Sculpture in Woodland, County Wicklow, Ireland (1999)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 17 February 2011
This interview was previously published in Sculpture, 18(8), October 1999, pp. 8-9; and in G. Harper & T. Moyer (Eds.), (2008), Landscapes for Art: Contemporary Sculpture Parks, pp. 132-34. (International Sculpture Center Press: Hamilton, NJ, USA).

Sculpture in Woodland

The entrance to Sculpture in Woodland is so discreet that we almost missed it entirely. Traveling with a Dublin-based college friend, I rode through the rolling, green Irish countryside, which looked like something straight out of a tourist brochure. Suddenly, our taxi screeched to a halt: we saw the artwork through the trees. Situated about 20 miles south of Dublin in County Wicklow, “The Project”— as it is affectionately called— is a special treat hidden away in a forest. In fact, it has maintained such a quiet profile that a local paper called it the area’s “secret gallery.”

Established in 1994, Sculpture in Woodland features site-specific work selected to “create a greater awareness of wood as an artistic and functional medium,” and “to establish a wood culture through the medium of sculpture.” It is located in a 600-acre public forest called Devil’s Glen, which is owned and managed by Coillte— a semi-state body responsible for Ireland’s woodlands. According to administrator Ciara King, who took up this new post in August 1998, “The idea was the brainchild of former Coillte forestry consultants Martin Sheridan and Donal Magner. They thought it would be a very exciting idea, because it centered around wood, and incorporates artistic, social, and forestry concerns.”

At present, the project includes seven artworks by seven sculptors from Ireland, England, Canada, Mexico, and Japan. The park’s most recent addition, two inverted arch-like forms, flanks the entrance to Devil’s Glen. Entitled Antaeus (1998), the piece by Irish sculptor Michael Warren refers to the mythical Greek giant who remained invincible— as long as some part of his body was in contact with the earth. The work emphasizes the verticality of the surrounding trees, its carved expression playing off the more natural forms, and may suggest the bond between trees and the earth.

For new visitors, finding the works becomes a treasure hunt. There are no markings, and the brochure doesn’t have a map. On our one-mile journey to the parking lot, we discovered two works flanking the road. On the left, an untitled work (1996) by Mexico’s Jorge du Bon sticks out off a bluff, resembling an extended telescope, raised and pointed like a cannon. For du Bon, “The structure is realized by means of cuts in an intellectual process. The dead tree comes back into a new life when nature cannot keep it anymore.” We imagined the work as protecting the forest, looking out at the encroaching development beyond. The work also draws an implied line across the road to Maurice MacDonagh’s Round (1996), which is concerned with the mass, density, and gravity of trees. For MacDonagh, “Round takes the form of a large charred minimal cylinder constructed from concentric circles of Sitka spruce. This follows the process by which the tree itself forms wood and underlines the theme of the work— exploring the nature and substance of trees and how we experience them.”

Further along at the car park and adjacent picnic area, two works stand assertively. Jacques Bosser’s Chago (1997) is a 415-centimeter high, thin, rectangular sculpture made from European larch. It refers to an African god of fire, Chago, who “appears, leaving in his wake large blackened and burned-out tree trunks. To appease the gods, the locals insert pieces of metal in their wooden objects of worship and make a wish.” Nearby, Derek Whitticase— English-born and Irish-resident— installed Pound (1998), composed of 16 carved, organically shaped columns. Playful and magical, they appear almost out of a fairy tale. For Witticase, “The word ‘pound’ has connotations of weight, monetary value, a secure enclosure and force.” The work is “about space being valuable and about valuing our environment.”

Along a discreet path, we found Naomi Seki’s untitled piece (1996), which recalls a machine with its rigid, implied rectangles and long boards extending outward suggesting motion. The Japanese artist says, “This work is concerned with visualizing the combination and balance of things— wood and wood— with different weights in different things.” Kat O’Brien’s The Seven Shrines (1996) extends along the trail in seven accumulating “details” addressing “the seven generations born since the beginning of the Irish famine.” Encountered in near darkness, the shrines looked haunting, with their flowing biomorphic forms suggesting a connection between tree and human trunks, and recalled the mystery of the forest at night.

Now in its fifth year, Sculpture in Woodland has recently been granted charitable status by Ireland’s revenue commissioners. At present, it is funded primarily by Ireland’s Forest Service at the Department of Marine and Natural Resources, the Irish Art Council, Wicklow County Council, Coillte, and the Wicklow County Enterprise Board. Future plans include commissioning new work annually by both established and emerging artists. This past summer, three new commissions were announced with work begun in September— two via open submission and one by invitation.

According to Ciara King, “For the commissions, we’ve left it open. We don’t want to restrict the artists. We are asking that it mainly be in wood, and that it is durable to survive for a minimum of 10 years. We aren’t looking for temporary work at the moment because we are only getting the collection off the ground. Our other concern is safety, because it’s a public park— for example we couldn’t have sharp edges where people could get at them.”

So, how long will Sculpture in Woodland remain a “secret gallery”? With the current efforts to raise the site’s profile, probably not for long. As Ciara King says, “It’s free, anyone can visit, and it’s a beautiful setting.” Indeed it is, and well worth the trip from Dublin— before the secret gets out.