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"Whalsay", built on the remote island of Whalsay in Shetland, Scotland, this sculpture forms its own sheltered space in a hostile environment. Elm with concrete foundations and steel fixings, length 7 meters, 2001

Keith Barrett

My sculpture is usually built from wood and designed specifically for the site in which it will be placed. It is sourced in landscape, and explores the psychological, emotional and cultural relationship we have with our environment.

It is only complete in the relationship between the work, its environment and the viewer. Remove one element of this relationship from the equation and the art loses its meaning. The environment of the work is as much a part of the artwork as the built elements. The person who sees the work and engages with it completes the whole.

This relationship occurs to a greater or lesser degree in all my most recent work, but a specific and easily illustrated example is in my piece "Whalsay". Here the source of imagery for the structure clearly comes from the surrounding environment, reflecting the movement of wind and waves, the surface perhaps bringing to mind the synchronised motion of fish swimming in a shoal. The layered structure forms a double sided shell, suggesting the form of upturned boats, or an open clam. A person approaching the work would see this shell like form and then the view through the work to the landscape beyond. The sculpture frames the distant landscape, and creates an optical illusion where the landscape is magnified or brought forward within the frame. On entering the sculpture the person would find shelter from the persistent Shetland wind suggesting a peace to be found only in the shelter of a building, or underwater or in death. The twisted timber strands that weave together within the shell can make the association with seaweed turning in an underwater current. People living on the island of Whalsay know the sea as a giver and taker, and live with the shadow of what may be lost in pursuit of their livelihoods. A friend who saw the work told me it felt like a memorial to a schoolmate who had been lost at sea when his trawler 'The Gaul' went down. Other people have referred to the work as "female" and "like a womb"

The landscape surrounding the structure is as important to the artwork as the structure itself. The structure would have no context or meaning in a gallery or on another site. The fulfilment of the work comes in the associations and connections the viewer is able to make through the work, either when they are present or later when they reflect upon the piece.

My work is absolutely specific to place, and while the conceptual significance of the work is fundamental, the quality of the object in terms of its form, surface and material are critical to its interpretation. The decision making process during its construction is an essential layer to the language of the final result.

I am now building sculpture on a scale where it has become architectural, defining an environment within the environment in which it is set. The structure is intended to act as a portal or vector, via which a person may engage more closely with the place, and consequently with their own relationship to their environment.


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