Cardiff, Wales

David Nash, Cork Spire, 2012, cork bark, 17' 3 1⁄8“ × 13' 11 3⁄8” × 13' 11 3⁄8".

David Nash, Cork Spire, 2012, cork bark, 17' 3 1⁄8“ × 13' 11 3⁄8” × 13' 11 3⁄8".

David Nash

National Museum

“Are you Welsh now?” I teased the British sculptor David Nash at the opening of his retrospective, where artworks made over fifty years (or two hundred seasons, as the catalogue poetically put it) congregated for the biggest exhibition dedicated to the artist in his adopted homeland. “My job is to make everyone else feel more Welsh,” was his enigmatic reply. Nash was born in 1945 in Esher, UK, but he has lived and worked in the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, in North Wales, for more than five decades. A place of special significance to the artist is Capel Rhiw, a Methodist chapel that was built in the nineteenth century, when Blaenau Ffestiniog was home to a thriving slate industry, and that fell into disrepair by the 1900s. Nash moved there in 1969 and converted it into his studio; it became his family home in 1972.

Curated by Nicholas Thornton, head of contemporary art at the National Museum Cardiff, Nash’s retrospective encompassed sculptures as well as the drawings, films, and photographs that document their creation. Some of Nash’s earliest ventures—among them the ramshackle Anthony Caro-esque assemblage of metal and painted wood and glass titled First Tower, 1967–68, and the Brancusi-inspired geometric wooden stacks of Rising Falling Column, 1971—were absent from the show but presented photographically. The display also included Nash’s early experiments with wood. In Nine Cracked Balls, 1970–71, split wooden spheres seemed to grin lewdly, like misshapen smiley faces.

Perhaps predictably—and unlike previous Nash retrospectives at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Bretton, UK, 2010–11, and London’s Kew Gardens, 2012–13—this show emphasized the artist’s ties to Wales. Cork Spire, 2012, greeted visitors at the entrance to the exhibition. Towering over us, the blackened mound of bark recalled the slaty mountains of Snowdonia, which engulf Capel Rhiw. Many other works were first conceived in Blaenau Ffestiniog, including those made abroad, such Red Dome, 2006, a gathering of totem-like structures arranged in a circle, fashioned for a medieval chapel in Germany.

Yet Thornton’s curation also highlighted the tenuous nature of rootedness. Cube: Blaenau Ffestiniog, 1971, is a gnarled hunk of wood that Nash noticed because its contours resembled the valleys surrounding the town. In the middle of the roughly hewn root, Nash has carved a little cube—an allusion to his studio huddled in the midst of the mountains. Enclosed within its dark-brown wood, the tiny form looked curiously vulnerable. Significantly, on the opposite wall hung Nash’s delicate pen-and-pencil map of the area, A Personal Parish (Blaenau Ffestiniog), 1986—signposted with minute English words, which from a distance resemble cartographic markings. The accompanying wall text related that the Welsh artist Paul Davies criticized Nash for this map: Since Blaenau Ffestiniog is predominantly Welsh-speaking, he felt the labels should have been in Welsh, not English. Nash belongs to Wales, but this identity, like his personal chapel, is precariously perched.

Nash’s work embraces an ephemerality that conditions its opposing claims to permanence. Think of Ash Dome, 1977, which Nash describes as a “living sculptural space.” In 1977, he planted twenty-two ash trees in a circle. Today, this ring of trees recalls the sites of ancient Celtic rituals. Visitors saw, via a film, the ashes’ silvery trunks reaching for shimmery cerulean skies, as if struggling for eternity. Yet Nash’s Ash Dome is doomed. The wall text told us the trees have fallen prey to ash dieback disease. Nash, though, turns death into resurrection. In February 2019, he planted an equal number of oak trees around the moribund trunks. Ash Dome will yield to Oak Dome. Nash predicts: “It is coming.”