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Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Schwitters’

It’s that time of year again. The crowded summer is definitely over and the year is slowly winding down. The leaves are just at the turn of colour – give it another fortnight or so and those golds and reds will be in their prime. Already the sun is lower giving longer shadows and bringing shape and texture back to the fells. There’s an overall warmth to the light bathing everything in a cosy glow while the evening air is filled with the first of the log fires.

autumn colours

While there’s still a bit of warmth around and a good full day’s daylight it’s my favourite time of year – the landscape is at its best around now.

Back in 2004 this was also the time a bunch of us like-minded artists decided to shake up art in our rural corner of England.

Art in Cumbria at the time was dominated by the tourist landscape painting market. There were very few opportunities for artists to show their work outside the souvenir gallery scene. A few years previous a series of open studio events had started which began to open up the market a little. However, the open studio model only works for a distinct portion of artists – namely those who made work to sell clearly. Those who only worked to commission or outside of the commercial realm were still invisible to most people. Yet Cumbria – and the Lake District in particular – had a huge potential audience – in tourism terms second only to London in the UK. Clearly we were missing a trick.

cant john kelly

‘Cant’ – John Kelly 2005

The solution as we saw it was FRED – a 10-day ‘Art Invasion’ where artists created work outside the gallery environment and brought it into the path of everyday life.

It was an idea which turned into a vision which gathered pace and became something that just had to happen. So it did.

The first year was done on an absolute shoestring budget. I still wonder how on earth we managed to do anything at all that first year, but we did. With no sensible budget we encouraged artists to realise projects they always wanted to do but for whatever reason had never got round to doing. By getting enough artists to do those little projects at the same time we would generate a critical mass where the sum of all that activity became a much bigger thing. Well, that was the idea. To hold it all together we needed a brand and visual identity. We wanted this to look and feel like an artist uprising. For that it was important that every detail was regarded as a work of art.We managed to persuade David Haldane – a cartoonist for The Times – to come up with a branding which would be an artwork in itself. This idea that FRED was art everywhere – a bit like the ‘Humphrey’ milk marketing campaign in the ’70’s. Davids FRED cartoons became postcards and stickers and spray-painted roadside placards.

fred 2004

FRED – © David Haldane 2004

We also managed to secure the unused advertising space on the back of car park tickets right across the main tourist spots in the Lake District. Adele Prince was commissioned to create a series of artworks which turned car park stickers into artworks – not advertising. It was all very low-fi and more than a little anarchic. But something happened.

Adele Prince Carpark Tickets

Car park tickets © Adele Prince 2004

On the very first day the BBC news picked up the story of the parking ticket artworks and the ‘outdoor art festival in the Lake District’ and ran it on the half-hourly news slot on the ‘Today’ programme on radio 4. Probably the biggest radio audience in the UK. By the end of the day every BBC radio station in the country had phoned me up, followed by regional TV and a couple of national newspapers. It even made the front page of the local newspaper. This might not seem a big thing, but art NEVER featured on the cover of the Herald, let alone crazy contemporary art.

Coniston UFO

Julian Claxton re-creating the UK’s first ever UFO sighting in Coniston. The artist even secretly stayed at the B&B owned by the first person to report it when he was a school boy in the 50’s. (photo: FRED archive – unattributed)

Around 40 artist – some alone, some as groups – created temporary projects all over the county – from park benches to railway stations, dry stone walls to shops. We even had  piece in the tiger’s enclosure at the zoo.

The media coverage alone far outweighed anything that had ever happened art-wise in Cumbria before. Bigger than most stuff outside London even.

lakelife by gill baron

‘Lakelife’ by Gill Baron. A painting of an underwater dance in the bus stop at Newby Bridge. THe bus stop has since been replaced – however the parish council pressed for a wooden replica in order to preserve the painting. It’s still there after 10 years and well loved locally. (photo: FRED archive – unattributed)

The Arts Council were a bit embarrassed at its success having turned it down for funding and so suggested doing a book on it to get their logo somewhere.

Over the next couple of years the festival grew in size and ambition. In 2005 the marketing work of art was done by Graham Rawle who at the time had a regular slot on the Guardian with his Lost Consonants series

can you find the art graham rawle

FRED 2005 – can you find the ART? Original artwork.  © Graham Rawle 2005

Following on from the success of the car park tickets we wanted someone to do something on the back of till-roll receipts at the service station on the M6. A couple of probably quite cheeky emails enlisted fellow rural-based artist Jenny Holzer to create a coupe of new works. The new versions of Truisms and Survival Series as ‘For Cumbria’ appeared on the back of over half a million receipts over the 16 day festival and helped attract more serious arts coverage in the national press.

for cumbria jenny holzer

‘For Cumbria’ – Jenny Holzer 2005. image ©stevemessam 2005

Whilst the ambition and profile of the festival grew year on year, the budgets didn’t really. The marketing commissions remained the only paid commissions. All the other projects were only paid travel, accommodation and materials expenses. As such they weren’t commissions and the artists consequently had complete artistic control. Despite that each year we waded through up to 500 proposals from all around the world and whittled it down to just 30 or so projects.

FRED by Gordon Brown

FRED Everywhere – ©Gordon Brown 2007

On top of expenses covered we also provided the artists with project management, marketing skills training and got them the audience and exposure many public funded galleries only dream about.

statueofliberty

visitors sally barker

‘Visitor’ – Sally Barker. Iconic landmarks in miniature – included a grass Statue of Liberty and Easter Island heads made from sheep poo. photos © Tony West 2007

The whole event was one big learning experience for everyone involved. An annual contemporary art event like this had not been done before so we had no one to learn from except ourselves. Over the years we developed and refined the programme always looking to see what worked best and what failed completely. What worked best year on year was being able to take risks and exploiting the untapped potential of the rural environment.

weathercube gareth kennedy

‘Weathercube’ – Gareth Kennedy. 2007. photo: ©Tony West

Scale was one of the biggest assets. We could do things that even the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern would struggle to cope with. Engaging with the landscape was more than just about the visual presence. The experience of landscape was just as powerful. For some of the really remote pieces that journey to get to them was all part of it.

wildboar jan hicks

Installing the wild boar by Jan Hicks- a hill drawing on the fell where the last wild boar in England was shot, made from the fleeces of the sheep that graze there. photo: ©stevemessam 2006

The complete lack of light pollution preempted the ‘Dark Skies’ projects and illuminated artworks took on a whole new level of engagement with their surroundings.

shake pole richard box

‘Shake Pole’ by Richard Box. 2006. 300 fluorescent tubes planted beneath the national grid power lines which glowed through induction. photo courtesy of the artist

resonet 2007

‘ResoNet’ – Mark Tynan and William Chen. 2007. The tensile structure in a woodland responded to movement – the lights tracing the wave of motion across the surface in the wind. photo courtesy of the artists

'ThickSpace' by Aaron J. Robin, Laura Belevica & Feng Guochuan. 2008

‘ThickSpace’ by Aaron J. Robin, Laura Belevica & Feng Guochuan. 2008

enclosure by robbie colman and jo hodges

‘Enclosure’ by Robbie Coleman & Jo Hodges. photo © Tony West 2006

However, we never tired of the opportunity to take risks. The very human connection you get working in small, often isolated communities, meant it was easy to find like-minded souls who welcomed and even encouraged real subversiveness and damn right cheek most art institutions would never get away with.

tits by Jane Anderson

‘Tits’ – Jane Anderson 2006. This ornithology book was censored with every word except ‘tits’ tippexed out. Correctly catalogued and shelved in the library at Sedbergh. photo © Tony West 2006

FRED was more than just about spectacle or art in beautiful landscapes. It was also about local issues and connecting with the people who live there. The real rural issues overlooked by the urban media and politics – public transport (or lack of), disappearing petrol stations and libraries, Eastern European wagon drivers, the decline of upland farming. FRED wasn’t just about tourism, at its heart was engaging and speaking alongside rural communities. This wasn’t about trying to replicate an urban notion of contemporary art. It was about finding a rural voice – doing something that simply cannot be done in any city anywhere. It was about being rural and proud of it.

refuel noel connor

‘Refuel’ – Noel Connor 2008. Poetry on the pumps at a community-run petrol station in Brougton-in-Furness. Photo ©Tony West 2008

FRED’s strength came from looking outward rather than within. Projects weren’t restricted to the geographical boundaries of Cumbria. There were plenty in all the neighbouring counties and even one running in Bavaria one year. So many rural initiatives suffer from being too parochial. Less than a quarter of the artists came from the county. By the final year there were more proposals from overseas than from NW England. I guess to an overseas artist the draw of travelling abroad and creating a piece in stunning landscapes and having all your expenses covered is quite strong. Rural issues are similar around the world also, and the ability to voice them anywhere is rare. But that mix of the local and international often ended up strengthening everyone’s work.

all wrapped up ettie spencer

‘All Wrapped Up’ – Ettie Spencer 2008. The family hill farm was no longer viable and so was literally wrapped up (in bale wrap). photo ©stevemessam 2008

Doing an event working with up to 80 artists in maybe 60 locations over 2,600 sq. miles, every year is a huge undertaking. I certainly didn’t do it single-handed. There was a team of 5 or 6 dedicated artists every year working ceaselessly for what little crumbs we had to spare. All doing their bit and without who it would never have happened. But the funding was never right. In five years of bringing in thousands of people contributing hundreds of thousands to the local economy each year on top of developing the contemporary art environment in Cumbria, we never received a single penny from the County Council. Only in the final year did any of the local councils contribute more than £100. Raising the money was a year round job – each festival took 18 months to fund, plan and organise. The lack of enough money meant I was also creating all the print design, building websites documenting half the works and reinvesting my own money just keeping the thing afloat.

orange slice bridget kennedy

‘Orange Slice’ – Bridget Kennedy. photo ©Irene Sanderson 2007

After five non-stop years it was decided to call it a day and quit while we were still on top. Initially the excitement and momentum kept me going, but after all those years it left me physically, mentally and financially broken. FRED finally finished in October 2008.

uncommon ground ben teasdlae

‘Uncommon Ground’ – Benjamin Teasdale. Photo © Tony West 2008

FRED was a product of its time – the right people in the right place with the same idea. It happened but there’s no going back. I doubt anything like it will happen again in the same place. Behind the scenes it ended up in such a messy way I’ve deliberately avoided looking back at it for years. However, wherever I go people still speak highly of it – both local people who remember the mad things that happened in their village and rural communities around the world in awe of its energy and ambition.

Evening Glory Charles Monkhouse

‘Evening Glory’ – Charles Monkhouse. A necklace of light around Old Man Coniston. Photo ©stevemessam 2005

Over the past few months I’ve finally come round to being able to look back on it and see all the things it done. It may not have generated any Turner Prize winning art – it was far too anti-establishment for that – and it was always a bit ragged around the edges. But it was raw and real.

head mills and walton

‘Head’ – Russell Mills & Ian Walton. A gold-leafed shed on the site of Kurt Schwitter’s allotment

And that glorious early autumnal light made it just look amazing.

P.S. There’s a rough archive of all five years of FRED online here: www.fredsblog.co.uk

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The tree is up in the living room, there’s a fire roaring in the grate and strictly come dancing is on the telly. It must be that time of year again. There’s something reasurring about a big holiday festival this time of year. There’s nothing like it for slowing down and taking stock of the past year (more of that next time). It’s also the time of year I like to give a big thankyou to all those people who have supported me in their various ways throughout the past year, and look forward to forging new partnerships in the coming year.

Every year I do a crimbo card for the select few just for this purpose. Each year I try to do something while not blatantly Christmassy but seasonal, and frequently echoes something I particularly enjoyed doing over the past year. Back in 1997 the Independent ran a 3/4 page article on some of my cards (I remember underneath was a preview of a show by an up-coming artist called Martin Creed – I wonder what became of him?…).

It’s not a new idea and certainly not an original one. I’m not sure where I first got the idea from to do an annual piece, but plenty of artists and designers do their own every year. There was a section in Thomas Heatherwick’s V&A show this year all about his own cards – each a thing of beauty.

Christmas Card by Thomas Heatherwick

Christmas Card by Thomas Heatherwick

For the first dozen or so years’ my cards were hand-printed in the darkroom and either hand-coloured, chemically toned or printed on liquid photographic emulsion on random paper.

objectweb

this one speaks for itself – again this was done in a wet darkroom and not in photoshop.

More recent images have been more colourful:

red-lantern-2010web

The year before was red too – shot just outside my back door one January.

3-ships2web

It’s not always snow – this one on a frosty sunbiggin tarn in the Eden Valley

sproutsweb

This one a montage in the Yorkshire Dales (again, done the hard way without photoshop).

This year I had been looking forward to doing something large and spectacular for the cards, however as the year moved on I still hadn’t got the technology working how I wanted it to, so that idea will have to wait another year. So at the last minute, after doing some frantic head scratching I figured I could do something white.

We’d had a bit of snow early on in December, but that had largely caught me out and I spent most of it working out how best to get up my track and get work done, than thinking creatively with it. With a change n the weather, there was forecast a couple of freezing nights with some early mist or fog. What I was hoping for was that wonderful thing when the overnight moisture freezes on every surface turning the landscape a cryslaine white. I would then create a piece made from hundreds of white balloons – much like the red piece I’d done earlier in Sweden, and shoot it low with a disappearing perspective in the background – maybe a track or even a sheep path. Something quite still and quiet. Maybe a little surreal, like a Storm Thorgerson album cover type thing.

A quick trip over to Darlington netted a hundred or so balloons – I’m sorry if you were after any that day, but I bought the last from every shop and market stall that had any. As the planned shot would be done at first light, and I’d have to move fast as the frost can melt quickly if the sun comes out, I spent the night before blowing up all the balloons. It wasn’t until the morning that I realised I couldn’t fit them all in the car, so had to make do with a much smaller piece.

testwhite

However, despite all my planning and preparation, the weather didn’t do what I’d hoped it would, instead there was a light frost up i the hills above an inversion cloud just below. Ordinarily this would be quite stunning, but the cloud was rising fast and the inversion wasn’t stable enough.

My only hope was to get a nice bit of atmospheric moorland disappearing into the murk and cloud so I headed up to the Cumbria / Durham border in Teesdale.

The North Pennines are a severe border. The western side influenced by the wet Atlantic weather fronts, to the east the much drier but colder north sea systems. And so right on top of the border on the Teesdale side, the snow was still lying thick and white over large swathes of wilderness landscape. Where the rain had thawed and washed the snow away in Cumbria days before, the eastern side had remained dry and cold, the snow now frozen solid and the sky as clear as a bell and bright blue.

xmaspreview

I must have spent a good couple of hours walking across that frozen wasteland shooting hundreds of pictures. The snow was so solid in parts I could position everything with ease as I left no footprints.

And so, here it is.

A study in white.

xmas2012web

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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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