The sculptor Rachel Whiteread has unveiled her first permanent sculpture in the UK nestled deep within Dalby Forest in Yorkshire. The piece is a concrete cast of the interior space of a Nissen Hut created by Major Peter Nissen. These prefabricated multi-use steel structures, which could be constructed in four hours, sprung up across the country after the First World War.
Whiteread’s sculpture was commissioned to mark the centenary of the Forestry Commission, Britain’s largest land manager with more than 900,000 hectares of land. It is also part of 14-18 Now, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary.
“The Nissen Hut is part of my Shy Sculptures series,” she tells The Art Newspaper. “These works are in places that cannot be found easily; finding them is a journey.”
George Nissen, Peter Nissen’s great grandson who saw the work for the first time at the official unveiling, says that Whiteread’s work is “fantastic. I love the detail.” He has designed a 21st-century version of the hut called the Nissen Pod.
But an initial proposal to site the sculpture near Low Dalby village was criticised by some local residents who said that it would attract litter and graffiti. A villager wrote to the North York Moors National Park Authority, a planning body, likening the sculpture to an “inner city bus shelter”. The proposal was amended and the sculpture was eventually relocated. Whiteread tells us: “I am very happy that the work has moved further out into the forest.”
A complex of Nissen Huts housed labourers in the 1920s and 1930s at Dalby Forest who were trained to plant forests, replenishing timber reserves (the huts were also used in prisoner-of-war camps across the country). “The piece is memorialising a particular type of building,” Whiteread says. In a film made for the Foresty Commission she adds that “the work becomes a sort of testament to its own history and weathers into the place”.
Tamsin Dillon, the curator of 14-18 Now, says that she prepared a research pack for Whiteread at the project outset with “all sorts of [Forestry Commission] details, from deer hides to outhouses”. The artist “immediately told me that forests are very important to her”, Dillon says.
The five-year 14-18 Now programme culminates on armistice day (11 November) with a special commission by the filmmaker Danny Boyle called Pages of the Sea. The director of Slumdog Millionaire is inviting members of the public to gather on beaches across the UK in a “nationwide gesture of remembrance for the men and women who left their home shores during the First World War”, says a project statement. The public will be invited to create silhouettes in the sand as part of the commemorative piece.