Thursday, September 09, 2010

Photos of The Willow Man in Somerset #photography #history

While on the way back from Cornwall, noticed this extraordinary sculpture on the side of the road.


It was huge! Strangely enough, I couldn't find any reference to it on the net. Perhaps I am not looking at the right keywords. But then finally managed to find out something about this. I quote:

the Willow Man by the side of the north-bound carriageway on the M5 between junctions 23 and 24. He mumbled and burbled over this, and eventually revealed the inconsequential information that he didn't like it much. What was most annoying for the millions of us who see it every time we go west is that at no time did he identify the artist, or tell us anything useful about the work.

The person who fashioned the 40ft-high figure of a man striding with his arms outstretched is wicker sculptor Serena de la Hey. South West Arts commissioned the piece to mark the Year of the Artist. Supermarket chain Sainsbury's also contributed to the modest £15,000 that the piece cost. De la Hey built it in August-September 2000 out of black maul willow (Salix triandra) supported by a massive steel frame.

Willow was chosen for the project because the soggy Somerset levels where De la Hey has lived for most of her life are the home of the English willow industry. Black maul was chosen because, when correctly coppiced, it throws stout 7ft withes or osiers. Black maul willow can be boiled for eight hours to release the tannin and stripped to make buff wicker, or stripped of its bark when green to make the white willow we are used to in laundry baskets, or steamed in a boiler so the bark turns black. For her wicker man, De la Hey used 30 1ft-diameter bundles or "bolts" of steamed osiers.

According to Caesar's Commentary on the Gallic Wars, the Druids of Gaul used to pay tribute to their gods by making a wicker effigy of a man, placing a living human victim inside it and then setting it on fire. In May each year, more than a thousand people come to the experimental archaeology centre at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire to witness the burning of a wicker man. The annual Wickerman festival in Kirkcudbright in July that was inspired by the 1973 cult film, The Wicker Man, also stages such a burning. One of the earliest large-scale works De la Hey carried out was a series of running figures for the annual five-day Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. This also culminates in a ritual burning of a giant figure of a man. In 1999 De la Hey collaborated with Fernando Martin on Messenger of Fire, a pyrotechnic display for the finale of the Glastonbury festival, in which the eponymous messenger, which was one of her wicker figures, was set on fire. It was practically inevitable then that someone would set fire to the Willow Man of the M5, and in May 2001 somebody did.

Reaction was immediate; money came from local businesses and private individuals to finance the reconstruction, which was completed that October. The figure was originally meant to remain in place for only three years, but when it began to look scraggy in late 2005, Take Art, the Somerset Arts Development Agency, set about raising funds for its restoration and by the second week in September 2006 the Willow Man was once more as good as new.

Whether Graham-Dixon likes the piece or not, the people of Somerset are so attached to it that it will never be allowed to biodegrade. A temporary installation has turned, despite itself and its modest maker, into a loved monument, and that's got to be good news.


Here is a link to the Wicker Man wiki entry.

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