Future Forest

Future Forest by Lisa Wright in collaboration with Tom Piper

To celebrate its centenary year Forestry England has commissioned award-winning artist Lisa Wright in collaboration with Tom Piper MBE, former Associate Designer at the Royal Shakespeare Company, to produce a unique, temporary installation in Thetford Forest, Suffolk, opening to the public this October.

Forestry England was established in 1919 to regenerate and protect Britain’s woodland and forests following after the First World War. Since then its remit has evolved to include scientific research and recreation. Future Forest represents its most ambitious art project to date.

Responding to the forest, Wright and Piper have imagined a visually arresting, thought-provoking installation to inspire reflection on the past, present and future work of Forestry England. Comprising a series of life-size, standing figurative sculptures housed in temporary settings or structures, the installation will create a journey through an area of the forest. In the eighteenth century, choreographed picturesque landscapes peppered with statues and follies were designed to induce an elevating, rose-tinted experience of nature. Similarly, Future Forest sets out to delight visitors, and to stimulate contemplation of the wonder of the natural environment. But in picturing our relationship to nature, and what that means now, bleaker undercurrents cannot be ignored.

Commanding key sightlines, overlooking vistas, or sheltering in clearings, Wright’s ten figures – ‘Custodians’ of the forest – will be presented in solitary reverie or grouped with one or two companions. Minimal structures or settings designed by Piper will offer them some protection from the elements and draw the viewer’s attention to their locations. As a whole, the work speculates on the beauty and fragility of the natural world, and our position within it. Poised between adolescence and maturity, the Custodians evoke the precariousness and preciousness of youth, its vulnerability and incredible power. The future – and the future of the forest – lies in their hands.

Established as a figurative painter, Wright’s interest in painting as a three-dimensional experience led her to propose this, her first sculptural installation, which has been developed for the site with Piper. They met when he invited her to undertake a two-year residency at the Royal Shakespeare Company, culminating in 2008. The experience was positive for both artist and designer as they share certain priorities – notably placing the human figure centre stage and paying attention to the vantage point of the viewer or audience – but from the perspective of their different disciplines.

For Wright the project evolved from her interest in expanding her painting practice, and the potential of painting as a means of image-making and story-telling. The process of collaboration required a response to Piper’s practice, leading to the realisation of her painting in sculptural form. As a painter, she has always been aware of the three-dimensional properties of her work, imagining her figures as three-dimensional beings. At the Royal Academy Schools in the early 1990s, drawing was at the heart of her training: The discipline of the life room and proximity of the Academy’s collection of casts of classical sculpture influenced her approach to painting the figure as if in the round. Fabricated in environmentally-friendly resin from sculptures made by hand in the artist’s Cornish studio, the Thetford Custodians are the first of her figures to step out of her paintings and into our space.

Encountered in the forest, it will be tempting to read the spritely, adorned figures as otherworldly creatures. As lovers of nature they could surely be cousins of the statuesque Na’vi, an alien species with super sensory powers featured in James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi film Avatar? But their human scale and human-type eyes suggest otherwise. As often in the way Wright chooses to depict figures, they have a timeless quality – they are, as she has suggested, ‘out of time’. This sense is reinforced by the artist’s understated reference to classical sculpture, which strived to represent the human form as a timeless ideal, designed originally for temples, villas or pleasure gardens, and later duplicated for veneration in museums. In the Custodians we might recognise, for example, the nonchalant poise of Michelangelo’s David, the intimacy of two naked boys repeated in classical renderings of ‘Castor and Pollux’ and ‘Cupid and Hymen’, or the assured embrace of the ‘Three Graces’. The figure of a girl transforming into a tree also brings to mind Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s well-known and unforgettable, classically inspired Apollo and Daphne (1622-25).

As a painter Wright enjoys engaging with the history of art, intelligently reworking the pictorial lessons of such artists as Vermeer, Veronese or Francis Bacon. However, her dialogue with art history isn’t driven simply by admiration or conscious borrowing but prompted by a strong ‘emotional connection’. In this instance, classical references allow her to suggest ways in which real young people bond with each other, capturing something of the special and unique intensity of peer relationships. It is possible to perceive in these timeless poses something of today’s adolescent. According to Greek mythology, when fleeing from her pursuer Apollo, the nymph Daphne prayed to her father to rescue her from certain dishonour. As a result she was turned mid-flight into a laurel tree, her limbs morphing into branches. By contrast, Wright’s ‘Daphne’ seems more in control of her destiny. She gracefully extends her sprouting arms and leans back, confidently composed, as if taking a selfie.

This commission brings together certain themes that have interested Wright over many years, but that now have a particular urgency. Since the birth of her first son in 1993, the motif of the child has been an ongoing preoccupation. Alluding to childhood states of introspection and wonder her images are both charming and unsettling, tapping into complex, unspoken feelings. Following her move to Cornwall in 1997, landscape also began to permeate her work, mostly as a setting for childhood play or exploration, but also as a metaphor for deeper concerns. In her ‘Night Paintings’ of 2006, for example, solitary children are protected only by single trees or an inner light, their pale figures highlighted against murky pools and dark woods. Nature is portrayed as an almost abstract expanse on which to project either future possibilities or fear of the unknown. Typically, Wright balances realistic representation with the symbolic, using the world of appearances to explore psychological states. Consistently nature is the element in which children are at home, they are part of it, its wonder and its threat.

As her own children grew up, she turned her attention to investigating the awkwardness of pre-pubescence. In her series ‘The Unversed’ (2013-15) children appear more self-aware, yet ignorant of adult codes. Like the young subjects portrayed by such earlier artists as Diego Velázquez or Jean-Antoine Watteau, ‘The Unversed’ rely on coquettish props - ruffs, bows and masks - to try on or act out adult identities. In later paintings these adornments are transformed into finely patterned veils on the skin, reminiscent of tattooing or other forms of body marking, suggesting rites of passage.

Working through ideas for the commission, Wright began to make collages to test what her figures might look like in the forest. These experiments flowed back into her painting, resulting in ‘In the Eyes of Each’ (2017-18), a series of portraits of sexually ambivalent, graceful adolescents. Incorporating external hair accessories or masks as part of the body, these paintings, which relate closely to the Custodians, show the artist celebrating what she describes as ‘inner landscapes’. Inverting the ancient motif of the Green Man, who sprouts foliage out of his mouth and nostrils, surface decoration is here internalised, with branches and leaves replacing arteries and veins, or floral blooms supplanting muscles and sinews. A similar fusion of child and nature can be seen in earlier paintings, in which figures are painted in outline over a landscape. By contrast, external nature is now contained within the body itself, expressing a sense of identity and inner strength. For the artist classical types embody the striking beauty of youth, and in adolescent form, hope for the future. Despite their vulnerability as standing figures, the Custodians are firmly rooted. They have the power within themselves to navigate their complex world.

The idea or construct of the child as a force for good took hold in the 18th and 19th centuries, promoted by Romantic poets such as William Blake and William Wordsworth. For Romantic thinkers, children were in a state of grace, able to perceive the world differently before being indoctrinated into adult society and habits of mind. Perhaps the idea of the ‘Romantic child’ is needed now. Increasingly younger generations – despite being maligned as overly-indulged ‘snowflakes’, or cast as victims – are seeing the adult world as it really is, and the consequences of dead-end ways of thinking.

We are Making a New World, was the ironic title given by British artist Paul Nash to his 1918 depiction of the apocalyptic landscape of the Western Front, in which shattered trees symbolise the broken bodies of the young men – the golden youths – sacrificed during the Great War. The loss of youth – its beauty and promise – haunted the inter-war years. The context of Forestry England’s centenary invites comparisons between the so-called ‘old men’ who were to blame for the casual and needless destruction of a generation, and a society that has allowed climate change to progress with no thought for the young and their futures. In a widely reported speech, Swedish school girl climate change activist Greta Thunberg recently defended the decision of 1.6 million children to go on school strike to get the attention of adults: ‘We children are doing this because we want our hopes and dreams back’. It will be the young who will need to be making a new world.

‘Future Forest acknowledges and celebrates the power of emerging generations to inhabit and reshape our relationship to each other and our environment. Piper’s carefully designed structures housing or framing the figures will serve to reinforce a connection between past and present, referencing earlier buildings in the forest, while the use of bright coloured grounds and meshes bring us up to date. Some settings will showcase the magnificence of the forest, its formal splendour and orderly symmetry. By contrast, other locations such as an area of dead pine trees, will point to the presence of disease, while semi-completed structures provide merely the illusion of shelter.

Forests have long occupied the darker places of the human imagination. The Custodians are in their element, but there are dangers and threats. Nature is not necessarily benign, as we are reminded now by almost daily reports of nature raging and destroying. However, the overriding message is one of hope. The visitor is guided out of the blighted wood to a place where they, like one of Wright’s empowered, young Custodians, can contemplate a recently planted field of trees in a space open to the sky.

Virginia Button
May 2019


^ Return to Top

>> gallery
>> Essays :: Walking Through Beautiful