British artist Spencer Byles loves being in the forest almost to the point of being selfish about it. For where most people see the forest as a broad expanse of trees and shrubs, Spencer sees it as a massive ‘canvas’ that offers all the natural materials in the world which he uses to create his bizarre yet extraordinary pieces of art.
“The forest to me is a huge space where nature takes you over whether you like it or not. It sort of grasps you,” said Spencer who came to Kuching 7 months ago with his wife and daughter.
Described as “stunning, large-scale works of art” by an article written on Spencer in My Modern Met, those who stumble upon his work will certainly have mixed reactions.
I say stumble because Spencer creates his sculptures in forest areas where he works alone, away from an audience, which is the way he likes it. So imagine walking in the forest, and coming upon these huge structures made entirely out of wood and branches. One wouldn’t be wrong to question where these strange structures came from.
The word haunting was what crossed my mind when I saw photographs of Spencer’s work. And as I peered over the wall of his house, during our interview, into an empty plot covered with tall shrubs and saw an installation that he had placed there, I instantly thought “magical and whimsical”.
I have to admit for someone who is not very good at describing a piece of art, I surprised even myself when I thought of those two words. For that is what his work evoked in me. It felt like I was ferried into an enchanted realm with eccentric structures that were ‘mischievously’ placed there.
“Appreciation of art is different for many people,” said Spencer. “How you see it and how you are moved by it, these are just different opinions and there is no right or wrong.”
A Year in A French Forest
Before Kuching, Spencer and his family lived in France for 10 years. It was there that his work caught the attention of people and the media.
“A Year in A French Forest” is perhaps Spencer’s most prolific work to date simply because of the amount of time and attention he put into it, and also perhaps due to the amount of publicity he got from it.
According to Spencer, he had done similar projects in two other countries but he did not publicize them. He also had no intention of publicizing what he was working on in the French forest. However, this time around, he caught the attention of the residents who lived near where he worked and eventually the attention of the media.
“I keep 50% of what I do to myself. I don’t need to share it with anyone,” said Spencer.
“The year I spent in the French forest was amazing because I worked for a solid year, everyday even when I was not feeling well.”
Spencer found a piece of land that was quite big, with lots of different types of foliage and trees, where he spent 3 months thinking about the place, clearing it and collecting materials.
“When you are in nature, you can’t just go in there with a chainsaw and start hacking around the place. When I go into a forest, a number of things might attract me to the site,” explained Spencer.
At the Old Courthouse grounds, the tall and majestic pukul lima tree (five o'clock tree) stands as background to Spencer's organic sculpture, coincidentally, like a time machine...
Always working with the environment, Spencer “allows nature to weave its way back onto, around and or through the materials.”
"...there is a nice optimism in Kuching that I have not seen anywhere else in the world."
It could be the view or the smell of the place after it rains or the different foliage that the forest presents. If he enters a shady, wooded area which has no light getting through the canopy of trees, Spencer will clear the canopy to help nature, and he takes the material he cleared to use and make something.
“Sometimes there are young trees that are just clamoring for the light, and they are all twisted, I would take half away to promote healthy growth.”
According to Spencer, he doesn’t go into the forest as a gardener but he is looking for advantages where he can collect materials from the space he likes. He added that the influences he gets when creating his art do not necessarily come from all that. He is also influenced or inspired by people he meets.
“It may sound a little bizarre because I am a hugely social person and I love being around people but I also like the solitude,” said Spencer, who absorbs the atmosphere of the location where he is working.
And when he is working in forests or mountains with natural materials, he might leave the work for some time to “allow nature to weave its way back onto, around and or through the materials.”
This, Spencer emphasized, is very important to him “as I consider the sculptures look more grounded in their environment once this action takes place.”
After 10 months of working in the French forest, Spencer worked in solitude and not a single person went into there.
“There are wild forests everywhere in France. The French are very protective of their forests and don’t develop on them, which is really great. So for 10 months nobody came in while I worked there,” said Spencer.
Then, one day, some people came in and told Spencer that they had been watching him going in the forest everyday, and asked what he was doing there.
Spencer explained his work as an artist and the people went through to see his work and were amazed by his sculptures. Word began to spread about his work and soon droves of people started going to see him work.
Spencer had an audience.
“I was finding myself building barriers around areas where I was working. I liked the people coming to see my work but I also wanted to keep them away so I could finish my project,” Spencer said.
Eventually, Spencer had to go to the local council to tell them about the people going to see where he was working because he was concerned for their safety because he was working near a cliff edge.
“So they came and did a study for 4 weeks, counting the number of people who were coming to see me. The crowd was building and getting bigger every time. Then the local magazines were starting to get in touch with me and it was getting a little too much, so I began making other projects in other places, just to steer people away.”
Through the articles and photographs of his work, the knowledge of who Spencer is and his work was spreading. He was also using social media for the first time.
“I was basically really enjoying myself and having a great time. Offers started to come and basically I had choices to make. So thanks to the French forest, it certainly opened some doors for me,” said Spencer.
Moving forward in Kuching
Now that he is in Kuching, Spencer would love to do the same thing here but he hasn’t got the same terrain here, so it wouldn’t be the same thing if he just walked in to the jungle and started making something.
He realised that he needed to make some contacts here and that is how Spencer got involved with the recently held Rainforest Fringe Festival (RFF) in Sarawak.
“Moving to a new place, a different country is a real adventure for me and I enjoy it. My wife and I also wanted our daughter to experience different cultures.
Being in Kuching, I needed to think about this place, especially as it is a different environment. In Europe, the response I receive when people see my work is “wow that is amazing” but here it is different. People who have seen my work would respond with “oh”. They are quite timid but that could be because they have possibily not seen anything like it before.
However, I feel that there is a nice optimism in Kuching that I have not seen anywhere else in the world.”
So after seeing the old courthouse in Kuching, Spencer decided to build one of his sculptures there because “to me the courthouse virtually like a vacant lot and Kuching is swimming around it. I felt that it needed something.”
Without having a plan, Spencer began making a sculpture at the old courthouse and gradually started interacting with people who came to watch him work.
He was eventually introduced to the manager of the old courthouse who then introduced Spencer to the man running the RFF, who in turn asked him to join the festival.
“I was reluctant at first but after a while I told him that I wanted a workshop space with big glass windows which would allow people like those who walked down India Street and those coming through the courthouse to see what I was doing.
I wanted them to question my work and talk to me about it. Once a week I went to collect material from the jungle. This was the first time that I was working in a building with natural materials and it worked out beautifully,” said Spencer.
I asked if he has plans for “A Year in Kuching” and Spencer said it is something he would like to do next year.
“Moving here is about starting again. If I were to do a year in Kuching, I would like to leave something here. But Kuching is a place where we would like to keep returning to,” said Spencer, who plans to get involved in as many quality projects as he can while he is here.
He has identified some locations where he would like to put his sculptures, in and around Kuching.
So if you happen to chance upon a massive sculpture in the middle of the jungle in Kuching, don’t worry. You may have just encountered the remarkable work of Spencer Byles.
Having worked in the media for more than 15 years, Grance Balan-Law decided to take a step back to explore diversity with independent writing & editing.