Essay by Jonathan Benington

Plough and Anchor by Jonathan Benington – Curator, Victoria Art Gallery

Representing the landscape confers on the sculptor a particular set of problems (this may explain why so few artists have attempted it). Unlike a portrait or a still life, nature does not provide the three-dimensional artist with neatly self-contained forms to be studied and reinterpreted. Its vast scale and the inter-relatedness of its components demand a more focused approach: Henry Moore discovered analogies between the contours of the human figure and those of the Yorkshire moors; Barbara Hepworth’s carvings and bronzes often echo the shapes of natural forms. More recently, artists such as Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy have worked in and with the landscape, reordering its components in a bid to capture, as directly as possible, a sense of place.

The pieces he makes range from jewellery-sized constructions to wall-mounted reliefs and large installations sited in public spaces. He carves and constructs in stone, metal and wood, but whatever the size of the piece he is working on and whatever its materials, these are secondary concerns compared to the underlying framework of ideas about, and investigations of, the landscape. This is not to say that he is a conceptual artist unconcerned with aesthetics, but rather that the flow of ideas (content) dictates the appearance (form) and thereby the making of the works of art.

David’s interest in the changing landscape, especially unpopulated areas such as estuaries and marshes where the process of change is more apparent, led naturally to a fascination with aerial photographs, maps and map-making. The dichotomy between the unpredictable forces of nature and the mapmaker’s need to impose order on them by means of measurements, signs and symbols set him the task, as a student, of trying to reconcile two different worldviews. He made a do-it-yourself kit for landscape consisting of a box with two trays containing images, maps, diagrams, drawing and surveying instruments, and an instruction book on how to use the kit. The intention here, in an interactive form, was to acknowledge the fact that no two people respond identically to a given landscape. The box also signified a coming together of art and science, a hopeful theme which David continued to explore in performance pieces incorporating his own exquisitely crafted versions of surveying instruments.

During his two postgraduate years at the Slade School David’s work embraced environmental issues through the medium of ambitious installations. In some of these he deliberately underplayed the technical proficiency – part inherited, part acquired – which was so evident in the performance pieces and with which he was beginning to feel uncomfortable. However, in his final year he reversed this temporary volte-face in order to make his most successful and poetic installation to date, one which can be seen in retrospect to have pointed the way for subsequent work. Consisting of a 14-foot clinker-built boat suspended in mid-air and surrounded by nets, projected images and sounds of the sea, Drunken Boat succeeded in functioning on a number of different levels. To the casual observer this voyaging, yet crewless vessel evoked the magic of the sea in a very positivist manner, whilst subtle references to a poem by Rimbaud were incorporated for those with a more literary turn of mind (the poem used the metaphor of an epic, drunken voyage by boat to allude to the conflict between discipline and desire).

David’s move to the Salisbury Plain in 1987 was the fulfilment of a long-held desire to explore the archaeology and topography of the Wiltshire Downs. His engagement with this terrain testifies to his ability to peel away the layers of a landscape, divining the natural and man-made phenomena which have transformed it and made it what it is today. Circular and semicircular forms recur frequently, alluding to sundials as well as the movements of the heavenly bodies. Other of the carvings are more fragmentary in structure, consisting of severed or ‘dovetailed’ partial forms which are rejoined into a coherent whole. An example of this is Stone, Field, Implement, which reads both as a landscape viewed from the air, and as an allusion to the development of Man from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age.

All these recent works combine an attention to the unique character of each of his materials with sensitivity to how their appearance will change under different lighting conditions. A degree of stage management is put to good use in large installations such as Material and Spiritual Dimensions, in which the sense of mystery is enhanced when seen at night, illumined by the torches contained inside the stilt-like structures. The net result of this lighting system is that the raised elemental landscape forms at the heart of the installation suddenly seem to float: they detach themselves from their architectural setting and take on an autonomous and harmonious existence, recalling Orreries and the ‘music of the spheres’ which pre-Copernican astrologers believed to exist. Aesthetic and intellectual gratification go hand in hand, and indeed this has become one of the hallmarks of David O’Connor’s art.

Jonathan Benington – Curator, Victoria Art Gallery
8th May 1998