I’ll be honest; I’ve never really got sculpture. Slap a dead shark, a toy tank or a chair on a canvas and I can appreciate it. Applaud even in most cases, but sculpture? I think it’s probably all hours spent trawling round European palaces and museums as a child. Seen one bust of Caesar, seen them all. Even old Venus de Milo wasn’t really my bag; there are far better things to look at in the Louvre. But the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield might just have changed my mind.
Set in the grounds of the 18th Century Bretton Estate, the park was once the designer playground of the Darcy’s and Lizzie’s of Wakefield. But now, the 500 acres of rolling hills and woodland are home to the works of a very specific class of artistic aristocracy. Over 250,000 people come to see this unique and ever-changing exhibition of sculpture every year.
Pulling into the park, my mind instantly shifted from the picnic in the boot to the scene in front of me. What looked, on first glance, like a huge, spindly white birdcage, big enough to hold an elephant stood out starkly against the green landscape. On later inspection it turned out to be a Jaume Plensa metalwork masterpiece. Not a birdcage but a couple constructed out of a large interlocking alphabet, bringing a new meaning to the humble notion of the love letter.
The park is where nature meets humanity. Where the two are usually at odds, either being ignored or ruined by the other, here they mingle happily like two effervescent party guests. The combination of modern art and ancient land is startling but comfortable. It’s all a little bit Pride and Prej meets the Tate Modern, as if you’re part of an elaborate, living exhibition. As you wander amongst the foliage, works by Henry Moore, Andy Goldsworthy and Martin Creed all peek from between trees. Moore’s work is as always, astounding; large globules of bronze rise above the hillocks and just beg to be touched and rubbed. Andy Goldsworthy is a bit trickier; old tree trunks are suspended in stone-wall pens and his intriguingly named Outclosure is a frustrating but brilliant construction which does exactly what it says on the tin.
But it’s Sophie Ryder’s hare-women that have converted me from sculpt-urgh to sculpture-nerd. Sitting in the walled garden of the estate and peering into the two hundred year old glass camellia house were two great rabbit heads perched on human torsos. The first, constructed from thousands of metres of metal wire, sits proudly, breasts pushed forward and its face calm and collected. I didn’t notice the perky boobs and manicured hands till I’d walked around it a few times, but once I had I wanted to scoop the giggling children away from its feet. I still can’t decide whether this Ryder piece is beautiful or grotesque, mythical or laughable but it is certainly worth a photograph.
However, the second spoke to me in a different way, reminding me of my own work using different textures and found objects. It is, again either a rabbit or a woman, depending on which end you look at first. The huge bronze creature may tower above its viewer, but it’s worth getting on your hands and knees to look carefully at its flesh. Embedded in the bronze are the imprints of tiny toy cars, mermaids and perfectly formed hands which could belong to a neo-classical goddess. Where the shoulder joint should be is a huge mechanical cog and along the shins are thick metal sinews suggesting the hidden athleticism of the human body.
There is so much more to say about the park and there always will be as the exhibits are constantly changing. It’s a free day out, but it shouldn’t be, so ignore the 5km walk that’s involved and get yourself there. Buy an ice cream and feel at one with Art and nature all at the same time, something that is rarely possible.
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