Silence—Alone in a World of Wounds (2021), created by Studio Morison (Heather Peak and Ivan Morison), resembles a medieval building, or perhaps a shelter from some apocalyptic future in which humans have returned to the land. The 45-foot-diameter, hatch-crowned pavilion also brings to mind an outsize bird nest. Standing on the bank of Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s Upper Lake, this structure, which opened to the public last summer, is the first major outdoor commission by the Oak Project, a U.K. arts program whose aim is to increase a sense of connection to nature as a way to improve well-being and motivate environmental action.
The Oak Project was founded by a “group of philanthropists who had a shared passion around trying to motivate public action on the environment, particularly on the restoration of nature,” says Project Director Helen Meech. “Given the role that the oak tree plays within [British] culture—the first parliament was held under an oak tree, druids would wear oak wreaths around their heads— they had the idea of using it as an icon to bring about change.” While investigating environmental issues to address and what might spur people to take action, Meech came across the research of Miles Richardson, Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University of Derby, who focuses on “nature connectedness and building a closer relationship with nature through the arts.” Richardson’s approach was a good fit given the Oak Project’s mission to “create the conditions for
a society that is more open to action on climate and nature,” Meech explains. Improving the public’s sense of nature connectedness is a way to do that.
The Oak Project’s call for an outdoor sculpture within nature asked, “Can art save us from extinction?” Around a dozen artists were invited to present proposals encompassing Richardson’s five pathways to nature connection—contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty. “Contact” means getting in touch with the natural world, and it might be as simple as listening to birdsong. “Beauty” is about engaging with nature’s aesthetic qualities. “Meaning” involves giving thought to natural events and signs, like summer’s first swallow. “Emotion” means talking about and reflecting on feelings and responses to the natural world. And “compassion” translates to action—doing whatever you can do, even in a small way.
Studio Morison’s winning response to the brief provides an inspiring space for all five pathways. The word “silence” in Silence—Alone in a World of Wounds refers to the artists’ request that people remain quiet inside the sculpture. As Ivan Morison explains, “Nature is very beautiful, and we should be silent and listen to it more.” There’s also another meaning related to the unfolding environmental catastrophe on our planet: “The work really speaks about a sense of grief, the loss of what’s lost and what can be lost, and then the notion of an end silence.”
Built from some 25 tons of timber—roughly 25 trees— Silence’s vertical elements are supported by a foundation of rammed earth. Inside, the low circular wall also doubles as seating, providing a place to pause and reflect within a 23-foot-wide central outdoor space. A roof frame made of hemlock supports the thatch. And contained within the perimeter of the work are 13 birch trees, some of which puncture the roof. The timber used in the construction was gathered from the artists’ land in the Snowdonia National Park in Wales, where Studio Morison is working to restore native species to the North Atlantic oak forest, or Celtic Rainforest, by replacing grand fir, hemlock, and Douglas fir planted in the 1950s. To build Silence, they felled these postwar, non-native plantation trees.
Silence is site-specific. As Heather Peak explains, “We always make work that’s specific to the place where it is and of the place where it is.” They “look at what materials are available and what forms feel right for a place.” In plan view, the work consists of an outer and an inner circular slatted wall. Within the inner wall, the artists incorporated paper to create a Japanese shoji screen. Because of the partition, “you can’t see directly into the inside,” says Ivan Morison. “So, as you walk that primitive passageway, you can see out, but only obliquely through the slats, and you can’t see into the interior because you have the shoji screen—you can just see the glow from the inside.”
Two entrances on opposite sides of the structure bring visitors into the covered corridor, a sort of circular cloister surrounding the open-air interior space. Because the outer and inner doors don’t line up (they’re offset by 90 degrees), visitors have to pass through the corridor to reach the inner contemplative space. In one direction, the passageway is partially blocked by birch trees, but the other way is more accessible.
The experience of navigating the passageway is “very tactile,” according to Morison. “You’re surrounded by very fundamental materials—the slats of wood, the rammed earth walls—and then you’ve got the grid of the roof and the turf growing down below, and the mud on the floor, so it’s a slowing down, a meditation as you walk around that inner perimeter. The light’s an incredibly powerful thing in the passageway particularly, because you have light bouncing off the slats into the space.” Once visitors are inside Silence, “the purpose of the space really is to get people to tune into the sounds of the natural world around them,” says Meech.
After Silence opened, Richardson conducted a study to “assess what the impact was on nature connectedness and well-being.” Visitors were given the opportunity to fill out an online survey. For the 212 people who volunteered to complete both the pre- and post-visit survey, the results showed that “the more time people spent [in Silence], and the fewer people there were, the more benefit they got,” Richardson said. “Nature is good for us all the time, it’s not just for when we’re feeling fatigued, so I think it’s important that we don’t frame nature as a dose for when we’re not feeling too well. The nature connectedness research shows it as a basic, daily psychological need, and it keeps us well.”
Silence is a long-term installation at YSP, used for performances and public outreach programs, but it is not intended to be permanent. The work will be left to age and decay; eventually it will be propped up. “It’s designed to go into ruin, eventually,” says Morison. Peak looks forward to seeing “what will happen to it in relation to nature taking over,” and talking to people about “the beauty of something decaying.”
More information about Oak Project initiatives—including Beyond Silence, a digital work produced by Future20 Collective members SAF-S2E, Jahday Ford, and Melissa Sorrell in collaboration with Studio Morison—can be found at www.oakproject.org.uk.