Northumberland’s ‘Hardest’ Geordie forces us to think about Landscape Art and the Definition of a Beautiful Landscape
During my summer holiday in Northumberland, I visited the relatively new land sculpture, Northumberlandia, near Cramlington. Northumberlandia could certainly handle herself in Newcastle on Tyne’s drinking and clubbing centre, the Bigg Market, containing 1.5 million tonnes of rock, soil and clay, towering 100 feet high and measuring a quarter of a mile long. Changing with the seasons, and designed to mature over generations, she reflects the local people’s relationship with the environment, providing a welcome sanctuary for dog walkers, tourists and hill walkers, notably to the exclusion of cyclists. This ‘Lady’, covering a 46-acre, free access, community park, and containing over four miles of footpaths, is certainly worth a visit. As can be seen in the photos, she is perhaps best appreciated from the air, but the majority of her visitors don’t own private choppers, so they wander the ground – under her nostrils, along her fingers, over her brow and down her legs. It certainly makes for an unusual (and completely free) day out.
The landowner, the Blagdon Estate, with the Banks Group, a Durham-based land development and mining company, funded the £3 million project privately to sugar the pill of restoring the neighbouring Shotton surface coal mine, which is now back in operation, feeding the UK energy industry. The site is now maintained by the Land Trust, with the support of Northumberland Wildlife Trust. Inspired by the adjacent Cheviot Hills, which are renowned for their gentle curves and majestic presence as they watch over the county, Northumberlandia was designed by her creator, the American born architect Charles Jencks, to celebrate the female form. Jencks describes the site as a ‘cosmic setting’, explaining that through his work, he attempts to find relationships between ‘the big and the small, science and spirituality and the universe and the landscape’ – quite an ambitious brief!
The tourist attraction, which presents a very tangible and graphic example of a human impact on the landscape, inspired me to think about: landscape protection and damage; the definition and definitions of a beautiful landscape; nature, sculpture and art; and how we have forged, continue to forge and, indeed, to express our ever-changing relationship with the environment. In December 2013, shocking statistics were aired in the media, confirming that UK golf courses took up more land than UK homes. To take golf courses as an example, does constructing them damage or enhance the environment? It’s a hugely controversial and ultimately subjective question. Many golfers would argue that a well-tended and pristine golf course is a form of landscape beauty in itself, as they genuinely appreciate, admire and enjoy the environment of manicured fairways and greens, artificial lakes and ponds and sculpted bunkers filled with clean and soft sand, the hallmarks of an impressive golf course, for which a substantial number of golfers are prepared to pay large sums of money. How many golfers, however, object to the extensive use of pesticides, weed killers and machinery to obliterate nature and effectively sculpt the landscape in order for them to play their apparently land greedy game? Can both a golf course and wild flower, moorland wilderness be beautiful, admired and cherished? The answer is yes, but the respective groups of admirers, I guess, would be almost mutually exclusive.
Northumberlandia reminded me of the land art which appeared across the beautiful, albeit agricultural, landscape of the Yorkshire Dales during Le Tour de France in July 2014. The project, Fields of Vision, produced twelve pieces of artwork, which were created on the hillsides visible from the cycle route, with the intention of entertaining the cyclists and spectators, as well as showcasing Yorkshire proudly to the world in no uncertain terms. Co-ordinated by Pennine Prospects, a rural regeneration company for the South Pennines, the artworks were produced by artists, young farmers, scientists, cyclists, communities and landowners. The giant images included a flat-capped farmer, one man and his dog, a poem and the image of a bike, literally worn into the hillside by a plethora of cyclists following a designated track in the shape of a bike.
Transforming the landscape into art is not a new concept, having been an expression of human relationships with the environment since ancient times. The giant man engraved into a chalk hill above Cerne Abbas in Dorset is believed to date back to the Iron Age. If we are to develop our understanding of human relationships with the environment, perhaps these very obvious expressions of human culture, installed into the landscape to communicate a particular and enduring message, using the land itself as a medium for communication, might be a good place to start.
Finally, as I can’t possibly write a blog without referring to my current Tyne project, the Jetty Project’s ‘Cone’ sculpture, recently erected on Dunston Staiths, is also well worth a visit. It dominates the Tyne riverscape in a powerful and deeply symbolic way, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Aerial View of Northumberlandia: http://www.lbc.co.uk/britains-newest-and-biggest-tourist-attraction-59229/view/26887
BBC Magazine: ‘How much of the UK is covered in golf course?’ [24/12/2013] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24378868
BBC News, England: ‘Aerial artworks for Tour de France in Yorkshire’ [09/06/2014]