A striking new monumental sculpture is going up at the National Memorial Arboretum: an imposing wall, some three metres high and fifteen metres long, with a series of cracks and grooves cut into it, designed to cast a complex and changing pattern of shadows as the sun moves across the sky.
The sculpture, entitled Passing Light, is the work of Stroud-based artist Ann-Margreth Bohl. ‘It’s like some bonkers Stonehenge’, she says: ‘like some of those ancient sites, this also is a time piece. It’s an outdoor installation that unfolds in time, looking very different at different times of day. That means that it repays spending time with it, or revisiting it. So it suits the National Memorial Arboretum: a place where people go again and again, to grieve or to remember.’
Passing Light was commissioned by the renowned Stroud-based garden designer Paul Hervey-Brookes, who wanted it initially for the IQ Quarry Garden at the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show in the grounds of Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. Ironically, Ann-Margreth was commissioned on the very day that Donald Trump was elected President, with his plans for a very different kind of wall.
Ann-Margreth’s brief was just to make a wall with an incision or crack in it: other than that, she had freedom to do pretty much what she liked. She chose to focus on the shadows cast by the wall, and the contrast between what seems solid and the ephemeral effects of light as it plays upon it. ‘The work I’d done before is all to do with light, shadow and form, so it fitted really well.’
Passing Light was originally intended to be in stone, but the final version is made of rusted Corten steel (a preservation order was placed on the Chatsworth stone that Ann-Margreth had planned to use, meaning that it couldn’t be taken away from the Chatsworth Estate – a problem, given that she knew from the outset that Passing Light was to have an afterlife at the National Memorial Garden). Being steel, it will age quicker than it would if it was made of stone – as well as the light changing from moment to moment, over time the material of the wall will change too.
For Ann-Margreth this is a new departure: never before has she made work on such a large scale. While she has worked collaboratively in the past (including with Stroud-based composer Emily Hall, and sound designer David Sheppard at the London Sinfonietta), making Passing Light meant working especially closely with others, and in particular with local digital designer Dan Hughes McGrail, who made a computer animation showing how the shifting shadows would be cast by the wall, and who translated Ann-Margreth’s models for Passing Light into something that could be used by architects and structural engineers, to create a monument that won’t fall over. ‘For something that weighs tons, and that is a public artwork, you really need to think that through.’
Walls have a particular significance for Ann-Margreth: she grew up in Germany near the wall between the East and West. ‘That was one of my core inspirations. As a child I would look over the wall and see the guys with machine guns, and all the houses painted the same colour. I always make a point of returning there when I go back to Germany.’ That wall is no longer there (it, too, having proved to be ephemeral), and the former ‘death strip’ between East and West is now a haven for wildlife.
Another of Ann-Margreth’s strongest influences is the fact that she grew up a Catholic: ‘I would spend hours in church, looking at the light coming through the windows, and seeing how it would hit the sculptures.’
Time is also a major theme. Ann-Margreth, who works a great deal in stone (and also teaches stone carving at New Brewery Arts in Cirencester), says that she finds it ‘an amazing material – it’s so old, and you’re aware of the time it encapsulates. If I discover something in a piece of stone as I carve away, I know that I’m the first person ever to have seen it. It’s a magical thing. And as you get older, time gets to be a big subject for you. How little our time is here, how important it is to be aware that everything is passing, and how you must make the most of every day. In my work I can translate some of that: Passing Light is a monument to something that can’t be held, or that is moving through.’
Finally, the transitory nature of life is something that was impressed on Ann-Margreth at a young age. ‘In my early twenties I trained as a paediatric nurse, working with terminally ill children. Being with children who are dying, and seeing how short their life is – it was a hard job to do. But from an early age it made me think “I’ve got to make the most of this.” Since then, with the support of a lot of people, I’ve been able to carve out my life. It’s like the old sundials, which often had mottoes carved into them saying “don’t waste time” – you have to be aware that everything is ephemeral. My work taps into that.’
When Passing Light was on display at Chatsworth, Ann-Margreth was able to sit, unobserved, and hear what visitors said about it. ‘The punters would come in and they would say things, and I would sit with my little notebook, writing down their comments. There was one that touched me deeply: a woman said “you know what, this reminds me of when we went to Berlin. Do you remember the wall there, and how they had taken everything down? It really reminds me of that.” And that in a way is where this all comes from. Sometimes as an artist you question whether what you do is worth it, but when it can trigger a thought in somebody else, for me that’s the biggest gift that I can give.’