Neil Dawson: Horizons (1994) at Gibbs Farm
Removing art from a gallery seems an uncomfortable notion to those of us used to digesting our cultural experiences within the confines of four white-washed walls. We’ve become accustomed to seeing work hung with expert precision on surfaces mechanically smoothed to a pristine polish, sculptures arranged lovingly on sleek plinths. Getting rid of any superfluous visual noise is the aim of the game where galleries are concerned, supposedly allowing us to appreciate art without distraction and leaving the work room to breathe. Even more prescribed is the way we view art online, in an endless stream of colour-corrected images in which all trace of the artist’s hand is erased. In this instance our experience of the work is reduced further, confined to boxes of 600 pixels stacked nose to tail, end to end.
Despite the ubiquity of these homogenous environments we have a rich, naturalistic tradition in art history that neither the internet nor a pristine room are able to replicate. Sculpture parks, in their most basic form, have been with us for as long as mankind has shaped the landscape around it, albeit under a variety of guises. The Japanese and Chinese created outdoor areas of aesthetic beauty for religious and sensory experiences from as early as the seventh century, and the pagan religions of the ancient British Isles were notorious for their construction of large totems within the natural landscape that served as elaborate burial mounds and scenes for ritualistic ceremonies. Our desire to incorporate our own creations into nature stretches back as far as we do, and with good reason. You can’t deny the exuberance of seeing a weighty slab of roughly hewn stone protruding from the earth or, even better, a vast Anish Kapoor trumpet dividing the landscape in two. These exaggerated sensory experiences are impossible to replicate in any other environment and are the reason we continue to produce artworks for enjoyment outdoors.
The modern notion of a sculpture park, giant landscapes with permanent collections of work, has only been around for the past 60 years, arriving with Henry Moore’s 1949 international exhibition of sculptures in the grounds of London’s Battersea Park. Until that time the space had served as a royal park, but Moore, who was awarded the International Sculpture Prize the previous year, conceived of and curated a show that paved the way for many more exhibitions of sculpture in Battersea over the coming years, including the London Pleasure Gardens for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Until Moore gathered together sculptural works in this way, outdoor art existed in the form of palace gardens like those of the Italian Renaissance or French Baroque; areas of neatly maintained grassland interspersed with pergolas, fountains and mazes that were objects of curiosity and intrigue rather than of contemplation. In the UK it was the English landscape garden that shaped our tastes for outdoor visual culture. Borrowing from the French, whose horticultural stylings had dominated the previous century, practitioners like Lancelot “Capability” Brown were creating landscapes of idealised pastoral perfection, replicating in real life the imagined landscapes of their painter contemporaries. The “sculptures” of the English landscape garden consisted of fake lakes, manicured lawns and architectural curiosities like temples, rotunda and the suggestion of gothic ruins.
Moore eradicated this pastoral, ornate version of outdoor art when he masterminded the creation of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 1977, using a rugged, rural environment on the outskirts of Wakefield as the location for a large-scale body of sculptural works. Spurred on by his belief that “sculptures need daylight and sun,” he laid the foundations for one of the most forward-thinking sculpture parks in existence today, “a gallery without walls.” Initially the collection consisted of no more than 31 sculptures, but it has since grown to 500 acres of open land with a rotating permanent collection that features the likes of Moore himself, Anthony Caro, Anthony Gormley, Barbara Hepworth and an ever-changing roster of exhibitions. In this respect the YSP is unique. No other public sculpture park in the world rotates their work or holds temporary exhibitions with such regularity and zeal. Traditionally sculptures were placed in a single location that both the artist and owner deemed to be most appropriate and left there to be enjoyed. But the curators of the YSP maintain that the environment in which the sculpture sits is as important to the experience as the work itself; the quality of light, the effects of weather and the atmosphere of the location all coming to bear on the viewer’s enjoyment of the work. Changing these elements makes for a richer experience.
Knud W. Jensen, founder of the Louisiana Sculpture Park in Denmark, disagreed with this responsive approach to exhibiting work. The contents of his outdoor gallery were carefully-chosen and meticulously arranged within the grounds of a restored country house. Jensen believed “in the open air the sculptures swim”, and as a result required other physical reference points to provide them with a proper context. Each work of art within the museum’s grounds is imbued with its own aura and, as a result, has been placed within its own specific environment. This might seem motivated by a respect for each artwork’s individual qualities but is in fact a response to the failings of Jensen’s contemporaries. When the sculpture park was first opened in 1956, Jensen borrowed a selection of sculptures from the Middelheim Museum in Belgium that had caused uproar when first exhibited in 1950. Arranged erratically amongst the museum’s vegetation, the sculptures failed to have much impact on the museum’s visitors and the exhibition was a reputed failure. Luckily Jensen learned from the Middelheim’s mistakes and developed his own rules and regulations for displaying sculptural works that survive at Louisiana to this day.
Like YSP, Louisiana is part of the first generation of sculpture parks that rose to prominence in the latter half of the 20th century. Henry Moore’s influence can be felt here too, not only because his work is on display, but also due to Jensen’s referencing of his early experimentation with sculptural environments at Battersea Park. Jensen carefully scrutinised these early collections and used them to model his own space in Denmark.
Many of the world’s sculpture parks are the elaborate projects of a single, lone collector, but nowhere is this more defining than at Gibbs Farm, New Zealand. Only open to the public by appointment for around ten days of the year, the farm plays host to a large collection of specially commissioned site-specific works from some of the world’s leading talents. Anish Kapoor, Andy Goldsworthy, Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra have all created works for the farm as well as lesser known practitioners like Neil Dawson and Len Lye. The size and shape of the landscape means that each new commission is impressively massive and often works created for the farm are the largest the artist has ever produced. “The challenge for the artists is the scale of the landscape – it scares them initially” says Alan Gibbs, the farm’s owner and creator, and thereby forces them to reimagine their work to suit formidable natural contours. The results are undeniably striking, and Gibbs Farm has some of the most impressive displays of 3D work in the world today.
Gibbs likes to foster a close relationship with the artists who create work for him, collaborating on each stage of the project, including the construction of the sculptures, with his expert team of in-house engineers. “We particularly enjoy the challenge of making something that no one’s ever done before and solving the engineering problems to get there.” As a result his engineer is now a long term collaborator with Anish Kapoor, helping him regularly with installations across the world.
Gibbs and his wife purchased the farm in 1991 after 20 years of amassing an admirable collection of fine art. But this consisted predominantly of paintings and Gibbs arrived in Kaipara with the express intention of spending his fortune – the product of a successful amphibious vehicle business – on an environment unlike anything else created before. “We push the limits. No sane person would do what we’re doing,” he admits. It’s easy to see the collector’s eye in the displays at Gibbs Farm. His personal tastes for abstract minimalist sculpture have informed many of the collaborations undertaken over the last two decades and the contrast between these reductive geometric forms and the landscape in which they’re placed demonstrates the understanding of an expert, not simply a wealthy enthusiast.
Though rural landscapes seem to lend themselves more naturally to displaying sculptural works, one of the most famed of the world’s permanent collections is located in the heart of a busy urban environment. The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in the grounds of the Walker Art Center contains one of the wittiest yet visually breathtaking works of 3D art in existence. Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen does exactly what you’d expect it to, bridging the garden’s waterway with a giant silver spoon adorned with a water feature shaped like a cherry. The park’s creators had intended the installation to blend into its surroundings by virtue of its low height, but the piece is so charming and bizarre, instantly engaging visitors on arrival, that it’s become the signature piece among the 40 works comprising the permanent collection.
It’s these unusual interventions that make the experience of visiting sculpture parks so appealing; the opportunity to step into a world created solely for the purpose of aesthetic enjoyment, to be confronted by objects that tantalise and provoke. The Inhotim sculpture garden in Brumadinho, Brazil, further subverts the traditions of purely ornamental sculpture gardens and adds another dimension of intrigue. It combines the thrill of a large-scale sculpture park with a working botanical garden, packed full of tropical flora which create a rich, organic counterpoint to the geometric works on display. These quirks reflect the park’s status as one of the most recent additions to the list of world sculpture parks. Opened in 2004, the park is the result of concerted collecting from the mid-1980s and includes a vast number of paintings and other art forms, housed in various indoor galleries across the site. The exhibits focus on Latin American artworks produced between 1960 and the present day, giving the park the most contemporary feel compared to all but Gibbs Farm.
What’s fascinating about Inhotim’s approach is their promotion of an artistic environment that’s not solely about aesthetics. The scenery is landscaped and curated as a tool to communicate biodiversity issues as well as exploring works of artistic and cultural significance. The botanic garden contains over 4,500 species of plant and includes over 1,300 species of palm, the largest collection in the world, and hosts research and conservation exercises within its ample grounds. By combining these two disparate practices, ecology and art, the park hopes to encourage interest and participation in both, creating an environment that appeals to those of a scientific and artistic mindset.
It’s easy to underestimate the importance of this kind of endeavour and belittle the significance of these vast creative environments, but the experience offered by sculpture parks is utterly unique. Being shaken from our daily routines and allowed to walk through strange, altered landscapes and extraordinary human creations has a powerful effect. Whether it’s the simple enjoyment of a new experience, the surprises we encounter or comparing our own capabilities to those of the natural world in such a direct way, it’s exhilarating to view art outdoors. Being allowed to clamber over a piece of art as you appreciate it is a joy, and though the art on show might not be as intellectually heavyweight as some would like, the hands-on experience is irreplaceable.