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.

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