Exhibition | David Nash at Kew Gardens

Penny Simpson travelled to Kew Gardens to see the latest exhibition by David Nash.

Wood is the chosen material of Wales-based artist David Nash. He works with chainsaw and axe, cutting and carving trees, and following the natural cracks and warps in the wood to achieve monumental pieces that are both of the landscape and a distinct response to its grandeur and essence. These are works that cry out for a natural setting and a year-long collaboration with Kew Royal Botanic Garden is providing just such a backdrop. For the first time, Nash is also showing his process of working in an open-air studio specially set up in the grounds. At the Wood Quarry, visitors can watch Nash transform trees that have reached the end of their natural life into new sculptures which will be added to the exhibition.

It’s a brilliant concept and one best realised over a period of time, to allow for the changing seasons to throw further impact on the outdoor sculptures, but also to fully appreciate the installations which combine Nash’s works with a multitude of indoor plant life, from orchids to gargantuan ferns and mysterious tree creepers that twine and curl in patterns reminiscent of one of the sculptures that perches in their midst. I discarded the map and decided to find the exhibits in a more random fashion, allowing for the surprise element of coming across a huge charred ball of wood mounted on a gently rising hill, or a trunk of a tree shaped like a bone marrow doubling up as a child’s climbing frame. I felt like Alice wandering through a woody Wonderland that incited both curiosity and a strange feeling of recognition of something transformed beyond itself, but still of a piece with the trees and shrubs framing its place in an extraordinary gallery of leaf, bark and grass.

The design of this exhibition has been carefully executed, but the effect is not sterile, far from it. The charred oak of Black Sphere suggests the surface of a distant planet, its bubbled texture breaking up into miniature constellations. It is set on a grassy mound, close to a buried time capsule including comments on environmental issues made by children of today. The capsule will be opened in June 2044. Who knows what state the world will be in by then, but the timeless quality of Nash’s solid sphere suggests a natural order that will outlive many threats.

In the Temperate House, an ornate greenhouse with magnificent wrought-iron spiral staircases, Nash’s installations confuse and entice the viewer in turn in a quirky game of hide and seek amongst the tropical ferns and creepers. Entering the greenhouse, the visitor comes across what looks to be a huge stack of books. It’s a column of wood, its intersections cleverly cut out of one piece of timber. Surrounded by big leafy palms, it could also be mistaken for the trunk of a palm tree, an effect enhanced by the butterfly which had settled on it the morning I was viewing.

Texture and colour form a key part of many of these works. The charring of the wood creates an effect that reminds me of a reptile’s wet skin, or a dried out creek. An initial impression might suggest simplicity of structure, or outline, but closer inspection lets the imagination loose. Oculus Block, carved out of eucalyptus, looks like a wooden turret, or a toy fortress. Its hollowed out centre is viewed through large cracks which act as natural doorways; its delicate colouring – greys, creams and tawny browns – transform the grain of the wood into a map of terra incognita. Several works have been cast in bronze from charred wood originals that would not have survived out of doors, such as Torso which really does suggest a body in motion, the twist of the grain echoing a broad back, the arms cut off at the shoulders.

David Nash at Kew runs until April 2013. The Wood Quarry is open until September 2012. From October, sculptures made during Nash’s residency will be added to the exhibition.