Keir Smith, ‘Like Nimrod’s Tower the Tree Stretches Skyward’

Grizedale Sculpture, April 9 – October 30, 2011

‘Running from Eden’, Keir Smith, 1986/87

Arts Development Officer, Hayley Skipper as been leading on the development of the Forestry Commission’s art archive, a resource which has accumulated over many years of projects and commissions undertaken in the forest by Grizedale Sculpture. Recently the Forestry Commission’s premises at Grizedale Forest have been refurbished to allow for a new space in which items of the archive and supporting exhibits can be publicly displayed under the aegis of the FC’s ‘Archive Alive’ project. The first show which opened in April this year comprises items in the Grizedale archive by the late, renowned sculptor, Keir Smith plus important work of his bequeathed by his wife, Clare Rowe. One part of this development work is being taken forward by GSA PhD student, Edwina fitzPatrick, who is examining the ‘ecology of art in the environment’ and the role of the archive as a keeper and generator of knowledge.

‘Like Nimrod’s Tower the Tree Stretches Skyward’, installation shot, Grizedale Sculpture

‘Running from Eden’ is a companion piece to work produced by Smith during his time as artist in residence at Grizedale in the eighties. Back then Smith created, ‘Last Rays of an English Rose’, another railway sleeper sculpture, and that work was installed on the Bowkerstead Walk in 2009. ‘Running from Eden’ also comprises three carved railway sleepers connected on both sides by railway track. And like ‘Last Rays of an English Rose’, ‘Running from Eden’ is a work of art which fascinates in the way in which the final forms represented connect to the material from which they are formed. There is much to say about Smith’s engagement with the forest at Grizedale and, of course, much to say more generally about the relationship of art to the environment: a small part of that can be said by focussing on the beguiling circularity of form and content in this centrepiece of ‘Like Nimrod’s Tower the Tree Stretches Skyward’.

An excerpt from one of Smith’s writings from the time of his residencies neatly presents the theme of circularity, of return, of ‘homecoming’:

Across the globe.

Forests cut to carry track,

Age of smoke and grime.

Carvings cut in Jarrah

Sleepers returned:


Weed covered forest track,

Once carried the iron road.

‘Running from Eden’, Keir Smith, 1986/87

Smith’s iron road allows us to journey over carved exemplars of the progress of, or perhaps that should be simply extension of, mankind: from footbridge to railbridge suggests Smith’s arrangement, we have found ways to speed our movement from Eden. The next form of the evolution (or is that transgression) is yet to be seen but when it does materialise – as with all stages prior – it will necessarily emerge from a natural resource that will in turn be consumed in part by the forming. The circularity of Smith’s sculpture is a powerful touchstone for the finiteness of our world. As that, the work contains a wonderful sur-modernist appeal – its internal fomal logic is efficiently handled, for it is in an interesting way literally of itself, but, and here’s the reason for the ‘sur’, it deploys that self-referentiality to emphasise poetically an ecological (and moral) contextual concern about sustainability and mechanisation which is relevant to us all. Smith might also be challenging us with work like this by proposing that man’s journeying along man-made routes can be at cross-purposes with the direction of travel intended by the tracks of the meta-engineer. That reading might connect us to Nimrod, Babel, and the hubris of mankind, that iniquitous quality which, paradoxically with a clarity of artistic voice, Smith cautioned so expertly with his Grizedale output.

The forest beyond the new gallery space is an everpresent context for contemplation in this space, and the work of Smith and the bequest of Rowe could not have been better chosen to inaugurate this new episode in the history of art in Grizedale Forest. Much has been done over the years with Grizedale Sculpture and it seems now that the works and archives will be increasingly more accessible but never disassociated from the raw material which gave rise to the whole artistic endeavour.