IT’S a fine but blustery October morning, with a cloudy sky that suggests an ever-present threat of rain. I’m in one of Scotland’s most northerly forests, Borgie in Sutherland, just a few miles from Bettyhill and I’m in search of The Unknown.
After coffee and cakes in Borgie Forest Cabin, which sounds like something from Hansel and Gretel but turns out to be a huge and handsome timber howff cared for and used by the local community, we set out. I’m in a pack of cagouled enthusiasts including children, dogs and a man in a kilt who turns out to be the local MP, John Thurso.
A few minutes of easy ascent up a wide, peaty path and an astonishingly diverse 360° landscape unfolds before us. Some scattered forestry, both commercial and indigenous, a bit of agricultural land, a wilder landscape of moorland and boulders and in the distance some of the far north’s most striking mountains: Ben Loyal, Ben Hope and Foinaven.
And then, as we turn the corner, a rusty red skull appears and seems to disappear. As we turn a final corner the kids get there first. The Unknown, it turns out, is a cheerful but rather mysterious statue by Kenny Hunter: a near 8ft giant skeleton, who doesn’t so much straddle the countryside like a colossus as stand somewhat diffidently, his hands beside his hips, self-absorbed and slightly bewildered. As monsters go, he’s modern and approachable: within moments small children are reaching out to hold his bony hands.
As an artist, Hunter’s trick is to work modestly within sculptural conventions and monumental traditions, but to tweak them for our times. He knows his pedestal and his plinth, but his aesthetic owes as much to the free toy in a packet of cornflakes as his classical forbears. He uses bronze like it’s plastic and plastics like they are stone.
Hunter is responsible for the gleefully fat cherub on Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, Glasgow Museums’ resolutely modern Jesus, A Man Walks Among Us, and outside Glasgow’s Central station his fire service memorial Citizen Firefighter. Recently, in his successful proposal for a new public sculpture at Spitalfields, he portrayed not a city worthy or grand gent but a small, stubborn goat.
For some years Hunter had been mooting a sculpture of a so-called Scottish Monster, a brooding outcast who would chime with traditional tales and historical precedents of exile, conflict and disgrace.
It was a prompt for the artist to push his work out of its traditional urban setting and to rethink a recurring theme in his art, the relationship both practical and symbolic between man and animals.
In his new exhibition at Timespan, the museum and heritage centre in Helmsdale, which helped commission The Unknown, you can trace the lineage of his final sculpture – unusually for the artist, he shows some of his original drawings. He rejected his original idea: a harrumphing, hybrid beast that looks in the maquettes somewhere between a yeti and a man, in favour of his gentler and far less specific skeleton.
Hunter also shows a series of works that deal with urban wildlife. Rise Of The Raptor portrays a peregrine falcon that seized a pigeon from the windowsill of the artist’s city studio. Made in 2008, it has a whiff of the Darwinian economic metaphors that lost their legitimacy after the global economic crisis.
Like Water In Water is an extended play on questions of the natural, showing the urban deer that are repopulating our cities and now apparently being hunted by our “feral” youth. Typically these works are made in resin. In Hunter’s work objects that appear cast from life are often modelled and objects that appear to be found objects are often cast.
The Unknown reflects these working methods, but made of cast nodal iron it is also an experiment in patina. The skeleton turned rusty red when exposed to the elements. In winter the giant rib cage will be coated in ice, the knots of the spine covered in snow.
It’s a material used by Antony Gormley and the work was cast in the Yorkshire foundry that Gormley uses. But while Gormley has populated the country with dozens of little mini-mes and, in the shape of the Angel Of The North one maxi-me, Hunter is far less concerned with the question of his own body, with authenticity, or even in this extreme setting, with metaphors about man against nature.
The Unknown is more concerned with ideas and with fragments and traces than with real bodies. Borgie is part of a long-inhabited landscape, and there is evidence of Iron Age settlements. These days it is a managed forest, no matter how much we might want to think of it as an untouched wilderness. And it is part of an active rural community that naturally sees itself at the centre of things, not as peripheral.
But crucially Hunter’s sculpture does require some investment on the part of the visitor; in a country becoming littered with roadside sculpture, you must approach it on foot. As the artist pointed out, “it definitely isn’t on the road to anywhere”.
Recently, and surely this is the Angel Of The North casting a long dark shadow, I saw a document that described a piece of public art as an “iconic welcome sculpture”. The Unknown might be best described as providing an ironic welcome: he’s lovely, but he’s got his eye on the hills and his back to you. «
• Kenny Hunter’s The Unknown is a permanent artwork at Borgie Forest in Sutherland. An accompanying exhibition is at Timespan, Helmsdale until 14 November