Réfuges d’Art

For the 4 years between 2005 and 2009, Ian Banks was on the Editorial Board of Art & Architecture Journal (A&AJ), finally becoming one of a two voluntary Deputy Editors in 2008. As such he wrote regularly on public art – generally with a northern slant. In all, 8 issues had articles contributed to by Ian during that time.

A&AJ was a printed quarterly art magazine actually published between 1980 – 2009. It was edited by Jeremy Hunt , and was re-launched with issue Number 61 in February 2005 and ended with Number 68/69 in Autumn 2009. AAJPress is now the successor to A&AJ and is currently presented as an online blog, providing information and communication on public art commissions, projects, collaboration and architecture based in the UK.

In A&AJ issue Number 66/67  Autumn 2008, Ian wrote a piece titled ‘Réfuges d’Art’ about the artist Andy Goldsworthy, and his body of work, including that at the Reserve Naturelle Geologique de Haute Provence in Digne-Le-Bains.

Running parallel, Ian had separately been involved at Arts Council England NW in first helping set up the arts project called Oneplace at Tatton Park, and managed by appointed curator Steve Chettle of ARTS UK. Oneplace was a landscape based contemporary arts programme which took place at Tatton from 2005 – 2008, and one of its major commissions was a winter residency undertaken by Andy Goldsworthy.

Scroll down to read the article in full….

A&AJ66/67 (10) 13th February 2008

Réfuges d’Art

“I see individual stones as being witnesses to the places where they sit….They are a focus for that place; they are embedded with the memory of that place. They are layered with its history. So when I covered a rock with leaves, it was to touch the autumns that the rock has witnessed. And when I covered the rock with red or yellow, it’s not like painting a surface onto the rock; it’s to touch the energy within that rock.”  Andy Goldsworthy*1

Ian Banks

In a remote corner of northern Provence, two hours from the nearest TGV rail line, and centred around the monastic spa town of Digne-Le-Bains 1 , the Alpine foothills form an unlikely backdrop for an expanding series of permanent outdoor artworks being created by a much-loved British artist. Turbulent rivers run through the area, between Aix-en-Provence to the west and Nice to the south, where previously the most revered residents were two holy hermits. Now they are regularly joined by the equally private artist Andy Goldsworthy, on his annual pilgrimage to add to a growing body of important work. His organic installations, are strung throughout the vast region that runs from Chine Mountain down to the Verdon Gorges – where 47 French municipalities had previously joined together to protect an area of some 1,900 km2, and to create the Reserve Naturelle Geologique de Haute Provence 2 – a National Park filled with the most extraordinarily beautiful geological and fossil outcrops. Within it, Digne-Le-Bains is home to its own municipal museum, the Musée Gassendi 3, the key initiator of this Goldsworthy project. Though the programme is still intended to take several years more to complete, the museum already boasts of what it calls the biggest permanent indoor collection of Goldsworthy’s work to be found anywhere in the world *2. The museum also houses the actual diaries that Goldsworthy has meticulously compiled since he began working in the reserve. Goldsworthy was originally invited to Digne for an exhibition in 1995 when the Alpes de Haute Provence Département was wondering how to revive what was then, a deserted countryside. Thus, the idea of linking the appeal of a 100-mile walking trail with integrated artworks took root; and combined Goldsworthy’s love of working in truly remote agricultural settings, with the idea of simultaneously creating insitu artworks and new practical uses for ruined rural buildings – through the artistic renovation of a chain of 13 self-styled Réfuges d’Art *3. To date, some of these installations have been so remote as to require 40 helicopter trips to bring up materials and to create the sculptures. The resultant u-shaped trail the works are spread along, takes 12 days to complete – starting at the Musée Gassendi itself, which now includes a Goldsworthy earth-wall mural called River of Earth made from locally gathered clay. Although Goldsworthy is Britain’s top-selling subject of art books after David Hockney, and can demand huge sums for single commissions worldwide, it is notable that he asked only for a token fee, to carry out what he plainly sees as a long-term labour of love in Haute Provence.

A comprehensive exhibition of Goldsworthy’s work was recently seen in the UK at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park4 in Wakefield – it ended in January 2008. It was the YSP’s largest and most ambitious project ever curated to date, and marked their 30 year anniversary. His work was installed in four indoor galleries, as well as in key positions in the surrounding parkland. Revealing the breadth and direction of his most recent work, the exhibition featured new permanent outdoor commissions as well as indoor stone, tree and clay installations, and his ‘sheep paintings’ and ‘blood drawings’. The works were given further context by photographic archive material of key works from the artist’s career – drawn from the Andy Goldsworthy Digital Catalogue DVD (Volume One: 1976-1986)5 created and hosted by the University of Glasgow, Crichton Campus in Dumfries.

Goldsworthy of course is renowned throughout the world for his work on ice, water, mud, stone, leaves and wood; and his own remarkable still photography has often been a way of documenting the production of these ephemeral works, fixing them at key points in time. In 2000 Film Director Thomas Riedelsheimer worked with Goldsworthy for a year to shoot his film called Rivers and Tides – Working with Time 6, which was shot in four countries, across four seasons. It was the first major film Goldsworthy had ever allowed to be made of his working practice, and during the process, Riedelsheimer uncovered what he saw as a profound sense of discovery and uncertainty in much of Goldsworthy’s work – one where time again controlled the fine balance between a works lasting beauty and ultimate decay.

Clearly, Goldsworthy has an ongoing fascination in applying his own vernacular language over time onto the rural landscape. It is one where his variant of traditional crafts, gathers and harnesses natural materials and construction techniques for artistic benefit – rather than just having the purely pragmatic purpose of its agricultural cousins. Like the surrounding rural buildings and dry stone walling, the inherent beauty of his imposed language is affected by regional variations – being dictated simultaneously by many influences, including local customs and history, landscape, geology, climate and season. The paradox in the comparison between the two, comes in that whilst working rural construction often appears to have no fixed date of conception, and achieves a seemingly effortless permanence; much of Goldsworthy’s applied ‘fieldwork’ can be so fleetingly ephemeral – where one suspects, in many cases, it lasts barely long enough for him to photograph it for another of his beautiful books. The beauty and individuality of a rural vernacular comes from an organic and eclectic application, through human interaction, upon the landscape over time; to such a degree that the terrain often becomes far from truly natural  – it being the subject of centuries of evolving land management and farming practice. Similarly, much of Goldsworthy’s work is also laboriously process and time-led. For him though, this body or work appears more of a sole pilgrimage, to help facilitate a tapping-into the energy and memories of the landscape; its nature and climatic seasons; as well as its people, underlying history and local customs. Over the years to come, a significant proportion of Goldsworthy’s art in Haute Provence will merge into the permanent rural vernacular – having been produced alongside his team of master craftsmen and dry stone wallers. As a key part, it will include art superimposed into the actual fabric of old derelict agricultural buildings (providing walkers with temporary shelter or overnight accommodation amongst sculpture). Other ‘sentinels’, cairns or enclosures will mark the landscape and evoke the particular history and sense of ‘place’ being uncovered along the route.

Interestingly, the French installations appear resonant to similar works carried out in Cumbria some 50 years apart – namely Merzbarn by artist Kurt Schwitters7, completed in 1947; and Goldsworthy’s own Sheepfolds8 project still being constructed today, following his original commission in 1996, during the ‘UK Year of the Visual Artist’. As part of a body of work called Merzbau *4, the Merzbarn is acknowledged as one of the most important works of twentieth century European art – with an artwork built from eclectic objects gathered by Kurt Schwitters, and permanently installed into the internal wall of a rural barn. Sadly, this wall of Merzbarn is now in the Hatton Gallery9 in Newcastle, whilst the shell of the barn itself still remains in Elterwater, near Ambleside. Sheepfolds is a series of nearly 50 adapted farming enclosures (sheepfolds, pinfolds and washfolds) within, or on which, Goldsworthy has installed his own applied stone walling, planted saplings, constructed arches and, in some cases, built new ‘pinfold’ cairns within the enclosures. Similar to his work at Haute Provence, Goldsworthy has talked of the continuing work on Sheepfolds as not just leaving ‘objects’ behind as legacy, but also a ‘story’ or an ‘idea’ to enhance a sense of timelessness and a connection to the past – “a space charged with the memory of things that have happened there”, he has called it.

Digne-Le-Bains is a place previously known by tourists as the historic home of the 19th-century French explorer, writer and Buddhist Alexandra David-Neel – with the region reminding her of her beloved Tibet. David-Neel was the first European woman ever to explore the remote forbidden city of Lhasa, and as a result, Digne has since even been graced with a visit from the Dalai Lama himself. Buddhism is known as a path of transformation, meaning that it is not enough to understand it intellectually. To follow a Buddhist path to ultimate enlightenment, it is said one must first engage the emotions and the imagination to gain a devotion or faith, and ritual is seen as a way of directly engaging these. Such a metaphor might arguably be translated directly to help understand the continuing ritual of Goldsworthy’s artistic obsessiveness with Haute Provence; as well as the physical hardship and effort expected of both himself, and devotees of his work to actually seek it out. Like Riedelsheimer’s film Rivers and Tides, it illustrates the way that Goldworthy can subconsciously touch the heart of a place to leave behind his unique mark. As Riedelsheimer said “you see something you never saw before; that was always there but you were blind to”.

Architect Ian Banks is the Director of Atoll Ltd, a collaborative art + architecture practice.  He is also the part-time Consultant Director of Public Realm at Beam, the Yorkshire-based centre for art and architecture – www.atoll-uk.com  +  www.beam.uk.net.

The writing of this article has been funded by Arts Council England, under its Grants for the Arts funding programme – www.artscouncil.org.uk.


* 1.Extract from the diaries that Andy Goldsworthy produced during his first visit to Digne in 1995 – currently on display within the Musee Gassendi at Digne-Le-Bains: http://www.eyestorm.com/feature/ED2n_article.asp?article_id=243

* 2. The Digne Natural Geological Reserve and the Digne Museum are both open to the public. The museum’s contact details are: Digne Municipal Museum, 64 Bd Gassendi, 04000 Digne, France. Tel: +33 (0)4 9231 4529

* 3. Refuges D’Art: Andy Goldsworthy Editions, Artha, Musee Departmental de Digne, Reserve Geologique de Haut-Provence.

* 4. The Sprengel Museum in Hanover has a reconstruction of the best known of Kurt Schwitters’ installations, called Merzbau – which was a redesign of four rooms in Schwitters’s house in Hanover. Schwitters fled to England during WWII, and after internment, moved to the Lake District. There, in 1947, he began work on his last Merzbau, the Merzbarn.

Web Links

  1. www.beyond.fr/villages/digne.html
  2. www.resgeol04.org
  3. www.musee-gassendi.org
  4. www.ysp.co.uk
  5. www.goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk
  6. www.knowtheledge.net/goldsworthy.htm
  7. www.kurt-schwitters.org
  8. www.edenarts.co.uk/publicart.htm
  9. www.ncl.ac.uk/hatton/collection/index.html

Image Credits:

All Sheepfolds and oneplace photography taken by Ian Banks.

All Digne-Le-Bains photography was taken by Heather Emery and Bill Lounds during a 2006 research trip, on behalf of the Wirksworth Festival of Visual and Performing Arts in Derbyshire –  www.wirksworthfestival.co.uk



Categories: Writing

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