What role can (or should) artworks play in non-urban landscapes, particularly those perceived as ‘wild’? Conceptions of natural landscapes are a part of cultural discourse, and consequently artworks can both reflect and affect concepts of wilderness. Site-specific artworks situated in remote settings offer particular opportunities for interpreting relationships between culture and nature, time and place, and can communicate a range of environmental and social values. However, art can be controversial, and artworks in protected and sensitive landscapes more so. How does a contemporary cultural artefact impact the experience and understanding of ‘wild’ landscapes, especially if the people drawn to such landscapes value their timeless and non-human qualities? Can cultural expressions and wild places co-exist?
To explore these tensions, this paper focuses on the role of art in UK national parks, as evidenced through parks policies and a case study project. An overview of existing policy nationwide illustrates varying approaches to this aspect of landscape interpretation and management, with the amount of work occurring ‘on the ground’ differing from park to park. Within this context, the Peak District National Park supported Companion Stones (2010, project leader Charles Monkhouse), a series of poem-inscribed stone sculptures situated in more and less remote parts of the Park. Interviews with project artists, cultural heritage and parks managers, on-site surveys of fifty park users (in 2012 and 2013) and other commentary such as reviews were analysed to trace the different values being promoted through Companion Stones , and to assess how these values are perceived by different stakeholders. The study revealed a generally supportive or neutral attitude toward Companion Stones and the extra dimension they add to landscape experience and understanding, but a number of important exceptions highlighting the significance of siting, materiality, form and scale.
Perceptions of the appropriateness / inappropriateness of artworks in wild landscapes are illustrative of wider concerns about landscape management and change. Understanding these perceptions can inform policymakers and artists as they seek to achieve the national parks aim of ‘Promot[ing] public understanding and enjoyment of their special qualities’, especially when those landscape qualities are both cultural and ‘wild’.