The natural world: unconventional spaces for art

"The natural world enhances both creator’s and viewers’ experiences of the art in a way that the setting of a gallery could not."

If you had been on the beach at Folkestone one day in 2014, you would have seen an Andy Goldsworthy installation in which deep red petals danced into disappearance amongst blue-grey water. Goldsworthy said in an interview for the Guardian that the presence of Folkestone harbour, from which thousands of troops departed for battle, in the background of the sight of the departing petals was a choice of setting which gives the piece profound resonance. To see the petals dispersing in the sea conjures up associations of the fleeting nature of life, and the impossibility of keeping anything the same. To see the red poppy petals disappearing in front of the harbour makes the piece resonate with sorrow at the pointless loss of people’s lives.

Photos of painted stones left in beautiful places, national parks, lakesides and mountain tops are striking; their incongruously bright colours sitting in the landscapes of green and grey in which they are left. Also popular is leaving painted stones turned upside down, so the art-work is hidden and it appears like an ordinary rock, yet it hides swirls of colour, renderings of treasured memories, or inspirational quotes. These painted stones go against the philosophy of “leave no trace”, and thereby the choice of setting for these creations does present some ethical problems. Then again, the choice to leave the stones in nature adds great beauty to people’s creations. They become anchored in the place which inspired them, susceptible to the elements, deterioration over time, and the possibility of being unseen, and the creation being forgotten.

The unusual choice of setting for these pieces; the natural world, enhances both creator’s and viewers’ experiences of the art in a way that is entirely different to a gallery. In the calm halls of art galleries, everything is geared up to protect art from time; both against the damage from light and temperature, applying settings which are optimal to protect fragile materials, and against how the passage of time can make old things seem irrelevant, as teams of experts work to reach out to the public. The point of galleries is to showcase art, to preserve it, and to educate about it.

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Someone who does find a stone is granted the joy of discovering something unexpected, and the creators have the possibility of sharing something beautiful with others. Yet this is inevitably combined with a need to accept that a rock left may be undiscovered, and the creation will be left unseen. The joy of making a discovery is enhanced by its surprise, and so the art contains within it an acceptance of the possibility of being unnoticed.

Goldsworthy’s Folkestone installation was filmed, so despite how the water at the centre of his creation itself erases it, the installation is not totally lost by his choice of nature as canvas. The piece is different to the practice of stone-leaving – instead of demonstrating intrinsic acceptance of the passage of time, this installation plays out these feelings; as its petals are scattered by its sea, the way the ocean absorbs to the point of anonymity tells a story of the sorrow of death in war. The installation brings to mind not just the facts of the deaths but also how the remains of many soldiers were irretrievable, and lie in unmarked graves. The choice of nature as canvas plays out these questions of how we relate to the world around us. Although art which is held in galleries can ask similar questions, pieces like this bring these questions into the landscape and thereby explores people’s agonies, worries and lingering doubts about an individual’s place and longevity, and plays them out as potentially coming true; which gallery art cannot do with such vitality and resonance. It is wonderful and necessary for art to be preserved in galleries, whose halls show and protect ancient treasures, but for this art, though beautiful and important, its point is to disappear.