Uncommon Ground, Southampton City Art Gallery, UK – review

In the summer of 1967, Richard Long, then only 22, took a train from Waterloo Station and found an empty field outside London. Walking repeatedly up and down a straight line, he flattened the grass and created “A Line Made by Walking”. The photograph is now displayed at the beginning of Uncommon Ground, a touring exhibition charting Land Art in Britain between 1966 and 1979. The boldness and simplicity of Long’s work announced a new determination, by radical young artists, to explore the world in fresh and vigorous ways.

Impatient with conventional forms of working in a landscape, they opened up a range of adventurous possibilities. Long concentrated on making marks in the countryside or placing stones in configurations that reflected his admiration for prehistoric monuments. He also turned walking into an art, and his willingness to traverse distances was shared by Hamish Fulton, whose 1975 photo-work here is called “A Four Day 100 Mile Walk, Iceland”. The image is wide, dark and deserted, testifying to Fulton’s fascination with the loneliest of locations. Keith Arnatt, by contrast, enjoyed placing figures in the landscape. His 1968 photograph, “Liverpool Beach Burial”, shows the heads of volunteers embedded up to their necks in the sand. With eyes shut, they seem stoical, though the tide will inevitably send the sea surging towards them. Is this a massacre or a mass suicide?

Film plays an eloquent role in this continually surprising show. Shot through a yellow filter, one of Derek Jarman’s first films invites us to roam through the English countryside in 1971. “A Journey to Avebury” was inspired by the ancient stones still surviving in that area of Wiltshire; Jarman used to screen the film to music, including pieces by William Walton, to suitably other-worldly effect.

Made a year later, Anthony McCall’s “Landscape for Fire II” takes the idea of primordial ritual even further. Staged at North Weald Airfield in eastern England, the event in the film involves the filling and lighting of pans of petrol placed in grid formations. But there is nothing drily schematic about the effect McCall achieves. While a wind blows on the soundtrack, figures dressed in white move across the grass and set the petrol alight. One after another the pans burst into flame, in a magical rather than a menacing way. McCall’s use of smoke is as impressively choreographed as the fires, and while they burn out, the landscape is shrouded as if by the approach of darkness.

Wood provided the stimulus for some of the finest sculpture displayed here. After settling in the mountainous Welsh landscape of Blaenau Ffestiniog in 1967, David Nash became obsessed by trees. His “Silver Birch Tripod” takes three long, slender branches from an ailing trunk and gives them new life. Tied together with rope in 1975, they still stretch upwards in an affirmation of resilience. So too – though over in Blaenau – does his “Ash Dome”, a circle of 22 carefully pruned ash trees planted in 1977 that continue to flourish today.

Antony Gormley, on the other hand, is no longer primarily associated with wood. So his big early pieces in this show come as a surprise. One of them, “Upright Tree”, is a tall, thin piece of larch wood cut in 1978. Its proud verticality contrasts with “Re-arranged Tree” nearby, where segments of elm wood are stacked in a gradually descending row which travels diagonally across the gallery floor. But only a poignant photograph now survives of Andy Goldsworthy’s “Forked Twigs in Water – Bentham”, where a delicately balanced row of twigs and their reflections look like the outlines of a mountain range marooned in a liquid void.

Trees also appear in John Hilliard’s 1972 photographic piece “Across the Park”, although only as a backdrop for the drama unfolding in front of them. Each image shows the same young man walking in profile across grass. But in four of the piece’s panels Hilliard extends the image upwards, downwards and sideways. In one, the mood is playful: a balloon hovers above the figure. But in another, he is about to be attacked from behind by a running assailant wielding a stick. The whole work reveals how a photograph’s meaning can be transformed by cropping; the sylvan setting provides a deceptively quiet context for Hilliard’s editorial revelations.

Landscape litter can inspire an artist as much as natural growth. Walking along the Rhine, Tony Cragg discovered numerous discarded plastic fragments which provided the material for a 1978 sculpture called “New Stones – Newton’s Tones”. Laid out on the floor, hundreds of unwanted bits and pieces – a spoon, a cigarette lighter, a spade and much else besides – are given a life of their own.

Boyle Family has been similarly open-minded in its attitude to detritus in even more unprepossessing locales. Since the late 1960s, the group – comprising Mark Boyle (who died in 2005), Joan Hills and their children Sebastian and Georgia – has been engaged in an epic project entitled “World Series”. It began when members of the public were invited to the Boyle studio, blindfolded and asked to throw darts at maps of the world; the places selected by this random process are still being explored by Boyle Family, who create highly accurate casts of the Earth’s surface at that point. An early piece here, “Olaf Street Study”, uses bricks, bottles and other materials to confront us with a relief sculpture of a London site. Produced one year before Long’s “A Line Made by Walking”, this is an uncompromisingly urban work, far removed from fields of grass.

That is why this exhibition is so rewarding: it proves again that Land Art can be made in an inexhaustible variety of settings. The sense of freedom is exhilarating at every turn.

Until August 3 at Southampton City Art Gallery; then National Museum of Wales, Cardiff; Mead Gallery, Warwick; and Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

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