Since early times – for instance Bronze Age, Assyrian, early Greek – sculptures were mostly found close to human habitation – near temple complexes, or in graves. They were used for magic rituals, and were often associated with (nature) deities.
The stone-henges and earthworks of pre-celtic Europe (Ireland, Great Britain, France) might be the first examples of “sculptures” positioned in nature . Whether they were used as ancestral burial sites, or for solstice ritual, they helped create a ceremonial, sacred landscape, infused with spiritual meaning.
Shinto shrines in Japan, and catholic sculptures in Europe (Jesus on the cross, or Mary) were often situated far from human habitation – near springs or mountain peaks and on (cross) roads . They might have related to earlier nature-based religious beliefs, and they often are a way of invoking protection and safeguarding humans from the dangers of nature. Pilgrimages to powerful places in nature could be included here.
In classical and in Renaissance times , large gardens or private parks were owned by emperors and some members of the aristocracy; the garden design was often complemented by sculptures, both of a religious or playful nature.
Manierist gardens in the 17th century used sculptures of Gorgons, and fake caves – “grottos” – in an attempt at an early form of theme park: copying nature into a miniature and managable toy form.
Gardens were classically inspired, with gods, demigods, satyrs, nymphs inhabiting either stonily ordered squares, or mythical glades aspiring to an English “Arcadia” .
In Georgian times, flute playing shepherds romantisised the lives of the rural poor, idealising them for their supposed proximity to nature.
Both gardens and sculptures were financed by the very wealthy and powerful, which is reflected in their expression: Sculptures often invoked authority by referring to the classical traditions and mythology .
Outside Europe, a very different attitude towards nature can be expressed in sculptures. The Zen gardens in Japan included some elements bordering on sculpture – for instance large boulders : forms chosen and arranged by humans, but created by nature.
These gardens had the purpose of reflecting on and enhancing an idealised “natural order” and thus support a state of inner peace in the onlooker.Nature is not subdued and tamed, but empathised with through mimicry.
These far-Eastern gardens have a very different feel and intention compared to the European gardens above: nature, rather than humans and their concerns, is the real protagonist. They want to induce an open and empty mind, rather than a mind filled with human stories and dramas. The present moment, rather than the past is invoked.
In the 20th century, communications and commerce between continents intensified even more, with the trend towards a shared world economy, culture and art world forming ; artists absorbed foreign influences far beyond their European roots. The cultural traditions described above – European classical, and Buddhist oriental – began to intermingle through individual artists.
The interaction between sculptures and gardens (or wilderness) became more sophisticated, varied and self-consciously aware of their mutual relationships.
Some sculptors pioneered new approaches in placing their sculptures in nature :
Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth used their own homes to both keep and exhibit their sculptures. After their death their studios, gardens and homes became museums.
Henry Moore’s garden expands into sheep pasture, suitable for monumental sculpture, as for instance the one seen above as a silhouette on top of a hill. In this case, the impression created by the juxtaposition between the ordinary sheep grazing and the part mechanical and futuristic sculpture appears striking and sur-real.
Henry Moore might well have been the first sculptor to create monumental works that actively engage with their natural environment and were (also) intended for the countryside, rather than the city square,
Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy with their “environmental sculptures” do not copy, but instead use elements of nature – either in areas of wilderness, or brought back into the human domaine of the gallery space.
Pebbles, rocks, branches, leaves, and ice are all employed to echo nature, to create a man-made and ordered response that does not dominate, but instead venerates the natural environment. This might account for the greater humility expressed in many floor based, “low lying” works.
Richard Long explored a typical concern of sculptors – the realms of distance and space. He undertook long distance walks in wilderness areas of various parts of the world; taking photos and notes on the way, and laying stones to form a path. He thus introduced the human dimension and measurement to the vast landscape.
Richard Long thereby usurped an important element of garden design : paths and tracks as a way of negotiating space, and manipulating our experience of it.
In keeping with the concurrent style of conceptual and minimalist art, he expanded the boundaries of what constitutes sculpture, and what materials it can be made from.
The vista of the landscape – geological formations developed over millions of years – certainly forms part of the sculpture; and the invisible past human experience that lays behind these assembled rocks (i.e the hike) is of equal importance to its current physical appearance.
A Line in Scotland might well be based upon cairns – the age old tradition to assemble piles of stones anonymously along mountain footpaths. The practical purpose might be to maintain the paths during snowfall. But these stones also indicate a primeval human response to the intimidating vastness of nature:” I have passed through this landscape; I am thereby joining many unknown people who have passed before me. Alone, I am small, vulnerable and short-lived – but nonetheless I leave a mark.”
The rocks, despite their solid and hard appearance, bear witness to something fleeting and unsubstantial – a man walking through a landscape, undertaking a journey with no goal. Richard Long’s artwork is a track record of a past human presence.
His input and “interference” with nature is intentionally kept minimal – old ideas of equaling art with some element of craft, work, effort and time spent are being challenged.
The form – a more traditional sculptural concern – is similarly kept simple and to a minimum in his oeuvre: circle, rectangle, squares, a line or a spiral. The thoughts generated in the artist and his audience, the ramifications, meaning or “message” are at least as important as the artwork’s actual appearance – if not more.
However the “correct” placement and alignment of aspects of nature become paramount.
A decade later, Andy Goldsworthy gathers and orders, along the principles of human intellect, what he finds in nature, taking care not to use man-made implements. He takes Richard Long on step further in using perishable materials, and making short lived sculptures – sometimes as long lasting as dust thrown into the air. This accounts for photography becoming the medium of choice, as it conserves fleeting and unstable moments.
In distinction to Long, he wants his images to be visually attractive, and his writing to be fluent and interesting.
He is committed to the craft aspect in making art – the purity of the attention and effort given over to assembling, constructing, bonding – while consciously forsaking the more usual human goal for expending effort: the reward of a lasting achievement.