on promise and reference and allusion and alleged implication, but disproportionately small on actual delivered significance. It's really not so much a site-specific response to the site, as a site-specific illustration of some off-the-peg ideas.  But I suppose the same could be said of most, if not all, commissioned art.

If bodies like the National Trust are to be the new patrons of art, I wish they'd put a bit more effort into finding their Michelangelos.  They're out there, but might not be as good as regular public arts commission and competition "winners" at filling out the necessary forms and preliminary statements of intent. It's the difference between "talking the talk" and "walking the walk". Though in an environment where so much art is a self-declared confidence trick, it's always going to be tough, as emperor, choosing a new suit of clothes.



Mike C. said...

A few people have commented (off blog) that "Resuscitare" actually looks rather attractive in my photograph. I direct their attention to those last three words...

Also, the work is obviously not unattractive in itself, it's just pointing in a direction where I (and I emphasise "I") don't believe any significance resides, like the decorative neopagan objects in a "head shop" window.

Our contemporary concern is not getting in touch with invisible forces, but reconciling ourselves to the probability that there aren't any... Even in art, I don't think you can have your mystical cake and eat it!


Zouk Delors said...

This is an inner circle of inverts, but off from their roots, which cannot self-propagate -- a world turned upside-down.

Mike C. said...


Yes, nicely seen. What about the gold leaf patterns (which were also put on the live trees)? I think it was the gold leaf that annoyed me more than the inverted trunks.


Debra Morris said...

I'd have thought that having your mystical cake and eating it is really high on the dining opportunities offered by almost every contemporary UK gastro pub ? Isn't seeking after invisible forces the motivation for events over in Syria, as well as off in the realms of distant meteors? So I'm not at all surprised it's erupting in rural Hampshire.

Mike C. said...


Let's leave Heston Blumenthal out of this...

And Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is a metaphor ... ;)


Debra Morris said...

He, he, yes….it may have been a metaphor for Smith, but it’s making my use of utilities (and yours from what you have posted earlier this year) sting quite sharply.