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Trust New Art: Chalk, South Downs

  • Date: 20 October 2011
  • Artform: Visual arts
  • Area: South East
Man in white robe leading sheep Chalk by Red Earth, Wolstonbury Hill, Paul Winter

Chalk is the collective title given to a series of installations, performances and experiential walks which took place across the South Downs between April and October 2011.

Aims of the project

The project, conceived by Caitlin Easterby and Simon Pascoe of environmental arts group Red Earth, was supported by Trust New Art, a programme created through a partnership between Arts Council England and the National Trust.

'Chalk was the largest-scale outdoor project that we've worked with,' says Tom Freshwater, Contemporary Arts Programme Manager at the National Trust, whose post is funded by the Arts Council.

'Outside projects such as this tend to raise a lot of questions: What do you do to a landscape? How do you make an intervention on any significant scale? Red Earth's approach was appealing to us because as well as physical interventions in the landscape, there was a programme that offered a deeper experience.'

Chalk considered the landscape and history of the South Downs through a variety of approaches. Two site-specific installations, River and Fold, acted as physical anchors, while a series of scheduled performances, participatory events and Chalk Walks sought to interpret the territory of the South Downs in very different ways.

'They also use local materials and wanted to work with local people to create a social experience,' adds Tom Freshwater, 'you can just encounter the installations, or go deeper into it and take part as you choose.'

'I think what intrigued Tom about Chalk is that it's a project that expands out beyond the installation,' says Red Earth's Simon Pascoe. 'The installation is just a focal point for what we do and other events take place around it, drawing attention to things present within this landscape.'

Working with local landscape and volunteers

To create the installations, Red Earth worked alongside National Trust volunteers - the South Downs committee at Harting Down, and National Trust affiliates Friends of Wolstonbury at Wolstonbury Hill - who used local woodland to source raw materials. The National Trust also helped with logistics, arranging vehicle access and providing accommodation for the artists during the construction.

'They didn't need to get so engaged with it, but they did,' says Simon, 'whenever we talk about the project, we talk about the importance of this on-the-ground support - when it's said that we worked in partnership with the National Trust, it really did feel like a partnership.'

In-kind support, including publicity and the recruitment of volunteers, was also received from The Sacred Music Festival, Chichester Festival Theatre, Pallant House Gallery, Brighton City College and Chichester University.

Chalk's two site-specific sculptures were created by Pascoe and Easterby, in collaboration with local greenwood workers. River, at Harting Down, is a 90-metre avenue built in a local fence-making style, using wood collected from local hazel and ash trees. The shape is inspired by an old, post-glacial river, as well as the funnelling technique used in the medieval deer hunt. Fold, in nearby Wolstonbury Hill, is a woven ring of coppiced greenwood resembling both a Bronze Age enclosure and a sheep's fold. It is evocative of 5,000 years of animal husbandry in the area.

Throughout the summer, the Chalk Walks led by archaeologists, wild plant experts, natural navigators and local rangers, pulled in a total of 160 people.

'It's of interest to us to draw lots of different parallels,' Simon. 'There's an ecological level, a geological level, and an archaeological level to understanding the South Downs, so we let those ideas settle and see what forms come out.'

The project culminated with performance walks at Wolstonbury Hill, with artists and specialists including pyrotechnician Mark Anderson, Japanese Butoh performer Atsushi Takenouchi and Mongolian longsong vocalist Badamkhorol Sandandamba.

'We choose participants with the landscape in mind,' says Simon, 'for instance, there are interesting parallels between the landscape of the South Downs and Mongolia. If you were to take away all the human marks, the fields and the hedges, it could look like a piece of Mongolia, and we thought that was an interesting reference.'

Audience

An estimated 200 people attended each performance at Harting Down and 300 at Wolstonbury. Red Earth also estimate that up to 10,000 people will have walked and enjoyed the sculptures River and Fold at both sites over six months. During the project's run the Chalk walks were attended to capacity, with the National Trust commenting that they were the most successful and best attended walks they had run in this area.

Jane Cecil, National Trust General Manager for the South Downs says public response to the artworks created through Chalk has been broadly positive: 'We know that most people like them, and we have only had a very small number of people who have taken a strong dislike.

'It has taken us out of our comfort zone, but we now know a lot more about what does and doesn't need planning permission, for example. I think it has added a different dimension to people's experience of our landscapes, and we would look favourably on similar projects.'

Future work

Simon Pascoe believes the impermanent nature of Chalk is a good model for future rural work: 'Permanent pieces can create the wrong sort of stir, but with temporary works, whatever you think of the work itself, soon it'll be gone.'

He speaks of Chalk as a 'very positive' experience: 'It brings together the natural habitat, tradition, local skills - it's a nice package, and hopefully we'll do some more National Trust projects on similar lines.'

Through working on Chalk, Red Earth have strengthened relationships with a number of organisations and are currently in discussions about future projects.

Funding 

As well as Arts Council Grants for the arts funding and money from the National Trust Arts Fund, Chalk received funding from Collabor8 and South Downs National Trails.