Dry stone sculptures on Bohus-Malmön, Sweden

Home for a summer break. I head for the wonderful island of Bohus-Malmön with some of my oldest friends. We chat. We swim. We have a BBQ. We drink a few beers. We laugh a lot. Could it get better than this? Well, yes. It could and it does.

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Day two finds us chilling on the rocky shoreline. A flattish pile of angular stones catches our eyes; maybe someone has built a sort of seaside cairn. We take a closer look. Holy moly! Check this out, guys! It’s a rocky crocky! It’s not just a pile of rocks arranged to vaguely resemble a massive reptile. The unknown person has spent quite some time and effort making this snapper and clearly has an eye for reptile anatomy. It really is quite crocodiley. I love the angular pebbles that have become those glinting predatorial eyes. I feel fascination for this work and admiration for its creator in equal measure.  

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The permanent population of Bohus-Malmön is around 250. Someone must know whose deft hand has pulled these rocks together. I drop a line in a Facebook group. Willy Ociansson tells me that there are some similar and much older dry stone sculptures on the far side of the island and shares some of his own photos (thank you, Willy!).

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Another crocodile! This one has lichen on it. It must be older. It’s mouth is open.

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A giant python with forked stick-tongue. It’s almost smiling. It looks like it has been here for years.

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The real treasure though is – for want of a better term – a technically challenging Goldsworthy arch sitting right next to a mini green Stone Henge. There is something really exciting in discovering these stone sculptures. The atmosphere is mystical and mysterious. It’s a little bit spooky. I feel some pagan ritual is about to start up any time soon. I imagine this is what it must be like to discover some cave paintings. 

Who did this? When? But most importantly, why? Is there anybody out there that knows?

Big, brave and beautiful: the sculpture garden at Geneva’s Parc de la Grange

The sculpture garden 1

I meet Robin after work at the lakeside gate of Parc de la Grange. We’re catching up and checking out Art Genève’s latest big public sculpture project. We both acknowledge that we have never really explored this park despite it being the biggest – and most beautiful – of all Geneva’s green spaces. People are out post-COVID-19 picnicking. We stroll around. A low, soft and warm evening light picks out the carefully placed bronzes and installations. We chat about how Talking Beautiful Stuff, through covering lakeside Art Genève, has brought us to appreciate Big Public Sculpture and how under appreciated its creators are. So if a picnic with a lover or friend followed by a wander around a big, brave and beautiful sculpture park is your idea of fun and inspiration, then head on down to Parc de la Grange before the 10th of September. 

One of the first works that our interest settles upon is Ida Ekblad’s “Kraken Mobil” (2020).

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These are solidly built and pleasing to run a hand over. We can even sit on them; then we realise that they each are placed to give a different view of the park. All-in-one art and furniture for the great outdoors. Brilliant! We love the beach-towel stripes / nut and bolt / octopus combo. It’s whacky. It works.

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The hidden jewel of the sculpture garden sits majestically and beguilingly in a leafy glade reflecting pretty much everything including the viewer. This is Trix and Robert Haussmann’s “Enigma” (2020); it takes some finding. It is a simple concept with a stunning and mesmerising outcome. If you don’t have time for the picnic, at least go and see this. BTW… kids love it!

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We come across Lou Masduraud’s “Moon Cycle Dew Fountain” (2020). As the name implies this is a mother-nature-mystic-new-age kinda thing. Two big oval panels capture rainwater (or dew) and funnel it into…

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… a breast that is being hand-milked into an ear-like jug-like protrusion from the ground. Say what you like, it gets you thinking! BTW… kids are not so keen on this one!

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Probably the bravest is Rosemarie Castro’s “Flashers” (1981). This a female sculptor’s comment on those men who get their kicks out of exposing themselves. From afar, the work appears sinister and sordid but somehow lightweight and crushable. Close up, the two hooded figures seem watchful but vulnerable; they are all too ready to snap closed that flimsy black mantle at the first sign of danger. Unfortunately the work fits so perfectly in a quiet tree-lined corner of a public park.

You will have gathered, we think this show is a well-located winner. It’s a freebee must-see. And give a thought to those barely recognised names that devote so much time and imagination to creating Big Public Sculpture. 

The Standing Stones of Callanish, Isle of Lewis

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I am reunited with a long-lost Hebridean cousin. She suggests that, despite the weather, we visit some nearby standing stones. On the road to Callanish, the suggestion becomes less appealing as the wind speed rises, the temperature drops and the rain becomes horizontal. We pass bus shelters huddle-full of drenched and exhausted cyclists. At the well-organised visitor centre, the cafe is hung about with cagools and anoraks all dripping on the floor; their owners dawdle in the very informative exhibition wondering whether to brave what has to be the worst of Scottish weather. Cousin Rona can’t see what the fuss is about. During a brief pause in the downpour, she grabs my arm and force-wades me up the path to a series of crudely – if at all – hewn monoliths. It is bleak all around. We lean into the wind trying to orientate ourselves. Photography is near-impossible. But then no photograph conveys the massive, raw, resilient beauty of this 5,000 year-old collection of standing stones. Something here nudges my soul. I am surprisingly moved. Did our ancestors pass here? What did they do when the weather was like this? Then I think of the making of this place. These pillars of Lewisian gneiss weigh up to 50 tonnes. Did stone-age (wo)man split the stones and, if so, by what method? How were they brought here, positioned and placed upright? How long did it take? What role did the immense task and its outcome play in neolithic life?

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Aerial view of the central ring of the Callanish stones. Copyright: Shutterstock

The whole consists of a centre stone within a circle with lines of other stones radiating out to the south, east and west. There is a longer “avenue” or double line of stones to the north. There is also an exposed chamber just east of the central stone; it is thought this might have been built later for ritual or habitation or both.

This particular collection of standing stones is just one of eight in the Callanish area. It is one of the oldest of more than one hundred such sites found across Scotland. What is so intriguing is that these not-so-primitive people must have had a very important reason to expend so much time and energy in the construction of these sites. Information on display at Callanish and on-line makes evident that nobody has a clear idea about what was in these people’s minds. It seems likely that there is a religious importance and these were places of ritual. It is claimed that different sites have similar alignments with the paths of the sun and moon. Were these earliest Hebrideans trying to make sense of how the movements of the sun and the moon change throughout the year so cementing in their culture notions of night versus day, dark versus light, cold versus warm and winter versus summer? Or is it as simple as respect for the dead? Life then would not have been as super-sanitised as our’s today; we have virtually no contact with dead bodies and recoil when we do. Were these sites some kind of welcoming gateway to an imagined after-life where the dead would begin their onward journey? I can’t help feeling that the importance of answering these question goes beyond the academic. One thing is clear: the question of “why” comes down to humans’ universal capacity to believe in something abstract and the power of such belief when held in common with others. These magnificent standing stones therefore must represent an essential element of humanity.

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The central ring of the Callanish standing stones. Copyright: Visit Outer Hebrides

Later, by a warm peat fire with a cup of tea, I find a picture on-line that tells me that blue skies do happen here. My desire to return, however, is not fired by hope of fine weather; something calls me from way back in time.

Death and Alabaster

It is hot July in England. The dusty scent of harvesting and the silent dancing of brown butterflies amongst the tired grass informs my senses of where we are in the universal round. Quiet lanes take me deep into the Norfolk countryside to a place I discovered many years ago and then lost the knowledge of where to find it again. A recent interest in photographing the churches of the County led me back to the small church at Stratton Strawless; lying somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

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This unexceptional country church holds a true treasure inside its musty, cool interior. Along the southeast wall are two very creepy, tombs….or are they beautiful, poignant memorials to the great landowners of the parish?

The first that you see at the end of an aisle of secondhand books is the memorial to Thomas Marsham who died in 1638.

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He struggles to rise in his shroud and this, according to my research, is the first time the resurrection was portrayed on a memorial. His high position in the heirarchy of Freemasonry is carved below and a hideous collection of bones and dried hands seemingly press against a grill at the base of the memorial, creating a feeling of claustrophobia as I imagine myself thus imprisoned with the dead.

There are many memorials to the Marshams down the ages in this church but the only one to match that of Thomas is the tomb and memorial to the family of Henry Marsham. I feel instantly and extremely sad as I view the pale family praying to a God whose plan and will Henry presumably accepted as his family was destroyed one by one.

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The first of his family to die is Henry’s daughter Margaret at the age of one year. The dead, wrapped child stands like some weird pupa beside her mother. Henry’s wife Anne dies in childbirth with an unborn son in the June of 1678 and his son Henry junior follows at the age of twelve, being taken in the November of the same year. Henry dies in 1692.

I am unable to find out who the creators of these memorials were. Their work is highly skilled and accomplished, rendering in perfect realism the subjects. This I admire greatly and admiration begins to overcome what were feelings of revulsion mixed with fascination and sadness. These works are from an age so different from ours, telling us of their beliefs, their fears and imaginings, their story and perhaps of the requirement to be remembered in a way appropriate to the position they held in society.

The sculpted material is Alabaster, not marble as I had previously supposed. Alabaster is softer and easier to carve. It has a beautiful transluscency unlike marble but can be very carefully heated in boiling water to reduce this quality to produce a fake marble called Marmo di Castellino. Alabaster is porous and can be easily dyed to give it a more marble-like appearance, such as we see with these memorials. The memorials were restored in 2007 after the iron supports had rusted away and threatened to break up the Alabaster.

To the amateur historian and geneaologist of England’s past the Marsham memorials are a treasure. The necessity for great artistry to be used in order that the memorials were spectacular and would be beautiful to behold in ages to come means that they are undoubtedly works of art and ‘beautiful stuff’. However, one should never forget that within them lie what remains of people who lived and so can properly be used as a focus for a one-way communication with them. Is that not the true purpose of a memorial?

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Thomas Marsham resurrecting

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The Masonic symbols on Thomas Marsham’s memorial

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The sculpted skulls and bones on the Thomas Marsham memorial

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Henry Marsham junior’s epitaph