: Veranka Island on the River Danube, Bacs Kiscun, Hungary
In the summer of 2001 I was invited by the Arts Development Unit at Kent County Council to attend the Veranka International Arts Workshop on Veranka Island in the Bacs Kiscun region in the south of Hungary. Veranka Island is an established nature reserve on the River Danube. In total there were ten invited artists from across Europe, coming together for ten days to live together and share ideas and experiences.
My usual artistic practice is specific to working in wood - object based work on a large scale - bold and robust pieces. I was determined to use Veranka as an opportunity to make work which was completely different. I wished to make work which impacted physically as little as possible on the landscape, while fully engaging with the land through processes of observation, subtle and discreet intervention, documentation, and studio based work directly related to work done "in the field".
I limited my use of materials in order to focus on the process of engagement and interaction with the Island. Using only paper, charcoal, pencils, black paint, string, photography and found materials I set about discovering and creating a dialogue with the landscape. On the first full day I walked for four hours across the Island. The dense forest that covered most of the Island occasionally opened up to great meadows, where Black Kites wheeled high overhead, and Wild Boar roamed through the long grass.
I discovered the amazing water margin, the point where the river meets the land. At a particular spot about half a mile from where we were all staying I found a very special beach. Along this stretch tree roots were exposed, twisted and contorted. Fine lattice works of slender roots held rocks, washed down from earlier floods. Great sand banks ran up to the interior. Plants of all shapes and sizes inhabited this space along with hundreds of frogs with bright green stripes down their backs. Over the next few days I returned to the beach, and realized this was the place I could work, it could become my studio. I would come to the beach early in the morning to work, avoiding the inumerable mosquitoes which plagued the island once the air had warmed up. Mostly the weather was hot and sunny, but this would occasionally break with heavy incessant rain, accompanied by thunder. On these occasions I would return to the centre to draw and paint larger scale work based on sketches taken out and about.
What fascinated me was the continually changing, dynamic nature of the river, and how it interacted with the land. The trees with exposed roots had acted as nets, catching all manner of objects washed down the river. There was a section of metal fencing which had washed down, caught itself in the roots of a tree, and had effectively become a net itself. These observations set new ideas in motion. The notion of man interacting with the river, using its resources, being intimately aware of the changing nature of the river became my focus.
One morning while walking the beach I came across a single footprint of a deer. It was a delicate and precise impression. I selected a number of woody shoots from a nearby plant and encircled the footprint in a small shrine. When I returned the next day the river had risen again. Later, when the levels had dropped, the print was gone. The shrine remained - a gesture in memory of a moment.
I had real trouble with the idea of cutting any plants for use in making sculptural objects. I saw the potential of an abundant weed which grew as if coppiced, sending numerous shoots out up to three metres in length. This problem was overcome by one of the gardeners at the centre cutting them back as part of the maintenance schedule. I immediately asked if I could use these cuttings for my experiments. Many long and sweaty trips later, and I had amassed enough cuttings at my beach studio to begin. Early work included a simple Rod form which was set in the river. It became a gauge, a marker for the varying height of the Duna. It also became a continually changing line drawing in the water, shifting through eddies and mirrored in reflections. It took the form of an arch, suspended on a single central upright.
Later, on a trip up the river, I saw these same forms in the traditional fishing nets set along the rivers edge. I was delighted at the connections that had come together, and set about developing the nets idea further. This decision demanded more material, and on the sixth day I cut the coppiced weed. This time I made three pure forms of the arch and central supporting upright, set in a line parallel to the flow of the river, close to the bank. These I made as large as possible from coppice whips bound with string, and planted into the river bed. As part of the same work I took documentary photographs, and took a series of time based photos, emphasising the changing nature of the site. Another day, while walking through the forest, I saw two great twisting Oak trees in the foreground, with several straight trees directly behind, echoing the form of the net sculptures.
There were many other areas of work I explored in attempting to create a sense of place. These included small experimental living sculptures, ephemeral sculpture, time based photography, collecting of objects, documenting flora and fauna, drawing, line painting and keeping a diary. By drawing all these threads together I caught something of Veranka in my soul.
The time at Veranka was a powerful experience for me. I began it with an intention, but no idea how to realise that intention. Through sensitive engagement with the Island I started on a path of discovery that created connections between the people, the place and myself. The work became a meditation on the subtle workings of a special place in our world.