Memories of Place by Magdalena Jetelova – Joy Sleeman

I began my PhD research, on Landscape and Land Art, at the University of Leeds in the autumn of 1991. Not long after I arrived in Leeds an exhibition of the work of Magdalena Jetelova opened at the Henry Moore Trust studio at Dean Clough in Halifax. Dean Clough is a former carpet mill with vast stone-floored spaces and my recollection was of huge furniture crammed into a space that could hardly contain it. As I began researching the history and legacy of land art in Britain, I identified a number of key locations to visit the following year, which included the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail.

I didn’t have my own car at that point, but it didn’t prove difficult to persuade my parents to join me on a visit to the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail the following summer. Not least because my father knows the area well. His father, my grandfather, was born in the Forest of Dean and several members of his family still lived there. [The photographs show me, my mum and dad at the site.]

At that time there were few general books on land art, and none surveying work in the UK extensively. John Beardsley’s bookEarthworks and Beyond, first published in New York in 1984, had one chapter on work in Britain, called ‘The Ramble’, which made it seem that work in Britain was on a much smaller scale than in America, more eccentric, poetic and less intrusive. There was a certain truth to this, but it was – and remains – a stereotype that obscures a more nuanced understanding of the development of this kind of work internationally. There was also a lack of terminology in which to talk about this work in a critical and politically engaged way. My tutors as an undergraduate included Lynne Cooke, who curated one of the early Forest of Dean related exhibitions at the Arnolfini and went on to be curator at DIA Art Foundation in New York. She approached this work with a seriousness that impressed me. More generally it seemed that the work of certain artists dominated the image of contemporary art in the landscape in the early 1990s. None more so than Andy Goldsworthy, whose glossy publications of colourful works seemed destined for a life on the coffee table rather than being the subject of rigorous debate in the seminar room.

Jetelova’s work was gutsy and robust. It came out of a European tradition but seemed cognisant of American sculpture too. It gave domesticity the grandeur and scale of the Neolithic. And, when I saw Place in the Forest of Dean sometime in 1992, it set up a powerful dialogue for me with the work I’d seen the previous autumn in the former industrial space in Halifax: between the Place in the landscape and the Non-Place in the gallery (to mix the terms of Robert Smithson and Marc Augé). I didn’t write about it specifically in my thesis. It seemed a work resonant with physicality rather than text. Looking at the book documenting the project, The Sculpted Forest, published in 1990, Place makes its presence felt visually rather than in words. It features on the cover of the book, but Jetelova’s is by far the shortest of all the artist’s statements. It is very succinct, matter of fact, though also rather inscrutable: ‘What matters is not the object itself but something different from what we see. I am interested in placing a particular sculpture in different environments, into different contexts. [. . . ] I am talking about changes in reality. Everything has several levels, there are always several possibilities.’ And now that the reality of the work – and the world – has changed and it (both work and world?) will no longer exist in the same way physically, I wonder if this is the moment when we might need to find the words, not to replace it, but to begin to write and talk about it. Just as this has become the moment to transform this work and its place/site in the landscape into a new reality and to begin the next chapter of its existence.

1. Robert Smithson’s terms ‘site’ and ‘non-site’ were developed in his sculpture and writing from 1966, see for example ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’ (1968) in Jack Flam (ed), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 100-113. Marc Augé’s idea of ‘non places’ is developed in his book Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso, 1995).

2. Magdalena Jetelova, ‘artist’s statement’ in Rupert Martin, The Sculpted Forest: Sculptures in the Forest of Dean (Bristol: Redcliffe Press, 1990), 71.