Magdalena Jetelová, 1986
“Right from the start I worked with objects, first with a table, then came windows. But I do not make objects, my work is always about something else. 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.” Magdalena Jetelová
Place – know colloquially as the Giant’s Chair – was commissioned in 1986. One of the first sculptures to feature on the newly opened Trail, it was constructed from five large oak trunks. The oak was prepared at the Sculpture Shed in Bristol and, after six months of weathering in the forest, was hoisted into place using a 10-ton crane.
Commanding a magnificent view of the Cannop Valley, this structure sat like a huge throne, or like a giant surveying his territory. Recalling the prehistoric structures of Stonehenge, the sculpture appeared already to have stood for centuries. With its irregular stance it was also reminiscent of a strange animal in one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, striding across the landscape.
The awe-inspiring sculpture brought ancient myths to mind, but it was also influenced by more recent history: Jetelová’s experiences as a young woman in communist Czechoslovakia.
In the artist’s words: “My sculptures go for the basics. I am interested in getting through to the essence, to reach the origins. That is why I am fascinated by the Middle Ages.
I have often thought what a perfect image the cross is. It is a very simple symbol. I am interested in the most basic signs: I want to extract the idea they contain and take it still further.
I do not go for a formal approach. Nothing I produce is made in a formal way. What matters immensely for me is the content. I fill all my sculptures with content. I project life into objects. I project a given situation at a certain time and in a specific place.
I am talking about changes in reality. Everything has several levels, there are always several possibilities.”
The Decommission of Place
Jetelová’s sculpture was intended to be a short-lived artwork that would be burnt intact using traditional Forest of Dean charcoal methods. The artist had visited a traditional charcoal burn event at the Dean Heritage Centre and was inspired by what she saw: “I was fascinated by this landscape due to the contradiction between the beauty of the imposing view and the scar which was incurred through the logging on this site. This is why I chose this location for my art. I strove to connect the imposing view with the positive energy of the charcoal tradition.”
In 1986, at the artist’s request, local charcoal experts began the process of building a wood pile to cover the monumental sculpture so it could be burnt. But eventually it became clear it was too huge and risky an undertaking and the event was cancelled. The sculpture remained on its hilltop position overlooking the Cannop Valley.
In the years that followed, the sculpture entered into the imagination of local people and visitors to become a much-loved icon of the Trail and the Dean. However, it inevitably suffered wear and tear and was deemed beyond repair by health and safety experts.
The sculpture was dismantled in 2015, an event that was captured and broadcast by BBC News. Two of the larger legs were placed nearby to provide habitat for invertebrates and other wildlife. The remainder of the timber was sawn into sections and constructed into a traditional charcoal hearth called a ‘clamp’. The timber was then transformed into charcoal in a public burning event overseen by Onya McCausland and Jetelová, who returned to the Sculpture Trail for the first time in 29 years.
As McCausland put it: “When I met Magdalena, I wanted to understand more about her original plans to burn Place. I learned how important this gesture was to her life. Since then, the sculpture has touched many people’s lives, so the gesture is a material change that connects to the landscape and with the people that live there. This act of burning is a transformation, not an end.”
About the Artist
Magdalena Jetelová is a Czech/German installation and land artist. She studied at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts and the Accademia di Brera in Milan (1965-1971) and has worked as a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Monaco and Salzburg and the National Academies of Düsseldorf and Berlin. Jetelová is best known for reproducing everyday items, like tables, chairs and stairs, at monumental scale. She has been exhibiting her work since 1981, including at the Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague (1983), the Tate Gallery, London (1983), the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1987), the National Center for Contemporary Arts, Moscow (2002), the Akademie der Künste, Berlin (2009) and the Taipei Museum, Taiwan (2016).