The trees lean to the right, so that the ones on the far side of the circle crosshatch with those near you, tricking the eye into thinking that they are somehow woven together. Their trunks are kinked and distorted, having been fletched, bent and bound over the years. Shorn of adornment, their sinuous limbs recall Matisse’s Danse and in May, the trees, knee-deep in bluebells, dance their silent rite of spring. Art historian James Fox calls it ‘an inside made outside: a circle of life made of life itself.’
Forty years ago, the woodland was a wasteland. Nash’s father had sold logging rights to an unscrupulous local man, who stripped the woodland of all its mature trees and left the hillside scarred and in ruins. Nash Senior struck a deal with his son, recently returned from studying sculpture at Chelsea College of Art. Clear up the mess, he said, and he could have any wood he found for his sculptures. It took David almost three years, often sleeping on site in a makeshift shelter, and working with only block, tackle and hand tools.
It didn’t feel like it at the time, but he was literally and figuratively preparing the ground for the rest of his life’s work: an outdoor gallery and permanent one-man show for his many living artworks. For Nash, Cae’n-y-coed became both university and teacher: a forest school with a student body of one. It taught him to ‘speak wood’, as others spoke Spanish or Swahili, and Nash became eloquent in the dialects of ash and oak, linden and beech. Each species has its own distinct properties and qualities. Ash, for example, is a vigorous and eager tree. Light-seeking, it bends and twists, and is the perfect material for axe handles and the spokes of wheels. Nash calls it ‘a tree of action’ – a good description of the man himself, hardly surprising, perhaps, given his name (derived from someone living near the trees: Near Ash, N’Ash, Nash).
For someone who could wait for 40 years for a work to be ‘ready’, David Nash is surprisingly impatient. ‘I’m a sprinter,’ he explained. ‘I’m sanguine and quite choleric. I don’t really want to hang about.’ As a medium, he found wood most closely mirrored his own temperament. ‘Every material has got a level of resistance. Clay I don’t like very much because it is too malleable. Stone, on the other hand is hard: that’s like long-distance running. Wood suits me. Like I said: sprinter.’
He soon took to using a chainsaw, and in his hands, this most powerful of power tools became a thing of delicacy and precision. While the ash saplings took slow root in the wood, he worked on many other pieces, always using trees that had fallen naturally, or timber salvaged from derelict structures, keeping true to his environmental ethics.
He cleared the glade for the ash trees to grow and planted the saplings in carefully mulched earth. The first attempt ended in disaster thanks to marauding squirrels. It would have been the perfect excuse to give up – squirrel ate my artwork – but Nash was undeterred. He simply started again, with better defences around each tree until it had grown enough to take care of itself. Periodically, he would tend them, pruning away side-shoots and making deep cuts into the pliant stems, bending and binding them, working with – and against – their urge to grow upwards, nature and man working hand in hand.
Around the time that David Nash was clearing and restoring his father’s woodland, the Tate Gallery in London purchased one of the most controversial works of modern art ever. Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII consisted of 120 factory-made firebricks arranged in a rectangle, two bricks high, six wide and ten deep. To the British public, the bricks came to represent everything that was empty, meaningless, overpriced and pretentious in the modern world. Journalists clamoured to expose the Emperor’s new clothes. Crowds flocked to scratch their heads, frown, jeer and, in one incident, throw blue food-dye, at the piece. Sometimes, they just came to see what all the fuss was about. ‘These bricks have really brought the public in,’ said a gallery assistant at the time. ‘They can’t make head or tail of them.’
The bricks, now housed at the Tate Modern, still exert a mysterious pull: Equivalent VIII is reputed to be the most visited piece of modern art in the world. When I arrived at the gallery, I almost didn’t see them at all. Almost invisible against the pine floorboards, they have had to be fenced off with a shin-high cordon to stop people inadvertently tripping over them.
Confronted with something that has no ‘head or tail’, no top or bottom, that seems so minimal it is almost not there at all, the brain (that meaning-generating machine) goes into overdrive. Can something so ‘artless’ be Art? What can it possibly mean? Does it mean ‘nothing’ – is that the point? How can something so spectacularly boring be so fascinating? Bricks – by themselves – don’t mean anything: they are for building with, their purpose is to make something else. Yet these bricks, sitting on the Tate floor, make nothing, mean nothing, have no purpose but to simply exist. Is that what Andre is trying to tell us? That stripped of their verbs, objects cannot mean at all?
I sat listening to a steady stream of visitors saying ‘I don’t get it’ in a variety of world languages. After a while, I began to notice something odd. One brick suddenly revealed itself to be so much darker in tone than its fellows that it seemed to belong in a different piece altogether. How had I not seen that before? Each of the bricks was patterned with black flecks like freckles, as distinct and individual as fingerprints. If you stared at them long enough, they started to resemble a negative image of the night sky – black stars, galaxies and nebulae, constellations swirling in infinite radiant space.
I spent about four hours at the Tate sitting with the bricks, and discovered an interesting thing. After a while, the manic monkey-mind starts to run out of steam. Confronted with such unadorned materiality, the mind quietens.
Equivalent VIII required zero skill to create, as Andre would be the first to admit. The point being, in Minimalism, that the ‘object’ part of object d’art is, in a way, the least important bit. The only thing required to make something into ‘Art’ is the viewer’s willingness to pay it a certain kind of attention. That attention is facilitated by having the object in an art gallery – nicely cordoned off, well lit and captioned – but it is not even entirely dependent on that. Look at anything long enough, with quiet openness, and even a brick will start to be meaningful.
For most people, Carl Andre is a con-artist whose only achievement has been to surround a bog-standard load of building material with sufficient high-falutin’ flummery to part the fools of the art world from large amounts of their money. I’m not so sure. Originally, the piece that now stands in the Tate Modern was just one part of an installation of eight sculptures, each made up of the same number of firebricks only in a different – but regular – configuration. Taken as a whole, the ‘Equivalent’ series said something, however minimal, about equivalence. Orphaned from its companions, however, Equivalent VIII has been stripped of even this modicum of meaning.
Andre’s bricks stand at the opposite end of the spectrum to David Nash’s Ash Dome. They are as far from the sacred and as opposite to the natural as it is possible to get. In The Shock of the New, art critic Robert Hughes describes them as ‘passive and cool, a privileged heap of routinely ordered material, lacking any intensity as metaphor.’ Faced with such a conundrum, the metaphor-making mind spins galaxies from a rectangular cuboid of fired ceramic clay, as a prisoner in solitary confinement will start to hallucinate in the darkness – the visual cortex of the brain manufactures things to ‘see’ even when there is nothing there.
Returning from my brief inner trip to outer space, I was again confronted with the sheer brickness of the bricks. In their stony stare, the message seemed loud and clear: there is no individuality, there is no ‘original,’ there is no beauty, there is no belonging, no longing, no love, no quirk of fate, no chance encounter, no slip of the tongue, no chance glance, no genetic mutation, no organic creativity. That one thing is much like another and that everything is interchangeable. It’s enough to drive you mad.
Where Andre’s bricks are ‘cool’ and ‘passive’, Ash Dome is warm, inviting, pulsing with life, joyful and dancing. Where Andre is industrial, Nash is organic. One highlights the cookie-cutter emptiness of cloning, the other celebrates the diversity of natural reproduction in all its passionate, messy, lovely contingency. One wants to stop Time in its tracks, like Canute on the shore, blazing with wrong-headed determination; the other, spins with the season’s turning, dancing to the diurnal drum, blazing in full sunlight or cradling its hidden buds under the snow.
In David Nash’s wood yard, it’s often hard to distinguish between pieces that are finished and those that are not yet started. At the entrance lies a huge twisted bolus of roots as richly encrusted with fungi as a barnacled rock at the seaside. Intentional or accidental? Had they been deliberately cultivated or were they due to be burnt off or sanded down? I had no idea. Other works have been deliberately perforated and scored to encourage nesting birds or roosting bats.
Against one wall stood three enormous chunks of redwood, each at least five feet high and needing two people to get their arms around. Sap from a ragged gash in the bark had seeped slowly down to form an amber pool on the concrete floor. Nash’s assistant Nia, who was showing me around, patted one absently. ‘Don’t cry now,’ she said. ‘You’ve come to a good place. David’ll make something lovely of you.’
I got the feeling that she does this often, perhaps when no one else is around, talking to the trees, stroking the bark. Wood, as David himself says, is a ‘friendly’ material – it is seems to invite the hand. There’s something almost human about it. The golden, honey and deep brown skin of the redwoods looks warm, and there’s still that slow pulse of sap. Next to it was a hunk of eucalyptus whose fibrous trunk undulated with threadlike ridges, a waterfall of Rapunzel hair magicked into tree-form by a wicked witch.
I wondered what would have happened had I tried to touch one of Carl Andre’s bricks. Most likely: security guards, facedown rugby tackles, lots of shouting. Not that I even wanted to: there was nothing in that inert material to answer the touch of a hand, nothing that suggested they would ever change or alter. Dead-set against Time itself, those bricks really are just one big cold shoulder.
Nia beckoned me over to a huge table draped in tough plastic sheeting. She pulled back the sheet from one corner to reveal the enormous slab of wood underneath. It was a rich, golden tawny colour, a real lion. ‘Sequoia. Eight hundred plus rings on this bit,’ she said, ‘and that’s not the half of it.’
I found myself thinking back to something David said to environmentalist and fellow wood-lover, Roger Deakin: ‘The problem with wood is it’s already beautiful. How do you make it more beautiful?’
How do you make something so beautiful more beautiful?
We stood in silence for a moment in front of this magnificent, raw, regal, slain tree lying there like a slice of actual history. Then Nia slowly shook her head and smiled. ‘It’s already a masterpiece.’
Back in the wood, I walked around the perimeter of Ash Dome, touching the trunks one by one. Each of the 22 trees is unique: similarly curved, similarly mottled with lichen and moss, yet absolutely different both to each other and, as a group, to any other species.
This year, the Ash Dome turns 40. The trees are still young, but sturdy, muscular almost, each measuring perhaps two feet round at the base – and still easily huggable, if you’re so inclined. In the summer, the canopy will be thick enough to keep the ground at the centre almost dry. Come autumn, the leaves will turn pale yellow and fall, a poor show next to the spectacular golds and browns of the beeches nearby, though not without a faded charm. And in winter, the architecture of this listing, twisted curving colonnade will be revealed again. But for how much longer?
Ash die-back is a disease caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. It is spread by air-borne spores, and is almost always fatal. The UK has 80 million or so ash trees, with more than 1,000 species dependent upon the ecosystem they provide. The disease has already devastated the ash population in Poland and across much of Europe. It was first reported in East Anglia in 2012 and has quickly spread across the country, and there’s nothing to be done to check its progress. Some of the trees along the road to Cae’n-y-Coed are already sick.
Nash, like many creative artists, is down-to-earth and unsentimental. ‘I’m working with natural forces,’ he explained, ‘and fungus is just another natural force.’ And then this man, in his early seventies, recovering from a major back operation and fairly recently diagnosed with arthritis, went on, ‘You could always start again, though. You could do it somewhere else, because all the knowing how to do it is there now: it’s sort of like a recipe.’
Pointing to the great, grey-mauve slag heaps of slate that tower around Blaenau, he said, ‘Everything has an “angle of repose”. It will avalanche until it gets to that angle – and then it stays.’ He paused, and then said, as though summing up his entire artistic philosophy in one sentence, ‘They look like they do from the process of their making.’
As we sat talking, the sun lowered behind the slate heaps, the hypotenuse of shadow elongating down the valley and dragging the night in its wake. In London, as the last visitors are ushered out, the gallery staff would be switching off the lights, casting a small, plain rectangle of into the sodium-drenched half-dark of the urban night. These bricks – or their equivalents – will outlast us all. Unscathed by time or weather, they already have a post-apocalyptic feel to them: standard-bearers for a post-organic world. Yet here in the valleys of Snowdonia, the evening breeze brings with intimations of our imminent death, ash to ashes: unstoppable, microbial, natural, inevitable. Not eradication exactly, but transformation certainly. Change is in the air for us all.
Our ‘Under the Canopy’ section continues next week with Patrik Qvist’s encounter with an ancient chestnut.