Nature meets art: Modern outlook, primal impact at Dumbarton Oaks


2008 image of Patrick Dougherty, creator of the art installation ‘Easy Rider’ at Dumbarton Oaks. (James Fraherjames@bogfire.com)

You don’t expect whimsy on a walk through the formal gardens of Dumbarton Oaks. Geometric rose beds and manicured boxwoods, yes. But you’re just not going to find nature running its course at the quiet Georgetown estate.

Until you round the main house and pass the stern stone pineapples standing sentry over the grassy ellipse. Rising up from what was once a restrained oasis of green is something primal, even playful: heaps of sticks and branches that look like they’ve been whipped by a cyclone into living forms. Part wood, part wind, their wispy topknots disappear into the surrounding ring of hornbeam trees.

Have druids invaded this well-kept refuge?

Certainly, the installation by North Carolina artist Patrick Dougherty channels something ancient as much as it leans toward minimalist modern art. This creation and works like it that bridge old and new are part of an emerging movement whose practitioners weave humble materials (sticks, roots, bamboo) into outdoor structures that echo and enhance the environment.

The materials aren’t the only part that is humble, however. The artist’s ego yields to nature’s will. Where conventional outdoor art is imposed on the landscape, these works — called environmental art or site-specific sculpture, but perhaps best labeled natural architecture — seem to spring from the earth. And return to it. Natural architecture is temporary. Most garden sculpture is made to endure, to resist the elements — but this art is meant to fall apart.

Impermanence is part of natural architecture’s charm. On a California ranch, British sculptor David Nash hacked a flight of steps into a fallen sequoia; a decade later El Nino swept it away and lodged it elsewhere. Okay by Nash.

At the edge of a Taiwanese forest, New York architects Eric Bunge and Mimi Hoang have woven green bamboo into a performance pavilion of soaring, rhythmic arches and curves, like the architectural equivalent of a folk dance. It will last a year.

Dougherty is more of a sculptor than an architect, though his works typically feature doorways and arches you can move through. His work at Dumbarton Oaks, which he built with the help of dozens of volunteers over three weeks last September, will last only a few more months, though it won’t fall apart on its own. There’s only so much untidiness this historically important garden can bear. By the end of the fall, the installation will be taken apart, branch by branch, before it has a chance to collapse.

Until then, Dougherty’s enchanting stick figures will whirl around the ellipse’s elegant aerial hedge — so named because the trees are pruned to bear their greenery high above branchless, columnar trunks. Dougherty calls his creation “Easy Rider”; he sees his sculptures as agents of freedom, turning the circle of trees into an imaginary merry-go-round.

“I was thinking of the hedge as something to ride on,” Dougherty says in a light drawl as musical as the image he’s conjuring. “This would break up the symmetry a bit . . . and bring in the surprise element of these things as coming up from the ground and being entangled, and having a bit of swirl.”

‘Functional and beautiful’

Dougherty, 66, is speaking by phone from the log home he built in the woods outside Chapel Hill, N.C. With his work in demand around the world, he spends only about a week per month at home with his teenage son and his wife, Linda Johnson Dougherty, chief curator and curator of contemporary art at the North Carolina Museum of Art (and a former curator at the Phillips Collection).

He creates about 10 installations a year — among them, whorls of saplings affixed to a building in Savannah, Ga., woven-willow wheels rolling through trees in a sculpture park in Langeland, Denmark, and birdlike bundles nesting on a museum roof in Lincoln, Mass. In May he completed a piece at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond.

In 2005 Dougherty built a set of giant willow structures in Lacoste, France, inspired by stone huts in the region. The following year, Bunge and Hoang of nArchitects created a work in the same place: “Wind Shape,” an ephemeral pavilion spun from plastic pipes designed to sway with the Provencal wind. It was an experiment in designing a structure to respond to its environment, rather than to resist it, Bunge says.

“We call them ‘almost buildings,’ ” says Bunge, 44. “We’re not into sculpture, we’re not artists. We want to create something that’s functional and beautiful.”

Using natural materials to do this has brought them international attention. In 2004, he and Hoang, 39, won a yearly competition to design a canopy over the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art PS1 in Long Island City, N.Y. The architects wove flexible, freshly cut bamboo stalks into a delicate overhead network.

This thinking informed their performance pavilion in eastern Taiwan, constructed in May for a festival and now destined for destruction.

Bunge shrugs off the death sentence. Bamboo, so light and so cheap, allows him to dream big. The aim is “to create as much as we can out of nothing,” he says. “We try to create huge spaces with almost no budget, and [bamboo] is the strongest stuff on Earth.” Mixing in high-tech materials such as stainless steel wire gives the structures a more modern look, to avert what Bunge calls “the ‘Gilligan’s Island’ rustic effect.”

A step further

With their light touch and leave-no-trace approach, Dougherty, Bunge and others like them are an answer to the monumental “land art” of 40 years ago, when Michael Heizer cut massive trenches in the Nevada desert (“Double Negative,” 1969) and Robert Smithson created his “Spiral Jetty” (1970), a coil of mud and rocks jutting into the Great Salt Lake, still visible if water levels are low. The new works also counter what was once a mainstream belief: “Nature exists to be raped!” was Picasso’s famous poke in the eye.

Though his works weren’t permanent, Christo took the idea of large-scale dominance even further, draping valleys and wrapping entire islands in polypropylene. In contrast to the heavy-handed aesthetic of these and other works, a gentler approach is favored now. Especially given renewed awareness of the fragility of the environment.

John Beardsley, director of garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, commissioned “Easy Rider.” He has long been interested in land art, dating back to the 1970s when, as a curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, he organized one of the first exhibits of the movement.

Dougherty’s work is especially right for Dumbarton Oaks, he says, because it harks back to the 19th-century craze for what one antique tome he pulls off a shelf calls “grotesque” garden structures — pavilions, gazebos and huts made of woven willow or the Hansel-and-Gretel charm of wattle and daub.

Since arriving at Dumbarton Oaks in 2008, Beardsley has put a modern-art stamp on the Harvard-run research institution known as a treasury of the past, with its Byzantine and pre-Columbian art collections and its gardens landscaped nearly a century ago. In 2009, Beardsley brought in New York sculptor Charles Si­monds, who scattered clay figures — grimacing heads, body parts — around the gardens and throughout the museum. Beardsley hopes to commission site-specific art each year.

What he especially prizes in Dougherty’s stick structures, each one resembling a wee hut complete with doorways and windows, is the “audience engagement.”

“They can be inhabited,” he says. “They tap into everybody’s childhood fantasies of building forts in the woods.”

‘On top of the world’

Dougherty has built about 200 stick sculptures — he calls them “stickworks,” also the name of his Web site, stickwork.net, and of his book that came out last year from Princeton Architectural Press. He views the growing interest in the works as a function of 21st-cen­tury angst.

“It has to do with people’s increasing nervous feeling about the state of the world and the Earth,” he says. “This is driving people to more interest in the natural world.”

He dates his own love of nature to childhood visits to his grandparents’ farm in Oklahoma, where he could roam freely.

Nowadays, absent farms, folks visit gardens to get their nature fix. And Dougherty’s sculptures intensify what we seek there: utter simplicity. A cocoon of shelter, a return to Eden. And, in Dougherty’s view, they also trigger a primal recognition of the lowly stick as supremely useful: our first tool, our first lumber, our first protector from the wild.

It took truckloads of them to build “Easy Rider” — overstock saplings from a nursery and branches left behind after a Virginia forest underwent pruning. Dougherty always enlists volunteers on his projects, but hosting swarms of do-gooders all day long in the gardens that strictly limit public access was a new experience for the academics at Dum­bar­ton Oaks.

“They feared it,” says Dougherty.

In the end, “I think they came a long way.”

The volunteers did, too.

“You did feel like you were playing in a space that usually you’re only there to look at and admire,” says Georgina Owen, one of those who pitched in. The gardening enthusiast and associate director of the Environmental Film Festival lives just a few blocks from Dumbarton Oaks and gained a different view of the place.

“Standing high on the scaffolding to weave at the higher points, looking out over the other structures that had already taken form, with the hornbeam hedge beyond them and the blue, blue sky beyond that — you really felt you were on top of the world,” she says.

Wherever he makes his stickworks, Dougherty says, “I find myself helping the organizers move toward the real purpose of art. It’s not to buy or sell. It’s not to last, really. It’s the immediate impact. That they’re really stirred by the impact, by the immediacy of it. They want to walk around it, want to talk about it, want to touch it, want to go get their family and bring them back to it.”

kaufmans@washpost.com

Easy Rider

Dumbarton Oaks, 1703 32nd St. NW. Open daily except Mondays, 2–6 p.m., through Oct. 31. 202-339-6401.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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