Origins, space and time in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

David Nash has a real fascination with wood.  He knows his material intimately.  He knows how it weathers, dries out, splits along the grain.  He understands how it chars and how it becomes waterlogged and rots.  Wood expresses the fundamental elements of life; earth, fire, air and water.  Nash is interested in how wood comes into being, how it occupies a place and how it changes.  It might be a commentary on the human lifespan.   

Some of his creations take years for Nash to complete.  He planted Ash Dome, a ring of ash trees in 1977 and then fletched the joints so that as they grew, they appeared to be dancing in sequence and then bending in on each other to form the shape of a dome.  . 

He launched his wooden boulder in a stream in 1979 and followed its progress, urged on by storms and floods until it reached a bigger river and finally the estuary.  He then plotted its progress with the tide up and down the estuary until it finally disappeared.  Now after three years, it has turned up again in the same estuary. 

In Bretton Park, he has charred a tree trunk and bole by building a palisade of sticks around them and setting them alight with a burner.   The surface of the trunk splits and cracks into shiny charcoal nodules.  He has embedded 28 charred oak steps up the Oxley Bank in 30 tons of Barnsley coal.  They will slowly be worn down by people walking on them and return to the earth.  Nash likes to study how things decay. 

He bought his chapel studio in Blanau Ffestiniog in 1967.   Hunkered down n a wasteland of slate, filled with half completed works, one gets the impression that he is waiting for growth and time to transform them and him.    

Occasionally Nash’s his work is more political.  The charred verticals and cross pieces of ‘An awful falling’ evoke the destruction of The World Trade Centre,  while ‘Husk’ a group of hollowed out, charred, rectangular blocks of oak, resemble a burnt out village in Palestine. 

I love the scale of Nash’s work.   Who would wait 30 years for nature to complete a work?  Who would shape a gigantic piece Californian redwood shaped into a square with a gigantic two man chain saw and install it with off-cuts in an underground gallery in Yorkshire?   Who would arrange three massive tree trunks on the lawn, curious to see the way the wood would split.   But at the other end of the scale is elegant Ubus, two slender limbs of wood, one oak, one beech, leaning into each other to resemble an arch, reminiscent of the whalebone arch in Cley-next-the-sea.

This is my second visit to Nash’s epic retrospective at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  Simon gave me his ticket to the opening and I met the artist.  He had the look of an explorer about him, a trained observer, more scientist than artist; clear, perceptive, curious, calculating and full of insight and possibility.  I marvelled again at the confidence and self belief of the artist and guessed that it came from a fascination with the object and not with himself as the artist.

He piercing blue eyes put me in context as they would a block of wood.   

 ‘So you’re Simon’s brother.  Yes, I see.  You’re like him.  Is he still on the boat?’ 


David Nash’s exhibition will be at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until February, changing with time and the seasons.  It’s not far away; I shall evolve with it.