Tree and stone

13 May 2016

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ARE WE essentially just one element of the natural world, or, by reason of our God-given intellect and immortal souls, do we stand, in contrast, over against it? This theological conundrum was explored in purely secular terms by Forest, Field and Sky: Art out of nature (BBC4, Tuesday of last week).

James Fox took us on a tour of six British locations where artists work — or have worked — with the landscape, responding to that ancient impulse to make our mark on the land. It was profound, intriguing, and very beautiful. Since 1977, David Nash has created, at a secret location in Snowdonia, Ash Dome: a circle of ash trees pruned and trained to form a living dance, whose leaves now form a dome overhead.

We saw Andy Goldworthy try to make one of his sculptures that are organisations of natural objects from the immediate vicinity: in this instance, stones and a tree trunk. Julie Brook’s Fire Stack is nothing less than a pagan altar, a pillar of local stones on a freezing seashore of the Outer Hebrides, designed so that its top, on which she lights a sacrificial fire, will be engulfed by the incoming tide: there is no victim, simply the experience of playing a part in the elemental contrast between fire and water.

Charles Jencks’s The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is on a different scale: a whole landscape, created with extreme artifice to arrange hills, curved banks, and water to inspire contemplation. James Turrell’s Skyspace is a subterranean room with a square aperture in the ceiling: you sit in it and look up, and experience the changing sky.

This is where the spiritual element of these works becomes clear: they inspire meditation and contemplation, and raise questions about our own nature. Richard Long’s 1967 artwork A Line Made By Walking exists in a single photograph that records the pathway he trod across a grassy field. Its very impermanence is part of the meaning. The rigorous straight line is the opposite of nature’s curves, and nature will overcome it.

Rather more permanent lines on the landscape were celebrated in two documentary series. Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire without limit (BBC2, Wednesdays) looked at the iconic legacy of the Roman road: some still survive after 2000 years. She is trying to answer the question what it was that made Rome different from all the other warring city-states, achieving such astonishing superiority over its rivals.

I don’t think she has yet provided a convincing answer, but her range of examples of what they did is magnificent, if modified by the tombstone of the little boy of four years old, who worked in the silver mines: the achievements were made by ruthless exploitation of slaves and captives.

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