There was a time when works of art that others might see as sad or frightening simply left me cold. Well, that all changed a few weeks ago when we visited a Scottish sculpture park. There, two of the installations did what art is supposed to do – they provoked emotions – and the strength of my feelings took me by surprise.
The works were on display at Jupiter Artland, an exhibition in the grounds of a country house just west of Edinburgh. Five of us went there to celebrate Ian’s birthday. We have been friends for almost forty years and our reunion was dominated by warmth and closeness. After lunch we walked through woods and fields and into outhouses with installations everywhere. Stumbling upon a stone dove-cot in which a screen showed a house being crushed by giant, tear shaped, metal bombs falling from the sky, was par for the course.
The feelings of fear provoked by the two installations were a step in a voyage of discovery which started in my late teens. As an eighteen year old I discovered that art – first pictures then statues – was very special. The change came when I was visiting Florence and found myself face-to-face with Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ at the Uffizi. I had wandered through rooms of tedious Gothic paintings full of haloed saints under golden skies and suddenly, bang, there in front of me was the beautiful Venus walking on air.
I was enraptured and went back the next day, and again the day after, just to stare. I marvelled at that painting, and have felt the same way about many others since, but none have dominated my emotions as much as did the two installations in Scotland.
The day started sunny, but by the time we reached Laura Ford’s ‘Weeping Girls’ it was cold and wet and only a leafy canopy protected us from the rain. Having left a giant rifle reaching half way up the trunk of a tree, we walked, chatting, down a path bordered by wild raspberries. But what started as a dream, soon became a nightmare. I almost stumbled over a silvery-grey, life-sized statue of a girl aged around nine years who was standing alone in a clearing. Suddenly everything was silent. Her long hair covered her face; her hands seemed to be wiping away tears; her head was bowed; her shoes were over-large, and the legs that came out from below the flared hem of her dress looked too thin to support her. For whatever reason, this cold, isolated, vulnerable, figure sent shivers down my back.
But, if that statue was not enough, there were four others, each with a different pose, each with their faces hidden, each harrowing, and with each I identified. Moreover, each was alone. I was consumed by feelings of sadness and fear, as much for them – although they were inanimate – as for me. Very soon I left, walking away quietly and by myself.
The second installation – the ‘Coppice Room’ by Andrew Goldsworthy – had been built in a single-roomed, low, stone shed about three metres wide and four metres deep. It had a small door and no windows. I was the first to arrive and went in alone. By the light of the entrance, I could make out densely-packed tree trunks going from floor to ceiling. The trunks, of which there were well over one hundred, varied in width from ten to twenty centimetres. The distance between them varied randomly and I could squeeze between some, but not others, and there was no telling.
As I went further in it all became very scary, the room got darker and the trunks got closer. For whatever reason I tried to squeeze my way towards the far wall, just to touch it; I never could! Soon it was pitch black, I was very anxious, and turned and made my way back to the light. The experience was all too much for me. While earlier I had been frightened for the Weeping Girls, now I was frightened for me! The trunks reminded me of childhood stories where the branches in a forest come down and grab passers by – especially if they are children!
Being with old friends that day was a delight, but there had been much more! During the afternoon, I had discovered previously untapped emotions and this was liberating. Yes, it was an unpleasant experience, but that did not matter. By happenstance, my discovery also gave me insight into the mind of Sergei Schchukin. When he was asked what made him buy certain paintings, this greatest of Russian entrepreneurs, whose collection of French impressionists will never be surpassed, replied that if he sees a picture that gives him “a psychological shock”, he buys it – “it’s bound to be good”. I now know what he meant.
Illustration: Weeping Girl by Laura Ford, Photo by Allan Pollok-Morris (Jupiter Artland)