Gary Raymond reviews a majestic exhibition of the life’s work of David Nash, Sculpture Through the Seasons, at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.
Billed as the largest and most ambitious exhibition of the work of David Nash in Wales to date, there is indeed no denying the scope and reverence afforded Nash in the white spaces of the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. It is difficult to remember a single artist who has filled so many rooms with such ease, displaying an impressive range of ideas and skills all tightly bound together in dedication to materials and theme. Sculpture Through the Seasons is a journey, both through the career of the artist, but also through the processes of the craft. Almost every inch of it is arresting, and it must add up to a considerable number of inches, taking in five rooms, as well as the vast natural spaces made available through the porthole of Nash’s work. This is an exhibition as a conduit not just to the mind and ideas of an exceptional thinker, but to a world much wider than that, the natural world that Nash wants us to see, the world Nash wants us to understand in the way that he understands it. In fact, much of the tensions in Sculpture Through the Seasons comes from the preconceptions of nature that the viewer brings to the twisted fabrics and hewn trees, and the inner world of Nash the lay-naturalist. At times we almost feel we are intruding on a sacred relationship between artist and flora.
Over forty years or so, Nash has worked almost entirely with wood, or at least near it. The monolithic “Cork Spire” (2012) fills the introductory space; it is crammed in, almost too much for the eye to embrace, the viewer can’t stand far enough away to truly appreciate its grandeur, but also here we are too close to Nash’s mind like John Cusack is when he crouches through the corridors of John Malkovich’s mind in Charlie Kaufman’s movie. We are supposed to believe this is all about nature, about roots, about some kind of pure experience, but Nash, by allowing it to be all subsumed by the antiseptic space of the National Museum asks us just how much of a white room do we need to be in to realise we are losing our grip on the natural world. “Cork Spire” begs to be touched, but that is prevented by the rules of engagement. This is all a charade, not nature at all. This is Nash’s world.
Has Nash been heading for this exhibition all his life? It is a profound coming together of the beginning of the end for the natural world as we are currently experiencing it as a species, and the lifelong endeavours of an artist perfectly in tune with the grass beneath his feet. John Berger wrote that to understand Jackson Pollock one had to imagine a man stepping out of a white cell in which he had lived since birth, only being able to experience the growth of his own body, and being handed a fist of sticks and bright paints. In an exhibition like this, the urbane audience must ask whether the monstrous figures Nash has made from trunks and branches have been introduced to the gallery or whether the gallery has grown up around the wood.
In the same collection of essays from 1960, Berger also writes about Henry Moore, of whom many of Nash’s more animated sculptures recall. Berger says that in our attempts to understand the abstractness of Moore’s most challenging shapes we end up offering hyper-deifying adjectives, such as Dignity, Strength, and Power. It would be very easy to do the same with Nash. In the final room of the exhibition, much of the work skips between Olympian and nightmarish, some of it as close to a Ray Harryhausen model as it is to Moore. But if Moore brings out the religiosity of our most strenuous reaching, Nash continues to bring us down to earth with a bump. He is continually inviting us – and not without delicacy for a man carving from wood – to impose narratives on objects that have no right to a story.
A video installation, as the best example, does much the same job as an adventure short, anthropomorphising an inert piece of wood via its propulsion through the landscape by a rolling river. Twenty minutes on repeat, “Wooden Boulder” (1978-2016) is the story of just that, a wooden boulder, that for thirty-five years Nash followed with a camera down the River Dwyryd (intermittently, it should be said). We see the adventures of this hunking great sphere through the ages, we age with it, the landscape around it, of course, goes through the seasons – there is nothing new under the sun, after all – the quality of the picture changes, from black and white to colour, from film to digital to HD. After a while, the scars on the wood begin to resemble a human face. We root for the thing (no pun intended). We are sad when it goes missing, and elated when it turns up again months later further down the river. “Wooden Boulder” is sentimental, and it is epic, two forms of storytelling older than the written word. In 2016 it disappeared. We all await the next chapter, whenever, if ever, that is written. The effect this work has on the viewer is not subtle, and placing it at the front of the exhibition is a fine way of buttressing the monolithic “Cork Spire” in the first room. Nash is not subtle. Nature is not subtle.
Nash’s work removes us from the white rooms as we unroll story upon story for his peculiar creations. By presenting such an array of phantasmagorical sculptures, Nash draws from us the most basic of human needs after feeding and copulating – storytelling. For that alone, it is not only a simultaneously comforting and unnerving experience, but Sculpture Through the Seasons is a powerfully intimate show. It is the most purely human exhibition this country is likely to see in some time.
David Nash Sculpture Through the Seasons is on at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff until September 1st.
Gary Raymond is an editor and regular contributor at Wales Arts Review.