I spent last weekend in Ljubljana, where I was talking about comics at the invitation of Slovenia’s biggest publisher of graphic novels, VigeVageKnjige, and everything about it was delightful: the tarragon ice cream (no, really), the streetlights (mounted on Ionic pillars), the buildings designed by the great Jože Plečnik. But I was also struck by the number of American tourists in this lesser-known corner of Europe. Were they here to trace their roots? Or were they perhaps fans of the Slovenian basketball player and MBA star Luka Dončić?
There was, of course, a remote third possibility, which is that some were inspired by Melania Trump, who grew up in a town called Sevnica, and still has the accent to prove it. Over dinner, my hosts grimaced. They hoped fervently that this was not the case, but, since I was interested, had I seen the wooden statue of Melania, crafted by a chainsaw, that was erected outside Sevnica in 2019, only to be burned down by arsonists soon afterwards? On her mobile, my host Zala produced a picture. “She looked like a Smurf,” she told me, and she was right. The Venus de Milo this was not. The man who commissioned it, Brad Downey, a Slovenian-American artist, has since exhibited the charred remains in the US. It seems he regards them as a warning of burgeoning political tensions in Slovenia – an interpretation somewhat at odds with the one offered to me over the coffee and baklava.
Staring into space
At Holker Hall in Cumbria, a hitherto unimaginable view has been created courtesy of a staircase built of 450 tonnes of ancient Brathay stone. Climb these gently rising steps, which go precisely nowhere, and you can see the tops not only of some of Holker’s famous trees – Joseph Paxton is among the gardeners who landscaped these grounds – but also the quarry from which the stones you’re standing on came.
This everyday adventure is called Out of the Ground, A Thread of Air, and it was made by the land artist Julie Brook, a new exhibition of whose work, What Is It That Will Last?, marks the reopening of Abbot Hall in nearby Kendal (it closed for refurbishment in 2021). For Brook, whose projects combine abundant imagination with physical strength, and which have risen mysteriously in such places as Japan, Namibia and Libya, this is a great moment: the chance to show her paintings, photographs and films alongside work by artists including Barbara Hepworth and JMW Turner from the gallery’s permanent collection, and in so doing to remind people that land art is not, after all, the exclusive province of men.
But, in truth, I may be more excited about it than she is. In 1992, when she was living and working in an arch on the uninhabited side of Jura, and I was a baby reporter in Glasgow, I was dispatched to interview her. It changed my life. The painting I bought from her then, for which I paid in instalments, was the start of a small collection whose existence I owe entirely to her.
The art of living
How does a young woman become what she longs to be? In Kendal, Julie Brook and I talk about this, our first conversation in decades. We’re both stoics, I decide, though her energy and endurance far exceed mine: she can split a stone with a hammer; set a fire in a stack she has constructed far out at sea; live for weeks with only deer for company. Later, she emails me a film, made in the Jura arch. I can see my painting, flimsy on an easel, and it makes me shiver. Sometimes, only a paper (or, in this case, a driftwood windbreak) separates victory from abject failure.
• Rachel Cooke is an Observer journalist
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