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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Friday, October 31, 2008

Midsummer (a play with music) review

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Traverse, Edinburgh
3 out of 5

It is not every day you see a raucous pop musical set on the streets of Edinburgh. But right now, there are two. Later this week, Stephen Greenhorn's Sunshine on Leith returns to Dundee Rep, offering a joyful soap opera of ageing, adultery and falling in love, set to the songs of the Proclaimers. But first we have Midsummer, with similar themes, by playwright David Greig and musician Gordon McIntyre, of indie band Ballboy.

Where the Greenhorn show is big, brash and primary-coloured, Midsummer is scuzzy, delivering comedy, pathos and romance with a lo-fi aesthetic. Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon, playing bar room strangers whose one-night stand turns into a lost weekend, don't so much perform the songs as busk them on acoustic guitars. The simple soundtrack matches the rough-and-ready immediacy of Greig's tale, in which this Bonnie and Clyde redistribute £15,000 of stolen cash on the shortest night of the year.

In its storytelling style it recalls Greig's children's play Yellow Moon, and has a similar what-happens-next appeal. In theme, it is as if we have caught up with two twentysomething characters from Timeless, Greig's first contribution to the Edinburgh festival in 1997. In that play, they struggled to find a perfect moment in a fast-moving world; 10 years on, Bob and Helena still feel life is passing them by, but their sense of impotence is intensified by mid-life panic.

Greig, who also directs, drives the show forward with knockabout humour and a happy complicity with the audience. The lovable leads deserve their happy ending, and the evening offers the private pleasure of a rare indie B-side.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Grid Iron in Stavanger

This article was published in edited form in Scotland on Sunday, 26/10/08

Here's the full version:

Mary Miller used to be the Scotsman's music editor. After that she ran the Northlands Festival in Caithness, then the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut. Now she's in charge of Stavanger 2008, a less boisterous companion for Liverpool as one of this year's two European Cities of Culture. It's in that capacity that she invited Edinburgh's Grid Iron theatre company to Norway to create Tryst, a play performed on a tiny island in the fjord that forms Stavanger's harbour.

"Last night there were real fisticuffs with people trying to get tickets," says the Wick-born director in her city centre office. "It was a very still night and you could hear the heartbeat from that old boat as it approached and there was an amazing feeling of something about to happen."

A couple of hours later, I'm standing on the waterfront at Skagenkaien, one of the world's prettiest harbours, flanked by wood-fronted restaurants and converted warehouses. Dusk is falling and a smattering of people are hanging around on the quayside, uncertain if they're in the right place.

As theatrical entrances go, I've never seen better. True to Miller's description, we hear the steady chug-chug of an unseen ferry boat and catch fragments of a mouthorgan melody carried on the evening air. At the last minute, the Hundvaag 1 swings into view, a 40-seater ferry little bigger than a tug boat. Silhouetted on deck are Grid Iron's director Ben Harrison and producer Judith Doherty. Spotting me on shore Doherty gives a naval salute.

The second great entrance of the night comes when we're on board. We're taking the brief journey over to Engoyhomen, the island home of a boat-building yard dating to the 1830s, when the sound of banging interrupts Conrad Ivitsky Molleson's mouthorgan melodies. The noise is coming from inside one of the benches and, when the passenger stands up, out comes David Ireland, playing a bushy-bearded fisherman with a tale about being left high and dry on a desert island. It's a classic Grid Iron moment when fact and fiction blur.

The third memorable entrance is our own as we disembark beneath the gaze of actor Nicola Harrison, fluttering on a rocky outcrop like a mermaid in blue, as spotlights pick out a row of sails to one side and a newly built boat on the other. On Sunday, as you read this, that pristine boat will be launched, rolled along logs to the water in the traditional manner. Tomorrow the Engoyhomen team will provide another boat-in-progress for the Grid Iron actors to perform in front of.

The boatyard is a pioneering social resource that takes on disaffected teenagers and trains them in the art of boat-building. To have Grid Iron looking at the three-storey structure with fresh eyes, rediscovering rooms that had silted up with junk, relishing the paraphernalia of fishing nets and anchors, has been an inspiration. Director Ketil Thu says he will do all he can to keep in place Becky Minto's beautiful wave installation of glittering rocks hanging from the wooden beams long after the Scottish company has left.

"Site-specific theatre is not a known thing here," says Miller. "In Stavanger, it would never have occurred to people to have something in Engoyhomen. There's an honesty and openness to Grid Iron's work, an approach to collaboration, which is not the way that art is presented here. It's that triangle between sense of place, audience and performer and when that works you have something extraordinary."

Earlier in the afternoon, director Ben Harrison, who has staged shows everywhere from the haunted Mary King's Close to Edinburgh airport, is enthusing about the boatyard's theatrical potential. "It has exceeded expectations," he says. "The more you sit in it, the more you discover. There's so much stuff in there, one of the design challenges has been to rearrange that stuff and to add just enough to make it link with the text."

Tryst is the major event of the North Sea Project. Emphasising the connections between the coastlines of Norway and the UK, this strand of the Stavanger 2008 programme has initiated exchanges between artists, poets and musicians, in many cases leading to further commissions. Still to come are Nina Næsheim and Maritha Nielsen appearing at the Scottish Storytelling Festival in Edinburgh (October 29-31) and an exhibition by Scottish and Norwegian artists opening on November 6 in Stavanger.

"There is a shared history," says Edinburgh curator Angela Wrapson. "By the 1600s, Scotland had chopped down its forests and Scottish sea captains used to sail to the northern part of the Stavanger region to buy timber. John Knox's house in Edinburgh is framed with Norwegian timber."

Back at the boat yard, the audience is following the action up narrow wooden staircases to discover the actors – three from the UK, one from the city's Rogaland Theatre – playing drinking games over a fish tank, sleeping between two sails or turning a fishing net into a wedding veil. Set to the rough acoustic textures of Molleson's score, the play tells a back-to-front story of death, adultery and the mythic power of the sea. Drawing on watery writing by Oscar Wilde, William Golding and Alexander Trocchi, Harrison's script splashes against this evocative building like the tide itself.

"Boats are in the foreground," he says. "We go to the island by boat, it's a place where boats are made and boats are hanging in the spaces. It allows us to compare the beauty of the structure of a boat with the difficult mess of human relationships. It would be lovely to bring it back to Scotland and re-imagine it, because of course Scotland lives by the sea as well."

All those great entrances deserve a great exit. Thus it is, as the applause fades, we return to the Hundvaag 1 and sail back to the certainties of dry land beneath a full Norwegian moon. Doherty salutes once more and the ferry chugs off, like a fading memory, into the dark night.

Tryst, Stavanger, until October 25; Scottish Storytelling Festival, Edinburgh, October 24-Nov 2

© Mark Fisher 2008

Little Light review

© Mark Fisher - published in Northings, Hi-Arts journal

Little Light (Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 29 October 2008, and touring)

SORRY, TOO LATE. If you're able to read this, you're no longer in the market for Little Light. Quite considerably beyond it, in fact. Produced by Edinburgh's Star Catchers in association with the Byre Theatre, Little Light is a show for 0-3 year olds. If you're out of nappies, you're already too old.

That's a shame for the rest of us because it's an exquisite show, one that keeps not only the tots but also their carers spellbound for a dream-like half hour. Created by Andy Manley and Vanessa Rigg, it has real integrity, neither patronising the young audience nor dazzling them like some primary coloured children's TV show. Rather, it creates its own atmospheric world and, with grace and gentleness, lets us share in its quiet magic.

It begins as the audience settle on cushions in front of a set bathed in blue light. There is no expectation they will remain still, yet I have seen plenty more restless audiences of adults in my time, so engrossing are the performances of the two actors, Itxaso Moreno and Lois Creasy.

What they offer is less a story than a journey of exploration with, oddly enough, a little light as the hero. The glowing ball appears in the hands of the wonderfully dextrous Moreno, prompting a simple chant: "Little Light high, Little Light low, Little Light fast, Little Light slow."

That's about as verbally complex as the show gets, the company understanding that for this age group, there is most value in repetition, visuals and music. So unimportant is language, in fact, that Moreno occasionally slips into her native Spanish and causes no confusion.

Accompanied by Stephen Deazley's excellent score, the actors play with simple shapes – a big white moon, a huge balloon – and recognisable items from the natural world – a butterfly, a feather and flowers that really smell. With Little Light, we travel from the sea to the sky, experiencing the textures and sounds of the inventive procession of props emerging from the actors' baskets, some of them finding their way into the audience.

It is subtle and finely judged, so much so that the closing round of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ almost seems like a cynical crowd-pleaser. It's nothing of the kind, of course, being a fitting tribute to the Little Light which has taken its place in the heavens, paving the way for the audience to take to the stage to begin explorations of their own.

Little Light is at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on 21-22 November 2008)

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Caretaker review

© Mark Fisher - published in the Guardian

The Caretaker
Citizens, Glasgow
4 out of 5

A few months ago, the talk was all about white, working-class males feeling alienated in a multicultural society. Whatever the merits of that analysis, Harold Pinter was on the case first, nearly 50 years ago. In Davies, a tramp who suffers the double-edged hospitality of two brothers, the playwright offers us a character whose fortunes are never so low that he can't take a pop at the neighbourhood "blacks". This derelict, who scarcely has a pair of shoes to call his own, has too much pride ever to think himself on the bottom of the ladder.

His new acquaintances are little better. Whether it's the mild-mannered Aston, who brings Davies back to his dilapidated apartment, or the menacing Mick, the men cling to the idea that they have a meaningful place in society. As we head towards recession, it is chilling to be reminded that it is work that provides us with that meaning. The three men are without employment, yet all claim to have some offer of a job, some contact to meet, some business to be undertaken, to make sense of their lives.

Phillip Breen's careful production draws us quietly into this sad portrait of male loneliness. Tam Dean Burn is a twitchy Davies, in contrast to Robert Hastie's mesmerisingly still Aston, as much a symbol of 1950s British reserve as a product of electric shock therapy. As Mick, Eugene O'Hare is a warped music-hall act in a Joe Orton leather jacket, undermining Davies with double-talking repartee, but hiding behind no less of a front. The Caretaker retains not only its elliptical strangeness but also its ability to resonate with the times.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cockroach review

© Mark Fisher - published in the Guardian

Traverse, Edinburgh
3 out of 5

No one could accuse Sam Holcroft of lacking ambition. Her full-length debut is an attempt to marry Darwin's theory of evolution to the male propensity for war, suggesting that the violence in our society, from rape to genital mutilation, is a consequence of our preprogrammed need to ensure the survival of the fittest. What starts off like a routine episode of Grange Hill mutates into a radical feminist answer to Lord of the Flies. Although erratically structured, it features one image of such disturbing intensity that Holcroft has to be taken seriously as a compelling theatrical voice.

Kicking off a series of four plays by first-time writers in a joint venture between the Traverse and the National Theatre of Scotland, Cockroach is set in a secondary school biology lab where the usual teenage love tussles are intensified by an ever-decreasing pool of boys. While Meg Fraser's enthusiastic teacher instructs the unruly pupils in the principles of natural selection, the boys are being called up to fight in some unspecified conflict. The more the girls are left behind, the more they are driven by the urge to reproduce.

Looking increasingly like some separatist society, the girls evoke the "founder effect", the theory that a small population increases the likelihood of genetic mutation. Holcroft's position is unclear, but she at least entertains the idea that war provides a necessary cull of male aggression, paving the way for some non-violent future.

It's a reductive view of human behaviour and, as the play lurches from classroom realism to battlefield fantasy, not an entirely coherent one. But the play's central image, in which the girls clean the torn and bloodied uniforms of dead soldiers, is hauntingly powerful, and the excellent performances reinforce the impression of a playwright brave enough to do battle with the big ideas.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008

David Greig and Gordon McIntyre interview

© Mark Fisher - published in Scotland on Sunday

Two in the bed - David Greig and Gordon McIntyre

DAVID GREIG is improvising his new play as if it had been written by Harold Pinter.
"– Let's go to the Grassmarket.

– Shall we?


–I don't know, why shouldn't we?

–Should we?

–I don't know.

–I'd rather go to Canonmills where there is a pub I know."

That, he assures me, is what Midsummer will not be like. At this point in 2008, the prolific playwright is not in the mood for the weighty and the enigmatic. A better starting point would be something light and frivolous like a pop song. And if it were a pop song it would be something lo-fi and literary, like a track by the Edinburgh band ballboy.

Exactly like that, in fact, because sitting next to Greig in the café-bar of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre is Gordon McIntyre, Mr ballboy himself, his collaborator on Midsummer. "The whole show is a ballboy song," says Greig. "Because the characteristic ballboy song has a story that's particular, eccentric and full of detail, it has a driving emotion and it has a chorus that captures that emotion. The show is like a long song that keeps breaking out into choruses of singing."

The show's subtitle is "a play with music", which can be read in two ways: one, that it is a musical (though not like they make them on Broadway); and two, that the team are playing with music, having fun, doing what they like. "We decided to do it entirely for our own pleasure," says Greig, whose translation of August Strindberg's altogether more serious Creditors has just opened to considerable acclaim in London. "Gordon doesn't need to be doing theatre, he has ballboy. I had plenty of work, I didn't need to be doing another show. So the only point of doing this was if it would be a laugh or pleasurable for us."

Greig first got in touch with McIntyre when he was editing a book in which Scottish writers explained what they liked about England. He'd been drawn to ballboy's homespun storytelling and was particularly taken with a number called 'I Hate Scotland'. He asked the musician for an essay, but secretly had something bigger in mind. "I was listening to a lot of lo-fi and new folk and wondered why theatre music is never the sort of music I listen to," he says. "I lobbed that question gently towards Gordon and we found we were both interested in that notion: what would a lo-fi, indie musical be like?"

With the help of some seed funding from the National Theatre of Scotland, they spent a couple of weeks in a rehearsal room developing ideas with actors Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon. The story (about a couple's lost weekend after a one-night stand in Edinburgh) and the rough-and-ready, low-budget approach sounded just like what the Traverse's artistic director Dominic Hill was looking for when he declared his intention to use the studio theatre for more experimental productions. "It's very small scale, with just two actors playing the instruments on stage," says Greig, who is also directing. "The budget is minuscule. I haven't worked on a budget this low since I was a student. That's good because it keeps the sense of play. Playing is at the heart of this whole project."

They agreed McIntyre's songs would not attempt to move the story forward but, in the best pop song tradition, would deal in emotions and amplify the mood of the moment. "We were never going to get theatrical music out of me," says McIntyre, who is making use of the existing ballboy track 'There Are Only Inches Between Us, But There Might As Well Be Mountains And Trees' and an instrumental arrangement of 'Above The Clouds The Sun Is Always Shining' in an otherwise all-new score.

"There isn't the sense of singing the story forward that you get in some musicals. I've written a huge amount of love songs for ballboy that I've had to explain to people: 'Well, that didn't actually happen to me. The falling in love did, but the storytelling bit didn't.'

"The songs in this show are more like that: using completely different scenarios to illustrate the point that we're talking about."

Greig says: "I would call him up and say: 'I need a song of people wanting to hurtle towards oblivion.' By the next morning there it was, and it's a cracking song."

For McIntyre, who is weighing up whether to introduce the new songs into the ballboy set or to record them as a sideline project, it has been a revelatory experience.

"The great thing about being in a band is you write your own songs and you do your own thing," he says. "I would never want to trade that, but it's a great intellectual exercise to write songs this way. It's a challenge, but I like working close to the deadline and I'm quite good at self-editing. Also, in this environment I'm quite open to handing over the songs and having them tweaked. That's new to me. I'm really enjoying that part of the process where it's a team effort."

Greig predicts the tone will be somewhere between that of Caledonia Dreaming, the happy piece of devolutionary Edinburgh satire he wrote for 7.84 in 1999, and Gobbo, the delirious CATS award-winning piece of children's entertainment he wrote for the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006.

"It's a romantic comedy," he says. "This couple come together at midsummer and have a lost weekend. They're in the midsummer of their lives; after this point the days are drawing in. Midsummer is a bittersweet moment for all those reasons.

"So, if the question is can you have a lo-fi indie musical, I think the answer is yes. It's not going to be a searing analysis of why Wall Street is in the mess that it's in. It doesn't have a take on Iraq. This show is nakedly emotional. If you would like to have a Pinter version, hie thee elsewhere."v

Midsummer (A Play With Songs), Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 24-November 15,

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Six Acts of Love

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Six Acts of Love
Tron, Glasgow
3 out of 5

Katherine is a woman in need of a story. For much of the time in Ioanna Anderson's gentle comedy, though, you don't notice her dilemma because the fiftysomething Dublin mother of four seems to be surrounded by stories. There is the story of her husband Tom, who has run off with a young artist and started a new family; the stories of her grown-up sons and the lives they are forging for themselves; and the endless torrent of stories told by her mother Dorothy, desperately hanging on to her memories as dementia sets in.

But for Katherine herself, in a glowing performance by Barbara Wilshere in Andy Arnold's production, the narrative has come to an end. Every encounter with Tom (Benny Young), as he enjoys his second youth, only reminds her of a life once lived and now completed. It doesn't help that a legal hitch means the only way they can get divorced is to re-enact their marriage ceremony, like a cruel exhumation of the past. Nor that Katherine appears in none of the family photos dug out of storage to trigger the failing memory of Dorothy (Una McLean).

She is a woman who might never have existed; unrecognised by her mother, legally denied by the state and deserted by her husband and children. By the time all the other stories are wrapped up and she is left alone in an empty kitchen, she is a blank slate.

Six Acts of Love is a play, like On Golden Pond or The Memory of Water, that you can imagine being taken to heart by West End audiences pleased to find their middle-aged concerns reflected back at them. So, too, can you imagine it being despised by those for whom its mushy sentimentality and low-stakes drama deny any real theatricality. As with many plays where the characters are fixated on the past, every move forward requires several steps back, depriving the production of energy.

However, as heart-on-your-sleeve bourgeois theatre goes, Arnold's production is beautifully executed - not least McLean's proud portrayal of a woman losing her mind, which reaches a heart-breaking conclusion when her devoted husband (Des Braiden) sends her off with another story. It won't be to everyone's taste, but Six Acts of Love has every chance of becoming a summer-season staple.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Something Wicked this Way Comes

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Something Wicked This Way Comes
Dundee Rep
4 out of 5

As every reader of Pinocchio knows, there is not a boy who can resist the pull of a funfair. When the carnival comes to town it brings the promise of something magical, transgressive, illicit; the possibility of escaping everyday life for easy rewards and sensual pleasures. That is the allure of Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show when, heralded by the smell of candyfloss and a midnight lightning storm, it arrives in an Illinois backwater in Ray Bradbury's classic 1962 novel.

Who would not want to see themselves reflected a hundredfold in the mirror maze or watch the tattoos writhing on the skin of the Illustrated Man? But this funfair has a more sinister promise: a Faustian opportunity to meddle with time in return for your soul. For teenagers Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, that could mean fast-forwarding to adulthood; for Will's dad, it is a chance to reclaim his youth.

The wickedness, in other words, is not only embodied in the form of the tattooed Mr Dark, creepily realised here by Andrew Clark like a malevolent Willy Wonka, but also in the good guys who must wrestle with temptation before finding the strength to laugh at their own mortality.

On stage, the battle between good and evil edges the story towards pantomime, but such is the meticulous attention to detail of Gill Robertson's production for Catherine Wheels and the National Theatre of Scotland that we never lose sight of the seriousness of the struggle. Whether it is the Bible that bursts into flames, the nightmarish back-projections, the moody laments of the live score or Karen Tennent's wooden set which so seamlessly mutates from suburban street to evil merry-go-round, every aspect of the production is consummately realised to create a haunting and heartening piece.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Andy Goldsworthy

© Mark Fisher - published in The Scotsman

Artist Andy Goldsworthy - Knowing his place

Artist Andy Goldsworthy’s work embraces the landscape and is lauded wherever he has worked around the globe. So a new project near his Dumfriesshire home is particularly close to his heart, he tells Mark Fisher

ANDY GOLDSWORTHY is sitting in his Dumfriesshire home framed by a painting made of sheep shit. It’s a piece I last saw at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in a major retrospective of the artist’s work last year. To create it, he placed a bucket of feed at the centre of a canvas and let the sheep walk all over it. The result: an earthy splatter painting with a luminous circle of white gleaming through the mud where the bucket once sat.

It’s a reminder that even in the comfort of his cottage, sitting in front of a desk strewn with folders, large-format transparencies and CDs, this artist is never far from nature. Whether it’s the slate sculptures that line his driveway, the conical cairn that welcomes you into his village of Penpont or the delicate curtains of horse chestnut stalks he pins together with blackthorns, Goldsworthy is fascinated by the Earth’s raw materials. “It’s very important to keep my roots in where I come from, which is farming and an agricultural landscape of which people are a part,” he says, his gentle Yorkshire accent undiminished after 20-odd years in Scotland.

It was at that Yorkshire Sculpture Park exhibition I first saw his Striding Arches, a set of free-standing structures made from great wedges of sandstone. Back then, freshly cut and positioned in front of the exhibition hall, they were tame and tidy. Now they’ve reached their intended home on the peaks of three hills in nearby Cairnhead, they are rugged and rooted, looking as much a part of this man-shaped landscape as the Forestry Commission pines.

“It’s great to see them in a place like this where they do really feel part of that landscape,” says Goldsworthy. “They have this undulating feel. It’s like being in a sea of hills and this wave of an arch breaks the calm of the sea.”

A day earlier, I’m with Jan Hogarth, project manager for Dumfries & Galloway Arts Association and the Gingko consultancy, to trek across the fells and see the Striding Arches for ourselves. “It’s not described as a walk, it’s described as a walking adventure,” she says, as we stumble down a marshy slope. To get here, we’ve taken a winding single-track road from the village of Moniaive before taking to the hills of Dalwhat Glen. The route is largely up to you – which is what makes it an adventure – seeing as no official path exists to link the arches, sitting within sight of each other at the highest point of three hills.

“The path is made by people walking,” says Goldsworthy, who is interested in nature’s relationship to human beings. “The work isn’t finished until the path has been made. Those arches need a line and the line is as much a part of the work as the arches. And people are as much a part of the work as stone. So it’s now waiting for that to happen. I don’t want to be prescriptive about it.”

This is not the first time the 52-year-old sculptor has built arches. Ten years ago in Montreal, he constructed his first for Cirque du Soleil made from 80 tons of the same stone the early Scottish settlers brought with them as ballast for their ships. He’s built ice arches at the North Pole, a stone arch sheltering an elm tree at Witchita University and 11 arches lapping up out of the sea in New Zealand. But these Dumfriesshire arches are extra special to him, being designed for his own neighbourhood.

“That has a huge significance,” he says, enjoying the stunning views beyond his six-acre field to the southern uplands. “My home is really important to me and is the origin of many of my ideas and feelings towards the land. So it’s great to be able to make a work of this scale near to my home.”

Of course, building something in his own back yard means he can’t escape from it, something he last experienced with the Penpont cairn he built to mark the new millennium. “I kept seeing that little hill outside the village and how it had a sense of guarding the road,” he says. “It was such a strong place to make the work, but I kept thinking, ‘Andy, do not make it there; your kids have to pass it every day in the school bus; they are going to have to suffer this sculpture for the rest of their lives, let alone me.’

“Also, I do get a lot of resistance where I make works – it’s part of an artist’s life. I’m prepared to fight the fight, to be pilloried, attacked and sometimes loved. Your home is somewhere you can retreat from those battles, but I can’t retreat from this one. So there was a real sense of concern there, but ultimately, as with the cairn here, the artist kicks in and you just know you’ve got to make the strongest work possible, no matter what flack you get.

“One of the reasons I love this area and have stayed here for 20-odd years is the broadmindedness of the people who live here. I’m English living in a small Scottish village and I’m an artist; that’s two reasons to be treated as an alien. But right from the beginning when I first moved here and I had the smallest house in the village – a two-roomed house, I was incredibly poor – there was such an open-mindedness and tolerance which I really liked. That’s developed over the years into a genuine interest and support. The farmers come across me making these things on the land all the time and they become my friends as well as critics and have seen more of my work than anybody.”

He hopes to raise funds for further arches to add staging posts in the nine-mile circular journey. He’s also built a fourth, on lower ground, wittily forcing itself through the window of a byre, so the building itself becomes part of the artwork. The hope is that this expansive piece of land art will contribute to the regeneration of a region still recovering from the restrictions imposed after the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001.

“It’s very rare that I do anything on top of a hill,” he says, on a visit home in between trips to France and San Francisco. “In some cases, the promontory seems to have appeared just because I put a work on it. There’s a round arch that I made nearby here called Touchstone North which is not really on a hill, more of a field, but once I put the work there, it became a hilltop. But, for the Striding Arches, these were definitely hilltops to begin with and I think it’s the first time I’ve taken on the idea of breaking the skyline.

“I’m very conscious of the impact even a person has on the skyline and the attendant sense of arrogance that comes with placing something on a hill. There are enough monuments in this area where the Victorians have built some great phallic pile on top of a hill. It’s a very domineering, arrogant gesture. That’s made me very cautious about making works that do that.

“Nonetheless, there comes a time when you feel you want to use that sense of seeing from a distance and breaking the skyline. If you’re going to do that, there has to be a reason for it. In this case, there’s the spatial relationship between one and the other. You don’t have a sense of the distances between things until you put something there that defines them.”

Although he sometimes creates work for gallery spaces, Goldsworthy is in his element in the great outdoors, where he tunes in to the rhythms of the landscape and lets nature subject his sculptures to a process of continual change. “The beauty of the cairn and I hope the arches too is that it’s a different work every day you pass,” he says. “Having the works around has taught me a lot about change. I went up the hill in winter when one arch was made and it was snowing. It was like it was floating. That’s a very different sculpture to the middle of summer. If people go up there and just come across the arches, I hope they see the way they pick up on the surrounding landscape, the sense of flow, the glacial movement, a sense of geological change and the human nature of that changing landscape.”

• For more information on Andy Goldsworthy’s Striding Arches project, visit

© Mark Fisher, 2008