Sculpting Park Life

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is an enthralling fusion of art and the natural world

Yorkshire Sculpture Park is as diverse and unique a cultural venue as you could ask for, boasting an internationally important Miro exhibition and the first UK exhibition of contemporary artist Sophie Ernst, to the enjoyment of an old country estate, Bretton Hall, in the presence of Hepworth, Gormley and other titans of 20th and 21st century sculpture around every leafy corner. Underneath all of this, the Park’s motivation seems to be to encourage visitors to really engage in sculpture (an often overlooked and under-exhibited art form) alongside awareness of nature; both environmental, and human.

On my first visit there was certainly plenty to see. In fact due to the volume of art to be seen and the size of the Park combined with its location in outer Wakefield (a train and taxi ride from York), I would definitely recommend a visit to the Park as a day-trip rather than flying-visit.

As well as the 500 acres of landscaped garden, complete with 18th century woodland, grottos, and wells, there are at least 60 important modern and contemporary sculptures on display within the grounds. If that wasn’t enough, there are also five gallery spaces within the grounds inhabiting both the old buildings of the country estate, as well as new glassy structures tastefully inserted into the landscape to respect the views of the grounds.

The site is a place of discovery. When I arrived I started by exploring the new visitor centre and the buildings leading into the ‘Underground’ galleries. These sparklingly new galleries somewhat reminded me of an airport departures suite, with galleries along the corridor on one side and a large glass wall on the other, presenting you with a wide vista of the grounds. I have never seen this before at an art gallery; light levels would be a huge concern for paintings, but the fact it is for sculptural exhibition has removed this previous constraint. The designers have clearly considered this and have maximised upon it to the full. I did ask myself ‘how much will this design limit the scope of what can be exhibited inside them in future?’ However, saying that, it opens new possibilities for the exhibition of sculpture, which is normally divorced of its proper context when it is displayed in gallery spaces. The glass wall suggests nature outside, whilst still allowing for a gallery exhibition inside. Though this isn’t perfect, it gives some further scope for exhibiting sculpture without removing it entirely from the natural context which it is often made for.

The galleries are currently exhibiting the work of important modernist artist Joan Miro in a ground-breaking new exposure of his sculptural work. The thematic exhibition presented many interesting examples of his finished and incomplete work, but the textual inclusions particularly caught my eye. Quotes from Miro’s writings and interviews covered the walls, drawing my attention not only to his very poetic way with words, but also emphasising the importance of the natural environment in his work. The Park’s airy galleries looking out to the landscape seem to be a prime location for the work of an artist who stated that “sculpture must stand in the open air, in the middle of nature”.

This engagement and interaction with nature can be found in many of the works in the grounds and gives the works a sense of fancy and fun, encouraging visitors’ intrigue and amusement, whilst often referencing the history of the landscape.
For some sculptures, this enticing of the visitors’ eye can perhaps go too far; behind Lady Eglinton’s 17th century well near the lake, a large metal sculpture coils around to make a large cylindrical shape, concealed between trees. There are tantalising gaps in the coil encouraging visitors to peep through to see what is inside. However, looking through the gaps, one can see graffiti covering the inside walls where people have clearly climbed up inside. One could call this a negative thing, but looking at the sculpture there are clear opportunities for getting a foothold between the coils. One can’t help but wonder if encouraging this kind of nontraditional engagement with sculpture is, in part, the point?

Visitor engagement and interaction with the artwork seems to be a key focus of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. This in fact draws on its history; in the mid 20th century Bretton hall was an arts training college which gave students direct contact with materials and processes. This emphasis on interaction reminds us of the beauty of sculpture as an art form and what is so unique about it. Its 3D nature and its existence within an environment can reach out to us unlike other two dimensional arts, transporting us visually, emotionally and physically.

We are spoilt for choice here in Yorkshire, which seems to be fast becoming the national capital for sculpture. Not only do we have Yorkshire Sculpture Park but the Henry Moore collection, the new Hepworth Wakefield, and the largest collection of studio ceramics in the country at York Art Gallery, which aims to open a national centre for studio ceramics in 2015. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park itself no doubt will continue to grow too. Many outbuildings of the old college are currently still standing unoccupied on part of the site, and plans appear to be under way to develop them, so it will be interesting to see what happens at the Park in the coming years.
For sculpture fans and non-sculpture fans alike, Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a great way to start an appreciation of the medium, and to engage in art outside the normal gallery context.

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