In the countryside the weather is of primary importance. Every morning you look at the light over the horizon and at the colour of the plants to see what the day will bring. You sniff the air for humidity and examine the sky. It dictates your clothing and you make a decision to risk getting wet or cold or sunburnt and whether you will wear Wellington boots or a hat. If that day you stay indoors then from time to time you listen to the wind and glimpse the sun for a moment fleeting across your view and into the room. You feel the weather changing and close the window until it is calm. Walking out from the house you choose your path carefully, the landscape unravelling ahead and underfoot. Walk into the sun and it will be behind you when you return, the light and topographical sequence reversed.
A public work of art does not exist in isolation nor is it cocooned in an anodyne space. It is a living thing, seeping into the everyday life of those who come across it, seen out of the corner of your eye as you go about your daily business.
Slate Frieze 1994-1995 Brussels
Scale: 21 metres x 2m on 0.5m riven slate base. Material: 23 engraved slabs of black Italian slate each measuring 2 metres x 900mm x 20mm. Location: Conference Room Foyer, floor no. CO50, Justus Lipsius Building for the Council of The European Union in Brussels. Installation designed by Julian Feary of Feary and Heron Architects
In the vast new building for the European Union in Brussels I chose an interior site of extreme length, long enough to walk along and not to be seen at a glance. The medium of an engraving is light and the carving unravels as you walk, You might see the frieze in passing or stop in close proximity for a moment’s solitary contemplation. There is a notion of continuousness and continuing change and the piece has neither beginning nor end.
Three years earlier at Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall I articulated the gallery space with an arrangement of rectangular slabs of pool-table slate, each panel of equivalent scale to a doorway. Seven of these formedVertical Slates which was leant against one of the walls and a horizontal slate surface was constructed from six slabs sparely supported to hover above the plane of the floor. Horizontal Slate could only be viewed obliquely, in perspective and from all sides. The engraved image was framed in the way that an incident might be caught in the viewfinder of a moving camera or discovered through the lens of a microscope – a moment later and it might have passed by unnoticed. The engraving appears to float on and just beneath the slate surface, drawing in the gaze to the illusory depth of a dark pool. The work recalls the poetic text for my book Shima: Island and Garden which had just been completed and which continues to inform the works that have followed.
The first sketches for Slate Frieze directed the path from one end of the frieze to the other making provision for events along the way. They evolved as a form of notation for the work like a musical score or a map.
Drawings were then made on tracing paper and collaged together to introduce a shallow pictorial depth. A compressed charcoal stick held on its side and the band it left could be controlled by varying the relationship between the two ends of the stick, each end drawing its own line and limited by its connection to the other. The growth of these drawings from this travelling mark were the result of the time and speed with which they were made. The process of making the engraving similarly set its own pace which directly affected the result – an electric grinder was moved almost imperceptibly across the surface, the subtlest alteration in speed or pressure changed the engraving. It was necessary to enter a state of mind not unlike a form of meditation.
The drawing was projected onto the slate as a plan for engraving which introduces physical depth in light and shadow. The angle, depth and line of a cut manipulates the reading of the flat surface, a deeper cut contrarily bringing the apparent surface of the area it describes further forward so that it appears to be at odds with the rest of the slate. If the depth and angle is also varied the plane tips and dips accordingly. Relative areas appear to shift in response to the viewer’s own movement. This apparent movement gives the sense that something is happening in real time and turns the photographic record into a series of stills.
Island 1994-1995 Dublin
A work in three parts along a path: island, submerged ellipse and boulder. Scale: Path 21 metres, Island 3.6 x 4.8m, Ellipse 3 x 1.5m, Boulder 3 x 1.8m. Material: Delabole Slate. Location: Entrance to The British Embassy, Dublin. Architects: Allies and Morrison.
While working on Slate Frieze I was invited to propose a work to be installed in front of the new British Embassy in Dublin. By coincidence the entrance path is the same 21 metre length as Slate Frieze and I made Island a second work designed to be visually accumulative but this time in walking to and from the building. The project came when the building programme was already well advanced, I found a common language with the architects and used the formal structure provided by Allies and Morrison as my starting point. Island might be seen as a series of details, an assembly of images forever changing with the weather and viewing-point.
A slate boulder is situated in the grassy area to the right of the path as you leave the lodge on the Merrion Road and walk towards the Embassy. The boulder is not visible from the street, nor are the reflecting levels of the moat. After rain the island in the moat becomes a highly reflective plane hovering above the water-surface. A carved tracery that appeared in the boulder like a spring of water flows invisibly underground to re-emerge in the surface of the island, directing the passage of rainwater and changing visibility as it dries. As you continue to walk towards the island, the carving appears to shift and lengthen, Through the water you see an elongated oval deeply black and smooth on the pale granite floor of the moat, an echo of the distant boulder in the grass.
The slate for the island was chosen for its markings, a record of its own making, and reorganised in the studio in London to run through the island like a river. The carving had been planned using strips of paper to represent engraved lines and mirrors to envisage the effects of perspective and foreshortening of the site. Once installed the water began its equivalent flow down the channels on both sides of the island
It is a quiet work suggestive of a quiet mutual presence in hope of peace at this time in history and for the future.
In Dublin and later on in Sunken Courtyard in Shoreditch the weather is drawn in to the work by reflections in the slate and the moat, the wet surfaces mirroring the sky and the changing weather. Here you might see something beneath the surface or within the slate which might in turn trigger a memory of something half seen before.
The day that Island was completed I saw two men leaning over the bridge deep in conversation. My friend caught their words as they discussed it. Anna Livia Plurabelle they said. Excited, he came over to me. Finnegan’s Wake he said. More recently I rediscovered those passages which I had forgotten my father reading to us as children (words he loved to read because he so enjoyed imitating Joyce’s voice) and found 500 names of rivers embedded in their text. I had never understood the words but remembered the sounds of them as he read them to me again. Had they subliminally crept into the work or were they inherent in the place, the place that is Dublin and the meaning of the word that is Dublin (they tell me ) is black stone.
The thoughts these Dubliners brought to the work were the best response I could have wished for. Had they not been Irish or had they not been in Dublin, the work could not have sparked off this response. I felt I had tuned into the place and that the work had begun a life of its own.
As a result of completing Slate Frieze and Island I became interested in the composition of large scale paintings installed in architectural space and travelled to Italy to look at frescoes. I was intrigued by the way the perspective in Uccello’s Flood was altered by viewing it in real perspective in its raised situation in the space and by the complexities of composition in Piero’s series of frescoes at Arezzo. Any postcard of the frescoes would have been taken, floodlit, from the top of a ladder and not from the visitor’s real viewpoint. The composition of these frescoes is thus accumulated in the mind’s eye and the eye’s memory from a series of views from the ground. Even the postcard is cropped to a detail; unless you have the opportunity to go up the scaffolding with the restorer or the photographer, you will never see them as the total painting that you hold in your imagination at all. On the same visit I began to think about a new project for a sunken garden.
The Sunken Courtyard 1995- 1997 Hackney
Scale: 30 metre x 14 metre x 5 metres deep. Material: Delabole slate, water, granite setts. Rendered blue wall. Tree: Betula Jacquemontii. Location: Northern Courtyard, Shoreditch Campus of Hackney Community College, Falkirk Street, London N1. Architects: Hampshire Country Architects with Perkins Ogden Architects
The new Shoreditch Campus occupies a site of three hectares On entering the campus from Falkirk Street the Northern Courtyard opens out in front of you. The architects had planned it as one of a sequence of public open spaces and sited it on a diagonal route between the garden of similar dimensions in front of the Geffrye Museum and Hoxton Square. It would be accessible from the Public Library occupying one corner of the site. A sunken garden had been proposed to allow daylight into the Resources Centre situated at the centre of the courtyard at lower ground level. It was to be a quiet and contemplative space to be viewed from the windows of this underground library and from the public courtyard above. The architects’ plans made provision for water and suggested an area of fourteen metres square with ramped or stepped sides some four metres deep.
When I first saw the site the structure of the surrounding buildings was already in place. In the chaos of the recently dug muddy hole for the sunken garden with my back to the Resources Centre I found myself looking up at a towering plane tree at the ground level above and felt I was standing uncomfortably at the bottom of a pit. I began to imagine retaining walls to lower the gaze. I considered the viewpoints above and below, how the light would come round, how deep it would go at different times of year, how the College buildings might cast shadows, and at ground-level how to come across it in the Northern Courtyard and in the campus as a whole. I began to locate the place, the space, the scale and the context firmly in my inner consciousness.
For the next ten days I was to be in Italy and started looking for walls of appropriate dimensions to establish the scale. In Lucca the city walls support a carriageway enabling viewpoints from above and below; a walled garden or enclosed courtyard provided a sense of enclosure. In Florence one side of a narrow street was bound by a gently curving wall some five metres high, rendered and painted yellow, the colour made all the more beautiful by the diffusion of light over its concave surface. Considering colour and the London climate I turned my camera to the depthless blue sky of Florence in October.
At interview I showed my photographs and suggested the space should be flooded with water. Later it became possible to extend the space so that the blue wall passed out of sight from the library carrying the gaze to the sides of a long pool. After the interview it was agreed that the initial stages should be collaborative and a more interactive approach than might have been envisaged was established from the start.
Unlike the previous projects this work could not have been realised without collaboration.
Somehow the space was Italian from the very beginning. I continually edited and rearranged a series of about thirty images from 15th- and 16th- century Italian paintings and architecture on my studio walls. They included Piero’s frescoes in Arezzo where the formal structure of architecture often frames and paces the organic activity of people in the foreground and the natural landscape in the distance. Others were chosen for their construction of spatial dynamic. Views into the distance included a winding river seen in perspective and a standing tree to locate distance. Incidental elements such as these gradually accumulated significance as the work progressed.
A tiny detail from a fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Basilica di S. Maria Novella in Florence shows two people leaning over a parapet, evidently the low side of a high wall, gazing across at the turrets of distant Florence as they engage in conversation. Once The Sunken Courtyard was completed two people frequently took up their position as though choreographed, to lean over the blue wall.
There are two pools, connected by a weir. A rectangular slate platform appears to float beneath the surface of the upper pool.The Floating Slate acts as a black mirror amongst the white granite setts of the pool-base reflecting the white tree and picking out the leafy shadow of the plane tree. From low angles the slate appears to be very thin and reflects the blue wall more intensely.
Equivalent areas are situated at either end of the long pool on different levels. One end at lower-ground level contains the white tree while above the other at ground level is the viewing platform and slate boulder. Looking east from the viewing platform the reflection of the white tree fills the long pool, from the south the reflection of the blue wall fills the long pool to the weir, while from inside the Resources Centre the blue fills both pools, the meeting point between pool and blue wall appearing like a horizon.
The mosaic of granite setts exists in the image of the water that flows over it. It flows from the base of the wall below the boulder, disappearing into the ground beneath the white tree whose transparent reflection floats in the water over the setts. Like the engraved line that runs the length of Slate Frieze, and the ‘rivers’ in Island it has neither beginning nor end but is simply a temporary glimpse of something going on. Like Leonardo da Vinci’s landscapes and Piero’s river it is in the background, the image condensed at low angles of perspective.
When the work was complete it became active. I started to watch the strip of activity taking place in the Northern Courtyard above the wall, like actors on a cinema screen oblivious of this huge calm space beside them. I observed the choreography of the space that we had made and enjoyed the reappearance of two people leaning over the wall having a private conversation in the midst of that busy place.
Stills from a landscape
I grew up in a landscape that could be experienced as sublime more often than most and that could change its appearance as rapidly as light. I had seen the weather racing towards me over the rim of the horizon and across the reflecting sheen of a calm sea as flat as a plate, and I had seen the sea raised as a solid wall, the horizon unnaturally high in the sky.
Looking down on Eagles Nest from the hill above you can see the protecting island of its gardens in the moor above the sea. Looking around you on that higher hilltop you can see the kind of site it was built on.
The original ground acts as a plan for the structure of the garden, made up of a surface of granite and turf on the fall of exposed hillside it is both excavated and built up around immovable rock.. Each new level begins to define a small garden, a route develops and the areas are delineated by paths.
Small containing walls are built amongst the rocks and sometimes filled with earth. A protective thicket grows to filter and direct the wind which prevails from all sides. You can see the effects of the prevailing wind from the north on the north east side and the prevailing wind from the west on the south west side. Once the trees have outgrown their surrounding shield they grow horizontally and carry the airstream over the garden to provide shelter.