Nature’s galleries: outdoor art around the UK

Gracie Linthwaite

In the monotonous days of lockdown, cultural experiences were hard to come by. Gone were evenings at the theatre, weekends spent discovering new cafes or leisurely walking around a new art exhibition. The closure of museums and galleries was especially hard for art lovers: lockdown restrictions caused many art spaces across the UK to remain closed until recently. However, during these times a different kind of gallery experienced a revival – one that isn’t confined by 4 white walls. Just as many of us took to the outdoors in order to socialise amid lockdown restrictions, parks and outdoor galleries were also the only places many of us were able to go to experience art.

There is something magical about seeing a work of art against the raw canvas of the landscape: it has the unique ability to make us think in a new way about the beauty and wonder of the natural world, and the ways we mark our fleeting place within it. Anthony Gormley is the master of this: his sculpture ‘Angel of the North’ has become a symbol not only of the North East, but of Britain itself, brightening up many of my trips along the A1. Yet my favourite of his works, ‘Another Place’ on Crosby Beach in Liverpool, is more down to earth: a number of cast-iron human figures look outwards to the horizon, and we look out with them.

“There is something magical about seeing a work of art against the raw canvas of the landscape.”

The figures are made from casts of Gormley’s own body, each over six feet tall, and placed between 50 and 250 meters apart along the tideline. Their appearance changes depending on the weather, the tides, and time of day: at high tide, a few of the figures disappear almost completely into the sea, others become partially buried in the sand and some are left with only their necks poking out of the water. The work in this sense is living and changing with the beach and the ebb and flow of the water, appearing differently every time you visit it.

Nevertheless, art does not have to harmonise with its surroundings in order to make us rethink our relationship with nature. About an hour’s drive from Edinburgh, Andy Scott’s ‘The Kelpies’ mesmerises visitors with two imposing steel skeletons. More than 30 metres high, they are the world’s largest equine sculptures, modelled on draught horses. The work is a tribute to the engineering of Scotland’s industrial past, but it also brings us face to face with the animals that made it possible, making us reconsider the way we use and interact with the natural world.

But for an outdoor art experience that immerses you in the wild, few places rival a little-known site in the Cairngorms National Park. The Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail takes you through a woodland, with works hidden around corners and behind walls, eventually leading you to a purposefully overgrown walled garden. The sculptures are carved from Caledonian pines, appearing to grow out of the wood from which they are taken. Like nature itself, Bruce’s work is in a state of perpetual change; each piece is in a different stage of decay, eventually returning to the earth as part of the natural cycle of birth, life, and decay. In this way, the sculptures draw attention to the brutality and unpredictability of the natural world, as well as its beauty. They seem particularly pertinent in our current times, standing as living monuments to one man’s faith in an uncertain future.

As well as a momentary escape from the pandemic, outdoor art can offer us the unique opportunity to see the ways in which humans have responded to the environment. In the open air, sculptures come alive in ways that aren’t possible within galleries, redefining what modern art can be. Gormley, Scott, and Bruce prove that even in lockdown art is everywhere – all we need to do is go out into nature, and find it.

Images: Gracie Linthwaite

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