Last weekend I went over to Grizedale Forest in the Lake District, to see some pieces of mine they’ve turned into a trail through the forest. The pieces – a series of altered road signs – were originally made as very temporary pieces, to be photographed in extreme locations for a campaign by Cumbria Tourism.
The pieces were made well by a roadsign manufacturer in Co. Durham and could last a lifetime outdoors, so they were given to the Forestry Commission to add to their collection by the client. So what started out as very temporary pieces has now become permanent. You can download the guide map here (PDF).
Although it’s extremely flattering to have work in what has been the most important venue for art in the landscape in the UK for the past 40 years, there was something lacking in the pieces now they’re permanent. Secured to trees for permanence, and in safe locations, to me they seem to be playing cameo appearances in a tamed-down landscape.
This got me thinking – How long should temporary art last?
On a practical level there is a huge difference between making something that will last a couple of days as opposed to something to last 20 years. I think that’s fairly obvious. Twenty years is considered permanent in many minds. it therefore has to be built to withstand anything the weather wants to throw at it, as well as human wear and tear. It may even need a maintenance regime to keep it looking good. Temporary pieces, on the other hand can use materials and construction methods which simply wouldn’t last. The work can therefore me more subtle, more delicate, more responsive. I have used a lot of textiles in outdoor work. These add motion to the piece and animate the environment in response to the weather. I particuarly loved the creak of Fleur de Sel, that you only heard by sneaking up on the structures in a silent rowing boat.
Secondly, the brevity of the piece enables me to create works in the most incredible places. Again, on a practical level, you don’t need planning consent for anything up for less than 28 days. It’s also easier for people to tollerate a change in their landscape for a week or so, if it’s all going to be back to how it was before when it’s all over. With the Adventure Signs, at least one sign was air-lifted on the top of Helvellyn by helicopter for a few shots. There is not a chance in hell of anything being put up there for more than a few hours. Other works I’ve done have lasted from a couple of hours, to two weeks or so.
My work, as installations, envelop the whole landscape. They are not just sculptures in a pretty place, but are to be seen as transformers of the everyday into a much bigger work. For example, for six weeks the derelict Port House near Newtown, became ‘Clad’. ‘Drop’ reflected and transformed the view of the lakes from iconic vantage points, while next summer a mile stretch of river in Northamptonshire will BE an artwork.
Finally there’s the performance element. The relatively brief duration of the piece is part of its power. As experiential works, the lifespan is a key element. The photos and videos of the works re not the works. You can only experience the works by being there – exploring the sight, sound, feel and emotional response, comparing it with what it’s like before or after. That the pieces are truly one-off – an never to be seen again – a mere blip in the history of the landscape. It’s that transience of being there for a bit and then gone forever which sets temporary environmental work apart from other public realm stuff. It’s a kind of specialness that only a shortage of time can bring. A case where less really is more.