by Roderick Conway Morris

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Where Humankind and Nature Converge

By Roderick Conway Morris
LEWES, England 25 February 2011
Arte Sella Sculpture Park, Valsugana
Chris Drury building a Cloud Chamber camera oscura, 2010



Visitors to the white chalk cliffs above this picture-postcard country town in southeast England will see a mysterious arabesque of ponds and reeds on the flood plain beyond the meandering River Ouse.

It was from this vantage point that, in the late 1990s, the artist Chris Drury first conceived of 'Heart of Reeds,' a landscape sculpture covering four acres, or 1.6 hectares, whose graceful, looping, double-vortex forms are based on the blood-flow patterns of the human heart.

Chris Drury is now one of Britain's leading exponents of Land Art, a movement whose origins date from the 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, dedicated to creating works in natural, found materials, often in remote places.

As an expression of the themes that for nearly three decades have inspired Mr. Drury - nature and culture, the inner and the outer, microcosm and macrocosm - 'Heart of Reeds' is a characteristic piece. What makes it unusual is that it is so close to home. (Mr. Drury settled in Lewes with his family in 1982.) Most of the rest of the artist's site-specific work has been carried out in places scattered around the globe, from Scandinavia, Greece, Spain and the Italian Alps to the Himalayas, Sri Lanka, Japan, Antarctica and the Nevada desert.

'The land in this case was not wild nature but had just been reclaimed from old railway sidings and the town was trying to decide what to do with it,' Mr. Drury said on a recent crisp and sunny winter morning during a stroll along the paths that pleasantly wend their way through the reeds. 'When I went to the local authorities with my idea, they were very dubious. But I did drawings of it and held a show of them, and the town approved.'

It took five years to raise the £150,000 - which at the current exchange rate is $243,000 - needed to carry out the project, which was completed in 2005. It is now a constantly changing spectacle, according to the seasons, a haven for warblers and kingfishers, loud with the croaking of frogs in summer.

Chris Drury was born the son of a tea broker in Colombo in 1948 and came to Britain when he was 6 years old. He studied sculpture at Camberwell College of Arts in London, where he also received a rigorous training in drawing from the British painter Euan Uglow. 'He was an incredibly demanding teacher,' Mr. Drury said. 'He set very frustrating drawing challenges, but in the end you could see the point of them.'

After graduating, the artist received a steady series of commissions for portrait busts. 'I had learned all the skills I needed at Camberwell,' he said. 'When I began to shift my interest to creating land art, they were in some ways a burden. But the drawing skills are still very important in planning projects. In many ways my projects are drawings put into action. I don't draw for its own sake, but to form, refine and execute works.'

Mr. Drury's transition from figurative artist to land artist began with a 12-day trek in the snowbound Canadian Rockies in 1974 with the land artist Hamish Fulton, who, along with Richard Long, was a pioneering British practitioner in the form.

Mr. Fulton records his journeys in various media but leaves no trace of his passing through the landscape. Mr. Drury, in contrast, began after that trip to work on ideas for creating sculptures at various selected sites along the paths of his journeys.

Mr. Drury has engaged only intermittently with conventional private galleries through which he has sometimes sold his sculptures, paintings and photographs of his work in situ. Yet, he said, freedom from pressure to produce commercially saleable products in an easily recognizable style has left him free to engage with a vast range of collaborators, including craftsmen, astronomers, earth scientists, cardiologists, radiographers, town planners, architects and hi-tech experts.

He has also interacted with university communities, isolated farming villages and a Native American reservation - worlds that he finds much more 'real,' he said, than what he sees as the overheated, ultimately claustrophobic contemporary art scene.

Mr. Drury has often spontaneously made works in wild areas of mountain, forest and desert. Others have been commissioned by institutions and local authorities. These projects include designs for hospital grounds and parks. And more than a dozen public collections on both sides of the Atlantic now have works by him, including the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as galleries in Nashville, Tennessee; Raleigh, North Carolina; Reno, Nevada; and Seattle, Washington.

Unlike some of his fellow land artists, he has never been afraid to harness the latest technology. In 2006-7, the artist spent two months with British Antarctic Survey researchers on the ice cap. The experience gave rise to a typically varied group of works.

For 'Wind Vortices,' he first made a drawing of the spiraling wind patterns passing over the ice, which he transferred to a map and replotted on a computer. He took advantage of a fresh fall of snow to trace out the wind pattern on the ice on a huge scale with a Ski-Doo snow vehicle, guided by a GPS device attached to the handlebars. He then climbed the neighboring mountainside to take a series of photographs of this outsize drawing, which disappeared a few hours after he had taken them.

More permanent pieces were created from the patterns of echograms of the ice cap. Using a device that measures the layers of ice, each line on the echogram represents about 500 years of ice buildup. These reminded him of mountainous scenes in classical Chinese scroll painting, an effect he enhanced by highlighting them in pencil and ink. Other echograms were combined with strangely similar echocardiograms of the pilot who flew the Twin Otter plane low over the ice to take the soundings.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Drury went to investigate an extreme environment at the other end of the climate scale - the searingly hot region of the U.S. government's Nevada Test Site, which covers 1,400 square miles, or 3,600 square kilometers, and was the scene of more than 900 atmospheric and underground explosions. The artist has long been fascinated by mushrooms, remarking that 'a mushroom can feed you, kill you or cure you.' Imaginative works derived from them provided the leitmotif of an exhibition, 'Mushroom/Clouds,' held at the Nevada Museum of Art in 2008.

At the same time, working with members of the local Native American Paiute people, who have been steadily deprived of their ancestral lands, he created installations in the desert, including 'Winnemucca Whirlwind,' a design of concentric circles with diameters measuring 300 feet, or 90 meters, echoing the patterns (themselves taken from nature) used by indigenous basket weavers.

The building of symbolic shelters out of found materials - from stone, wood and mud to reeds, turf and ice blocks - were among Mr. Drury's first land art constructions. They have since evolved into his 'Cloud Chambers' series, or 'camera obscura' works that reflect images of the surrounding landscape into the interior of the structure. These are now dotted around the world.

One, called 'Star Chamber,' on a wooded hilltop at the Dyer Observatory near Nashville, demonstrates the phenomenon of the earth's elliptical orbit around the sun. Another, on the shore of a reservoir in Northumberland in northern England, catches the movement of waves on the surface of the water through an angled periscope. Others still, in Japan, Belgium, Scotland and northern Italy, cast constantly changing pictures into their interiors of surrounding mountains, wind-rocked trees, sky and scudding clouds.

The 'Cloud Chambers' are unusual in that, unlike many of the artist's outdoor installations soon erased by the elements, these structures may last for many years. But they share with his more ephemeral pieces a common purpose. They are thoughtfully and skillfully composed, provide immediate aesthetic pleasure, evoke memories and almost dreamlike states and draw the viewer into the artist's ceaseless search for elusive connections between mankind and nature. It is a quest that arises, in his words, 'from a feeling of loss that is experienced by all modern technological societies.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024