Monthly Archives: May 2015


A tray of fake eyes that look like gruesome marbles. Two headed creatures suspended in time forever. Prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai. Salt and Pepper shakers. Soviet space dogs. Scarves and scarves and scarves and scarves.

The full spectrum of material culture is here: disposable, covetable, high, low, and kitsch. The personal collections of fourteen artists have been transposed to the Barbican’s elegant mid-century modernist exhibition spaces and presented alongside one example of each artists’ work. The curatorial objective is clearly to make links between the collections and their owner’s output. However, other questions bubble to the surface. Why as a species do we need to own so many things, often multiple versions of the same things? Does the act of collecting items imbue them all with the same status, whether they started life as valuable or insignificant? Is collecting a response to times of poverty? Is it a practise that is going out of fashion in the digital age? Will it endure amongst artists?

Damien Hirst has made a career out of presenting collections or multiples of objects, or otherwise inverting our assumptions about animal and mineral items. One wonders how many butterflies have passed through his studios? Flown to their sticky, painterly graves. Here some of his own items of taxidermy and medical artefacts (his interest in the medical theme is shared by art dealer and photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, the owner of the glass eyes) are presented alongside the piece Last Kingdom, 2012, vertical rows of entomological specimens: a collection in itself.

Elsewhere, Peter Blake and Martin Parr also demonstrate a very strong connection between their work and the act of collecting. Blake surrounds himself in his studio with dolls, figurines, ventriliquists dummys and signage. His collages are collections of illustrations, clippings, packaging and photographs, somehow absorbed into his own distinctive aesthetic. Whereas Parr’s anthropological investigations are like unscientific studies, using his photographs and collections of postcards and ephemera as evidence for unspoken theories (the Soviet space dogs are his). Both artists whether consciously or unconsciously have explored ‘Britishness,’ which they characterise as stoic, eccentric and led by grass roots activities and folkloric practises.

The Japanese prints belong to Sol LeWitt. The thread between these works and his brand of minimalism and instructional art is not so direct. But yet we expect to see successful artists collecting art, indulging their desire for culture; the prints he has chosen are stunning and timeless. His wife Carol, speaking on the app that accompanies the exhibition says, “collecting is an addition. One [LeWitt] had… he always used to quote Gertrude Stein who said that artworks are priceless and worthless.” Perhaps this reveals an inner battle between collecting and not collecting, or a shade of insecurity about his profession.

The ages of the artists are interesting. The oldest are Arman, Le Witt and Andy Warhol, all born in 1928, and the youngest is Dr Lakra, the Mexican muralist and tattoo artist at only 42. Most were born in the 50s and 60s – their parents, whether British or American, would have survived the Second World War. Might these memories of rationing and going without, as well as the following surge in popular culture, have triggered the collecting impulse? And growing up in a world pre-internet, is it natural that artists would gather a physical and visual memory bank of references? Only the future, when the emerging artists of today reach half a century old, can tell us the answer.

Hanne Darboven’s collections are presented as a ‘total artwork’ – a gesamtkunstwerk. She appears to have no barriers to her field of collecting, no search terms; it only qualifying as a collection as she is at the centre acquiring it or inheriting it. Tiffany lamps, a cheeky monkey, objects from her ‘tower room’ and writing desk.

Curatorially, some strange decisions have been made. There are rugs to symbolise the home, and pallets and crates to represent the exhibition coming together. Yet the desire to reveal the artists’ influences links back to their studios – which aren’t referenced at all. The exhibition fetishizes the glass showcase – a hallmark of ‘the museum’.

However, not everything is cased and protected. Brushing my face like laundry on a line is a selection of Pae White’s collection of Vera Neumann scarves. They have been used as though they are a material in one of White’s installations, possessing the same playful and tactile qualities as other examples of her work. Neumann’s textiles all share her bold use of colour, a motif like fruits or flowers, her distinctive draftmanship and her signature as part of the design. Far from being unsettled when confronted by her 1000 Neumann scarves, Pae White confessed that being involved in the exhibition made her consider acquiring more…

Like White, Dahn Vo’s presentation is intimately bound with another artist. Martin Wong’s collection of thousands of disparate objects, posthumously acquired and now preserved by Vo, has in the transition of ownership been transposed into a ‘readymade’ artwork as well as an archive. The room in the exhibition that contains some of the 4000 objects divides opinion amongst visitors: there are those who are fascinated and intrigued, and those who are horrified by this scene of clutter. It is a magnet for dust, the collection has no focus, it is hard to find the artist among it.

Magnificent Obsessions believes that we will be fascinated and delighted to be shown a part of the artistic process often left behind when the artists’ work transitions from studio to gallery. But it does not begin to approach to bigger questions of human beings and their relationship to the material. Artist Jim Shaw, whose collection of paintings he found in ‘thift stores’ and ‘yard sales’ compares these places, and the act of combing through them to find weird things, to palaeontology or archaeology. Maybe this reflects a certain kind of art-making… post-Pop there have been many artists exploring not only the popular culture of their time, but finding trends and revelations in the recent past. Maybe this kind of art making will be left behind in the 20th century.


This subject – mental health – is usually something that we see explored through outreach and events rather than the core exhibitions programme at contemporary art venues. Could you say a little bit about the significance for you of seeing mental health centre stage in a venue like FACT?

Yes, I think it’s really important. The arts makes a big effort to be inclusive and approach specialist groups, people with disabilities or mental health issues and make the arts relevant to them. But sometimes this can perpetuate the idea that they are an ‘outsider’ group. So it has been really nice for me as a curator to approach this by asking, how does mental health affect everyone? There is that very popular quote you hear often, ‘one in four people will experience a mental health issue’ – actually I think it is everyone.  All of us experience mental health issues at some time in our lives, whether it is ourselves or a family member or a friend. So it is significant that FACT and myself have taken on this subject and presented it as something for everyone and not just for an ‘outreach’ community.

The relationship between mental health, art and technology is your on-going research topic.  Now you see the exhibition open to the public, do you feel that the process of curating it has helped to move your thinking on at all?

Yes, absolutely.  One of the most important things for me is the idea that art can help create empathy, or help you see something from a slightly different perspective.  We were doing an evaluation session this morning with some groups that regularly use FACT, and they were recounting their experiences of the exhibition. There was one individual in particular who was talking about [the piece called] Labyrinth Psychotica, which enables you to see the point of view of someone experiencing psychosis. He said that work helped him to think about what the experience of mental illness might be like for other people. I suspected and hoped that this exhibition would achieve that –and I am starting to gather evidence that that these works can help shift people’s perspectives and change minds.


Is the exhibition going to be used as a springboard or possibly tour?

For my future work I want to think about shared cognition. As technology advances there is this idea that we are all sharing our cognition more and cognitive processes are taking place in groups. I am really interested in what mental health looks like under these conditions.  And also artificial intelligence, I am really interested in the relationship between mental health and artificial brains.

Could you talk a little bit about the decision to present most of the artists together in gallery 1 at FACT?

There are other works in gallery 2 – Jennifer Kanary Nikolov’s Labyrinth Psychotica and an archive of FACT’s previous work in the area of mental health. On a practical level, that work needed space around it and [provision for] recovery time.  But I think when you are talking about mental health and technology you are very often talking about immersion and over-stimulation, being bombarded by lots of different information. It is a complex subject, which isn’t best dealt with by presenting a small number of carefully crafted artistic statements in a large empty space.  Putting a lot of work in one gallery allows people to join the dots, build narrative and experience some of that idea of over-stimulation

Because these are artists investigating the subject, rather than scientists or therapists, did you see the exhibition as an opportunity to touch on ‘fake’ or placebo treatments or therapies? I noticed that you included a historic electric shock machine.

The idea of fake therapy is interesting, because ultimately therapy is whatever works for you; everyone needs something different in terms of supporting their mental health.  The ECT machine I thought was a good inclusion because it demonstrates how we have historically used machines to try and modify our brains.  There is definitely a narrative thread in the exhibition about control and mental health. For example Quintan Ana Wikswo’s photographs of old asylums, a lot of the research that she did alongside them was about how asylums have been used for societal control. They were used for people whose behaviour wasn’t socially acceptable, people who were in a mixed race relationship or young girls that had got pregnant before they were married, etc, [were incarcerated] under the banner of mental illness. The ECT machine speaks to the same idea.  If people demonstrated behaviour that couldn’t be controlled, the machine was used to keep them quiet and knock the life out of them – so to speak.


There is also, in the exhibition, a strong thread about individual voices, alongside mental health as a theme.  Technology has become important in disseminating individual stories.

Yes absolutely, it is important. The title of the show – Group Therapy – came originally from considering the way that the internet has become the new talking therapy.  Blogging about mental health has come incredibly popular.  There is actually a short essay in the catalogue produced by a prominent mental health blogger.  The idea of technology allowing people to reach out to others that share their experience is really important.

I was interested to read on your blog about how you had been producing work exploring suicide in a high rise building and then had to confront your motivations when someone really did take their own life at that location. Mental health is an emotive topic, how have you navigated your way through it?

It is a difficult topic. As I say, I think everyone has some relationship to the subject of mental health. Everyone is their own expert on the issue. The artists who were involved in making exhibition would also probably say they all have some kind of lived experience of mental health issues; it would have been awful if we had curated the exhibition with artists none of whom had those experiences. The ethics of doing the kind of work that we are doing, like putting a psychosis simulator in the gallery, we have to think very carefully about how we manage it. But everyone who has [visited the exhibition so far] has been grateful for the opportunity to talk about mental health, perhaps in a freer way than they have before.

Are there any artists or pieces that you were particularly excited to secure for the exhibition?

There are so many! The kind of work that interests me most, personally, is work that crosses over between art and research practise or something that is employed somehow in a clinical setting. There are two pieces of artists’ work that this particularly applies to: George Khut’s The Heart Library, that is the piece that uses bio feedback to help users monitor their heart rate, he is a researcher and an academic, and the technology behind that piece has also been used in clinical settings – a version of it has been used to help support children about to undergo painful medical procedures, to help moderate their anxiety. The Labyrinth Psychotica by Jennifer Kanary Nikolov(a) is another example of an artist research project impacting clinical practice; it is taken around to psychiatry conferences to help psychiatrists who have never experienced psychosis. Those are really exciting to me – those projects informed by research.

There is also a new commission by Katriona Beales on the subject of internet addition. She is an artist who has worked in the past in Liverpool so it was exciting for me to be able to commission her to make a new work.

I think I am right in saying that the majority of artists featured in this exhibition are female. Do you think there is something about the subject matter that attracts female artists; is it your influence as a female curator, or just a coincidence?

Gender is something that is pertinent to the subject of mental health, in more ways than I am able to list right now. Looking at the list of artists there are four male artists and nine female. Issues around the body, self image, technology and mental health are [resonant with] women in particular: the way that women have been subjugated using mental health as a sort of alibi, the archetype of the hysterical women is very familiar to us all. At some stage we decided that we wouldn’t intentionally foreground the theme of gender as there is so much going on in the exhibition already. I didn’t set about deliberately to bring in a lot of female artists but these themes are [interesting and explored by] a lot of women and female artists.


You are now based in Sydney – are you going to be coming and going throughout the exhibition run?

I am going back to Sydney quite soon – next week! There is the possibility of something in this vein happening in Sydney and I will be continuing email conversations with FACT about the legacy for this project. It is important to FACT that this exhibition emphasizes their ongoing work in the area of mental health and their partnerships with people like Mersey Care NHS Trust . There is a genuine desire to continue to do meaningful work  around mental health.

Vanessa’s blog:

First published on

Linda Pittwood: Hi Cornelia. My first question is: what has been your impression of the new Whitworth?

Cornelia Parker: I think it looks great. I knew it before and it used to be quite dark and the back of the museum was blocked off. You would go into dark rooms with suspended ceilings; now all those rooms have been opened up and they have lovely full height rooms and then they have been pierced in the back so that you can look through to the gardens. It is much more light and airy and the bits they have added round the side are just gorgeous. I am very happy to be doing this first exhibition.

That worked out well! How long have you been in a dialogue with Maria Balshaw about the exhibition?

Quite a long time really, two to three years, two and a half years perhaps. I first met her about three years ago and she was sounding me out about doing something in the gardens or a firework display – which I have done quite a few of as artworks – then about two years ago she asked me if I would like to do the inaugural show, which seemed a very exciting thing. The show was supposed to happen earlier, but the opening of the building was delayed. But it was worth waiting for. I think she has done an amazing job on not a huge amount of money.

Yes, it’s a really exciting thing for the city. Maria has talked about how your piece Cold Dark Matter made a huge impression on her at age 22. Did this add to the pressure as lead artist at the opening of the gallery?

A little bit! But pressure can be good, sometimes I work better under pressure. And I was given three beautiful spaces. I knew one of them was going to house the shed [Cold Dark Matter, above], the middle one was going to house a combination of different works from different periods, and that left the last room, which I wanted to make a new work for. It is very difficult to make a large-scale work without back up – that is why I think doing museum shows is brilliant. You get to realize something that you have had in your mind for a long time but not had the space or the back up to do it.

Can you tell us about that brand new work — War Room?

I wanted to make a work in response to the exploded shed, 24 years later. When I made the original piece it was partly in response to the IRA bombs going off in London, where I was living at the time and still live. That constant threat of the explosion. I had never touched anything that had been blown up, but you see it on the news and it pervades our lives, in fact it is getting worse and worse, there are more and more explosions in the world and we have the terrorist threat in Britain again. I felt I wanted to make something acknowledging war.

Whitworth Art Gallery -- image by David Levene

I had been talking to the [Imperial War Museum] about doing a war commission, which is still in the offing, and I went to the poppy factory in Richmond with a view to making a piece as part of the WW1 commemorations. I was struck by this material that I saw there, this punched out poppy paper, and I thought perhaps I should make the work for the Whitworth, because that was more present in my mind and it didn’t really fit into the war museum’s timetable.

So the idea was that the shed was blown up by the British Army and then at the other side of the war there is the British Legion making poppies, the money making industry for the dead. The shed is very dynamic and exciting and 24 years later you have a kind of chapel, a place with 3200 absences, poppy-shaped holes. A more sombre reflection on the other side of the explosion.

I think in general the WW1 commemorative pieces that have been the most successful are those that acknowledge the historical but bring in contemporary themes so that they resonate today.

Yes, the War Room isn’t really about the First World War. It is about the ongoing production of poppies, and the ongoing commemoration of the dead, a blood-red room following the explosion. Lit by four light bulbs so it is quiet and dark.

I also made a new work for the Whitworth called War Machine, which is a nine-minute film of the automated poppy factory at Ayleford, which is not where I got the poppy paper from. The machines work from 7am until 10pm all through the year apart from two weeks off.  They just pound out these poppies and send them all over the world, to 80 different countries. It will never stop, I can’t imagine it ever stopping.

Have you found it a reflective process – putting together new work with work from up to 24 years ago?

Yes, it is the first time I have shown the shed in an exhibition like this. It has been in group-shows or on permanent display at the Tate. It has been quite exciting to make a response to it. I am still working with those themes, it is not as though I have left it way behind. All the work from different periods in the show seem to sit quite well together. Thematically they make quite a cohesive whole – I am not as schizophrenic as I thought I was!

Cornelia Parker, Whitworth Art Gallery -- image by David Levene

Maria seems to love the fact that you and Cai Guo-Qiang, another exhibiting artist, both utilise ‘blown up’ materials. Do you think there is an interesting connection between yourself and the other artists on display for the opening?

[Cai] works with gunpowder, but his work is quite dissimilar to mine, similar materials but his work is much more painterly. His work is less quiet, my work is quite quiet really, even the shed which appears visually cacophonous. Our work comes from two different cultures, British and Chinese, but the work complements each other nicely. There is lots of other work on show, including Sarah Lucas, who has a whole room, I really love her work.

It is good to have a strong female force among the artists on display.

Yes! Just like Maria herself who is an unstoppable force and has done great things for Manchester. She is of course also the director of the City Art Gallery and she has raised money for the new venue for the Manchester International Festival. Culturally now, Manchester is really punching above its weight.

Manchester seems to be having a bit of a moment.

People are talking about the new ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – but it has always been a powerhouse! I did a show at the Cornerhouse in 1989, a really important show for me, and now I am coming back to Manchester. I grew up in Cheshire and Manchester is where I came to for culture, to see plays, and I have always been very fond of Manchester. And the Liverpool Everyman!

In your recent Guardian interview with Tim Adams I noticed he quoted your Whitworth collaborator, Nobel prize winner Konstantin Novoselov, who said that you were both working at the “extreme end of creativity”. Could you tell us a little more about working with him?

That has been remarkable – really good – we enjoyed ourselves a lot. We did things together that would have been impossible to do apart, which is always what a collaboration should be about. My invitation to him to try and make graphene from Old Master drawings was something we both got really excited about. He has a strong interest in art and the history of graphite as a drawing material, so it worked with his research but he wouldn’t have thought to do that.

I am doing a three-year honorary professorship at the Whitworth so I am going to carry on my relationship with him and with the gallery. There is a lot of unfinished business! Mary [Griffiths, curator at the Whitworth] and Maria have been like the midwives assisting me with the birth of all this new work. Women! All powerful women.

You often work in collaboration with other non-artists. Is this because it is vital to your practice or is it simply enjoyable?

It is a vital part although I don’t collaborate to produce every piece. I am not a studio-based artist, I just sometimes use it to put things in or undertake a messy process. I find myself being much more creative in conversation with other people. I prefer being on site making instant decisions. It is interesting speaking to scientists because they are not always sure what they are looking for; we just have a hunch that this is an interesting place to be. We play with materials until we find the right way into them and then make this quantum leap. It’s very rewarding – I don’t think I can stop collaborating.

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Hi Jamie. It’s very nice to meet you; I’ve been really interested in your work for a long time. How have you found Liverpool, and when did you arrive?

I arrived in April. I didn’t really know Liverpool, I knew Manchester much better. [The opportunity to come here] came at a good time, I had just finished a long project – Hiker Meat – that culminated in an exhibition at the Cornerhouse. I realised on reflection that project had lasted five or six years, although it changed continually throughout, and there was a moment when I realised that when I started it I was in my 20s, and I am now 36.

I’m a compulsive maker, it’s difficult for me to not do anything, but it was a good time for me to take stock and I needed some sort of change. I like the dislocation of coming here, not having a studio, not having a routine, not knowing a place, not knowing how to spend my time on a daily basis. So it’s been great. Starting [a new body of work] is always painful; I forget this when I am working on a project the strands of which started several years previous.

You have been the Bluecoat‘s 2014 Summer Print Studio Artist in Residence. Were you able to start something new during your time there?

The beginning of something often starts with a medium, an approach or a process that I am not familiar with. So screenprinting is what I did here. I have always been interested in screenprinting but didn’t know anything about it. I knew the basic principle of a mesh and image, but [I learnt] through practice and didn’t necessarily approach it in the most efficient way. That is essentially how I work, without much official tutoring or someone going ‘that’s wrong’ because sometimes those wrong things work out well with what I am trying to achieve.

There was no set goal of what was to be achieved in this period of time. The only stipulation was that you had to make an edition. I was conscious that I wanted to make pictures and I wanted to make them in a singular way as opposed to a repetitious edition-based way, which is the traditional way screenprinting is done. I wanted to interrupt that process.

I think I ended up making about 60 or 70 ‘things’, by things I mean outcomes, and about five of them were good. ‘Good’ is probably the wrong word, but there was some sort of bridge between the intention and the outcome. It took me a long time to build up my confidence in relation to the medium. It’s extremely exhausting. But that was important to me that labour intensiveness.

Will you be presenting the outcomes from the residency?

I had this show in Rome, which was scheduled to open the first week of October. The intention was that the work produced [at the Bluecoat] would go into that show but it all got so close to the wire. I was printing onto wood, to me they were the frontispieces of paintings and they were going to have a stretcher on the back. I ran out of time here so I shipped all the work and made the backs out there. That became the end point.

Jamie Shovlin at the Cornerhouse on Friday

[Also in that show I exhibited] drawings of hands that I produced here, using images of sculptures from the Renaissance, high Western art. These images are strangely aligned to Liverpool, even though they have nothing to do with Liverpool as a place, because as I didn’t have any internet access or anywhere to work when I arrived, I used to go to the Picton Reading Room a lot. And they have these oversized art books in there, really beautiful books, published largely in the ’60s… that are largely image based… and then this rather bitchy scholarship. Really judgmental. The drawings gave some context to what I was doing here [at the Bluecoat] where my hand wasn’t visible.

For the longest time I was engaged principally in process. Which at a certain point, thankfully, segued into something more conceptual, more compelling. I have never had an interest in historic sculpture, I am not sure if I do, but I do have an interest in history making.

Is the show in Rome a solo show?

It’s a two-person show [entitled C/O An alternate correspondence. It’s open now] at Unosunove Gallery with an artist called Philomene Pirecki, who is based in London. Her work is about continually reframing what she is doing. I was doing something similar, but she works directly in the space. I have liked her work for a long time. It’s a form of conceptual painting. It has this inherent idea of time and of place. Formally [her work and mine] work well together. It’s not something I normally think about — tone, colour scheme, we’ve got too much magenta on that wall, that sort of thing.

Naomi V Jelish  2004 mixed media

The old masters you are referencing would have worked with studios in a particular way, for instance, with assistants. Have you ever tried that?

I tried it! At one time I was making work that was more friendly to that way of working. But after a couple of weeks I was struggling to find work for them to do. [What I am doing now is] about contact with the thing whilst you are making it. Building up layers. They aren’t performative or purely durational, but time is very important. People often ask ‘how long did it take you?’ – it’s such a stupid question. Sometimes time does equate to value, but some of the best things I have seen took seconds to produce, even though there is no struggle in them; I am more towards the durational end of the spectrum.

When I was researching for this interview, words like ‘trickster’ and ‘conman’ came up often. I wondered how comfortable you are with this label? Does it refer principally to work you made a long time ago?

The word I dislike most is ‘hoaxer’; it reduces everything to that ‘ha ha I’ve got you!’ moment. Roughly speaking, I have done three projects you could call fake archives. The point of reveal has always been different. Naomi V Jelish (pictured, above) was my first ever show and there was the possibility to engineer an exhibition experience where the viewer wouldn’t know what they were looking at. The structure of the show came from the space; I knew I had two floors in the gallery to work with. One level was the archive of drawings, the ‘front’ of the story being told, and the other level was about the production of the story.

Then there is the Saatchi thing, which I am amused by…

The myth that Charles Saatchi perpetuated, that he thought the archive was real and the drawings were produced by a 13-year-old girl…

…This ‘myth’ as you say. I had never spoken to the press, I was talking to them genuinely and then they asked me ‘how do you feel about tricking him?’ I knew it wasn’t true but there was a game to play. It was my first show at a well-known gallery and Saatchi was there when I arrived, drinking a cappuccino. He told me [he was going to tell the press he thought the archive was real] and he said to me ‘this is going to be good for me and you.’ What was amazing about the experience, apart from the heightened interest in the work, was the insight into his PR umbrella. He gave a story about each artist in the show to a different publication — newspapers not magazines. My story went to the Telegraph. I now have in the archive genuine press clippings about the show alongside fake press clippings that I made myself. It’s like layers of an onion; he added several layers to the work.

Going back to my original question about Liverpool, I wondered whether place is quite important to how you work? I notice that Cumbria crops up a couple of times on your CV.

The North-West actually as a region has been quite key. I’ve done three or four shows in Manchester, Liverpool and Carlisle. With the Carlisle exhibition – at Tullie House – that project was all about context and site. I was working with the curator Fiona Venables who is amazing, one of the best people I have worked with. She was trying to bring closer together two disparate strands of what the museum was doing – the collections, the research, the historic museum and the very ambitious exhibition programming.

The curators of the collections were very wary because of my reputation. I was there for three years, mostly gaining trust. They would be wanting to show me their best things and I would be interested in a tuna fish under a tarpaulin or an ostrich egg in a toilet roll holder.

I like the edges of collections, museums with an archeology of their own history. I wanted to tell the story of how objects entered the collection. Everything we see has been processed through some mind or collective mind, or its been fictionalised. People put emphasis on different things. This is why I didn’t see working in the museum as that different to my other work [such as the fake archives]. Even if it’s the most verified historical account, it has been shaped by people who always have an agenda.

First published on

Before we begin looking at Harmonious Society in detail, first a few thoughts on perennial exhibitions. Why do they occur? What do they mean in relation to other kinds of exhibition production? Obviously these are huge questions, and to answer them fully would take more time than we have here, but we will consider a few ideas.

When dOCUMENTA inaugurated in 1955 in Kassel, Germany, it had a healing mission: responding to the way that culture had become politicized in the Second World War.  Venice Biennale on the other hand, founded in 1895, similarly to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, was more concerned with national pride: announcing to the world what a nation is capable of using examples from fine art or industry.

Latterly, perennial exhibitions lead the way in setting trends and presenting artists that will then inspire other exhibitions. Curator, artist and writer Paul O’Neill describes them as: “interfaces between art and larger publics – publics which are at once local and global, resident and nomadic, non-specialist and art-worldly”, and explains that contemporary curatorial practice occurs: “on an increasingly inter-national, trans-national and multinational scale, where the ‘local’ and the ‘global’ are in constant dialogue.”

With this in mind, we now travel to Manchester City Centre for Asia Triennial 2014, and specifically to the six-venue sub-strand, Harmonious Society. It is a 30 artist-strong exhibition of Chinese contemporary art, led by the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA). Chinese content dwarfs the rest of the Triennial programme: even some of the events that sit outside of this sub-festival involve it. The emphasis given to China is likely because we are 14 years into the ‘Chinese century,’ but also very possibly because this country’s contemporary art has matured in the UK as an area of academic focus and curatorial concern.

When I spoke to Dr Jiang Jiehong, curator of Harmonious Society and Professor of Chinese Art at Birmingham City University, back in February, he touched on the curatorial processes that were underway to create the show. He impressed me with the rigour and the sensitivity with which he had approached the task of lead curator on the project, as well as his acknowledgement that what he was undertaking was an exercise in cultural translation.

In the four cultural centres – Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei – he initiated four different approaches to facilitate new artworks and curatorial endeavors, including workshops and symposia. But how have these curatorial structures translated into an exhibition experience?

Liu Jianhua Boxing Times (2002), Harmonious Society (Asia Triennial 2014), photo courtesy Tristan Poyser

It is not obligatory but it makes sense to begin Harmonious Society at the CFCCA venue on Thomas Street. The two artists selected for the show here make the point that the ‘harmonious society’ (or ‘societies’) to which the title refers are both Chinese and non-Chinese: that the artists of modern China are self-reflective as well as outward looking. Liu Xiaodong’s output is the result of four weeks in Israel. His diary entries are in some ways more poignant than his canvasses, documenting intimate encounters and observations. In contrast, Pak Sheung Chuen’s project, Resenting Hong Kong Series: Resenting My Own History, takes a lighter vox-poppy approach to the subject of transfer of Hong Kong sovereignty from Britain back to China in 1997.

To navigate the six venues, visitors are equipped with a map, beautifully designed by Hong Kong-born, Manchester-raised artist and illustrator Stanley Chow. Leaving Thomas Street, my next destination was the National Football Museum, where the works have been chosen or commissioned to relate to ideas of sport, games and power. A piece by Shanghai-based artist Liu Jianhua, Boxing Time (2002), is my highlight. Liu has produced a huge variety of work in ceramic, often exploring the tension between the hardness and fragility of the material. It’s a real bonus to have films here of the artists talking about their work.

The other artwork of interest here is Kan Xuan’s Man with Balls (2005).  In it she explores the relationship between golf and business: how sport can so often be masculine and exclusionary. This is resonant within a venue that attracts a principally male audience. Whether many of the traditional visitors have taken the lift to the third floor to see Harmonious Society is unclear (conversely visitors coming specifically to see the exhibition need not encounter a great deal of football as they trace their way to the show), the invigilator admits that the younger visitors love it; which is to be expected, as I find the exhibition here is the most fun of all the six venues.

In an extreme but not unpleasant change of tone, my next destination is Manchester Cathedral. Both the works here are new commissions. Zheng Guogu’s Brain Lines consists of 13 retro-looking units with a periodic table aesthetic, one to represent each of the twelve apostles and Jesus. Li Wei’s sculpture, however, responds to the cathedral architecture; he has chosen to create an ornate and ‘mystical’-looking frame around a full height mirror. Whilst both are sensitive to their surroundings and have a contemplative quality, they tread too softly for my liking and in the case of Li especially, feel a bit tucked away.

The works that best exemplify curator Dr Jiang’s mission to translate the culture of China for UK audiences can be found at the John Rylands Library. Wang Yuyang’s Breathing Books is, in my view, the most effective but subtle work from the entire selection of 30 artists. Having visited the library and taken photographs and measurements of the Chinese books, Wang returned to China to produce a silicon sculptural facsimile of them all piled on a table. Presented in the reading room, responding to a motion sensor, the books inflate so as to appear to breathe as one. This gesture embodies the importance of recording and exchanging knowledge, and is rooted specifically in the relationship between China and the UK. Most importantly, it is a wonderful, surprising work.

The next venue on the map, Artwork, is a few minutes walk into Salford, and is scruffy and a touch unwelcoming. However, it is the only space big enough to accommodate large immersive works. Pairing Zhang Peili’s Elegant Semicircles with Wang Yin’s joyous dance paintings on the top floor is particularly effective in such an industrial context. The works here are a catalogue of familiar artistic strategies (some ready-mades, a hint of Joseph Beuys) but together they form a distinctively Chinese lens with which the artists have interpreted their experiences.

Wang Yuyang, Breathing Books (2014), Harmonious Society (Asia Triennial 2014), photo courtesy Joel Chester Fildes

Curator Dr Jiang made reference to one problem that it is worth bearing in mind when visiting Harmonious Society, that: “an artist who has put 100% effort into their work when it is shown in one cultural context may find that only 20% will be understood in a new cultural context.  This is a two-way process which also affects British art shown in China.” A decision has clearly been taken not to overload the displays with interpretation; however, as I walk around Harmonious Society, there are some questions without answers, some intrigue without resolution, some meanings and messages that elude me.

The venue where I felt most alone was the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), my last destination of the day. Tonally this section of the exhibition, mostly video work, felt the most mournful and perhaps pessimistic. Some of the works begged for more explanation. Chen Chieh-jen’s four-screen exploration of a Taiwanese leprosy hospital, Realm of Reverberations (2014), in particular deserves substantial attention, befitting the artist’s thoughtful and intensive research process. Those visitors with the luxury of revisiting the exhibition might find it worth approaching this venue as a trip on its own.

On reflection, and similarly to its first big ‘expo’ exhibitions (some of which became perennial fixtures in our artistic calendars), this strand of the Asia Triennial Manchester first and foremost is concerned with showcasing some of China’s exciting artists. However, we are invited to reflect on China itself, not just Chinese contemporary art. Dr Jiang suggests that the exhibition is “a platform for audience, artists and curators to discuss this era of extraordinary social, ideological and cultural transformation.”

The title Harmonious Society appears politically loaded, suggesting a tension between the internal and external perception of a situation, and even hints at the use of propaganda. Assessing the exhibition alone, and not the extensive public programme, I find that the artists who are outsiders offer the most insight, whereas some of the pieces that directly deal with politics inside China — such as Yang Zhenzhong’s Long Live the Great Union and Wang Yin’s dancing paintings — are less forceful. However, I would exclude Chen Chieh-jen’s Realm of Reverberations video from that statement.

In a sense, all the artworks are outsiders in their current context in Manchester, although they are all part of the international art world; as mentioned at the start of this article, they are what curator Paul O’Neill calls ‘interfaces’ between one culture and another. We have a fantastic and time-limited opportunity to view them here, where some of the meaning may be lost but new meanings are made.

First published on

Hi Alnoor. Firstly, can you describe the circumstances around the founding of the first Asia Triennial Manchester (ATM) in 2008?

The main reason was that the climate leading up to 2008 was changing. There were several exhibitions on the theme of Asian art in the UK and beyond, there was the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) in Brisbane, Australia. And these were showcasing artists that I considered to be producing innovative, interesting work that was really different from the YBAs in Britain and the artists that followed them.  There was also the historical significance – trade links between Manchester and Asia meant it made sense to start bringing artists from that part of the world over to the North-West region.

What is the significance of holding the ATM outside of London?

London is seen as a cultural and economic hub — obviously there is the National Gallery, Tate, and artists settle there. But the North-West — Manchester in particular — has a lot to offer culturally. The Commonwealth Games were held in Manchester in 2002 and that event really let the world know what Manchester had to offer. The ATM is a continuation of showcasing Manchester to the world.

Street artist, Shamsia Hassani

How does this year’s festival move on from the first two versions?

The first two festivals took place under the umbrella of an organisation that I founded called Shisha [an international agency for contemporary South Asian crafts and visual arts]. The organisation lost its Arts Council England funding in 2011, so the festival this year is organized completely differently, with much stronger links to universities, drawing on their international work and research.

All three festivals have been thematic; the 2014 theme is ‘Conflict and Compassion.’  This idea is timely in terms of the global political situation and what we are facing. We are at war. When you listen to the radio, watch television or pick up newspapers, the idea of conflict and compassion seems very resonant. The festival explores how these ideas impact on ordinary people and how artists respond to them. There is also the backdrop of the WW1 centenary, which brings a different and poignant dimension to the festival this year.

There are links both to MIRIAD at Manchester Metropolitan University and to Birmingham University — via Dr Jiang Jiehong (Professor of Chinese Art, CFCCA’s lead curator, and a former curator of Guangzhou Triennial). Do you think this academic basis strengthens the festival?

The academic basis works on many levels and has many angles. The festival relates to my own research on Asian Cultures, and myself and other academics and curators contributed to a publication that followed the 2011 edition of the festival entitled Triennial City: Localising Asian Art. There is an academic agenda, but the festival also acts as a curatorial laboratory.  The festival takes a wider learning approach to showcasing what is happening in Asia and the UK.

In terms of the benefits to students, many of our undergraduates, MA and PhD students are researching in Asia and are interested in perennial festivals — so the ATM is fantastic for them. It is also great to be linking to Birmingham City University this time.

Alinah Azadeh, Burning The Books. Image courtesy Katja Ogrin

There are many exciting, high-profile, contemporary artists involved this year. Could you talk about one or two of them, and some of the projects that you are most excited about?

Yes, there is Alinah Azadeh,  a British artist of Iranian descent working internationally across media. Often involving the public through gift, ritual and dialogue, her works are collective meditations on loss, longing and human connection. Alinah will be presenting Child’s Play (2014) and Burning The Books: The Book of Debts, Volume IX (and remains of previous Books) (2011-15) at the Imperial War Museum North (IWMN). Both works shown here focus on the role material culture and language play in our relationship to conflict, as well as acting as gestures for peace amid the cycles of conflict currently intensifying globally.

Also showing at IWMN is Bashir Makhoul, who will present an installation of 3000 boxes. They are like cities in the Middle East, cardboard boxes representing overlooked dwellings, decayed places. This will be a new work but based on a piece he made for Venice Biennale… He will also show paintings concerned with similar ideas of displaced people, painted in fine detail at the Manchester Contemporary Art Fair.

Many of the key venues in Manchester are involved this year, including the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art [CFCCA] which is producing an ambitious multi-site show. Harmonious Society will showcase over thirty exceptional Chinese contemporary artists from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China, across six city centre venues: CFCCA, ArtWork, The John Rylands Library, Manchester Cathedral, Museum of Science & Industry, and the National Football Museum.

Harmonious Society will be the most significant exhibition in the UK to date of contemporary Chinese art, featuring new commissions and UK premieres; curator Jiang Jiehong has focused on the current socio-economic vision presented by the government of mainland China, which seemingly presents ‘no conflict’ but rather, almost poetically, 天下無事, a ‘Harmonious Society’.

Hardeep Pandhal, Untitled (Camp Coffee study) (2013)

What has the process of coordinating the festival been like?

The ATM has always been about relationships with key partners. We are lucky that all the partners share a similar approach.  I don’t think there is another city in the UK where the arts organisations have such a shared, collective vision. Manchester is probably unique in that way. Working on a festival like this will always be challenging because it is ambitious.

Can you tell me more about the new business strand of the festival and why it’s been introduced?

The festival this time has four main strands: the exhibitions, at Imperial War Museum North and other venues; a symposium for artists, academics and curators on the subject of ‘Conflict, Compassion & Resolution’; a business event and the collaborations programme.

The business event will centre on a knowledge exchange and a conference in November. This will bring keynote business entrepreneurs to speak in the context of the artworks at the IWMN; it will act as a bridge between the business and artistic communities.

Hsiao-Chi Tsai (Taiwan) and Kimiya Yoshikawa (Japan), Bury Art Museum and Sculpture Centre

What impacts did the previous festivals have and what do you hope will be the impact of ATM 2014?

What we did after the festival in 2011 was conduct a substantial economic evaluation and audience evaluation and we were encouraged by the results. It bought £7 million to the economy of Manchester and there were over 350,000 visits to both the 2011 and 2008 festivals.

We are hoping to build on both the economic impact and audience numbers this time.  Triennials take place every three years and between the festivals we continue the collaborations programme: local artists working with diverse communities in Greater Manchester. The ATM is the focal point, but we use the ideas from the festivals to continue our education strand between festivals and engage local communities.  This year one of the education outcomes will be a procession around IWMN using banners that respond to the idea of commemoration and conflict.

Last question! Could you sum up for me in a few words what visitors to Asia Triennial 14 can expect?

Visitors will be spectacularly mesmerized by world-class artists challenging their minds and moving their emotions.  From the CFCCA to the cathedral, IWMN and all the partner venues, there will be a diverse cluster of artistic activity in all media. It will celebrate what Manchester can offer culturally and present a powerful message about how art can challenge, move people and transform lives.

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A non-profit, evolving, critical art collective hailing from Leeds, Black Dogs have been prodding and dissecting our ideas about the art world for the last ten years. The group — founded by Andy Abbott and Dave Ronalds in 2003 — approach art as a space in which to experiment with and question social, economic and political ideas.

Key moments include their 2010 exhibition for Tate Modern’s festival of independent art organisations, No Soul For Sale — which saw them ask, ‘How Not To Sell Your Soul At No Soul For Sale’, encouraging other exhibitors to visit their pop-up pub to share their experiences of receiving no pay or expenses — and 2004′s Arte Et Labore and Technically Wrong exhibitions at the Cloth Workers Hall — turning Pizza Express into a space for ’young’ artists in Leeds to exhibit, and having to take the entire space down on weekends.

Hi Andy. How do you think Black Dogs fits into the wider arts infrastructure in Leeds? (i.e. do you have any key partnerships? How do you complement the more mainstream arts activity in the city?)

Andy Abbott: We do less stuff in Leeds now than we used to. When we started out, there was much less in the way of artist-led spaces or initiatives, or opportunities/spaces in which ‘young’ or less established artists could show work. So we made our own opportunities, and did what we could with the means and resources available to us.

We took more influence from the DIY music, activist and squatting scenes in Leeds than the institutional art stuff. That said, things like Situation Leeds public arts festivals in 2005 and 2007, and the early Light Night festivals from 2006-2008, felt like exciting and inspiring things to be part of. At that moment, it felt to me that a different kind of art might have been brewing in Leeds, one that reflected the lack of a conventional Art World presence in the city; that was more socially-engaged and political.

No Soul For Sale, Tate Moder, Black Dogs

As the more prominent arts organisations have grown and developed I think the art scene in the city has become more standardised. I think Black Dogs works best in places that are marginal, a bit weird, unconventional and that have an alternative narrative to the (culturally driven) neoliberal city. In those places, art can still surprise and engage new audiences in different ways of thinking about and approaching the world. So we’re mostly doing stuff in Bradford and elsewhere now! There’s still some great stuff going off in Leeds but I think the sort of art scene that has grown in the last few years has made it a less interesting place for us to work.

Do you think that artists make a conscious choice between DIY and gallery representation? How do you see these two approaches working together (or not?) 

I don’t know much about the ins and outs of gallery representation, but there’s a minority of artists (some of us included) who prefer not to pursue a ‘career’ within the Art World and for whom the Do-It-Yourself approach and ethos is a political position. That minority is made up of people who might disagree with the commercialisation of art, the manner in which institutions are run, those who believe in a different form of organisation, and people for whom self-managing and self-organising simply suits them better. Of course there’re plenty of people out there whose approach to DIY is that it is simply a necessary first stage in getting in to the Art World proper and for whom the political inferences are unimportant.

Black Dogs Book Fair

What are the advantages and the challenges of having a non-hierarchical, loosely formed group?

I’m always a bit wary of the term non-hierarchical being used to describe how we operate. Hierarchies exist within the collective — some people lead on certain projects or elements of the collective — but we try to be conscious of these and shake them up when required. Likewise the open and loose membership is in actuality for the majority of the time the same few people meeting together and making key decisions about the direction of the group — but we try to disrupt this when things are in danger of getting staid and repetitive. Being non-hierarchical and fluid are challenges in themselves, things that we can’t achieve fully but that we aim towards without letting the manner in which the group is organised/managed overshadow the art we make/do together.

With that in mind, could you tell me a bit more about some of the art that you and the wider group produce?

In recent years, we have moved from putting food and drink and music into galleries, to organising parties and putting art into that context. Some of the group who are based in London are doing a research project looking into the politics of parties, party scenes and hosting in art; its called Wish You’d Been Here… In Bradford/Leeds we organise club nights with a critical edge under the name Bare Plume – these events combine food, cocktails, bands and films e.t.c. Quite a few of us are involved in playing music and being in bands as well as art production.

The idea of mapping occurs quite a lot in what I – and some other members of the group – do. It’s because we are geeky and we like maps, but also because in making participatory events that prompt a conversation is what is important to us, but then you want something to exist afterwards. Some examples of this are theFestival of Pastimes and the Saltaire Cat Map. They both invite people to look at spaces in a different way.

What have been Black Dogs’ key moments?

Arte Et Labore and Technically Wrong exhibitions at Cloth Workers Hall (2004)… there were no spaces available to ‘young’ artists in Leeds at the time so we turned the upstairs of Pizza Express into a gallery — having to take it down on weekends. Consequences at Whitehall Waterfront (2006, that then became Project Space Leeds)… Our worst exhibition that made us reconsider our approach and helped us realise bigger is not always better. And also in 2006: A Night Down The Pub and Black Dogs Panto. Two events we put on for a laugh that were much more successful than our ‘proper’ exhibition that year!

No Soul For Sale (2010). A project we did at Tate Modern that raised a lot of questions in the group. We ended up building a replica of the pub we met in in Leeds in the Turbine Hall. And Black Dogs Quarterlies (2013) — a series of publications that helped the group to operate across the UK.

Who is your audience?

We have different audiences for different projects, many of which respond to a specific area or community/communities whom we like to get involved in the development of that project as participants or agents. I think there’s another level of Black Dogs’ audience out there — those who have followed the group and are interested in our overall practice, as well as those that buy our publications — but I’d be hard pushed to say who they are, and we don’t really take that into account when making decisions about what we’re going to do next.

What is Black Dogs working on right now?

We’re working on a radio play of a project we did in Bradford last year. It started out as a few meetings gathering together people that had been involved in Bradford’s counter-cultural scene in the late ’60s and ’70s, especially those that had worked with or come into contact with Jeff Nuttall (who wrote a book called Bomb Culture and taught at Bradford College for a while). These conversations helped form a guided walk around an area of Bradford that had been earmarked as the city’s ‘cultural quarter’ in regeneration plans, which ultimately never happened. Hopefully we’ll have the radio version done in the next month!

How do you see the group evolving over the next 10 years?  In terms of projects, geographies and participants?

It’s hard to say. We’ve never had a long-term plan and I think it’s important to keep the option of ‘Black Dogs’ dissolving or changing beyond recognition open at all times. I think as long as people feel some affinity with what we’ve done in the (recent) past, however, and there’s the drive for participants to use their spare-time creatively and in collective projects, then Black Dogs will keep on keeping on.

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Britain Sexology ExhibitionAre the public here because they are interested in the history of the study of sex? Or are they here because any mention of sex in our culture is titillating, tantalizing and taboo? That is my question as I stand waiting to queue, with a timed ticket that I cannot redeem for twenty minutes. The Institute of Sexology is the most popular exhibition I have seen at Wellcome Collection, ‘a free destination for the incurably curious,’ in central London, which explores different elements of the human condition using science and art.

The lights are low and the layout of the gallery compels you to walk in a single line, peeking into each showcase of objects to see phallic amulets, Japanese sex aids, or a sepia-coloured photograph of a Victorian transvestite. The environment suggests that you are engaged in an illicit activity, the opposite of a large white space with the freedom to draw your own desire pathways from one item to another.

The exhibition is divided into sections, highlighting the different spheres of sexual study: the library, the consulting room, the classroom, the laboratory, the home. Artworks and artifacts complement data, variously visualized. An etching of dismembered male genitals apparently fallen from stone sculptures is followed by an erotic Victorian post card, which precedes a camel rendered in copulating couples produced in India in the 19th century, then onwards to a survey into female sexual responses.

The practice of studying sexuality and cultural responses to sex has, as you might expect, been historically controversial. We are told the story of physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld who was targeted by the Nazis. His library was burned to the ground in 1933, ending his promotion of social justice for sexual minorities and the lively debates between intellectuals who congregated at his ‘Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft’.  Photographs of his library are all that remain.

This is the study of collections: collections of data, collections of objects, and an examination of the fluxuating fates of the collectors. One of the collectors is Henry Wellcome (the philanthropist whose activity led to the creation of this venue) whom we are told had a “fascination with the theory of ‘phallic worship’.” One wonders whether scientific advancement was always the main motivation for sexual study, how or whether these individuals were able to shut off their own desires?

Sex concerns the body and the mind. Sigmund Freud is in the consulting room. He was one of the first psychologists to ‘lift the veil of silence’ and make the connection between neuroses and sexual emotion. Institute of Sexology reveals the invisible studies and their proponents, who enabled very visible social change; contraception or rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people. But it is artworks like Zanele Muholi’s black and white photographs of black lesbians in South Africa that wield the emotional power. From a wall of over 20 portraits, the artist has removed images of women who died since their photographs were taken, often from targeted violence.

The exhibition takes a turn for the zany with a series of photographs by Timothy Archibald. They are the outcome of three years spent travelling the United States documenting people and their home-made sex machines. The images have titles such as ‘Dan and Jan Siechert, The Monkey Rocker, Bakersfield, California.’ Even though they don’t depict sex, they bare witness to some of the most intimate sexual acts. Archibald says, “I wanted to let men tell their story about trying to navigate sex and relationships.” He was surprised to find that the machines tended to be built and used by committed couples.

“The history of sex research is not a progressive march toward enlightenment, and contemporary art interrupts that narrative,” says co-curator Honor Beddard. Carolee Schneemann, for example, with her work Ye Olde Sex Chart (Sexual Parameters Chart), 1975, cuts through the Western rhetoric of 1960s and 70s sexual freedom. The detailed list of her own sexual experiences mimics the methodology used by the sexual researchers elsewhere on display. The age and nationality of her lovers, the duration of their encounter, frequency, the size of their genitals. Her works are always deceptively simple: grabbing the male gaze, turning it on herself and holding it there until viewers are forced to confront her sexuality and their voyeurism.

Would you step inside the Sex Box!? Shouts a headline in a review of Institute of Sexology. The sex box is a box with no special qualities, made to the dimensions specified in a drawing by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in the 1930s. Reich called it the ‘Orgone Box,’ and apparently used it to collect and store a naturally occurring “sexually potent” energy possessed with health benefits. In reality it is an empty box, simply a means to attract attention for his wider agenda of sexual liberation.

One of the developments in sexual health that cut through British life the most deeply is the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s. This story is oddly placed here within the sphere of ‘the home,’ represented by leaflets posted through letterboxes at the time that read: “AIDS – Don’t Die of Ignorance.” However, this slogan is sadly resonant as recent figures show an increase of new persons infected in the UK, who believed that it wouldn’t happen to them.

This segues to the final note of the exhibition. A video, Pedagogue, 1988 by Neil Bartlett, which reminds us that sometimes ignorance is institutionalized. In this case referring to Section 28, a law banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools; leaving a generation of young people without support as they came to terms with their sexuality.

For those who came for the sex, the show isn’t that sexy. It is about how studying sex – or not talking about sex – can have deeply felt consequences for society. When the exhibition engages in these kind of discourses it has a profound message about the importance both of sexual freedom and the freedom to examine sexual practices; the way contemporary art interplays with this notion is worth the visit alone. I can tolerate the sex machines but don’t have much time for the sex box – it has done its job attracting crowds of visitors.

First published in Art World magazine, 2014

Piet Oudolf's plan for the garden at Hauser & Wirth Somerset courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo by Alex Delfanne

Piet Oudolf’s plan for the garden at Hauser & Wirth Somerset courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo by Alex Delfanne

Almost 40 years ago, Brian O’Doherty wrote in his essay ‘Inside the White Cube’: “We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first.” He went on: “This gives the space a presence possessed by other spaces where conventions are preserved through the repetition of a closed system of values. Some of the sanctity of the church, the formality of the courtroom, the mystique of the experimental laboratory…” He said nothing whatsoever about the farm.

Hauser & Wirth is an international brand with ‘white cube’ style galleries in London, Zurich and New York. They represent some big names of international contemporary art: Pierre Huyghe, Martin Creed, Paul McCarthy, Ron Mueck, Zhang Enli, to name but a few, and some significant artists’ estates including Eva Hesse and Dieter Roth. But now to add to its portfolio it can include the 100-acre Durslade farm in the English countryside outside the pretty town of Bruton in Somerset.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset is a vision for a new kind of art gallery. It supports artists’ production and experimentation; however, unlike most commercial art galleries, it places importance on the visitor experience. To do this, it reinforces their lifestyle and values: audiences can see contemporary art, eat good food and know that the butter was churned on site. In the decades since O’Doherty described the meaning and importance of the white, neutral space, there have been many attempts to reimagine the gallery but nothing has fundamentally shifted the paradigm. Perhaps this is it?

“I’ll meet you by the bucket,” I say down the telephone to my guide, Associate Director Lucy MacDonald, who is yet to arrive. We are meeting on a hot summers day the first weekend that the gallery opens to the public, although it has already been host to some fruitful residencies. Artworks themselves, temporary and permanent, some for sale, others not, have been central to the farm’s transformation; woven into the fabric of its new identity.

The bucket, which is actually and more appropriately, a milking pail, is ‘Untitled’ (2008) by Delhi-based Subodh Gupta. Stainless steel, seven foot high and prominently positioned outside the former farm buildings, it is a utilitarian counterbalance to Paul McCarthy’s whimsical ‘Ship Adrift, Ship of Fools’ (2009). On the ship-shaped sculpture, charcoal-black dolls’ heads silently slur and cry. Across the grass, on the old farmhouse, Martin Creed’s ‘Work No. 1086 EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT’ (2011), asserts its eponymous, reassuring message.

To cool down, my companion and I go inside for a drink at the bar. The bright sunshine makes the interior seem dull for a second, but as we blink the scene before us into focus, we are assaulted by a cacophony of objects: industrial, domestic and painterly. The Roth Bar and Grill is an installation in its own right by Björn and Oddur Roth, the son and grandson of Swiss artist Dieter Roth. Re-appropriated lockers, paint cans and their brand of New York-meets-Scandinavian interior design continues through the shop and cloakroom.

The idea to position a gallery such as this in the English countryside was conceived by Iwan Wirth, but it is now under the directorship of Alice Workman. Alice says she was attracted to work at the gallery because of the unique opportunity to live in “a rural environment [whilst working] for an internationally acclaimed gallery.” This dichotomy is present in all of the activities at Durslade farm. The first major exhibition here is ‘Gig’ by Phyllida Barlow whose work tumbles, drips, hangs and stands in the ‘Threshing barn,’ a series of workshops and outside in the ‘Pigsty’ and the ‘Piggery.’

Barlow has filled the Threshing barn with oversized, multicoloured fabric ‘pom poms’ from ceiling to floor. They beg to be touched (of course you can’t.) Their density and volume almost make the generous proportions of the barn seem small. Alice characterizes Barlow as “a real artists’ artist with a wonderful capacity to make everybody feel totally engaged and inspired” and describes the new work she has produced for Hauser and Wirth as “vibrant [and] celebratory.” Lucy enthusiastically recalls the textile pom poms arriving fully assembled hanging in an enormous box, and how the artist and her team fabricated other parts of the installation on site from sections of wood and plaster, making final decisions on the work’s appearance in response to the space. The result evokes machinery (perhaps from farming activities past), combines elements of architecture with echoes of art school or some other institution, and suggests chance through a million deliberate gestures. One can sense both that Barlow’s sculpture is rooted in drawing practice, but also that the artist understands her work will be seen in the round. She has an intuitive understanding of material, movement and the power of scale.

Barlow in her 70th year is having a bit of a moment. It was a clever decision to launch the gallery with an exhibition of work by someone who is an art world insider (she was a professor of art at the Slade School of Art, London for more than 40 years) but makes work that is tactile and jolly. Concurrently, she is showing previously unseen drawings at Hauser and Wirth Saville Row and has a major commission at Tate Britain. The artist started work in Bruton immediately after finishing her piece for Tate in London’s west end.

At the back of the gallery we exit into the sunshine. Here the internationally renowned gardener and nurseryman Piet Oudolf has planted an extensive garden, complemented by Louise Bourgeois’ ‘Eye Benches II (1996-1997) and Anri Sala’s ‘Clocked Perspective’ (2012). It hums with the siren call of crickets, but we cannot explore it, yet. Officially, the garden is not ready: it is in the process of growing and will launch in September this year.

Oudolf’s gardens are art and life in four dimensions. They are meticulously designed to look good in all seasons, even when the plants die or dry out in the winter. The artist (although he doesn’t identify as such, preferring gardener) has planted gardens all over Europe and the US including at Palais de Tokyo, Paris and Venice Biennale. Lucy revealed that Oudolf is deeply emotionally invested in each project and feels hurt when the commissioners do not maintain them after he is gone. The garden is a significant statement of the gallery’s intention to care for its immediate environment and to employ the manpower to do so (it will require one full time gardener and a part time assistant.)

Back inside, Oudolf’s garden production process is explained in an exhibition of his preparatory drawings. They build up in translucent layers from concept design to detailed planting instructions; every sheet of white paper suspended in a white vitrine is covered with annotations in his native Dutch and a personal code of symbols. The drawings have never been displayed as artworks before. They are an insight into Piet Oudolf’s professional activity and also his soul.

Before we leave, Lucy asks if we would like to take a walk to Bruton Dovecote, a sixteenth-century watchtower and residence for doves and pigeons, positioned on a hill overlooking Durslade Farm and the town. Walking up the steep field to the stone structure, we pass a community garden full of vegetables, sunflowers and violets. By this point in the day, the distinction between art and gardens has dissolved completely; leaving a sense that at their best both involve time, collaboration, beauty, compromise, ambition and commitment.

Standing by the Dovecote we can see the town beneath us: pink, yellow, thatch roofs and sandstone, clean and shining in the late afternoon heat. You can appreciate why artists like Pipilotti Rist not only want to exhibit at the gallery, as she will do in November this year, but are willing to move to Bruton for an entire year, as she did in 2013, enrolling her son in the local primary school whilst she created a permanent piece of art at the farm. The town and the fields that surround it are a lung breathing energy into the gallery. The access to Hauser and Wirth’s artists should act as an oxygenated vein, ensuring that the gallery maintains the quality, complexity and ‘edge’ of the offer, and does not succumb to the lazy and bland style of art that rural British towns typically favour.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset has been described as the ‘slow’ alternative to the fast pace of the international art world. Many synonyms for slow are negative: lethargic, lackadaisical, sluggish, stagnant. But I find a gallery that is better described by words such as: considered, self-possessed and unflappable. ‘Slow’ can describe the process of a museum developing a collection for future generations. Or an artist taking time to produce a new work. It can describe a garden growing. Or a gallery that challenges the orthodoxy of the white cube and demands to be revisited as it changes from season to season, year after year.