Real Living Art: A Conversation with David Nash

Since the 1970s British sculptor David Nash has created sculptures and art installations the world over. He is perhaps best known for his sculptures that involve living elements, such as trees whose growth has been redirected. Among the most notable of these is Ash Dome (1977), a ring of 22 ash trees initiated near Nash’s home in Wales and still growing. Another such project, Divided Oaks (1985), in the Netherlands, involves some 600 trees. Nash has likewise created sculptures that interact with animals, as in Sheep Space (1993) for the TICKON center in Denmark and more recently for an organic sheep farm in Virginia. His mastery of wood carving is not purely formalist; it often involves an extension or referencing of environment and history, as was the case in Through the Trunk up the Branch (1985) in Ireland and Nine Charred Steps (1988–89) enacted in Brussels, Belgium. Nash’s work can also be seen as an ephemeral expression of nature’s ongoing processes. For Wooden Boulder (1978), the oak sculpture was left to follow its own course down a slope and then into a stream. Over the years it moved hesitantly and according to the laws of nature and gravity, though occasionally intervention was necessary.

Sheep Space, 200. Welsh oak.

John Grande: I first became familiar with your work through Ash Dome, which reflects an art whose language integrates nature’s living processes. The later Divided Oaks project has that same breakthrough quality—both involve a crossover into horticulture and, ultimately, a redefinition of the artistic process.

David Nash: In contrast to Ash Dome, the trees for Divided Oaks, which is in a park at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands, were already there. The soil there is very sandy, and it is quite tough for plants to grow. There was a quarter-acre of very scrubby oaks that weren’t growing. The site was offered to me because they were going to pull down all the trees. There were probably 600 trees. I thought that instead of pulling them all out and planting something new, I would work with the existing trees. I made a division through them, angling one side to the east and one side to the west. They began with an open space and at the end of this channel, the trees crossed over. I had been invited to come and make something apt, make some sort of interaction that signaled the presence of the human being.

JG: This kind of work admittedly demands some manipulation of nature. Do you prune the trees?

DN: It is called fletching. The very small trees, I simply pushed over and put a stake to hold them, while for the larger ones I cut out a series of V-shapes, bent them over, and then wrapped them so the cambium layer could heal over. This really woke the trees up. My intervention actually stimulated them, and they were obliged to grow. They are now growing and curving up.

JG: Ash Dome at Cae’n-y-coed in north Wales is another case of living tree art.

DN: Ash Dome was my first planting work, done on my own land on the coast of Wales. It is very different from Divided Oaks in that I made a decision to plant the trees to grow in a particular form. Compared with Divided Oaks, which is a long way from where I live, Ash Dome is near. One of the most important aspects of Ash Dome conceptually is that I had made a commitment to stay with it over time.

Threshold Column, 1998; photograph taken in 2000.

JG: It involves a direct relationship with that land.

DN: There is that, but the Land Art of the late 1960s and 1970s involved gestures in the land, such as the work of Michael Heizer or Richard Long, whose work I was following and who was a sort of teacher to me. What I was uncomfortable about was the walk—that huge physical effort, and then the walk on. It stayed there, Richard knew where it was. Only the photograph was carried away.

JG: Not many people really saw it.

DN: Others saw it, but then what happens there? What really happens there? I just thought, for me, particularly when I am doing something that is planted, I have to be there. I have to make a commitment to stay with it. So this is a 30- or 40-year project—very different from a lot of the other ephemeral works. It will only work if I stay there.

JG: There is a long tradition of human intervention in the Welsh landscape. As with your works in nature, the landscape is never hands-off. You integrate the human presence into the landscape, and not in an apologetic way. There is a hands-on interaction between your sculpture and the natural environment.

DN: Ash Dome is very hands-on. It upsets quite a lot of people. When I began it in the 1970s, the environmental movement was just beginning, and I noticed that urban dwellers of the environmental sensibility tended to believe that nature gets along better without the human being, who is largely viewed as a parasite. The message is: “Don’t touch!” If you live in a rural agricultural area, you see people touching the ground all the time. It’s part of their livelihood, supporting the people in the urban areas. If somebody is touching nature on my behalf there is a dialogue in and with it. Part of the point about Ash Dome was: “Hands On!” It is a central irony that people love hedges but don’t like people to slash and cut and bend. “Ooh! Poor trees!” Part of the point was that nature actually gets on very well when a human being is caring for it and lives with it.

Ash Dome, 1977; photograph taken in 1998. Work created from 22 living trees planted by Nash, located near his home in Wales.

JG: Your living sculpture works are neither postmodern nor politically correct. The tree is a living element that can be worked with, adapted, and manipulated. The emphasis is always on the crossover between nature and human culture. The two are not at odds, but symbiotic and interrelated.

DN: When I first planted the ring of trees for Ash Dome, the Cold War was still a threat. There was serious economic gloom, very high unemployment in our country, and nuclear war was a real possibility. We were killing the planet, which we still are because of greed. In Britain, our governments were changing quickly, so we had very short-term political and economic policies. To make a gesture by planting something for the 21st century, which was what Ash Dome was about, was a long-term commitment, an act of faith. I did not know what I was letting myself in for.

JG: How has Ash Dome matured over the years?

DN: Ash Dome was made for the 21st century. It was started in 1977, when the year 2000 was a very long way to go, almost unimaginable. If I had started it in 1997, it would have been corny. My wife and I were actually with it at the moment of the millennium. We didn’t stay all night but were there from 11 p.m. to about 12:30 a.m. I lit it up on the inside with some submerged candles so it just flickered.

JG: Do your works have anything to do with ritual or performance? I am thinking about Snow Stove (1982) in Kotoku, Japan, Ice Stove (1987) in north Wales, and Sea Stove (1981) on the shores of the Isle of Bute in Scotland, for instance.

DN: No. They have absolutely nothing to do with ritual or performance. There is no shamanism. You can bring those associations to them, but my concerns are fundamentally practical. The spiritual is dovetailed into the physical, and the two are essentially linked with each other. To work the ground in a practical, basic commonsense way is a spiritual activity.

JG: The act of burning wood in your sculptures such as Black Dome (1986) links your process with a primordial cycle of regeneration. The carbon generated by forest fires, for instance, is a natural phenomenon that brings about regeneration of the soil.

DN: For Black Dome, I was one of 12 artists invited by the Forestry Commission to make public works in the Forest of Dean in Gloucester, an area with a long history of charcoal manufacture. There is a lot of iron ore there, and charcoal was used to smelt the iron. In the more hilly areas there are flattened-out spaces where the charcoal burners built their fires, which carry an echo of this past activity. Only a certain number of plants will grow in these places because there is so much carbon in the soil. Knowing the history of this place, I conceived making a mound out of charcoal, a brittle material. We made 900 charred stakes that were to be graded into a dome eight meters in diameter and one meter high in the center.

Divided Oaks (detail), 1985; photograph taken in 1989. Work created from approximately 600 existing trees at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands.

JG: The charring became an action and the dome a reminder of the charcoal burning, the earlier human presence in this apparently “natural” site.

DN: The whole idea was that it would rot down to a mound of humus and that only certain plants could grow on it. What I hadn’t anticipated was that people liked to walk on it. It got very trampled but survived. New safety laws came in, and it was decided that Black Dome was not safe for people. So it was prematurely covered over. It is now just a mound, which it would have become anyway.

JG: There is a language or grammar in your wood pieces, yet you do not dominate or formalize them too much. The weird juxtapositions of natural and carved forms and dimensionalities cause us to question our own presence in relation to this physical language of carving.

DN: Making objects, making gestures that are sustained in a certain place, knowing that other people are going to see it encourages other people to be aware of it. I think all human behavior has moral or immoral qualities. Rothko said his paintings were moral statements, and I really linked to that when I was a student. Every human gesture seems to have a moral content. It does stand for a human being’s behavior. If somebody knows nothing of my work, and they come across a piece, I hope they will get a sense of the light touch, that there is something here that serves as a stepping stone for the mind into the continuum of that particular place.

To varying degrees we spiritualize material by our work with it. Unconsciously we are creating a language that another human being can pick up on. We connect to the spirit quality that has been put into it. This isn’t done by ritual, it is simply done by “common sense.”

JG: And the language of each individual artist reflects his or her own experience?

DN: Yes. Individuality within the global reality of the physical world.

Red and Black Eggs, 1998. Redwood.

JG: Your step and ladder pieces are unusual metaphors that maintain the integrity of wood and the natural undulations of trees, while integrating manmade forms. Through the Trunk up the Branch (1985) demonstrates this dramatically, offsetting a tree’s base with a series of steps. In this case, the tree supports the structure, which symbolizes an ascent or descent.

DN: I was presented with a huge dead elm tree in Ireland that had been dearly loved by the owner. Together with an Irish woodsman, instead of cutting it at the root, I decided to cut it above the first big limb. I made about 10 sculptures from the top, and then I was left with a huge trunk and big branch. So it remained rooted, and the steps had an upward gesture. A neighboring farmer said he’d like to go up those steps and have a Guinness with God.

JG: Do you plan to do any more planted works or future projects that involve living elements?

DN: I am very wary to do anything that is far away from where I live. When I take on a contract to do one, it is for a five- or 10-year period. I am paid half when I do it, and I am paid a fifth of the remaining amount on each return visit. Then I have a carrot: I know I have a budget that pays to get me there.

JG: What sort of feeling do you have when you are working, when you are carving or making a piece?

DN: I am usually charged up by the idea, because ideas have energy. I am invigorated by it. I love the economy of means—when you cut a shape, you have another piece of wood coming away that you can use for smaller pieces. In the big projects abroad, just from the nature of how much I am trying to do, what I am trying to achieve, I have to work with other people. The social dynamic interests me very much. It has to be for it to work. It is an absolute delight to get the right mood. Sometimes I have failed and the project has been very difficult.

JG: Do you believe symbols play a role in your work? Does a work have symbolic power? Is it the viewer who brings the symbolic reading to a particular work?

DN: I have found that the CubesSpheres, and Pyramids I have been making—triangle, circle, square—seem to have a commonality. People are very comfortable with that grouping. If I make or invent a shape such as a cross, people ask, “Why is that?” There are shapes and combinations that seem to be universally satisfying. I continue to make those because I am endlessly fascinated by these aspects.

Wooden Boulder, 1978–present; photograph taken in 1990. 400-kilogram chunk of oak, left to travel along a river in Wales.

JG: Did Brancusi’s work play a role in inspiring you in the direction you have taken?

DN: It was a fundamental experience for me. I saw Endless Column when I was 18, when it was in the old modern art museum. I had heard about it from my art master. It was different from the other objects because it was jammed into the one place. I really liked that. It wasn’t until I went back when I was 22 under other circumstances and then saw the same place again that I realized how deeply this spiritualization had gone into me. I continued to revere it. Now there is a moral gesture.

That is what made me decide I wanted to live in the space where I worked. I don’t like to think of Capel Rhiw, my home in Wales, as a copy of Brancusi. If anything it is like a magnification of that experience.

JG: Do some of your works have a practical element or build a functionality into the sculpture?

DN: Yes. Various people around the world have wooden toilet roll holders built into their bathrooms, and I have made handrails out of a branch. Black Through Green (1993), conceived for the Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis, involved integrating a series of five-meter-long charred oak steps into a woodland area, the idea being that hikers would gradually erode a path down the center of the steps, while leaving the ends untouched. Nine Charred Steps (1988–89) in Brussels goes up a grassy bank, extending beyond any functional use into space.

JG: The land plays a great role in these works, and the siting must be central to your concerns. Usually they are modest integrations that don’t dominate a place.

DN: Site appropriates. “Site specific” is not a good enough term. It is too loose. The land is absolutely fundamental and has to be in the front. I can’t stand sculpture that uses the land as a background. I find it offensive. My most successful pieces are the ones that look like they have always been there when I put them in. I consider Charred Forms into Charred Stumps (1989) in northern California to be my most successful piece. When we rolled the big charred sphere into the hollow charred redwood stump, it looked like it had always been there. Looking into a charred shape is like a “something,” but it is also a “nothing.” It suggests an enormous space. The whole point of these pieces is the nothing.

Mosaic Column, 1999. Redwood

JG: When I go hiking in British Columbia, I see firesnags left after forest fires that resemble your sculptures. What distinguishes these found forms in nature and your created forms?

DN: It is interesting how one can sense the difference between a natural occurrence and a human gesture. In Australia, the aborigines cut the bark and take it off a tree as one piece. They stitch it up and make a boat out of it. The shape of the scar that remains on the tree is like a boat. Seeing that, I felt I was experiencing an idea incarnating.

JG: These aboriginal traces exemplify how you yourself adapt natural forms in nature. There is no segregation of human activity from nature. Can you tell me something about how you began as an artist?

DN: Well, my career parallels that of Andy Goldsworthy. Unlike Richard Long, who immediately made his mark in the art world as a very young man, exhibiting with Konrad Fischer, neither Andy nor I were picked up by commercial galleries for quite a long time. We made a living as artists-in-residence and through artists-in-the-schools programs. Arts funding in Britain is oriented toward making art accessible. We grew up with that. So when Andy and I were picked up by galleries, we were like bridges. We helped a lot of people who would not be able to come to contemporary art see some more difficult work.

JG: In Standing Frame (1994) at the Walker Arts Center you reference structural form and natural form in a piece that echoes a Sol LeWitt work already in place there.

DN: It was made initially to be with the LeWitt. Martin Freedman saw something similar of mine in Japan. He saw the relationship to the LeWitt and commissioned me to come and make a piece on the same terrace. My piece is exactly the same height as the LeWitt, and the inside square is exactly the same size as his square.

Rip Out Column, 1998. Lime wood, 81 x 48.5 x 32 in.

JG: In the tree trunks supporting Standing Frame there is an integrated vernacular—a straight pole and undulating tree branch supports. There is even a sense of humor. Sod Swop (1983) is a completely different piece, rather like The Wall (1988–89) that Goldsworthy made in Dumfriesshire, where an exchange takes place. With Sod Swop, you are taking something out and putting something in, and the result is equal.

DN: Sod Swop came about when I was asked to take part in an outdoor group show at Kensington Gardens in London. I wanted my piece to say something about where it came from, so the most basic way to do this was to bring something of where it came from—the land itself. The land that was removed went to Cae’n-y-cod in north Wales. We swopped them over. At the end of the exhibition, I wanted to swop them back, but they ran out of money. So I still have the London turf, which had five species of plant in it originally but has lots more now. I keep it as if it were in London, so I mow the grass regularly. The London piece was moved from the original temporary exhibition space to a permanent site. They don’t cut the Welsh turf. They cut everything else, which is the opposite of what I do with the London turf.

JG: A greater economy of means can often express ideas and concerns more succinctly.

DN: When there are limits to materials, you rely on what you can make up out of yourself. You are only relying on what is available.

JG: Sculpture can be more effective when it is not neutralized to become an aesthetic object of contemplation. Placed in active areas, in farm fields with cows, for instance, where some other activity is going on, sculpture can be more meaningful.

DN: I actually did a study and documented with drawings where sheep like to go. I then made Sheep Space at TICKON in Langeland, Denmark (1993). A large tree had blown down, so I cut some big chunks of oak and hauled them over into a shady area. At TICKON, the sheep use these freestanding forms. Recently I made another such piece in Virginia.

JG: How do these works work? Do you study the sheep’s pathways?

DN: Sheep always need shade, and they need to be able to get away easily. They don’t want to go into a hole. They also need to be able to get out of the sun, out of the wind, out of the rain. They go to different places according to what the weather is on a particular day. Over time, their continual presence wears an oval patch into the ground.

JG: So Sheep Spaces is about building a relation between the art and the animals.

DN: Yes. I wouldn’t put them there if the sheep were not going to use them—they would just be chunks of wood. Of course, where the sheep go, the lanolin of the wool leaves traces and oils the wood’s surface.

Nine Charred Steps,
1988–89. Charred oak, work installed in Brussels, Belgium.

JG: Wooden Boulder, begun in 1978, is an ongoing process piece, a huge one-meter-diameter chunk of oak in north Wales. There are physical constraints on its movement, but the sculpture adapts and resonates with a physical energy.

DN: Wooden Boulder came from a massive felled oak, from which a dozen or more sculptures were made. I intended to move it down the hill to my studio, but it got stuck half-way in a stream. Initially this seemed a problem, but I decided to leave it there, and it became a sculpture of a rock. It has moved down the river nine times since then. Sometimes I had to move it on, as when it got jammed under a bridge

JG: Is there a distinction between earth-sensitive art of this era and most Land art of the 1960s and 1970s.

DN: It’s a generational thing. I think Andy Goldsworthy and I, and Richard Long, and most of the British artists’ collectives associated with Land art would have been landscape painters a hundred years ago. But we don’t want to make portraits of the landscape. A landscape picture is a portrait. We don’t want that. We want to be in the land.

John Grande is the author of Intertwining: Landscape, Technology, Issues, Artists (Black Rose Books, 1998).