Outdoor Art and Blurred Distinctions: In Defense of Sheep

I have an extraordinary talent for looking at the wrong thing—or the right thing, for the wrong length of time, from the wrong direction, in the wrong way. I’m a terrible navigator because I get distracted by billboards, or birds. I’ve alarmed strangers by staring intently at their boots or their freckles or the way the light falls on their fingertips. I’ve never slept on a train because I don’t want to miss the space between places, the way the landscape turns into itself. And at the Cass Sculpture Garden, I am affectionately teased for paying attention to the sheep in the adjacent field rather than the pieces lining the exhibition walk. What can sheep teach you about art, after all?

Walking through the sculpture garden, I am most struck by the use of space, by the ways in which individual artworks occupy the surrounding forest. There is something about seeing a 75-foot stainless steel whale emerge from the surrounding trees that strikes me as both impossibly right and impossibly wrong. If not the ocean, where whales actually belong, where better to stare up at a colossal recreation of the figure than surrounded by natural phenomena—mossy trees and grassy clearings and rare blue skies—that ought to make you feel equally small and painfully human? And yet, set amongst a forest billing itself as a garden, I cannot help but notice how the shining silver of Brooks’s “Sketch of a Blue Whale” stands out as artificial and deliberate, static in a way the living gallery around it can never be. For all the maintenance work performed to curate the presentation of the sculpture garden, all the clearing away of dead leaves and marking of paths and replacement of flowers as the seasons change, it is the gallery space itself that is unpredictable and organic—the kind of art that can’t be imitated.

Burke’s “Host” strikes me for this reason. Set in semi-orderly rows, the bodies rise quietly from the trees, opting not to announce their presence in the same way as many other pieces. As I step forward to walk among them, examining each of their faces for differences—what is it about us that makes us yearn for distinction?—I find myself smiling at the way they are being taken over. Spiderwebs cling to the sides of necks, the creases between arms and torsos, the intimate spaces behind ears or beneath noses. Weeds and grasses have begun growing up between copper legs, leaves in various states of decay hampering my ability to discern whether certain figures have feet at all. In a documentary, we once watched Andy Goldsworthy race the tide to create an ice sculpture that looked as effortless as the natural miracle of ice itself, and once it had been completed he stood back to look at it and said: “The sea has taken the work and made more of it than I ever could have hoped.” This is how I feel watching the garden gently envelop Burke’s figures. The earth is smiling at the contribution; not undoing, not taking over, but welcoming into the forward motion of change. “Okay,” it seems to whisper, “I will work with this.” It is making more.

This is how the entire sculpture garden feels—like a place where our creations as human beings, the aesthetics we value and deem “art,” do not belong. Simultaneously: like the place where they belong best. I cannot picture spinning Worthington’s “Yo Reina” in the Tate Modern. It is not supposed to be there; it is supposed to be here, in the middle of a tiny patch of sun in a forest-garden so otherwise spaced out it feels as though you are the only ones ever to stumble upon the piece. It is supposed to be here, feeling like something found rather than something placed and meant to be found. It is supposed to be here, unexpected and intimate in a way indoor galleries and their often-unspoken rules of appreciation cannot be. I work with Sean to spin the polished white marble faster, faster, both of us straining although we know we cannot force it further than it is intended to go, and I feel as though perhaps we can make it fly. Space between us and the piece and the gallery has dissolved, and I feel forward and behind and here all at once. Time has gone soft.

And there is more, always more. There is a translucent-blue glass staircase leading to nowhere (Danny Lane, “Stairway”). There is a machine that offers unsettling prayers for 20p, that spits back 40p when I stay behind to watch the screen pixelate from blue to black (Rose Finn-Kelcey, “It Pays to Pray”). There is a set of picnic benches with young, gray-wooded trees interrupting the tabletops (David Brooks, “Picnic Grove”), and I find myself hoping this is an installation that will stay, so the trees can grow up and old. There are colourful shapes and patterns and some architecture that stands out and some that doesn’t, and all the while I catch myself looking at the space between the pieces. Feeling it as we walk in order from piece number eighteen to number nineteen to number twenty—what would happen if we wandered? what if we drifted, what if we stayed?—as we figure out which pieces are no longer where we expect them to be. There is a limit to the sculpture garden; it is separated from the road by a high stone wall and from the adjacent fields by a barely-there wire fence. I am reminded again of Goldsworthy, this time of the photos that preserve his fragile creations long after they have returned to the earth, and I remember the question we could not answer: where does the artwork begin, or end? And as I find myself startled, then charmed, by a passing wheat-yellow butterfly, I wonder: are we looking at the art? The sculpture gallery is a space that asserts itself as the setting for the real art, our own very human art—who would drive all this way to see the space, otherwise?—but suddenly I find myself unconvinced. Time has gone soft. The distinctions are blurry. Perhaps the only difference between the art inside the garden and the art outside the garden, I am deciding, is which side of the wire fence it is on.

Here is how I find myself seeing the sheep: between the trees, they are there. They emerge from the space outside the gallery in the same way as Brooks or Burke or Worthington emerge from the space within it. They do not appear in our guide, but it is impossible not to recognize them all the same—especially if you have an extraordinary talent for looking at exactly the wrong thing. They fill the field, more sheep than I have ever seen up close, slower and more unconcerned with their proximity to modern art than I would have expected them to be. There are lambs, both black and white, and they turn to look at me looking at them. I wonder if they can sense how much I appreciate them, and why, and what it feels like to be such a part of things—before they blink blearily and return their attention to the grass. Before I am lightly accused of having Welch ancestry.

After a long pause during which we consider King’s “Sun’s Roots II,” Rod notes, graciously, that some art can be difficult to appreciate. I examine the piece’s firetruck-red curves, set in such sharp relief against the surrounding wet green, and cannot help but agree. To my left is a wide open field and lambs that may or may not know what they are; to my right is a living piece of art, housing installations that stand as if they know exactly what they are. It’s true. Some art is more difficult to appreciate than others.

As for myself, I have not left the sculpture garden. I will keep looking, and appreciating, in my own wrong-not-wrong way.

written under the supervision of Dr. Rod Mengham,
Space & Time in Contemporary Art