Climbing the inside of Christina Sporrong’s gigantic head, I look up towards the books that are escaping through the top of its open skull and fluttering out into the perfect blue sky. I have to watch my step – there are some gaps in the railings – until I reach the eye socket and get to peek out at my surroundings.
Back in 2019, when Sporrong’s Flybrary sculpture was first unveiled, this would have given me the chance to take in Nevada’s famous desert festival Burning Man. I could have watched naked hippies and spaced-out ravers dancing amid colourful sculptures and bursts of pyrotechnics. Today, however, I’m getting a rather different view: the glorious park estate of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.
It’s here that Radical Horizons: The Art of Burning Man will open next month: a free exhibition of 12 sculptures created by artists from the festival, dotted all around the grounds. From my vantage point inside the head, all is quiet. In the distance, a dog-walker is crossing Paine’s Bridge. Nearby a couple of bemused pensioners are taking photos. I sense they may be asking themselves why a giant, non-binary head has suddenly landed on the lawn of one of the country’s most beloved stately homes.
The same question could be asked about quite a lot of what’s here: steel wings 28ft tall that invite you to stretch out inside them; cuddly bears made from US pennies; a trio of metal moths named Jayne, Luna and Gonzo. Perhaps most eye-opening of all, a huge mechanical winged horse that will gallop and breathe fire right beside the house itself. Isn’t this all rather wild for Chatsworth?
“No, I thought it was wonderful!” says Peregrine Cavendish, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, from inside his lower library. He explains how this unlikely collaboration between a festival of self-expression in the US and an ancient estate in the Derbyshire Dales came to be. The auction house Sotheby’s put them in touch, predicting they had more in common than one might think.
One is an open mind. The duke may look and speak like a duke but he has a subversive streak. Opening alongside Radical Horizons is an exhibition called Living With Art We Love, in which Chatsworth House will be decorated with the duke and duchess’s private collection of modern art: some more in keeping with the style of the house (a corridor of Lucian Freud’s portraits) than others (a series of retina-shredding Michael Craig-Martin prints). “I’m a bit nervous to be honest,” says the duke. “It’s a bit like exposing yourself.”
Time for a tour of the sculptures. We start with Wings of Glory, the silver pegasus that is having its first wing lowered on to it as we arrive. “This bit never goes smoothly,” says creator Adrian Landon, kitted out in a hi-vis jacket, as they try to screw down the bolts. I catch a glimpse of its inner workings: a riot of old cogs and chains that apparently consists of a 1980s golf cart and a BMW rear differential. But I also sense its majesty. This winged beauty could almost have been standing guard here by the house for hundreds of years.
Landon first went to Burning Man in 2018 and was instantly inspired, creating Wings of Glory for the following year. “As an artist, you rarely have such clear moments of inspiration,” he says, recalling the reaction it got when it arrived: “There was this sea of people completely transfixed by it. People were coming up to me in tears, thanking me for it.”
Bringing it to Chatsworth has proved challenging: the horse had to be dismantled and packed into a 40ft shipping container along with all the correct tools and spare parts. As Landon tells me this, a ladder comes crashing down on the newly-attached wing. He grimaces. I let him get back to work.
The Flybrary has been placed near the banks of the Derwent, its head turned away from the house so that people have to venture out to get the best view of it, which is from across the bridge – although Sporrong says she tilted it slightly so that the duke and duchess could still see part of the face from their window (unlike many stately homes, Chatsworth is still used as a residence).
She says the idea for Flybrary came to her in a dream: the head of a future human, ambiguous in race and gender, who could still think and dream no matter how bad the oppression from the Trump era might get. When she debuted the piece at Burning Man, she had the added idea of turning it into a library. It was filled with 600 books that people could check out during the week. “We also worked with the Human Library from Denmark,” says Sporrong. “So you could ‘check out’ a person and learn from them.” One was the father of a victim of a school shooting. “He would talk about his experience, what he learned and how he overcame it. It was profound and lovely.”
Sporrong always assumed her head would end up outside a public library in a big city. Bringing it to the heart of the British aristocracy required a bit of a mental leap. “I’m curious as to what the reaction will be,” she says, a little tentatively.
We hop in the car of Kim Cook, director of creative initiatives at Burning Man, to visit some of the further flung works. We drive past the spot where Lodestar, the biggest piece, will go: a second world war military jet now boasting hand-blown glass flowers as blossom. At present, only half of the top has arrived and that’s caused problems enough: too heavy to be driven over the bridge, which has a 28-ton limit, it had to come via an alternative entrance that involved squeezing it through the house’s gold leaf gates (it made it by a centimetre or two).
Next we pass a pile of stones arranged neatly next to each other. This is the half-finished work of Benjamin Langholz, whose free-spirited life (“trekking in Nepal, dancing in Israel, learning rope bondage in Japan”) was also altered forever by a 2016 visit to Burning Man, during which he helped build – and burn – two wooden pyramids called Catacomb of Veils. The following year he brought his shibari rope bondage teacher and a crew of Japanese people to the festival to make a piece using 11 miles of rope. More recently he created Stone 27 for the festival, a stunning walkable pathway of 600lb stones suspended in mid-air. He is reimagining that work as Stone 40 for Chatsworth, a spiral circle that, as with the other sculptures, is very much there to be touched and clambered upon.
Langholz will use locally quarried stone, like that which Chatsworth itself was built from, and it’s these connections that make Cook especially passionate about the project. “It’s easy to say, ‘Burning Man, naked people! Chatsworth, old England’,” she says. “But then you lose these layers of connection.” Cook adds: “There are a number of people, including the duke and duchess, who can see the future here and want to pull forward. But at the same time, all of us hold a responsibility for the tender hearts of those who might be a bit like, ‘What’s happening here?’”
Everything needs to work in harmony. Not least because four sculptures are set to be made on site during the exhibition over the summer, all engaging with local people and materials. Dana Albany is making a mermaid with local children using steel from a playground that had to be pulled down. Rebekah Waites is creating a piece called Relevé, inspired by the Nine Ladies Stone Circle, a bronze age archeological site that’s near the house. According to local lore, this circle was created when nine women were caught dancing on the sabbath and turned into stone as punishment.
Waites’s tribute to it will be made from some sweet chestnut trees that had to be felled because they were diseased. Relevé will be set ablaze on the celebratory final night of the installations, in true Burning Man style: another bold move for Chatsworth. I wonder how the duke will feel about the whole thing once that final work has gone up in flames? Will he become a convert, perhaps even tempted to attend the next Burning Man himself? “I would love to see it,” he says. “But I have to admit I’m not too keen on camping.”
Perhaps he could invite the festival-goers over here instead for a free house and garden party. Could that be Chatsworth’s next move? “I think that’s very unlikely,” he says. “But we do love doing new things. We should never rule anything out!”
Radical Horizons: The Art of Burning Man is at Chatsworth House, from 9 April to 1 October 2022. Living With Art We Love, an exhibition presented by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, is at Chatsworth from 26 March to 9 October.