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.”