The Burning Man comes to Derbyshire

The local arts and culture brigade got very excited recently, after news broke that we were to be treated to a Burning Man Sculpture Trail on parkland surrounding Chatsworth House in our home county of Derbyshire. The sense of anticipation was understandable: Burning Man is a huge annual event in the Nevada desert, and has never previously been seen in the UK.

Burning Man started on a California beach in 1986, when artists set light to an 8 feet (2.4 m) tall wooden man. This act of “radical self-expression” caught the imagination of the local artistic community to such an extent that the burning was repeated the following year, when the effigy had almost doubled in size. By 1988 it was twice as tall again, reaching a height of 30 feet (9.1 m).

In 1990 the event moved to a location in the Nevada desert, and began to grow rapidly. In 2019, the last year before the Covid pandemic, participants in the Burning Man event numbered nearly 79,000 and the effigy had grown to 61 feet (19m) in height.

The stated mission of the Burning Man Project is:

“to produce the annual event known as Burning Man and to guide, nurture and protect the more permanent community created by its culture. Our intention is to generate society that connects each individual to his or her creative powers, to participation in community, to the larger realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond society.”

Source: Burning Man website, retrieved 22/07/22

The Chatsworth estate

Chatsworth House, built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire. In 1981 the house, many of its contents and 737 hectares (1,822 acres) of the surrounding landscape were leased to the Chatsworth House Trust, and the family now pays rent to the Trust for the apartment they occupy. The current (12th) Duke and Duchess work with the charity and others to welcome visitors to Chatsworth.

Be in no doubt, Chatsworth House is a big business. According to its 2018 annual review, in 2017/18 the house and gardens welcomed a little over 600,000 visitors, generated income of almost £15m and employed 366 people, including 114 full-time posts.

Covid hit Chatsworth hard, so there’s ground to make up. In that context, securing an exhibition linked to Burning Man, a brand with a global reputation, was a real coup. Although access to the sculpture trail itself is free, parking at Chatsworth certainly isn’t, so the Trust is doubtless laughing all the way to the bank. But that’s OK, they deserve credit and a bit of profit too, for having the vision to host Radical Horizons: The Art of Burning Man.

Wings of Glory, by Adrian Landon

The first sculpture we spotted after parking our car was Wings of Glory, inspired by the Pegasus myth and sculptor Adrian Landon’s fascination with horses. Fashioned from metal and standing around 20 feet high, the sculpture is appropriately located close to Chatsworth’s former stable block. Every hour, with a painful clanking and grinding sound of metal-on-metal, it languorously flaps its wings and puts on a show. The giant Pegasus appeared at Burning Man in Nevada in 2019.

Mum, by Mr & Mrs Ferguson

Perhaps because we have enjoyed seeing bears in the wild on several occasions in North America, Mum resonates deeply with us and is one of our favourite sculptures on the Radical Horizons trail. A bear cub climbing on its mother’s back can’t help being cute, but look closer and you can see that the bears’ coats are fashioned from around 55,000 US and Canadian pennies embedded into a polystyrene and concrete body. Mother and cub were born in California, where they were created exclusively for the Burning Man at Chatsworth exhibition.

Coralee, by Dana Albany et al

The ethos of the Burning Man is underpinned by 10 Principles. Two of these, “Communal Effort” and “Participation”, seek to encourage everyone to get involved in the production and appreciation of works of art. These Principles are reflected in Coralee, which was created by artist Dana Albany working with children from Spire School in the nearby town of Chesterfield.

Coralee, which for artist Dana Albany symbolises female strength and good luck, depicts a mermaid and is based on a local Derbyshire legend. On the face of it this is a bit crazy, given that this landlocked county is many miles from the sea, and therefore not an obvious haunt for mermaids! However there is a small lake in Derbyshire’s Peak District that was popular in ancient Celtic water-worship rituals. It’s known as the Mermaid’s Pool.

The waters of the Mermaid’s Pool are believed to offer healing qualities to those mad enough to bathe in them. At Easter, in the dead of night, a mermaid is said to appear in the pool. If she likes the look of you she will grant you immortality. But if you don’t take her fancy she will pull you beneath the icy water, where you will inevitably drown. It is, I have to say, one of the most unexpected and bizarre Derbyshire legends I have ever encountered, and it’s good to see it given a new lease of life in this piece of contemporary sculpture.

And what a wonderful, uplifting piece of artwork it is. The body is fashioned in part out of recycled metal artefacts including spoons, springs, sprockets, hinges, bicycle chains and assorted pieces of wire, while the mermaid’s tail features fish scales made from recycled glass. The focus on recycling reflects a concern for the environment that is implicit in Burning Man’s Principles of “Civic Responsibility” and “Leave No Trace”.

Coralee is without doubt my favourite of all the pieces that make up the Radical Horizons sculpture trail. I do hope that it lives on somewhere, whether that be at Chatsworth or elsewhere, once Radical Horizons comes to an end in September.

Elysian Spires, by “Shrine”

Artist “Shrine” worked with children from the Derbyshire Virtual School to produce Elysian Spires. The School seeks to “enhance the life opportunities for Derbyshire children [living in the care of the County Council] by supporting and promoting the importance of their education, and enabling them to achieve the best they can be.” Created with the participation of this community of young people, and celebrating the turning of non-precious objects – in this case hundreds of donated glass bottles – into treasure, Elysian Spires is clearly in line with the guiding Principles that also underpin Coralee.

Flybrary, by Christina Sporrong

Flybrary dominates the view as you drive to the Chatsworth car park. Books fly from the 20 foot high rusty metal head, books which for artist Christina Sporrong represent a flurry of ideas. She invites viewers of her sculpture to let their imaginations run wild, and asks “what’s on your mind?” And isn’t that the point of the whole Radical Horizons exhibition, that it stimulates the imagination and encourages unfettered thinking. Great stuff!

Lodestar, by Randy Polumbo

Lodestar features the shiny fuselage of a World War II jet plane that went by the same name. Its nose touches the ground, while a flower blooms from its tail. Away from the world of aeronautics, the word “lodestar” is a star (especially the Pole Star) that is used to guide the course of a ship, and this prominent, eye-catching sculpture certainly acts as a marker for anyone seeking to navigate their way around the Radical Horizons exhibition.

Transmutation, by Arturo Gonzales and Maru Izaguirrre

Transmutation is inspired by the brightly coloured Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures known as alebrije. In this case, a colourful sabre-toothed cat sporting both antlers and wings takes to the air above Chatsworth, and encourages the viewer to wonder “what if…?”.

Wings of Wind by Bryan Tedrick

Wings of Wind is another sculpture that is made in part from reclaimed materials. It is moveable and rotates slowly in the wind, or when pushed by eager visitors who are also allowed (encouraged, even) to clamber over it. As it spins, different parts of the landscape are framed by the steel hoop upon which the two wings are hung. In this photograph, it frames a distant view of Chatsworth House.

Murder Inc., by Charles Gadeken

Murder Inc. is unlike any of the other sculptures in Radical Horizons. The rest are monumental in scale, but with Murder Inc. it is not size but quantity that counts. This work comprises exactly one hundred separate pieces, and as artist Charles Gadeken is keen for us to know, each one is different.

The crows of Murder Inc. are life-sized and life-coloured (black!), and show the birds going about their normal daily business. At a glance, and before you clock that they aren’t moving or making any noise, it’s easy to believe that this is a flock or living, breathing birds.

Crows feature heavily in folklore, both in the UK and in many other parts of the world. Often regarded as symbols of death, the collective name for crows is “a murder” which is clearly the inspiration for the title of Charles Gadeken’s work.

Q: When is art not art? A: When it’s a horse jump!

Our morning spent viewing the Radical Horizons exhibition at Chatsworth was inspiring, demonstrating clearly that in the 21st century art comes in all shapes and sizes. In fact it’s sometimes difficult to know just where art ends and real life begins.

As we were wandering through Chatsworth’s parkland, seeking out the various sculptures that make up Radical Horizons, we came across the impressive piece of work shown in the photograph above. It was pleasing to the eye and sat comfortably in the surrounding landscape. Anxious to know more we checked out the trail guide, but were puzzled to find it wasn’t listed.

Not to be defeated, we searched high and low around the work to find an information board that might tell us about the artist and the title of his sculpture. Still no joy. And then, suddenly, we twigged, finally understanding what was going on. This isn’t part of the Radical Horizons Sculpture Trail at all. Rather, it is simply an elegant horse jump, one of many scattered about the Chatsworth parkland.

But who is to say that the horse jump doesn’t also constitute a work of art? Art really does come in all shapes and sizes!

Chatsworth House at Christmas

It’s become the fashion in recent years for stately homes – whether in private hands or run by a charitable trust – to open their doors to the public in the run up to Christmas and show off their festive decorations. Some seem to regard it simply as another money-making ploy: just whack up a few trees and glittery baubles, scatter artificial snow liberally in the library, hang a sock or two from a suitable fireplace and watch the money roll in.

Chatsworth House, featuring the “Emperor Fountain”, August 2018

Others – like Chatsworth House in Derbyshire – take it far more seriously, and clearly invest heavily to develop an annual Christmas offer that will delight their visitors. They still watch the money roll in, of course – that’s the name of the game, after all – but at least the punters go away with a smile on their faces, and maybe a few goodies from the seasonally stocked gift shop.

In the magnificent Great Hall the national theme is Russia

Chatsworth House, built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire. In 1981 the house, many of its contents and 737 hectares (1,822 acres) of the surrounding landscape were leased to the Chatsworth House Trust, and the family now pays rent to the Trust for the apartment they occupy. The current (12th) Duke and Duchess work with the charity and others to welcome visitors to Chatsworth.

The Chatsworth House website explains the role of the Trust as follows;

Every penny of visitor admission goes directly to the Chatsworth House Trust, which is dedicated to the long-term preservation of Chatsworth House, the art collection, garden, woodlands and park for the long-term benefit of the public

SOURCE: Chatsworth House website, retrieved 23 December 2019

Be in no doubt, Chatsworth House is a big business. According to its 2018 annual review, in 2017/18 the house and gardens welcomed a little over 600,000 visitors, generated income of almost £15m and employed 366 people, including 114 full-time posts. In this context the Christmas opening isn’t a deal-breaker, but every little helps, not least in building Chatsworth’s reputation and encouraging return visits in the main, summer season.

In the splendid chapel the national theme is Spain

And as we pull into the car park around ten days before Christmas, the place is buzzing. A host of eager attendants, resplendent in their dayglo yellow tabards, direct us to its further reaches where they can just squeeze us in.

National theme: Russia

The theme of this year’s decorations is ” a land far, far away.” Here’s what the website tells us to expect:

Discover lands afar at Chatsworth this Christmas, following in the footsteps of explorers Phileas Fogg and Amelia Earhart. Our guides will lead you on a festive adventure around the globe as you travel from a Nordic winter wonderland, through blossom trees in Japan, to a baroque Spanish church on the journey of a lifetime.

SOURCE: Chatsworth House website, retrieved 23 December 2019

National theme: Canada

It’s a clever choice, a chance to give each room or space a theme relating to a specific country, such as the arched branches of russet maple leaves in the Canadian room (actually, more of a corridor than a room, albeit the grandest corridor most of us will ever see.)

Visiting Chatsworth at Christmas is meant to be educational as well as enjoyable, so signposts in each room advise us of the capital of each nation featured, how far it is from Chatsworth, the average December temperature and how much snow falls there that month.

To give the exhibition a more human touch there are also panels bearing snippets of personal information. For example, the 9th Duke was Governor-General of Canada from 1916 to 1921. Not a lot of people know that.

National Theme: Japan

Generally speaking it’s highly creative and although some of the national themes work better than others, overall it’s very well done. There’s certainly no shortage of Christmas trees, no surprise really considering that there are whole plantations of the things on the Chatsworth estate. But I hate to think what Chatsworth’s electricity bill will be this month, lighting up so many trees across no fewer than 22 separate rooms.

Most of the punters seem content that their £25 entrance fee has been well spent, although a gentleman from the other side of the pond – Texan, judging by his drawl – is overheard complaining bitterly that the American room should have been bigger.

National theme: China

In the interests of transatlantic harmony, and mindful of the fact that we Brits need all the friends we can get these days, I refrain from pointing out that if a larger space really is necessary he could always offer to donate his mouth to the cause. But I keep quiet, and am momentarily dismayed by the sense of an opportunity for innocent merriment that is forever lost.

Meanwhile a couple of visitors have no time to worry about national pride. We watch a young lady – in her early 20s probably – move from room to room having her photo taken in front of every tree. Not once, not twice, but dozens of times in front of every bloody tree in Chatsworth House.

National theme: Switzerland

She poses and postures, pouts and preens, tossing her hair and placing a quizzical finger to her chin, but never looks directly at the guy with the camera. Does she think it makes her look more alluring, more seductive? If she does she’s sadly mistaken, she just appears evasive.

And who is this guy anyway, what is he to the Queen of Preen? Boyfriend? Brother? Agent? Pimp? Who knows, but he’s clearly on a mission, clicking away like crazy on his Pentax. The pair of them are in a little world of their own, obsessed with the photoshoot, indifferent to the magic of Chatsworth House.

National theme: Morocco

But the Queen of Preen and Pentax Man are in the minority: most visitors have simply come here for an hour or two of harmless fun. The organisers have done an excellent job in managing the hordes, and there’s a surprising air of serenity.

Chatsworth at Christmas harks back to a gentler age, an age that is a world away from the madness that assails us in the shops and across the media at this time of year. OK, the vision of Christmas portrayed at Chatsworth is a chocolate box fantasy, a bit of feel-good escapist nonsense. But it’s good to escape sometimes.

And god knows, there’s loads of stuff in December 2019, in the UK, that I want to escape from.