Years ago I found myself in a forest in West Cork with the punk-legend Patti Smith howling at me and my fellow nature-loving crowd. The raging passion of her performance didn’t abate, and though the backdrop of ferns and mossy rocks was somewhat incongruous, the effect was a prickly, yet energising experience. This same spirit of confrontation ripples out from Grizedale Arts’ The Nuisance of Landscape. The tone of works and range of approaches in the show varied widely – but a sense of wildness, irreverence and open possibility was felt throughout. In other words, the effect was not unlike that of a sylvan concert by a gifted and enraged punk.
The Nuisance of Landscape was spread over four venues in various parts of northwest England’s Lake District and celebrated the last 15 years of creative ventures at Grizedale Arts. This organisation has been an important presence since 1999, supporting work which has been heavily informed by the place in which it was made, but seeking a different kind of fidelity to the area by encouraging the emergence of dissensus within a landscape of great natural beauty and fuelled by revenue generated through tourism.
The largest display in The Nuisance of Landscape was at the stately Abbott Hall in Kendal town, where the exhibition was divided into chapters. Chapters One and Two, named respectively ‘place’ and ‘complexity’, encompass the years 1999 – 2006. A longer legacy of Grizedale Arts was presented in ‘Chapter One’, represented by Andy Goldsworthy’s Land Art, alongside the influence of the Artist Placement Group from the late 1960s. ‘Chapter Two: Complexity’ dominated much of the Abbott Hall presentation: it was organised in a purposefully chaotic manner, with art-works bleeding into each other and lacking typical ‘sign-posts’ for the viewer, such as titles and artists’ names. My overall impression of ‘Chapter Two’ was that of having missed-out. There were empty sheds, props, costumes, posters for events long passed and a large post-meal table.
Presenting nuanced objects, which have been vacated of meaning, feels like a provocative curatorial decision. These objects appeared to have been de-activated – yet were still physically present and available for future (or current) moments of resurrection. In ‘Chapter Two’ curatorial challenges abounded as to how best to make site-specific or performative work legible to an audience who were not present at the works’ primary moment of activation. The art historian Claire Bishop identifies this challenge in her book Artificial Hells (2012), in which she recognises the fine line of a ‘dual horizon’ which these types of work must tread, ‘facing towards the social field, but also towards art itself’.
A wall in the exhibition section titled, ‘Chapter Three, Use: 2006 – 2014’, was dominated by a large reproduction of a certificate issued by the Mechanics’ Institute from the 1870s. This certificate represents a progressive organisation which emerged in England in the 1820s and effectively revolutionised working people’s access to education. By the middle of the 19th Century there were over 700 institutes throughout England, which functioned as libraries, lecture rooms and technical workshops.
There was a pronounced change of approach between ‘Chapter Two’ and ‘Three’, reflecting Grizedale Arts’ interest in revisiting the structure of these institutes and reimagining how artists might position themselves within a space with idealistic yet practical aims. Throughout this section of the exhibition we saw examples of artists inserting themselves into the locale of the town of Coniston in useful ways. Artist Liam Gillick was asked to address the dilapidated Coniston Institute’s lending library. Part of Chapter Three was given over to his design solution for this task. A temporary version of Honest Shop inhabits a section of ‘Chapter Three’. This shop was originally conceived by the Graphic Design studio ‘An Endless Supply’ and is a permanent fixture in the rejuvenated Coniston Institute: it contains a range of foraged and locally farmed foodstuffs, along with locally handcrafted objects. Each item in the shop is for sale. However, it isn’t staffed and its functioning is reliant upon people’s honesty. The initial motivation in setting up a shop that is predominantly stocked by local residents is that the contents would form an alternative portrait of the area. Indeed the mixture of goods available are beautifully idiosyncratic: dried local mushrooms, hand-knitted carrots, a ceramic bust of 19th Century artist and writer John Ruskin, along with a pottery Lovecup by art heavy-weight, Ryan Gander.
Through ‘Chapter Three’ art-works were invited to actually function in an economic and social sense within the greater Coniston area – they are expected to respond to and share non-art structures within that community. This irreverent approach to the authored art-object closely relates to the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which found heightened expression in the Lake District through the 1870s. The Nuisance of Landscape display at ‘Blackwell: The Arts and Crafts House’ on the banks of Lake Windermere opened out these relations in a generative manner. Idealistic moments are referenced in this display called After Ford 151: Blackwell’s Darkest Place, where a replica of a Gatling gun (1862) was positioned on top of a pottery wheel (1940s). The diverse mix on display ranged from practical objects dating back 150 years to Infocalypse Stack Data Ritual Necklaces, made by arts group Juneau Projects in 2013. Images from a project which inspired many of the leaders within the Arts and Crafts Movement called ‘Ruskin’s Road’ were printed onto window seat cushions – these tasteful prints also convey a sense of disappointment as to how the ideals of a movement ultimately found expression in high-end furnishings. ‘Ruskin’s Road’ was an educational module initiated by John Ruskin for undergraduates at Oxford University in 1873. The students’ task involved building a road to connect two villages across a marsh, with Ruskin instructing his students that the road should be useful, beautiful and educational. The students, including Oscar Wilde, managed to construct half of the road before going home for the holidays.
The Arts and Crafts Movement’s failure to achieve its aims, despite the best of intentions, was a reoccurring melancholy theme worked through the diverse range of objects on display at Blackwell. This exhibit resembles an eccentric essay, which emphasises the social exchanges and political implications which flow around and between the objects on display.
A healthy degree of skepticism emanated from the Blackwell display. Yet underpinning the entire The Nuisance of Landscape exhibition was an inventive, restless and ultimately optimistic curatorial approach, which questions how art objects circulate and function. Faintly perceptible was a quietly spoken belief that if pushed hard enough, art might deliver unexpected answers to such rigorous questioning, answers which might be uniquely positioned to impact on both the social and the aesthetic.
The Nuisance of Landscape was on view at various venues in the Lake District, 10 October – 20 December 2014.