Text commissioned for Sleeper, Giant, an exhibition and book about
public sculpture curated and hosted by Modern Painters, New Decorators
at Carillon Court, Loughborough.
“The first god had in his garden
From the back looked like a household pet
When it twirled round was revealed to be
A three-legged, black-grey hog”
— The Fall, Garden, 1983.
We see a thing that looks like a stone circle but this circle has a giant seat at its centre, for us to recline and watch nature from. A seat and a circle made from the granite blocks drawn from the end of a beam engine, the pure practicality of Victorian industry transmuted into an imitation temple that pretends towards an archaeoastronomic shrine, gazing at the ancient light of distant stars. No cross country bluestone odyssey for these giant stones, just (I imagine) cranes and diggers hefting them a few metres from where they sat. Apparently stone circles were built to codify the landscape they sit in, to make the patterns of nature visible and relate them to human life; cycles of birth, death and rebirth. The Middlesex Reed Beds Nature Reserve, where this sculpture sits, had already been codified into humanity. Giant concrete lined pits and channels empty the ground south of the circle. They used to be filled with gravel and reeds to filter the drinking water for the east end of London and eradicate death by cholera. Cholera has gone, along with most of the reeds, and Thames Water has taken over the responsibility for public health so the reed beds, being stuck on what was (I imagine) unsuitable building land between two river channels on soft marshland became a nature reserve.
An inwalled few acres for sycamore to overrun, or rather not, because—despite the ‘nature’ in the title—the reed beds are a garden. A place to admire nature’s carefully choreographed reabsorption of human industry. Nature is contiguous with time, left to itself there would be no reserve, just mixed deciduous woodland. But people need somewhere to walk their dogs so nature’s continuity is paused, managed and controlled by human agency. I’m not saying this is bad or good, sometimes it’s just important to remember our managerial status. If a sculpture evokes a connection with an imagined prelapsarian past of agrarian connectivity then maybe that needs to be pointed out as a fiction.
Our reserve is bordered on both sides by the Lea, from the edge near the sculpture we can lean on a rail and gaze at the river, bucolically cascading down a weir, the light tumbling off the ripples. One of the most polluted rivers in the country, a few years ago thousands of fish died in the toxic runoff filled Lea during a single day of heavy rain. An inverted miracle that Jesus would have been ashamed of. Does the Lea then become the Styx, a moorhen acting as Charon the ferryman, are all the dogs being walked around the reserve versions of Cerberus? Probably not: it’s a beautiful evening, the sun is shining, the garden is alive with leaves. We can sit and watch the sycamores by all means, they’ll be here long after the city.