September 08, 2007
I first encountered the work of Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy about 15 years ago, through the remarkable photographs and text in his 1990 book A Collaboration With Nature. Much of Goldsworthy’s work is ephemeral, created from leaves and grasses, twigs and branches; even ice and snow. The pieces take hours of painstaking work, yet many of them last only minutes or hours. He works in natural settings in various locations around the world; the resulting pieces are then photographed and left to the elements, gradually becoming incorporated into their surroundings. For a number of years Goldsworthy has had an association with the Réserve géologique de Haute-Provence in Digne-les-Bains, creating site-specific pieces for them under the general heading of “Refuges d’Art”. J and I have come to this area in order to search out these pieces; specifically la Sentinelle Tartonne, one of three sculptures Goldsworthy created in stone to mark the main points of entry to the Réserve géologique.
Our instructions (obtained from the Musée-Promenade de la Réserve géologique in Digne) seem straightforward: “From Digne take the N85 towards Castellane and Nice. In the village of Barrême, turn left onto the N202; 2 km later, turn left again and take the D19 toward Tartonne. When in Plan de Chaude take the D219. 2 km after the hamlet of Les Laugiers, the Sentinelle will be on your left under a large pine tree, at a large curve in the road.”
The D19, a narrow, uneven road, takes us uphill into the valley of the Asse de Clumanc, winding and switching back towards the Col du Défend, the pass which will take us from the valley of the Asse into the valley of the Verdon. Eventually we will continue up the Verdon through Colmars, over the Col d’Allos and down to the town of Barcelonnette where we plan to spend a night; or two. The scenery is breathtaking; the light of the late afternoon sun casts deep shadows into the folds and striations of the exposed rock faces of the peaks, and the pine forests which cover the surrounding hillsides take on a darker shade of green. This region — the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence — is a transition from the drier landscape of the Provençal hills, to the harsher landscape of the Alps themselves. In Provence the fields would have been planted in vines, or lavender; here we drive past open-sided barns which have filled to the rafters with cylindrical bales of hay, winter forage for the cows and sheep which are pastured here.
As we near the alpine village of Tartonne the trail to the Sentinelle grows somewhat confused — was that the D219? Did that small sign say Les Laugiers? — but we have seen nothing resembling a Sentinelle, nothing which could be considered “art.” There have been only the bournes which mark distances along these minor roads, and the occasional cluster of stone buildings; so we carry on, although somewhat more slowly than before.
After a further 3 km we begin to give up hope, and when we spot a woman and a boy working in a field, I pull the car onto the shoulder and make my way up the grassy hillside towards them. They have been working on fences, and pause when I approach. My questions are met with puzzled expressions; “la Sentinelle”, “la sculpture d’Andy Goldsworthy” — these words evidently mean nothing to them, and it is only when I bring out my photocopied sheet of directions that the woman understands: “Ah! Vous voulez voir l’oeuf! C’est encore plus loin” — gesturing that we must continue further up the road. But I could see that she didn’t quite believe that this alone could have brought us here.
“You know,” she continues with traces of scorn in her voice, “if you’ve seen one egg you’ve seen them all.” She talks dismissively of the foreign architect who’d been called in to supervise, the enormous crane that had been required, and all the laborers who had been imported, “because of course we couldn’t have been expected to do such work ourselves.” And to think of the outrageous sums which had been spent to construct a great stone egg out in the middle of nowhere. Paff: she had no time for such foolish things. There was work to do; life was hard in these small villages, and of what possible use were stone eggs when the fences were forever in need of repair?
And then there it is: la Sentinelle, just a kilometer or two further up this isolated mountain road, as the road curves gently right around a field of stubbled hay, the egg waiting for us gnomically beneath its pine. It seems to me a perfect way to encounter a work of art.
The sight is absolutely mesmerizing, to find this enigmatic object so far from any apparent human habitation, with just the mountains on all sides rearing their stoney heads into a lightly clouded sky. I think of the puzzle it must be to all who accidentally encounter it, and the legends which will gradually grow around it as its true origin and meaning fade gradually away.