Saturday, March 26, 2016

Is nothing sacred! : mountain artists verses the purists

Part of the Pip Hall/Simon Armitage Stanza Stones project
A couple of weeks ago, North Wales based photographer, Nick Livesey posted a photo on a social media page of him sitting alongside a carefully made stone spiral set on a pale rock pavement in the Rhinog mountain range. Nick wasn’t outraged by the work but lamented the fact that someone would muck about with natural materials and impose a human dimension on the landscape. There then followed a fairly feisty debate about just who has the right to interfere with the mountain environment and just who is the ultimate arbitrator of ‘acceptable interference’?

I found myself in a minority in that I don’t have a problem with land art in the mountains providing it compliments or even improves the setting. I’ve always been a fan of Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash and Anthony Gormley for example and think that their work generally enhances the environment it is set in.However, I do realize that there are contradictions going on here in that I generally oppose man made structures such as hydro plants and wind farms being placed in an upland setting. To be fair though, the latter projects are installed for easy subsidized profit and not placed within the environment in a spirit of creativity and yes...reverence to nature.

Richard Shilling's Clougha Egg

One of the reasons I don’t have a problem with ‘good’ land art in a place like Snowdonia is that at the end of the day it is a small park on an overcrowded island which has been degraded for decades by quarrying,forestry,poor farming practice-EU subsidized  livestock overstocking- caravan sites and tourist developments. Furthermore, in a global context, it is not particularly wild. You won’t meet a grizzly bear or wolf, fall down a crevasse and you won’t have to stop off overnight at a refuge en-route to bag a mountain top. If you were parachuted anywhere in the park then you could walk in any direction and hit a road within an hour. With millions of visitors every year, the main mountain honeypots like Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon), have more in common with Oxford Street on a Black Friday than a lonely mountain!

It puzzles me why we accept a random pile of stones on a mountain summit but not an exciting sculpture? If an impressive Goldsworthy work suddenly appeared on the summit of say Arenig Fawr, the Outdoor Taliban on UKC would be up in arms but we don’t appear to mind a cairn and war memorial up there? Personally, if I was mooching about on one of the high points in the heathery, boggy Berwyns or on on the Migneint and I came across an arresting work of art it would add so much to the journey.

There was a similar Brouhaha about the Stanza Stones on Ilkley Moor when stonemason, Pip Hall carved six Simon Armitage poems into rock set at various locations on the brooding moor. Not surprisingly, I personally thought it was a great project and as the stones have weathered over the last few years,they have melded beautifully I feel into the landscape.

As for who has the final say on what is and what is not acceptable practice in a mountain environment, then it has to be the Snowdonia National Park Authority.An organisation which will not allow someone to discreetly fix a small memorial plaque to a rock but who will allow farmers to gouge access tracks across the mountain,erect huge agribarns and leave their fields littered with used silage and feed bags.An organisation which will object to someone parking up a hot dog van for a few hours at Ogwen Cottage but who will wave through private and NT Hydro schemes and various ‘improvements’ in the name of tourist development and renewable energy.. Given the fact that the SNPA is somewhat compromised by employing so many people who have a foot in both camps- planning and farming, then it is little wonder that we witness a generally favourable approach to planning applications from this sector and the turning of a blind eye to farming bad practice within the park.

To get back to the original point though, will it ever be possible to appease both camps-the purists and those sympathetic to land art? I think not somehow. To demonstrate just how impossible it is to reconcile the two schools I would cite the views of two true climbing intellectuals who as friends would agree 90% of the time on political and environmental issues. David Craig and Harold Drasdo. David like myself is generally a big fan of land art to the extent that he has co-authored a book with Andy Goldsworthy and penned articles like ‘Perfectly mobile-perfectly still’. My late friend Harold on the other hand did not like Andy Goldsworthy’s work one little bit and told me ‘Man cannot improve on nature’. Although a native American or Buddhist would say that we are part of nature so is a rock fall caused by water erosion or the wind uplifting a tree more natural than an Australian aborigine daubing ochre animals on a cave wall?

Sorry, getting unnecessarily philosophical here but you get the point. Do we have the right to change the landscape in the name of art and if not...why not? I sense there will always be two diametrically opposed schools of thought and any artists carrying out furtive installations in the hills or wilder places is always running the risk of having their work vandalised by well meaning,but -I would obviously have to say-misguided mountain purists.


  1. There's only one Stanza Stone on Ilkley Moor. The six stones stretch from Marsden across the South Pennines to Ilkley and there is a 40 odd mile walk connecting them. The combination of words,stone and moor is compelling and seems to be a positive addition to the well worn Pennine landscape here.

  2. Yes, all too precious! My message is not good. To my dismay I have for a while understood that those ‘outdoorsie’ guardians of the hills are generally disinterested, unacquainted or just simply complacent of any ‘art’ generally. Any art on the hill will have some confrontational element – like, ‘What the fuck’. No real difference to a wind farm in ‘polluting’ their experience of moving in the hills. We are drip fed this nonsense through the fashionable and religious appreciation of sport (as if sport has any concern with the environment!). The quality of land-art does not help. Personally, I find much land-art to be idle doodling by sponsored popular artists that border on graffiti. I have no problem with it existing, as so the wind farm, because my appreciation of the landscape has little to do with what my eyes see... I have no romantic vision of the hills. I find man’s curious interaction with where he lives both interesting and bizarre.

    Beyond Craig (all is art) and Drazdo (don’t need it), and much to their chagrin is a third appreciation, and one I came to recognise and experience whilst studying rock art in New Mexico and the Four Corners for the Arts Council. There was indeed doodling on the rock…’I woz ere’…but also a profound, ceremonial and ritualistic placing of the image in canyon and gorge. This tribal, shamanic language nourished and protected in ways lost to modern society, lost to modern art, lost to those using the hill as a commodity, lost to those whose egos are sponsored to tear it up. Maybe eh?

    Believe me, it’s harsh, it’s sad, but climbing and art are rare bedfellows…

    John Redhead