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Project: Jencks’ Cells of Life landforms

Project: Jencks’ Cells of Life landforms

Photos: Allan Pollok-Morris

Jodie Jones discovers the thinking behind Charles Jencks’ earthworks at Jupiter Artland in Scotland

Cells of Life, at Jupiter Artland just outside Edinburgh, is the work of cultural theorist, architectural historian and landscape designer Charles Jencks, who conceived it as part of a larger landscape. Between 2003 and 2010 he oversaw the construction of eight landforms and a connecting causeway, surrounding four lakes and a flat parterre for sculpture exhibits. 

Artistic philanthropists Robert and Nicky Wilson contacted Jencks about creating a contemporary sculpture park in the grounds of Bonnington House, their home on the outskirts of Edinburgh. He produced a 23-page proposal which began by addressing the whole concept of commissioning art in the landscape, before going on to propose “a coherent route, the clarification of a triangular structure underpinned by three mounds, and a narrative”.

Photos: Allan Pollok-Morris

Likening many existing sculpture parks to “vegetable salads often filled with second-rate ingredients”, he suggested renaming the project an ArtLand, to mark it as an “unfolding dialogue between art and nature, sculpture and landform”. The Wilsons introduced the concept of Jupiter, as the bringer of joy and creativity, and so the Jupiter ArtLand gradually came into being. “Nature is one artist, art is another, landscape a third,” says Jencks.

With the broadest of remits and many acres from which to choose, Jencks identified The Universe, Life and Consciousness as the three ideas on which to base his design. “I triangulated the site, pulling visitors to the edges with eye catchers and defining the high points with mounds.” These three points were then themed under the headings of “eye of consciousness, galaxies of universe and cells of life”.

Comprising eight landforms around four lakes and a flat parterre for sculpture exhibits, the work is based on the process of mitosis (the way in which a cell divides), represented by a red sandstone rill. From the air, the layout clearly represents the early division of cells into membranes and nuclei. From the ground, the pristine execution of the landforms creates a powerful impression of dynamic depth and dimension.

Photos: Allan Pollok-Morris

The crisp perfection of the Cells of Life is only possible because the Wilsons have been prepared to make a substantial ongoing investment in the work, which took seven years from conception to completion. Every such project is based on an evolving model and rises from a sea of mud and marker pegs.

“Where you take it from there depends on how much you can spend, how much you want to maintain,” says Jencks. “In much of my work, the forms are rugged and primitive, which has a certain primeval power. Here we have achieved the highest degree of finish. The Wilsons put in Corten steel aligning to define the edges. They installed high-tech pool filtration. They colour the water sometimes – not just black, but even a bright blue – and manage the mowing regime with a fleet of ride-ons, strimmers and Flymos.” These practicalities are an essential element of the artistic impact of the work.

To find out more about landforms and earthworks, check out our feature with advice on creating them in gardens

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