Archive | October, 2011

A story with an eye for the future

24 Oct
Anticipatory History cover, courtesy Uniform Books

Anticipatory History cover, courtesy Uniformbooks

Climate and environmental change is happening all around us. The worse predictions seem apocalyptic and terrifying, our most recent ‘end of the world’ narrative along with the immediacies of global terrorism, economic meltdown and well-armed superpowers.

Whether or not we can alter these environmental changes as we would like remains to be seen – but for those of us working within the conservation sector the methods of telling these stories of change, and our rationale for acting on them, is of great concern, particularly when accounting for how we spend public or charitable funds.

Given this complex preamble, what place can art have in all of this? Is it merely window dressing around edges of hard science or can it offer something more valuable?

I was privileged to take part in a series of AHRC funded workshops exploring these issues 2010-11, led by Dr Simon Naylor and Dr Caitlin DeSilvey of the University of Exeter, the focus being ‘Anticipatory History’. The idea, put simply, is researching and writing history with a view to future change. For example, Mullion Cove, a coastal site owned by National Trust (researched and written up elsewhere in detail by DeSilvey), at first glance appears to be the quintessential timeless Cornish cove, with a stone built breakwater and quayside protecting the cove from the harsh Atlantic Ocean.

The longer perspective, informed by both academic and community based research, reveals that it is a relatively recent (19th-century) intervention into the landscape, and one that was never successful either economically, or physically, often requiring repair in the face of weather conditions. National Trust has decided that it cannot repair the breakwater indefinitely, so in the long term, these structures will disappear into the sea. Can this story be told only as one of humans weakness in the face of awesome nature? Or is it a tale of the folly of trying to cash in on an industry while at its peak, and being left with assets costly to maintain thereafter?

Within this context – or indeed many others – art can be used both as process and thing to mediate these situations, leading to the text, as my contribution, below:

Art is both a thing and process, much defined and much debated. In its broadest sense, it is the process and product of making individual or group creativity intelligible to others in tangible form.

In the context of Anticipatory History art is both provocation against and solace towards newly contextualised, and rarely benign, futures. As a discipline that plots routes from past to future through the prism of our current understanding, anticipatory history shares much in common with contemporary art, which has its own research agendas and processes, distinct from, but not always unrelated to, those of science or other academic disciplines.

Landscape change is a subject that concerns many artists: the natural rhythms of time and seasonality can be found in the durational sculptural works of artists such as Andy Goldsworthy and Chris Drury; examples of journeys through landscape are explored by the extensive performances and documentation of Richard Long and Tim Brennan; and the material and political relationship to nature is explored by the installations, events and media works of, among others, Cornelia Parker and Simon Starling. Histories of contemporary art are doubtless being written that uncover how collective anxieties about change in landscape are being expressed by artists today.

Contemporary art offers ways to connect the concerns of anticipatory history to a wider public that reaches beyond the dense data of scientific research and the textual propositions of history and geography. Such artistic expressions may be intellectual, emotional and rigorous, honed by years of individual experience: but their punch could come through a honeyed scent, a raw texture, a haunting sound all set in uncommon juxtaposition.

The National Trust has worked with Red Earth (co-directed by Simon Pascoe and Caitlin Easterby) in creating site specific installations and participatory art events that directly engage with narratives of landscape change. In 2005, a programme called Geograph took place at Birling Gap (East Sussex) where the cliff line of fifty years ago was marked by a delicately traced line of chalk pebbles and boulders, while the predicted erosion line twenty years hence was marked by a procession and flags. These interventions provide creative markers of the dynamic changes within the landscape – and demonstrate how contemporary art can articulate them in powerful ways.

(Freshwater, T., ‘Art’, in DeSilvey, C., Naylor, S., & Sackett, C. (2011) Anticipatory History, Uniformbooks, p.23-24)

GUEST BLOG: Enchanted Garden Season exhibitions review at Mottisfont, by David Low Kok Kiat

11 Oct

As part of a new initiative, volunteer bloggers are being invited to review some of the many projects happening around the country. This week David Low Kok Kiat, currently studying at Central St Martins, explores National Trust’s Mottisfont, Hampshire, and their new programme and gallery.

The 12th-century Mottisfont Abbey, with its rich layers of history including the exciting life of the previous tenant, the late art patron Maud Russell, is the perfect setting for the current exhibition – Enchanted Garden: Flower Fairies and Dark Tales. The whole property, its tranquil garden, soft river and the enigmatic house, resonates with a magical sense of idyllic escape. It is of no wonder that the integration of early 20th-century fantasy illustrations and contemporary art into the space adds new character to this house of antiquity.

Mottisfont Abbey has a certain charm. Possessing the finger of Saint John the Baptist at the end of the 12th century, the Abbey has traditionally been a place for pilgrimage and miracles. On a sensory level, the passage of time seems to have little effect on it. The Abbey has a picturesque English country side garden, has also retained its medieval Gothic architecture and its interior still have the original foam marble and magnolia walls. However, the 19th century chandeliers and furnishing has an anachronistic relationship with Maud Russell’s collection of 1930s modernist art and portraiture. The confluence of styles from different period does not merely speak of the property’s rich history but also creates an enigmatic charm.

Complementing the current exhibition, artistic group The House of Fairy Tales custom designed the Mottisfont Enigma, a trail that interactively guides us through the history of the estate. It starts from the entrance through the garden and eventually to Maud Russell’s house and the art gallery. The trail blends in an interactive code breaking game which is ideal for children to immerse themselves with a world of fairies, spells and memory eaters. The game turned a dreary two hundred year old tree into an entity of solace, whereby visitors could commemorate their precious memories by hanging a ribbon on its branches. The abbey’s font is transformed into a well of memories as visitors whisper their recollections of childhood into it. Thus by this creative intervention, the Mottisfont Enigma trail gave a new magical realistic perspective on historic entities, in which fairies and memory eaters are as much as a reality as the stories behind each antiquity. Its innovative and transformative form of educating young people set the pitch for the exhibition.

The Enchanted Garden: Flower Fairies and Dark Tales exhibition opens with the work of Cicely Mary Barker, typically known for her flower fairies. Barker is an early 20th-century illustrator for many children story books. Her work has indeed touched many lives in their childhood. Evidently when we view her frolicking fairies in their carefree innocence, painted skilfully with the fluidity of watercolour, we are transported to our own nostalgic childhood and a yearning for an escape ensues; to be as liberated as the flower fairies. Barker had similar sentiments as she battles her bouts of epilepsy, and the realities of the industrial age, finding respite in painting flower fairies. In the same way we find ourselves seeking relief from our modern age in our childhood fantasies of fairy tales. The selection of 30 flower fairies corresponds with the flowers found in the estate’s garden, creating a strong evocative sense of escapism within Mottisfont Abbey.

Works from contemporary artists gave a fresh twist as they explore the theme of childhood memories, imagination, and fairies tales further. A work by Rachel Whiteread, ‘Storytime’ (2008), is an example. It is a haunting image, where doll-like figures are gathered to hear a story and behind them sit three bogeymen. In another room, there is also Adam Dant’s ‘Bogeyman’ (2008), an installation of repeated lithographic prints of an old-fashioned wooden child’s bed with different incarnations of the nightmarish bogeyman in each print. The works speak to our childhood fear of dark tales and the fear of something lurking in the unknown. Confronting one of our earliest fears of the dark and the more sinister side of fairy tales, the exhibition plays on the aged appeal of the abbey, creating an unnerving sense that contrasted with the apparent existing peaceful atmosphere.

However the centrepiece of the Enchanted Garden exhibition lies in the last room set in a secret cupboard. The unique piece by Tessa Farmer, ‘Skullship and the Galls’ (2011), was specially commissioned for this exhibition. Being sensitive to the magical peaceful sanctity of the abbey, Tessa uses only materials that could be found in the Mottisfont Abbeys’ lawns and gardens. The work features a mixed media of taxidermy (squirrel), insects, bees and galls. According to Tessa, the grounds of Mottisfont are inhabited by skeleton fairies. These fairies set out in their ‘skullship’ to explore the unknown, collecting new species from the field. The miniscule skeleton fairies command our attention to examine their skilfully sculpted details as they are simultaneously investigating new species. Tessa’s fairies are not the impeccably beautiful creatures as are our traditional conceptions but are skeletal, evoking their dark tendencies. The installation is a clever intervention within the Mottisfont estate. The act of exploring new species from the Skullship by the skeleton fairies, correspond with the new relationship between contemporary art and old country houses.

The Enchanted Garden: Fairies and Dark Tales urge us playfully to save the fairy denizens of Mottisfont Abbey from the memory eaters. In a real sense this exhibition not merely transports us to our precious childhood imaginations and fantasy but also urges us to preserve the Mottisfont Abbey as an object of our heritage. Visit Mottisfont Abbey and be enchanted by a magical world of fairies and dark tales.

Back on the scene

11 Oct

There has been a hiatus in the upkeep of this blog owing to challenging personal circumstances this earlieryear.

These are resolved, so let the blog continue: there is plenty to report!