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Bellever - In the Spirit of...
Craig Wood visits Ron Haselden's installation Belvedere on Dartmoor for Artists Newsletter, August 1987

Bellever - In the Spirit of...

In the Spring of 87 I had set off for Dartmoor with the information: Ron Haselden is building a forest walkway and needs somebody to join the team for a week or so. This scanty description from a third party was so uninspiring that I arrived in Exeter anticipating some sort of rustic, timber, in-harmony-with-its- surroundings-bio-degradable-twig-art piece. This illusion rapidly started to dissipate when having met Ron and his four chaotic mongrels. He quietly began asking me questions;

You're not afraid of heights, are you? Can you cope with a lot of heavy lifting? I had answered positively but the truth was I had no idea!

When we finally arrived at the site my comfortable twig-art theory completely dissolved as I stood before something more akin to major civil engineering. The work was not a mere walkway but a tower with a spiralling walkway around its outside, and with obvious intentions of achieving serious heights. Also it was being constructed of extremely non-biodegradable steel, scaffolding tubing. The whole area resembled The Somme with mud-filled trenches from which the load-bearing uprights sprouted and branched into the base of a structure some forty feet across its width.The structure appeared horribly incongruous at this stage but as it became taller and more massive its towering verticals more and more reflected and disappeared into the lines of the surrounding forest.

My next surprise was to meet Guy, Ryan and the other team members who swung across the lattice work of scaffolding and viewed me objectively. Dartmoor's brown, sticky peat had engrained its way into every pore of their skin, hair and clothing; they looked somewhere between Welsh Miners and Victorian Street Urchins. Casually they asked me to pass them a standard. Standards, I was then to learn is the term for the longest length of scaffolding, which at twenty one feet and seventy pounds seemed impossible to man- oeuvre when first handled. As I awkwardly heaved the monster up to them I had made my snap decision to join the group regardless of over-estimating my abilities.

As the days passed, the weight of the scaffolding and the pains in my body seemed to diminish in inverse proportion to the cleanliness of my appearance. We were a strange, filthy, un-selfconscious species of peat people who were clearly to be avoided judging by the reactions of the numerous hill-walkers. This didn't concern us for we had become obsessive about the project and had little time for anything else. By now we were working seven days a week, all the hours of daylight and in all weather conditions that Dartmoor sent to test our sincerity. Our commitment and intensity of work started to be noted by the local inhabitants and forresters who had initially been very wary or bluntly hostile:

...Modern artists are a load of fucking wankers! was the initial critique thrown at Ron when he had first arrived. Now we were earning modest approval. ...You've put some hours into that tower. ...One hell of a lot of scaffolding you've shifted up that hill.

If Belvedere (christened after Bellever Forest where we were working) wasn't accepted as fine art it was definitely admired as an event. This is possibly attributable to the very high regard given to hard work and if it's synonymous with honesty. However, the forestry workers suspected that we worked on a lavish bonus scheme, despite our denials. It became clear that our way of working and reasons for our motivation had become as much a challenge as the finished piece itself. Our non-materialist motivation for our work threw into question the whole ethos of waged labour. This was determined as much by the material itself, that is, scaffolding demands very hard physical work, as it was by our passionate form of commitment.

The weeks slipped by very fast and by my fourth week our tower was reaching over fifty feet and had disappeared into the green needleness of the forest canopy. This stage of the ascent evoked a vertical Japanese garden as greenery flanked the timber stairs and the sky became visible for the first time. As there had been no clearing cut to accommodate the tower you could neither see the sky from the forest floor nor the ground from the upper reaches of the tower. Passing from one realm into another was frequently compared to breaking through the surface of water; from the dark moistness of the forest floor to the bright airy world of sky and trees in green bud. By this height working was becoming insidiously dangerous as now that the ground was obscured, vertigo had disappeared and with it a great deal of our time-wasting caution. We shot on upwards. The feeling of danger had strengthened the team spirit and we were totally reliant on one another due to the weight of the material. We discussed the work constantly, opinions were valued, and a unique atmosphere of hard physicality and sensitive aesthetic discussion was maintained and juxtaposed throughout.

As we began to reach our final platform, which was spectacularly cantilevered at seventy five feet, a curious sadness had afflicted us all to varying degrees. The official openings, press releases, film crews, congratulations and expenses cheque offered little solace and indeed seemed inappropriate to the spirit of the project.

As we reminisced about the various stages along the road to completion it became apparent that the event of building would remain with us as the real substance of the piece more so than the piece itself. We had not created an institution (the tower's existence was for only six weeks) and this reflected the brief rapport we had experienced with a team, a material and a small twiggy area of Dartmoor.

Craig Wood

Craig Wood
Artists Newsletter
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