Titled Optical Glade, the installation at Bonnefantenmuseum is inspired by our relationship with nature and the spiritual feelings this can provoke. “For a long time I’ve been very interested in the idea that the northern European sense of spirituality, and also religion, has its roots in the forests,” Donwood writes in a text accompanying the work. “The natural state of these lands is arboreal, and until the advent of agriculture they remained so.
“What remains of the sacred structures of the early inhabitants of Europe are often found in bleak areas not amenable to agriculture; barren moorland, remote, treeless islands. But when they were built they would have been in deeply wooded lands, long before domesticated ruminants and humans denuded the landscape. Spirituality, or religion, or whatever you choose to call a sense of awe that is inspired within would have been experienced amongst the trees. The cathedrals and churches of the region often have fluted columns and intricate stone tracery above, suggesting a woodland setting, the stone appearing almost as if it has grown from the earth.
“The cupola at the Bonnefantenmuseum seems to me to capture the sort of feeling that I feel when I walk into a cathedral or a mosque or a long barrow; an urge to be quiet or silent and a sort of suspension of thought,” he continues. “Maybe my mouth opens a little, involuntarily. The need to look up, so infrequent in normal, everyday life, is much more evident.”
Donwood created the artwork using a mixture of traditional craft methods and 3D modelling software. For the latter, he drew on the skills of Ben Kreukniet, a designer with United Visual Artists. Suffice to say, it was a challenging piece to create.
“Because the shape is so complex I had to work with Ben to figure out how I could twist the design – which started as a drawing, then turned into a linocut – as it followed the walls up,” he says of the process on the phone from his studio in the UK. “I didn’t want something that was just vertical lines, I wanted it to twist so when you looked up in the space you had a feeling of twisting dizziness.”
The complex operation of getting the artwork onto the ceiling involved seven painters and no less than five floors of scaffolding, in order for Donwood and the team to be able to step back and see what they were doing.
“We had to print out a huge piece of paper,” he explains. “Then we had to make tiny holes where the lines were through the paper, with a little spiky metal thing. Then we’d pin up these pieces of paper to the wall, and bash it with muslin bags filled with powered blue chalk. So there were seven of us bashing the walls with these little fist-sized bags of powered chalk. And the idea was you took the bit of paper away and there’d be these tiny pale blue dots of chalk powder that you’d have to connect up. So it was a massive, hundreds of kilometres join-the-dots thing with a pencil. It was pretty difficult. And then when we had all the pencil lines drawn, we had to start painting.
“It’s a killer on the back of your neck,” Donwood continues. “Trying to draw a line was bad enough, but painting it was even worse…. All the lines were hand-drawn and no line was drawn by one person.”
To help encourage contemplation in the space, beanbags are strewn around for visitors to relax on and listen to the sound work by Thom Yorke. The music is the third iteration of a piece that has previously appeared alongside Donwood’s art in exhibitions in London and Sydney, which is titled Subterranea.
“Subterranea version 3, which is what we have at the cupola at Bonnefantenmuseum, is two frequencies,” says Donwood. “We have the higher frequencies and lower frequencies and there’s two playlists of about 35 tracks on each playlist. Each plays at random so no one will hear the same thing twice, it’s a constantly changing sound piece. It’s roughly based around field recordings from woodland forests, but with other sounds as well. It evolves…. It transforms the space, it’s amazing – it’s quite quiet, the sound, but it’s extremely effective. It’s really beautiful.”
The random quality of the music is essential to the work, according to Donwood. “Otherwise it’s just a black-and-white painting in a great big dome,” he says. “I wanted people to feel spiritual.”
He hopes it will provoke the sense of wonder and thoughtfulness that a forest glade may once have prompted for humans living in the northern European forests. “I imagine you’re walking through the woods, and you don’t know what’s going to try and get you, you don’t know where the thing you’re trying to get is, and then you come to a forest glade.
“That’s the first time you look up, it’s the first time you have a feeling of imminence, of something outside you.”
Optical Glade is open to the public at Bonnenfantenmuseum in Maastricht now. Accompanying the opening is an exhibition of Donwood’s paintings created for last year’s Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool, which opens on Friday, June 16; bonnefanten.nl