A spell in the outdoors has long had its charms. For the urban dweller, we conjured up schools-in-the-woods, open-air lidos and eventually, park yoga. Yet perhaps never has nature’s tonic been drunk more keenly than in the post-lockdown era: rasping as we are for the holy trinity of fresh air, open space and vitamin D. Nature as primary commodity; culture at risk of fuzzing over on the back shelf?

Timely, therefore, is the opening of Germany’s latest sculpture park: Schlossgut Schwante – a 10 hectare estate in rural Brandenburg. Yet its origins are far from spontaneous. ‘We’ve been dreaming of this for a long, long time,’ explains co-founder Daniel Tümpel, recalling childhood visits to the Kröller-Müller Park in the Netherlands, and grown-up pilgrimages to Denmark’s Louisiana and Brazil’s Inhotim, with his wife and co-Founder, Loretta Würtenberger. When a phone call came out of the blue, alerting the couple that an 18th century Prussian castle 25km north of Berlin was up for sale, pipedream soon turned major restoration project.

Japanese artist Toshihiko Mitsuya’s The Aluminum Garden – Structural Study of Plants, 2020. Photography: Hanno Plate, © the artist

‘It was almost a forest,’ recalls Tümpel, ‘I don’t know how many hours we spent cutting hedges and sowing meadows.’ Nine months on, Schlossgut Swante may not have opened to an international party of 800 as planned, but the family of six, plus grandparents and dogs, are now at home in the Baroque house, and eager to greet their locals. Says Tümpel: ‘It was really a concept for the community, for the village’.

Village it is. Encircled by the fields and forests of Upper Havelland, Schlossgut Schwante looks no further than its own hedgerows for its inaugural two-year display, ‘Nature and Sculpture’. It’s about ‘a longing for nature, as something to conserve and enjoy’, Tümpel reveals – a philosophy shared too by artist Hans Arp’s ‘biomorphic’ sculpture. (Tümpel and Würtenberger have managed Arp’s estate for 12 years, whilst simultaneously founding and running both Fine Art Partners and the Institute for Artists’ Estates.) 

Detail of Israeli artist Yehudit Sasportas’ Clay Works, 2020. Photography: Hanno Plate, courtesy of Sommer Contemporary Art

Two dozen outdoor works from as many international names – Tony Cragg, Maria Loboda and Ai Weiwei amongst the established – riff loosely on this theme. One-third are new commissions, some loans, others owned by the couple. Tümpel laughs as he recalls Berlin-based Japanese artist Toshihiko Mitsuya’s first visit to the park: Mitsuya had leapt out of the car with a single cut flower, placing it in the middle of the lawn and declaring, ‘we should have a flower garden’. Mitsuya’s The Aluminum Garden – Structural Study of Plants followed. Elsewhere, Carsten Nicolai has whittled a wooded nook into a meditation space, in homage to an Angkor Wat echo chamber. Björn Dahlem’s neon installation runs riot in a glade, whilst Jorinde Voigt’s interactive tree-suspended swing offers oscillating views of a nearby work by Monika Sosnowska. And finally, across the lake, Martin Creed’s neon sermon chimes out for all: ‘Everything is Going to be Alright’.

Elliptical Column, by Tony Cragg, 2012. Photography: Hanno Plate, © the artist, courtesy Buchmann Galerie Berlin und Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf

Indeed, the outlook is bright for Schlossgut Schwante, which has weathered the pandemic with just minor delay. The only significant omission is the ambitious side programme of music, performance, film, and yoga, now on hold until 2021. Natural restrictions remain for the restaurant and craft-farm shop showcasing work by cherished local makers, but the café and greenery will sequester a precious air of normality. ‘We are almost like an island!’, beams Tümpel. 

And on the island of Schlossgut Schwante – a vast patch of land with all the nourishment, grace and comfort of an 18th century luncheon – there is ample room for recuperation. The real dilemma for culture is: will we ever skip into the recycled aircon of an indoor gallery with the same fervour again? §