Burning Man Flames Into Britain: Can Its Wild Sculptural Magic Work in the Valley? | Sculpture

CI pinch the inside of Christina Sporrong’s giant head and look up at the books, fleeing through the top of its open skull and fluttering out into the perfect blue sky. I have to take care of my stride – there are some holes in the railing – until I reach the eye socket and get a look out into my surroundings.

Back in 2019, when Sporrong’s Flybrary sculpture was first unveiled, this would have given me the chance to take on Nevada’s famous desert festival Burning Man. I could have seen naked hippies and scattered ravers dancing among colorful sculptures and eruptions of pyrotechnics. Today, however, I get a somewhat different sight: the glorious park property Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.

This is where Radical Horizons: The Art of Burning Man opens next month: a free exhibition of 12 sculptures created by artists from the festival, scattered around the grounds. From my vantage point inside my head, everything is quiet. In the distance, a dog walker crosses Paine’s bridge. Nearby, a couple of confused retirees are taking pictures. I sense they may be wondering why a giant, non-binary head has suddenly landed on the lawn of one of the country’s most beloved stately homes.

'I'm excited about what the reaction will be'… Christina Sporrong's sculpture The Flybrary at Chatsworth.
“Isn’t it all pretty wild for Chatsworth?” … Christina Sporrongs The Flybrary. Photo: Christopher Thomond / The Guardian

The same question can be asked about quite a bit of what is here: steel wings 28 feet high that invite you to stretch out inside them; hugging bears made from American pennies; a trio of metal moths named Jayne, Luna and Gonzo. Perhaps most eye-opening of all, a huge mechanically winged horse that will gallop and breathe fire right next to the house itself. Isn’t it all pretty wild for Chatsworth?

“No, I thought it was wonderfulsays Peregrine Cavendish, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, from inside his lower library. He explains how this unlikely collaboration between a self-expression festival in the United States and an old property in the Derbyshire Dales arose. The auction house Sotheby’s put them in touch and predicted , that they had more in common than one might think.

One is an open mind. The duke may look and speak like a duke, but he has a subversive streak. Opens with Radical Horizons an exhibition called Living With Art We Love, in which Chatsworth House will be decorated with the Duke and Duchess’s private collection of modern art: something more in keeping with the style of the house (a corridor of Lucian Freud’s portraits) than others (a series of Michael Craig-Martin imprint that shreds the retina). “I’m a little nervous to be honest,” the Duke says. “It’s a bit like exposing yourself.”

Time for a tour of the sculptures. We start with Wings of Glory, the silvery pegasus that gets its first wing lowered on when we arrive. “This bit never goes smoothly,” says creator Adrian Landon, dressed in a hi-vis jacket as they try to unscrew the bolts. I get a glimpse of its interior features: a riot of old gears and chains that apparently consists of a golf cart from the 1980s and a BMW rear differential. But I also sense its majesty. This winged beauty could almost have stood guard here by the house for hundreds of years.

Landon first went to Burning Man in 2018 and was instantly inspired, creating Wings of Glory for the following year. “As an artist, you rarely have such clear moments of inspiration,” he says, remembering the reaction it received when it arrived: “There was a sea of ​​people who were completely confused by it. People came to me in tears and thanked me for it. “

'Crushing bears made of American pennies'… Ursa Mater by Mr. & Mrs. Ferguson.
‘Crushing bears made of American pennies’… Ursa Mater by Mr. & Mrs. Ferguson. Photo: Christopher Thomond / The Guardian

Bringing it to Chatsworth has proved challenging: the horse had to be disassembled and packed into a 40-foot shipping container along with all the proper tools and spare parts. When Landon tells me this, a ladder crashes down on the newly attached wing. He grimaces. I let him come back to work.

Flybrary has been placed near the shore of Derwent, its head turned away from the house, so people have to venture out to get the best view of what is on the other side of the bridge – though Sporrong says she tipped it little so that the Duke and Duchess could still see part of the face from their window (unlike many stately homes, Chatsworth is still used as a residence).

She says the idea for Flybrary came to her in a dream: the head of a future human being, ambiguous in race and gender, who could still think and dream, no matter how bad the repression from the Trump era may become. When she debuted the play on Burning Man, she got the extra idea to turn it into a library. It was filled with 600 books that people could check out during the week. “We also worked with the Human Library from Denmark,” says Sporrong. “So you could ‘check’ someone out and learn from them.” One was the father of a victim of a school shooting. “He wanted to tell about his experience, what he learned and how he overcame it. It was deep and wonderful.”

Sporrong has always assumed that her head would end up outside a public library in a big city. Bringing it to the heart of the British aristocracy required a bit of a mental leap. “I’m excited about what the reaction will be,” she says a little tentatively.

We hop in Kim Cook’s car, director of creative initiatives at Burning Man, to visit some of the more meandering works. We drive past the place where Lodestar, the largest piece, will go: a World War II military aircraft that now boasts hand-blown glass flowers as flowers. At present, only half of the peak has arrived, and this has caused enough problems: too heavy to be driven over the bridge, which has a limit of 28 tons, it had to come via an alternative entrance, which involved pushing it through the house’s gold leaf gates (it did so by an inch or two).

Pyrotechnic force… a blazing 'flower tower' at Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.
Pyrotechnic force… a blazing ‘flower tower’ at Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Photo: Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Next, we pass a pile of stones that are neatly arranged next to each other. This is the half-finished work of Benjamin Langholz, whose liberal life (“trekking in Nepal, dancing in Israel, learning rope-binding in Japan”) was also changed forever by a visit to Burning Man in 2016, where he helped build – and burn – two wooden pyramids called Catacomb of Veils. The following year, he took his shibari rope teacher and a crew of Japanese to the festival to make a piece using 11 miles of rope. Recently, he created Stone 27 for the festival, a stunning walkway of 600 lb stone suspended in the air. He recreates the work as Stone 40 for Chatsworth, a spiral circle that, like the other sculptures, is touchable and climbing.

Langholz will use locally quarried stone, such as the one Chatsworth himself was built from, and it is these connections that make Cook particularly passionate about the project. “It’s easy to say, ‘Burning man, naked people! Chatsworth, old England,’ she says. ‘But then you lose those layers of connection.’ Cook adds, ‘There are a number of people, including the Duke and Duchess, who can see the future here and wants to move forward. But at the same time, we all have a responsibility to the tender hearts of those who may be a little like, ‘What’s going on here?’ ”

Everything must work in harmony. Not least because over the summer, four sculptures will be made on site during the exhibition, all of which engage with the locals and materials. Dana Albany makes a mermaid with local children using steel from a playground that was to be pulled down. Rebekah Waites creates a work called Relevé, inspired by the Nine Ladies Stone Circle, a Bronze Age archeological site near the house. According to local knowledge, this circle was created when nine women were caught dancing on the Sabbath and turned to stone as punishment.

Give Up… Wings of Glory by Adrian Landon
Give Up… Wings of Glory by Adrian Landon Photo: Christopher Thomond / The Guardian

Waites’ tribute to it will be made from some sweet chestnut trees that had to be felled because they were sick. Relevé will be set on fire on the festive last night of the installations, in true Burning Man style: another brave move for Chatsworth. I wonder how the Duke will feel about it all when the last work has gone up in flames? Will he become a convert, perhaps even tempted to participate in the next Burning Man himself? “I would love to see it,” he says. “But I have to admit, I’m not that into camping.”

Maybe he could invite the festival goers over here instead to a free house and garden party. Could that be Chatsworth’s next move? “I think it’s very unlikely,” he says. “But we love making new things. We should never rule anything out!”

Radical Horizons: The Art of Burning Man is in Chatsworth House from April 9 to October 1, 2022. Living With Art We Love, an exhibition presented by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, is in Chatsworth from March 26 to 9. October.

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