Through the smudged perspex of the Portakabin and framed by a few low-hanging beech branches, three white sails peek above the Firth of Forth. The distance between where I stand and the sails of Queensferry Crossing is cushioned by post-industrial pastureland. We weren’t expecting the sun today and in our far corner of Jupiter Artland, West Lothian, Claire is hastily pouring coffee before we head out.
We first encounter Jim Lambie’s A Forest (2010) where tessellated chrome and mirrored panels are plated onto an otherwise inconspicuous utilitarian shed. The trees are reflected and distorted into myriad surfaces that change with the seasons. The work, with its refracting of the organic, is a fitting introduction to a place that challenges all preconceptions of nature, culture and the in-between.
We veer from the path – past Suck by Anish Kapoor (2008) – to climb towards Antony Gormley’s work of the same year, Firmament, in which a magnificent amalgamation of welded steel rods manifests as a polygonal body that is more like a sketch than a sculpture. A steady and reddy rectangular hill rises through the rods in the distance. Claire tells me it is in fact a slag heap, a man-made remnant from when the region was dotted with mines from the shale industry. Gormley no doubt would have been thrilled when Robert and Nicky Wilson, the co-founders of Jupiter Artland, offered him (like every artist they invite and commission) the freedom to choose any location amidst the grounds of Bonnington House, with this rust-coloured monument to industrial expansion and contraction forming a backdrop to his figure.
Next, we cross Ian Hamilton Finlay’s stark stone bridge over bedrock, to reach his sculpture Xth Muse (2008). Sculpted into Portland stone is a bust of the Ancient Greek poet Sappho. She balances eight feet high on a plinth, gazing into her surroundings with the ease and comfort of any classical sculpture in its stately niche.
Born beneath Mount Helicon to Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, the nine muses grew up to be the goddesses of creation and inspiration in the arts and sciences. When Pluto named Sappho the tenth muse, he bestowed upon her the highest accolade. A mystical figure whose character is the culmination of each of her nine sisters’ unique talents, she is a cut above the rest.
Born not at the base of Mount Helicon but amidst the surroundings of Bonnington House is another spirit. I’ve already met its namesake, but this entire haven of sculptural forms makes up the constellation of art and land behind the world’s first blended barley vodka, distilled only ten and a half miles away, named X Muse. Its maxim is “plura latent quam patent” or “more is hid than uttered”, a phrase which immediately expresses a quality intrinsic to Land Art, and one which Charles Jencks (upon whose Cells of Life we now stand) identified as latent energy. Constructed between 2003 and 2010, Cells of Life is made up of four perfectly mowed mounds with spirals climbing their ridged surfaces. Four bodies of water lie between them. In accordance with “plura latent quam patent”, the work presents them as vessels to translate the intangible, latent energy into a visible and physical reminder of what lies below.
Robert Wilson also has a background in the homoeopathic tradition in which water is understood to hold memory, carrying the energies of what it interacts with. At his request, a water diviner, body arched and hazel stick in hands, wandered the grounds of Bonnington. He stopped at a point to signal a huge, old, subterranean body of water where he instructed the Wilsons to drill 31 metres down; sure enough, there they found the aquifer.
When Wilson met Vadim Grigoryan, an alcohol industry veteran, their shared curiosity for alchemy was matched only by their energetic endeavours in commissioning and curating art. Vadim had set himself the spirit maker’s supreme challenge; to concoct the perfect vodka, that expresses the essence of its simple base ingredients and with a flavour so nuanced it stands as a drink delicious enough to be sipped and not masked by mixers. One of those ingredients is water, which makes up 60% of the spirit yet is vastly overlooked in the production process. With the learned knowledge of the ancient aquifer beneath Bonnington Estate, the pair realised a product that draws from nature and culture alike.
Next, the barley. Vadim understood but questioned why, unlike other alcohols – where the grape affects the wine and the barrel the whisky – the primary base of vodka was distilled beyond all recognition. An inkling developed that the indexical taste – rooted in the spirit’s primary source – was not receiving the dues it deserved. One of X Muse’s foundational principles is its rejection of the notion that vodka is meant to be an odourless and tasteless spirit. By definition, “spirit” is a thing’s indestructible and incorruptible part; Vadim intended to unlock this in the barley, extracting the essence of its flavour.
Having climbed the slowly spiralling slopes that mount Jenck’s monumental earthwork, a detail reflected in the glass ridges winding up the X Muse bottle, Claire Feeley – head of exhibitions and learning at Jupiter Artland – directs our gaze northeast. Four-and-a-half miles away is Heriot-Watt University, the only university in the UK with a distillation department. And so, despite industry protests about the incompatibility of vodka’s distillation to 96% and the retention of the organoleptic profiles at play, Robert and Vadim approached them. Together they distilled twenty-seven different malt barley varieties each with their own distinct flavour profile. It took six weeks to narrow it down to the heritage varieties, Marris Otter and Plumage Archer, and three years to find their perfect communion.
There is a groundswell in British farming today. As the climate becomes more unpredictable, the men and women on the ground are looking for resilience in what they grow and how they grow it. The majority of malting barleys grown today are modern grain varieties, the result of selective scientific breeding since the 1900s. These crops are made up of genetically identical plants which, if grown under the right conditions (more often than not including the excessive application of nitrogen fertilisers) give high yields. But the overuse of nitrogen fertiliser damages soil and water health and disincentivises plants’ nutrient scavenging ability and adaptability, presenting a problem when conditions change and soil degrades.
In the face of a more erratic climate and vastly diminishing topsoil, growers are turning back to heritage varieties because the crops are in constant dialogue with their surroundings. Every harvest, the growers follow an ancient formula: they hand-select the best ears of barley to resew the following year. In these ears are the genes that respond best to their local environment as it changes. In time, the crop becomes akin to the landraces of old, a genetically diverse crop equipped for a changing climate and contributing to the overall health of the local soil system. In the coming years, X Muse plans to establish its own distillery on-site as well as grow the heritage barleys in the fields adjacent to the Artland – perhaps those bordering the field in which two bulls currently reside, glaring between the bronze thighs of Tracey Emin’s giant masturbating woman, I Lay Here For You (2022).
Beyond her, in the woods, is an amethyst grotto standing inconspicuously beneath ground level, topped with obsidian stones and autumn leaves, down a narrow stepped corridor into a cube. It is empty except for four internal walls made entirely of sparkling purple amethysts. The light pours out of me (2012) by Anya Gallaccio plays as important a part as one of X Muse’s sisters. Once the water has been drawn up from the ancient aquifer for distillation, five litres in every thousand are rested in a vessel with her amethysts. Whether they energise the water or imbue it with its ancient anti-hangover properties, the gesture is there; the connotations are infused, natural or cultural.
The walk around Jupiter Artland makes me alive to its layers of meaning and its cultivation of ancient and contemporary forms. There is a smudge between agriculture and art; both carry a sense with them of being nurtured, of still growing. The layers of culture run down, to the bedrock, and beneath. ◉