Stewart Smith: How The White Wood – a living monument for peace – is bringing a community together


Stewart Smith explains how a piece of artwork prompted three days of vibrant discussion in Huntly, Aberdeenshire

"ALL of your stories have made this place." Storyteller Ben McFadyen's words opened Deveron Arts' White Wood Forum, a three-day event marking the opening of Caroline Wendling's environmental artwork and "living monument to peace", the White Wood. 

Building on Joseph Beuys' thinking about art and ecology, the White Wood Forum brought artists, activists, academics and policy makers to the Aberdeenshire town of Huntly for three stimulating days of discussion, performance and participation. 

McFadyen's words, which come from his performance of the White Wood story, are apt, for they speak to the community spirit that has brought the artwork to life, as well as ecology's emphasis on the interconnectedness of things.

Planting the White Wood

The White Wood emerged from Deveron Arts' Oaks and Amity project, which grew, quite literally, from acorns from the trees planted for Joseph Beuys' great public artwork of 1982, 7000 Oaks. 

The acorns made their way to Huntly from the German city of Kassel, and after a year, Deveron's director, Claudia Zeiske, found herself with some 60 saplings. This crop coincided with the hundredth anniversary of the First World War. 

To mark this centenary, Zeiske wanted to do a project celebrating Britain and Germany's post-war friendship. Oaks and Amity was born.

Caroline Wendling, a French artist based in Cambridgeshire, felt the Oaks and Amity brief was a good fit with her artistic practice, which places an emphasis on community, walking and internationalism. She was also interested in exploring broader ideas of pacifism and ecology, and upon visiting Huntly, became very excited by the idea of creating a truly communal work; a social sculpture, in the spirit of Beuys.

Community engagement is central to the Deveron ethos, and Wendling worked extensively with local residents and forester Steve Brown to develop the idea of a small peace wood. 

A site was chosen in a clearing at Hummel Stone (The Bin), a short walk from Huntly. Wendling also undertook research into Huntly's association with the First World War. 

188 men from the Huntly area lost their lives serving for the Gordon Highlanders. Wendling wanted to acknowledge their sacrifice, while also exploring the concept of pacifism through the story of the area's conscientious objectors.

The White Wood comprises of a circular clearing surrounded by three consecutive circles of trees: one of seven oaks, and two of silver birch trees set within a grid of birch and the remaining oaks. 

The clearing, she explains, will allow light to get in, and as time passes, the seven oaks will create a circle of shade, replaced by light again as the oaks grow old.

Forty-nine oaks were planted, alongside 700 silver birches and a multitude of white flowering plants: wood anemones, wild garlic. The colour white has many resonances: peace, purity and innocence, light, new beginnings. 

It also has a local significance, in that Huntly was a well-known centre for the production of linen. White linen flags, embroidered with messages of peace, were made by local crafters using the Quaker stitch. 

These were planted at the gala launch of the White Wood. In recognition of the conscientious objectors, several of the attendees wore white feathers.

Each of Beuys' oaks has a basalt column beside it. These ancient stone markers are richly symbolic, representing deep geological time, and connecting the work to the Celtic world of folklore and myth. 

Wendling decided to include stones in her own work, sourcing white Lutetian limestone from Saint-Pierre-Aigle in northern France. Unlike Beuys' basalt columns, which slowly grow into the ground, Wendling's white limestones slowly grow out of the ground, pushed up by the oak roots and gradually exposed to the Scottish light. French stone, German oaks, Scottish soil, representing amity and peace between the nations. 

As an artwork which will take several hundred years to reach maturity, the White Wood is a gift to future generations. As Wendling notes, "I hope that people some 300 years from now might ask themselves, 'what are those stones doing here?'"

The White Wood Forum: art and ecology

On Thursday evening, three of Beuys' closest associates set the scene for the forum and gala by discussing the artist's conception of art and ecology. Rhea Thönges-Stringaris, an art historian and friend of Beuys, was joined by Edinburgh impresario Richard Demarco, and Shelley Sacks, professor of social sculpture at Oxford Brooks University and founder of the University of the Trees. 

Thönges-Stringaris screened her film, 7000 Oaks, which tells the story of this most generous of public artworks through archival footage and interviews. In Beuys' extended concept of art, Thönges-Stringaris explained, everyone is an artist. Thinking, she added, is sculpting. 

Her film shows how these concepts were put into action, demonstrating the positive impact of Beuys' intervention on local communities.

Demarco was the first person to invite Beuys to the British Isles, as part of Strategy: Get Arts at the 1970 Edinburgh International Festival. Demarco offered keen insights into the artist's interest in the Celtic world, revealing the extent to which Scotland's land and lore inspired 7000 Oaks. 

Beuys was enchanted with the idea of visiting "the land where folk tales are taken seriously".

Oaks, Demarco noted, were associated with the druids, who planted the trees in sacred alignments of seven. With their deliberate planting of the ancient oak forests, the druids, in Beuys' words, "authored a place". 

As such, these forests represented an alternative to "the misuse of trees" as represented by commercial foresting. Beuys, concluded Demarcro, was a "profound presence on this planet", a 20th century Leonardo DaVinci. 

"Every second of your life is sacred," said Demarco, quoting Beuys, "we have to honour that by being creative in all aspects of life."

In her talk the following morning, Sacks spoke of the continuing relevance of social sculpture, which informs the ethos and practice of the University of Trees, which recognises different kinds of thinking and knowledge, and prioritises experiential knowing. 

The University of the Trees was inspired by a dream in which Sacks was visited by Beuys, who wore a coat of snow leopard and told her that "we need a landing strip for souls". The planet, he added, was in a state of emergency, so we needed a space in which to "let the souls in". 

The University of Trees is one such instrument of consciousness, a space for the development of a new ecological consciousness that recognises "there is only one frame of transformation and no-one is outside it".

Although not directly influenced by Beuys, several of Friday's speakers explored the intersection of art and ecology. The co-founder of the Coalition for Art and Sustainable Development (Coal), Loïc Fol spoke on Ecology: the art and the manner, providing some striking examples of projects which work towards an ecological aesthetics. 

He began with Herman de Vries' Vitality Wall, a circular wall enclosing a wild garden. This work clearly uses an established aesthetic form to promote ecological ideas. But was it possible, asked Fol, to present ecological thinking in a dynamic manner independent of aesthetic form?

Fol explored these questions with reference to Asa Sonjasdottir's High Diversity, the winner of the Coal prize for environmental art, 2014. This project saw the artist working with urban gardens in Paris to grow 12 varieties of potatoes that were being cultivated during the French Revolution.

These were then distributed during an installation, using bags printed with images and text about the different varieties. As such, the project negotiates a fine balance between naturalism and post-modernism.

In a series of sustainability minis, Ellie Harrison spoke via Skype about her Glasgow Effect project, in which the artist explores the implications of not leaving the city for a year on her working life and practice. 

As part of this project, Harrison is developing the Radical Renewable Art and Sustainability Fund, a scheme which aims to use revenue raised from renewable energy to finance socially and politically engaged art-activist projects. 

Lotte Juul Peterson of Wysing Arts Centre shared her experiences of shadow curating the White Wood, while Marina Velez reflected on the Cambridge Sustainability Residency. 

Finally, Naomi Mason, project manager for the Huntly and District Development Trust, demonstrated how sustainable ideas have been put into practice in the local area.

The White Wood Forum: sustainability, consciousness, peace

In his stimulating and often poetic meditation on The Sustainability of Everything, social anthropologist Tim Ingold encouraged us to think of life as a great symphony in which all things play distinctive, but connected parts, all of which respond to each other in "contrapuntal unity". 

Big science, Ingold argued, has neglected its obligation to the living world, creating a vacuum that artists have stepped into. We need to bring them together, he suggested, in a spirit of democracy and citizenship. 

Ingold urged us to rethink the meaning of sustainable citizenship, proposing a democracy funded "not on identity, but interstitial relations". The tension of differentiation, he explained, is what holds this network of living things together and keeps it evolving.

The theme of sustainability was further explored during Friday's talks by George Thierrey Handja of the Rainforest Foundation and Robin McAlpine of the Common Weal, Scottish leftwing think tank. 

In a fascinating presentation, Handja demonstrated the ways in which the Rainforest Foundation has mapped the knowledge of forest communities in the Congo Basin, using this information to better understand their relationship with the natural environment and how these places can be better managed. 

McAlpine brought the discussion of sustainability into a Scottish context, arguing for a renewed localism to counter the social and environmental injustices of neo-liberalism.

The forum concluded with a talk from lifelong peace campaigner and environmentalist Satish Kumar, who told the story of his 1962 peace walk from India to New York and offered sage advice for creative and sustainable living.

The White Wood Gala

On Saturday, forum attendees and members of the public gathered to walk from the square to the White Wood, led by a piper and African drums. 

At the opening ceremony, Alex Salmond MP introduced several members of the community, who shared their ideas of peace. Perhaps most moving of all were the comments from our new Syrian Scots, who spoke of being born on 16 February, when they arrived as refugees in Scotland. 

Peace for them was seeing the beautiful faces of the community who had given them such a warm welcome.

That glorious summer afternoon was testament to the vibrancy of the Huntly community, with food by Rhynie Woman and the Recovery Café, walks, workshops and musical performances. 

Dee Heddon of the University of Glasgow devised an audio walk exploring issues around disability and access to the countryside. Shelley Sacks led a session for the University of the Trees, inviting participants to create a field of commitment around a tree.

Participants were encouraged to make a commitment, whether it was a practical activity or a change in consciousness.

In creating a truly communal experience, the White Wood Forum was an inspiring realisation of Beuys' Social Sculpture. It seems appropriate to conclude with Wendling's own reflections on the Gala. 

"I was overwhelmed and happy to see that the wood was working as a site for peace celebration through participatory actions and workshops, sharing thoughts and ideas," she said. 

"The clearing of the White Wood was designed as a meeting place, a place to sit down, reflect and regenerate. I was delighted to realise that people liked sitting or lying in the grass looking at the sky. I thought people looked happy.

"Ecology embraced art and people were of the landscape," she continued. "Woods belong to everyone, they surpass us in size and life. We naturally change our behaviour in a wood. 

"We start caring about the other; we have a totally different view on things. The day and its many events seem to seamlessly unfold with small things happening simultaneously all over the place. 

"We worked very hard to include the new Syrian Scots families; they came and they danced, an unforgettable moment. The Wood worked its magic."

Pictures courtesy of Ross Fraser McLean/Studio RoRo

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