Beijing, 15 June 2014

My wife and I were watching TV with one eye the other day when the BBC passed a programme which caught our attention. It was about the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the north of England. I think a few words of explanation are required for those readers who have never heard of this Park (our situation before watching the BBC programme). It was established back in 1977 in the grounds of a stately home the last of whose aristocratic owners (Viscount Allendale) had sold it to the local council after World War II, no doubt to save his financial skin (I mentioned the financial woes of the UK’s stately homes in an earlier posting of mine). The idea is a simple one: rather than displaying modern sculpture in open spaces in cities like plazas
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or squares

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or using the atriums of posh buildings

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use the sweeping, open vistas of the countryside to display them. Here are some of the pieces at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park:




My wife and I agree on many things, and one of them is that modern sculptures are enhanced by being seen in a natural, organic setting rather than in the built urban environment. Personally, I think it has to do with the contrast between the dead surfaces of the sculptures and the much softer, living surfaces of the surrounding landscapes. It sounds a bit fancy, but the dead sculpture comes alive when in contact with organic life.

This was brought home to us very strongly when, 25 years ago, and on the advice of a friend who worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we visited the Storm King Art Centre, which is an hour’s drive north of New York City, near the Hudson River. Here again, a few words of introduction. It’s really the classic American story (as much as the history of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is the classic British story of modern times – decay of the old order and birth of a new one). A certain Mr. Ogden, after a successful career in the family business, purchased the land and property of Storm King and started collecting. He initially bought small sculptures which he exhibited around the house. At some point, he expanded out into the surrounding landscape, installing much bigger pieces. That’s it, in a nutshell. But the result – for us at least – was epiphanic.

In wonder we wandered along the rides mown through the grass, walking from one towering sculpture to another



from hilltops, we discovered long views across the surrounding landscape, where sculpture and land merged into one


we walked through glades in the woods, each with their own sculpture



we entered the woods to find smaller, more intimate sculptures scattered under the trees



we also found a sculpture-wall meandering through them


(better seen in this photo taken during the winter)


we turned our steps back to the house, discovering other smaller sculptures set down in more formal gardens around the house.



And finally, we entered the house and fell upon a sculpture which in all these years I have never forgotten: a group of robotic-looking statues with small motors making their jaws work up and down and with a closed-loop recording of voices quietly droning “chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter …” on and on, endlessly. Wonderful.  Every time I find myself in one of those meetings where people blather on and on and on I recall this statue group with intense clarity.

So taken were we with Storm King that the very first time we went back to New York after an absence of fifteen years we made sure to find time to go up there. It cast the same spell over us – although sadly the chattering statues had vanished (smashed to smithereens, no doubt, by an employee crazed by their endless droning).

As I contemplate these photos, it occurs to me that many of the megalithic structures scattered across the face of Europe could pass as modern sculptures set down in the surrounding landscape. Stonehenge, the most iconic of all megalithic structures, is probably too much like a ruin to make this comparison
but Avebury, like Stonehenge located in Wiltshire, has something of the abstraction of sculpture parks



and how about Carnac, in Brittany?

or Badelunda in Sweden?

Badelunda Västmanland

or the Ring of Brodgar, in the Orkney islands?

Ring of Brodgar

And even further afield, although not from the Mesolithic period, we have this intimate collection of upright stones in Toraja, Indonesia


Of course, the people who built these structures were not building sculpture parks, but I have to think that they too were stirred by the same feeling of connectedness between their standing stones and nature as we have between sculpture and nature. They attributed this feeling to a divine grace in the place, we simply enjoy the feeling.


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New York, 27 December 2012

By common accord, we didn’t give each other presents this year. It was present enough to be all together as a family for the first time in a year. We also didn’t have a Christmas tree, since we had gone to New York to celebrate Christmas, because that was where the children’s lives have happened to bring them, and were staying in a rented apartment. And we didn’t go to church, because my wife and I are no longer religious and our children never were. For me, that is a relief; my childhood memories of Christmas are scarred by the dread of having to go to church. Christmas always fell during the week so I was subjected to the torment of church on the Sunday before, church on Christmas, church on the Sunday after, church on New Year’s, and church on the Sunday after that …

But what we did have was good cheer – it’s so wonderful for my wife and I to be with our children – supplemented by a good meal cooked by our daughter who is growing to be a master cook, washed down by a tolerable Argentinean wine. Afterwards, we all together went to see a film that my wife and I would never have seen in Beijing, which by chance brought us to Times Square, tawdry by day but magic by night with all its brilliantly lit advertisements: the high temple of consumption.

And so now, the morning after, with the children sleeping in next door and the plates of yesterday’s meal washed up, I can sit in bed and reflect on Christmas, doing a little web surfing to understand better this feast which has regularly punctuated the whole of my life.

For my wife and I, imprinted as we are with a Christian upbringing, it is of course the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Risen Christ, Saviour of the World. But why 25 December?After all, no date is given in the New Testament for the birth of Jesus. When I was younger, I had read that the Church Fathers had chosen December 25 to compete with, to overlay, and finally to smother, the flourishing pagan feasts celebrating the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which falls on 21 or 22 December. But that seems to have been too simplistic. It looks more like December 25 was chosen because it was nine months after March 25, which in turn was believed to be the day on which Christ died. For the mystically inclined early Christians, there must have been a pleasing harmony in this equivalence of dates of conception – the start of life – and of death, but also of resurrection – the start of everlasting life. The unintended consequence – that Christ was therefore born on December 25, more or less at the winter solstice, a time of many pagan feasts – was seen “as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods” (1): Jesus, the “Sun of righteousness” prophesied in the Old Testament. As Christianity spread out of the Roman heartlands, and as the Christian missionaries came up against manifold feasts celebrating the winter solstice they used the latter argument more than the former to win hearts and minds and to overlay and snuff out those feasts.

What a pity those old feasts were suppressed! Not because I am a fan of the rites and rituals that surrounded them; they were distractions from the real event, the fact that the sun has reached its lowest point and is now starting its slow ascent again to summer. That’s what we should all be celebrating in the northern hemisphere, because the sun is probably our only common heritage. Our creeds, our races, our languages, our cultures all divide us. But the sun brings us together. Without it, we would not exist and our planet would be just a dark cold cinder whirling through space.

So next year let’s head on down to one of those monuments built millennia ago to mark solstices and other moments in the solar cycle, like Stonehenge


Newgrange in Ireland


Karnak in Egypt


Chankillo in Peru (the oldest solar observatory in the Americas)


Palenque in Mexico


North Salem in New Hampshire (the “Stonehenge of North America”)

north salem

Denfeng in China


Jaipur in India


or to more modern places like the Lawrence Hall of Science in California

lawrence hall of science

or, for the summer solstice, the Native American museum in Washington

Brief description of overall shoot

and let’s have ourselves a celebration! Let’s connect again, if only for a few moments in our busy schedules, with the most fundamental of all natural cycles of the world, the solar cycle.

(1)McGowan, Andrew. “How December 25 Became Christmas”,

North Salem:
Lawrence hall of science:
Native American museum: