Refuge, mountains and great art

Andy Goldsworthy has created a series of extraordinary works amongst the spectacular Provencal countryside.

Words & Pictures: Allan Pollok Morris

Visiting a landscape you know well in a different season can be like seeing it for the first time. That’s how it felt when I revisited Andy Goldsworthy’s Refuge d’Art installations. I have been documenting the project since 2004 but walking the 150 km of restored Provencal trails that link the installations in winter was a revelation.

The pieces are sited in the dramatic landscape around Digne les Bains which forms part of the extraordinary Reserve Naturelle Geologique de Haut Provence.

The work of Andy Goldsworthy is familiar to a wide spectrum of lovers of art, nature and landscape around the world, but this has been a distinctive departure for Goldsworthy.

Gallery wall

Musee Gassendi

He has been working on the project for nearly 20 years together with Nadine Gomez, the gifted curator of the Musee Gassendi in the town of Digne Les Bains, and the mountain guide Jean-Pierre Brovelli.

Following the first installation in 1995 work began restoring the old footpaths which join a series of walker’s refuges where visitors can experience living with a sculpture, staying overnight in intimate, mountain refuges, small farm buildings and a converted hilltop chapel.

Sentinelles, cairn sculptures, clay walls and the memory of temporary installations in the riverbeds are dotted throughout the 400 square miles of the geological reserve.

There is also a stunning large-scale clay wall Goldsworthy work in the gallery at the Musee Gassendi, set in amongst a collection of large oil paintings showing historic local scenes, there is something really powerful about this juxtaposition of old and new, natural and painted materials.

This was my first attempt at seeing all the works in one visit. Arriving in Digne Les Bains in early February exaggerates the frontier feel of the place, not least as I had just come up the mountains by train from the cosmopolitan city of Nice.

High on the hill

I collected the keys for the refuges from the Musee Gassendi and began my journey walking the paths between the artworks. Other than hazel catkins, lichens and some adventurous early spring flowers the only colour came from the clay and rock, materials used inside the refuges by Goldsworthy. Otherwise all was bleached by winter, bright and pale in the day and dark grey at dusk.

The paths are blissfully free of signposting and artificial paving so its often hard to know if you are heading in the right direction, but just when you think you need to retrace your steps a spontaneous stone or wood sculpture made by other walkers appears ahead to reassure you on your way. No doubt in years to come these will be as numerous here as they are on the beaches of San Francisco, but for now it feels a quiet secret.

Top of the hill

Chapelle Sainte-Madeleine

I left Digne and climbed to the hill-top Chapelle Sainte-Madeleine. I saw a monument to the local resistance in the second world war and little further on I passed a pristine antique binocular case left in the middle of the path, an innocent object that somehow has resonance. I have read that Goldsworthy intended to draw parallels to the Resistance in the making of the artwork inside the chapel. The views are breathtaking.

Inside the chapel are two wooden benches for sleeping and in the back wall a step leading up to a sarcophagos shaped, deep recess which becomes something of a collective memory of all the people who have stepped inside.

Around the chapel visitors have made line drawings with pebbles, bits of old terracotta roof tile and sticks giving the chapel perimeter a sense of environmental spirituality.

Bunking down

Refuges d'Art is Le Vieil Esclangon

The most visited Refuges d’Art is Le Vieil Esclangon, a farmhouse abandoned in the early 20th century. This sits in a small open pasture 500 metres above the Vallee du Bles where Goldsworthy continues to make temporary installations in the river bed when visiting the region.

Even though the Esclangon refuge follows the bunkhouse theme it has a very strong sense of being a home. There is a broom in the corner, a table and benches, wooden bunks, informal dried flower arrangements left by visitors and the warm, flowing clay sculpture by Goldsworthy occupying the whole of an end wall inside the building. The work made of red clay is a sinuous twisting ridged line working its way from the ground to the roof. The windows have been purposely reduced in size, contorting the original open site of the building to take advantage of the natural light.

With no electricity you rely on candles and the open fire which means at night there is a wonderful balance between the dim interior light and the gentle changing natural illumination from outside at dusk, through twilight, moonlight to dawn. Spending the night by the clay sculpture with this changing gentle illumination brings an intense sleeping sense and visceral anticipation of what you might see when waking through the night and into the dawn. It never disappoints.


Livre D'Or

In my work I photograph many places visited by the public, but this is the only time I have ever been moved to photograph the contents of a visitor book. the appropriately named ‘Livre D’Or’.

Standing outside the refuges from the high pasture looking over the immense geological landscape of the reserve left me feeling very insignificant in time and nature. It’s a very wild and remote spot, but even in winter there is a lot of life. There animals including wolf and wild boar, plant life in the trees and on the ground, some wild flowers - even this early in the season - and in the far distance, on the top of the opposite hill, I’m told there is a chapel lived in by hermits to whom the recent refuge re-build and return of distant neighbors, albeit temporarily, must be a curiosity.

Standing guard

Refuges D’Art walk

Other works in the park include three dry-stone sentinelles; cone shaped cairns made over the three years around the millennium positioned at the centre of the three valleys that the 150 km Refuges D’Art walk circumnavigates.

I visited the Sentinelle made in the Vallee de l’Asse at the end of a very clear winter day. It was one of the few times in the journey that I met other walkers on the trail. (Yes, I know, I probably shouldn’t hike on my own in the middle of winter.) The intimate feel of discovering the landscape and works alone can give a very personal sense of belonging in the place. The cairn sits by a pine next to a sharp corner on a single-track paved road above a small hamlet where some houses offer accommodation.

The surrounding valley is dotted with small-holding farm buildings. Compared to the other villages and towns I travelled while visiting the Refuges D’Art, this community felt particularly remote and in a world of its own.

It was a very still, cold, clear evening and I spent time filming the sunset and recording the ambient sound in the valley from an open position in the dry meadow next to the cairn. The sounds and activity brought a rhythm to the landscape, children playing after school, dog barks echoing off the hills, a chainsaw as someone gets the wood in as dusk falls, all simple sounds, but in this dramatic twilight landscape, it made for a lovely momentary connection between the work of art, the rural community and a wider setting made by tens of millions of years of geological movement and within this the Refuges D’Art Project continues to grow.