Posts Tagged ‘barn’

Oooh. Look at the colours! It’s Autumn again. My favourite.

These past coupleof weeks I’ve had some stunning drives through the Welsh Borders, The Derbyshire Peaks, the Lakes and glorious Teesdale. Each resplendent in its golden attire. There’s a nip in the air too, and with the nights drawing in again it’s good to light a fire in the evening and catch up with some reading. Last week I read a quite brief article in the Guardian on the potential fate of the Merz Barn in the Lake District. You can read the article here. A little historic background first though:

the Merz Barn at Elterwater today

Kurt Schwitters was a German artist of the first half of the 20th century. Although not as well known as many of his contemporaries, he was a key player in the Dada movement and is often regarded as the father of collage – creating abstract works from found objects. A process he called ‘Merz‘ after a fragment of newspaper in an early work mentioning Commerz und Privitbank. In the 1930’s the Nazi’s had a problem with abstract art and Schwitters fled to Norway. When the Germans arrived there he fled again to Scotland and ended up in London. In 1944 he moved to Ambleside in the Lake District – ostensibly to ‘get away from it all’ as is the case for many. He was an odd fit in 40’s Cumbria. He was a tall man – over 6ft – and spoke with a very heavy German accent. He would have stood out like a sore thumb in the village. Still, he did his best to fit in. He took on an allotment next to what is now the Armitt Museum, and made ends meet by paintng reasonably accomplished portraits for local people. He enetered the art competitions in the local agricultural shows and even became a member of the local artists society. Yet no-one knew his past or the imporatance his abstract work had on an international level.

‘A Shed for a Head’ – an instalation by Russell Mills and Ian Walton on the site of Schwitter’s allotment as part of FRED 2006

In 1947 the Museum of Modern Art in New York sent him a grant to recreate one of his merzbau destroyed by the Nazis in Norway. Unbeknownst to them at the time, he spent the money on a derelict barn at Elterwater and immersed himself in turning it into his largest and most ambitious projects. He called it his ‘Merzbarn‘. He died a year later having only completed one wall and bits of another.

The surviving piece of the Merz Barn before it was taken to the Hatton Gallery

The completed wall was removed in the 60’s and is now at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle. What remains is the derelict barn Schwitters first bought. The farmer, when he discovered Schwitters was famous after his death, built a tearoom on the end in the hope of selling tea and cakes to visitors he hoped would flock to see the work. Only they didn’t.

Last year, local builders constructed a very convincing replica of the empty barn outside the Royal Academy in London for the Britsh Sculpture show. I was a little disappointed they weren’t selling cakes out of the little bay window, but oh well.

Also last week, as part of a programme of artists talks in Presteigne, I got the chance to see Sophie Fiennes’ ‘Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow‘ – a documentary about Anselm Keifer’s time at Barjac in France. In 1992 the painter moved bought a disused silk factory on the outskirts of Barjac and over the following decade or so transformed the 35 acre site into a complex of installations, landscaped sculptures, studio spaces and underground passageways.

Anselm Keifer at Barjac

In 2008 he just upped and left for an industrial unit outside Paris (although local farmers complaining about the speed he drove his sports cars may have something to do with it). The immense work at Barjac has just been left, abandonned. It was gifted to the people of France, but as yet there is no plan to open it to the public. A non resident caretaker looks after the perimeter fence while the work is left to nature. Sophie Fiennes’ mesmerising film is probably the only chance most will ever get to experice what he created there. Although, coincidently, two of the giant concrete towers he populated the site with, were also recreated outside the Royal Academy of Art in London in 2007.

view of Kiefer’s site at Barjac on Panoramio

There are lots of similarities in these projects. There’s even a bit of the ‘outsider art‘ about them, though not strictly Art Brut, as they were made by artists as art. But as an artist I’m really drawn to the idea of just being able to shut yourself away for years and just create. In many ways it’s the ultimate artistic act. It’s not working for a commission, or even creating something to sell to collectors. It can’t even be snapped up by enthusiastic curators. There’s no health and safety. No planning restrictions. It’s art at its purest. It’s not just Schwitters and Keifer who have sought the freedom of isolation in the coutryside to make personal works. There’s dozens of others. Just over the border from here is Charles Jencks’ ‘Garden of Cosmic Speculation‘ – a sculpted landscape exploring the ideas of quantum physics.

Up the road from there is Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Little Sparta‘.

Little Sparta on Visit Scotland

Italy has Niki de Saint Phalle’s final masterpiece ‘Giardino dei Tarocchi

Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden

while France has a chunk of them, including Jean Tinguely’s ‘Le Cyclop

Le Cyclop by Jean Tinguely (image from Bertrand’s blog)

and the grand-daddy of them all, the incredible ‘Palais Ideal‘ by Ferdinand Cheval.

early photo of the Palais Ideal

and while Keifer has bought another disused industrial site – a former nuclear power station no less – James Turrell continues to turn an entire mountain into a work of art:

Part of James Turrell’s Roden Crater project

Despite the obvious location aspect, there’s something very rural about all these. At their heart is the need to free the mind from outside influences. A need for non-conformism. While ‘Outsider artists’ may find this easy, it’s no so for established artists whose every work is scrutinised and critiqued by a very fixed set of artworld values. I can only speculate how liberating Schwitters found Ambleside in the ’40’s, when he was no longer a revolutionary artist, but just a tall German. Whether it’s a career-defining masterpiece, or just a diversionary side project, to have that space and freedom to just create at will is a fascinating space in itself.

So, all I need now is an empty barn or some-such and a bit of time to create my own little world….

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This is a barn.

It’s a rather beautiful barn I think. It sits on the side of the hill just down from my studio. I’ve always wanted to do something with it. It has a lot going for it – its size, its proportions, the way it clings to an impossible slope, the backdrop of little peaks in the fells behind, the way it draws your attention from the road – half a mile away.
In many ways it sums up the this remote, isolated, hostile landscape. Once this was a thriving agricultural landscape. It still is an agricultural landscape – there’s not much else you can do in these hills. There’s two main features of the uplands of the North Pennines – field barns and Swaledale sheep. The barns were built to store feed and provide essential shelter from the harsh winters. This barn is a typical field barn in this part of the North Pennines where the agricultural history goes back to the Vikings and has many similarities with the upper parts of the Yorkshire Dales. This particular barn was probably a Hogg House – hoggs being sheep in their first year. In bad weather the sheep were herded into the barn overnight, or during the day if it was seriously bad. These barns date back to the late 18th Century and in turn replace wooden structures on the same site. In a way, these barns have always been there. The hogg houses were largely made redundant through the breeding of sheep who could withstand the driving rain and snow by taking shelter behind drystone walls. As hill farming in the latter 19th Century moved from an existence model to a more commercial model so livestock was bred to save money and time – sheep were bred for their resistance to disease as well as adaptability to the landscape. Different breeds cope with very different landscape environments. In a way, the demise of the barns was due to the success of the Swaledale sheep.

I wanted to play with the building, explore its setting and heritage in a subtle way. I’ve played with redundant architecture in the landscape before:

Landscape Bubble image

'Landscape Bubble' (2006) - PVC inflatable, 5m x 5m

I’ve also played with the role of sheep-breeds in the identity of the landscape:

Clad in Newtown, Powys

'Clad' (2009) - Kerry Hill and Black Welsh Mountain fleeces, pigeon netting, wire. 11m x 3m x 5m

I want to somehow link the barn with the sheep breed. As it is, it clings to the hill like the sheep, but I also like the relationship between the barn and the breed as points in the history of agriculture and this landscape.

The Prince of Wales is heading up a campaign for wool and part of that is the creation of a National Wool Week in October. The dates this year coincide with the annual Tup Sales in Kirkby Stephen – one of the biggest events in the Swaledale breed’s calendar. It seems fitting therefore to try and do something as part of that. Without funding or a commissioner it has to be something fairly straightforward to do and affordable for me.
First off though was to ascertain the state of the barn and environmental issues. There are birds nesting inside, and I’ve also seen bats flying about who may well be living in this barn so whatever I do I’ll have to leave all entrances open and not work inside. There’s also a very worrying crack down one wall which definitely rules out doing anything to encourage people to go inside. There is a thick patch of bracken on the western side, although the current sheep have kept it clear fog the barn all around so there’s easy access to the whole site.
Here’s a computer model of the barn I made from some initial measurements and photos.

Research done, time to get the sketchbook out I think…

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