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Shetland cattle and sparkling sculptures – on Yorkshire Sculpture Park in lockdown

14 April 2020

Sculpture is the relationship between the material and the immaterial, the visible and the invisible […] a place where you can always return.
Jaume Plensa

Weeks of severe winter weather, incessant rain and wind, an abundance of mud, an extremely high volume of visitors and related wear and tear on the paths and grass made parts of Yorkshire Sculpture Park pretty bleak of late. Since the lockdown and a period of no visitors began, and with low rainfall and warm weather, the grounds have begun to recover; the sculptures require little cleaning since mud is no longer splashed around.

Bird dropping is now the biggest sculpture maintenance issue. On a fleeting visit last week, I was struck by how quickly the birds and beasts had moved into land ordinarily dominated by humans. Pheasants and Canada geese officiously traipsed through the deserted car park, rabbits darted and the air was full of birdsong, with no traffic or human noise to compete. On the lake island, the herons continued to tend their enormous nests, and with no visitors or fishermen, the cormorants, ducks and moorhens were in paradise, cheek by jowl with the long-horned, shaggy Shetland cattle that paddle on the lake shore – and who a few days ago decided to make a run for freedom. Happily our farmer neighbours continue to work and managed to corral them back. I didn’t hear the call of our resident common buzzard or the determined drumming of the great spotted woodpecker, but it is pleasing to know they carry on regardless of the situation. This week, night security photographed a family of badgers ambling among buildings; dozens of newborn lambs are happily bouncing around sculptures by Henry Moore and Sean Scully – soon they’ll be nuzzling up to the Damien Hirsts. Over the lower reaches of the park, Jaume Plensa’s tree-high girl’s face, Wilsis (2016), waits in deep meditation. The park’s 500 acres of 18th-century designed landscape have never been more Arcadian.

Longhorns paddling at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2020

Cattle on the lake shore at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in April 2020. Photo: Helen Pheby

It all seems a far cry from installing a major exhibition of work by Joana Vasconcelos, which opened on 7 March only to be closed ten days later. In February the Yorkshire and Portuguese teams had battled daily in extreme storms – Ciara, Dennis, Jorge – to install large sculptures. The nine-metre-high Pop Galo (2016) was constructed, dismantled, turned from the prevailing wind, and reconstructed. Planning for the worst, on the last day before lockdown we decided to tether the beautiful I’ll Be Your Mirror (2018) – a Venetian mask made from dozens of real mirrors – and last week the foresight paid off as gale-force gusts hit the park.

YSP is open all but two days a year, but a week prior to the lockdown, we closed the restaurants and galleries, keeping the parkland and more than 100 sculptures in the open air available for our visitors. As for National Trust properties and many others, Mothering Sunday was unnerving to say the least, making it sadly but abundantly clear we must immediately close. Ahead of this point, we had assembled a new security team, called the Internal Security Group, made up of regular facilities and outdoor gallery staff. It is they who now patrol the park, checking on machinery, buildings and sculpture, alongside our longstanding nighttime security company to ensure 24-hour cover. In the buildings the Internal Security Group keeps a vigilant eye for infestations of vermin or insects; they are unlikely but not unknown and outdoors, wasps have twice eaten the lopped tree-trunk that supported Antony Gormley’s sentinel figure, One and Other (2000). Before the pandemic, Antony found a new tree trunk for the sculpture and when sited it will amplify the beauty of an exquisite area of woodland. Like others, this was a summer project that will move to another, unknown time.

Installation view of Pop Galo (2016) by Joana Vasconcelos at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2020.

Installation view of Pop Galo (2016) by Joana Vasconcelos at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2020. Photo: © Jonty Wilde; courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park

While a registered museum and Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation, Yorkshire Sculpture Park is dependent on income from our car park, retail and restaurant operations. Once trading ceased it was clear we were in for an extremely difficult time. The majority of YSP staff is now furloughed, including the estates team that cares for the landscape – so over the coming months the repercussions will be particularly marked outdoors. The lawns will not be mown, watering won’t take place, the borders will go unweeded, and a myriad other jobs will be put on hold, including clearance of the winter storms’ debris. How this affects our practices going forward remains to be seen. In the meantime, the butterbur near the 17th-century well is in flower, a great source of early nectar for the busy and unconcerned bees.

Over four decades Yorkshire Sculpture Park has become an institution that is held in high esteem and is loved by many; from those who visit religiously to those who are occasionally drawn, sometimes returning irresistibly to a childhood memory. We are ardent about accessibility to modern and contemporary art, and we encourage appreciation and enjoyment of the fusion of sculpture and landscape by half a million people each year. Now we are scoping scenarios of phased re-opening over various spans of months; like everyone else, we look to China and Italy and apply our best guesses and deepest hopes. Meanwhile, digital space has become our public face for an uncertain period in which we can contemplate our next phase of evolution.

The impacts of Covid-19 will be many and deep-seated, having profound effects on our community and beyond, but Yorkshire Sculpture Park is exceptionally rich in its amalgam of natural beauty and the best of contemporary sculpture; a place that is uncommonly vital and powerfully transformative. When our lives return to some semblance of normality, the park will again assert itself as a place of intellectual and sensory stimulation, sanctuary and celebration – where once again friends and family will choose to embrace one another. A time when we will all understand, more keenly than before, what it means to be free.

Clare Lilley is director of programme at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.