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Duke's Wood Project

7 October 13 words: Wayne Burrows
It might come as a surprise that between the forties and eighties Duke’s Wood, just outside Eakring, concealed a fully functioning oil-field
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We all know that Nottinghamshire has form when it comes to secretive goings-on in forests, but it might still come as a surprise that between the forties and eighties one small woodland in particular, Duke’s Wood, just outside Eakring, concealed a fully functioning oil-field. Staffed by a mix of American and local engineers who, at the peak of war-time production in 1943 pumped over 61,000 barrels of crude oil from what is now a Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust reservation of peaceful footpaths, leafy glades and clearings.

A few small oil pumps, painted green for camouflage and affectionately known as ‘nodding donkeys’ (even though they no longer do any nodding), remain scattered among the trees, and there’s a small museum on the site run by two ex-oilmen, showing photographs and remnants of their old trade alongside more current information about the wildlife and plants to be found where the oil-fields used to work. In other words, Duke’s Wood is a highly evocative and unusual place with a lot to tell us now about the possibilities of creating harmony between nature and industry. It was the perfect location for Ordinary Culture’s Aaron Juneau and Sam West to bring a wide variety of artists – working in forms that range from perfume, sound and song to text, walking and light – and give them all the same basic brief: to respond in some way to what they could find on the site.

The results of several months of research are as diverse as the mediums employed by the artists. Folke Kobberling & Martin Kaltwasser’s A Star of Two Sides clad the formerly functional Portacabin of the oil museum in wave-like planks of ash, the patterns created echoing the geological strata beneath our feet, while the title’s phrase is placed in gold letters on the roof like a fragment of poetry, a variation on something like ‘a double-edged sword’, suggesting both the positive and negative aspects of a natural gift such as oil. The kind of poetry Kobberling & Kaltwasser’s signage echoes is a variety made famous by the Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, so it’s appropriate that another Duke’s Wood commission, Bow Down by Alec Finlay, was the work of Hamilton Finlay’s son, whose own work consciously continues and extends some of the traditions established by his father. Bow Down was a bower constructed both of and in the wood, a kind of sanctuary made of found branches, grass and moss. It was a beautifully cosy and sociable space where it was possible to feel the modern age recede while also wondering whether this might be part of the future.

The connections between the newly made bower and some very old traditions of folklore, song and poetry were highlighted in a ceremony conducted in early September by Alec Finlay and Amy Cutler, each reading alternate sections from poems made on the site. It was an event that often felt transporting, despite the occasional electronic bleep of someone’s mobile phone – evidence that we were, after all, still in the twenty-first century.  The way to Finlay’s bower had been guided by Alison Lloyd, whose contribution was leading groups on art walks around the site, and this walk had begun with a brief appearance by the experimental Glasgow folk singer Hanna Tuulikki, who blended two lovely traditional songs about the blackbird and cuckoo together before mysteriously vanishing, only to reappear later perched on the balcony of Dan Robinson’s look-out post, A Cabin for Duke’s Wood, calling in the voices of all kinds of bird, some audible in the woodland itself, others perhaps less likely to reply to her oddly otherworldly singing in person.

If all this suggests Duke’s Wood Project neglected that grittier industrial past, nothing could be further from the truth. In Louise K. Wilson’s sound-work, performed on the opening weekend, a single trumpet played a resonant duet with the only remaining uncapped oil-pipe on the site, sending its notes deep into the earth then responding to the vibrations and echoes as they returned to the surface.  Anne-Mie Melis installed a series of Nurturing Prototypes, using light to create controlled temperature rises in tightly defined areas, comparable to those projected by Climate Scientists in the event of unchecked global warming, testing how the environment might adapt to these potential future conditions. As dusk settled, Melis’ interventions glowed among the trees with a science-fiction eeriness that was obliquely reinforced by the wooden signposts installed around the pathways by Jo Dacombe (helped by local schoolchildren), pointing us towards unexpected but faintly plausible places like ‘The Pool of Murky Mysterious Water’ and ‘Remnants of Time Gone By’.

Inside the oil museum things got stranger still. There were stuffed badgers and a bewildering array of photographs and exhibits, but they’re just the regular displays of the museum itself. The art began with Stephen Turner’s displays, which offered a laboratory’s worth of the bottled plants he’d collected from the woodland and used to concoct unique new perfumes. Institute of Boundary Interactions go further into a plausible but absurd fiction, presenting a display about a laboratory conducting research into a miraculous futuristic substance called ‘nanocrystalline cellulose’ that only slowly gives itself away as a hoax, partly because so much of the real information surrounding it is only very slightly less unlikely.  

The range of work commissioned by Duke’s Wood Project showed that there are many ways to respond to and re-imagine a place like this. Whether it’s the ancient folk customs evoked by Alec Finlay’s bower or the Look Around You science-education parody of Institute of Boundary Interactions that most appeal. Perhaps the real service done by Ordinary Culture is to have drawn attention to this extraordinary place, open to all and not all that far from the city centre (it’s bike-able, and buses run to Bilsthorpe and Eakring). The art may now be gone but just seeing these woods thriving again after several decades of oil extraction offers a few hints about how we might manage similar adaptations in the future.

Duke's Wood Project ran at Duke's Wood from 31 August to 29 September 2013.

Ordinary World's Duke's Wood Project WordPress

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