The internationally acclaimed choreographer Alexander Whitley was interviewed by the doyenne of ballet criticism, Ismene Brown in advance of the performance of his ballet this weekend at the barn at Messums Wiltshire in Tisbury. Brown, who was the Daily Telegraph’s dance critic for 15 years, began her incisive line of questioning by asking what it was like for Whitley to see his ballet in a 13th century wooden barn. She was met by equally penetrating responses from Whitley in what made for a riveting and illuminating evening…
‘To bring such a unique work to such an historic venue makes the work very different from how it exists in the clinical theatre space ‘said Whitley.’ ‘Every theatre reveals something slightly different about the piece itself.’.
Each of the pieces in Whitley’s triple bill are all very different in character and performed to starkly contrasting music ranging from the electronic minimalism of Ryan Lee West to John Woolrich’s piece based on a Montiverdi opera.
‘The pieces are very intimately related to the music but as well as the melodies it is the libretto that formed the basis of the dance pieces’ explained Whitley.
The first piece, Noumena, was commissioned by the Royal Opera House in response to Frederick Ashton’s ballet Sylvia.
‘Noumena means a thing that is in itself; the inner essence of a thing unreachable by the senses. We were working with the words to develop the choreography; not just the music’ said Whitley. ‘Ulysses Awakes’ is about Ulysses being washed up on a shore of Ithaca after an epic battle with the Phoenicians. He is suffering from inner turmoil and regret at what he’s experiencing after a long journey.’
In creating his work Whitley said he had been much inspired by the psychiatrist Carl Jung who had written much about how folkloric tales relate to the human unconscious.
‘It’s really interesting to work more abstractly with something narrative,’ said Whitley. ‘Ballet has always tended to deal with narrative very literally but I am more interested in the ability of movement to express something deeper; an essence of our ability to communicate that pre-dated language.’
Brown asked why contemporary dance has become so densely intellectual; ‘ballet is all about steps and contemporary dance seems all about Significance’ she said.
Whitley replied; ‘I am more interested in the exploration of movement rather than dance steps. In Sleeping Beauty, the story telling element is around 5%; I have always held that the narrative in classical ballet is a frame to hang a formal demonstration of technical authority. Nutcrackers and Romeo and Juliets work in a way new narrative ballets struggle to do’.
Brown pointed out that contemporary dance has ‘many languages. ‘
‘In becoming a choreographer I had to unlearn a lot of what I had learned’ said Whitley, who trained at the Royal Ballet School. ‘I had been so rigorous and codified in my dance that to break patterns so deeply ingrained in my body was hard; to think about moving in a very different way.’
Whitley said he had learned much from a generation of choreographers a few years older than him. ‘Michael Clarke was a big influence in his deviousness and subversion of classical ballet, William Forsyth was the most powerful person in liberating classical ballet and learning how to apply formal techniques into different ways of performing.’
Setting the scene in Whitley’s ballet are some hoops of light that oscillate between the performers, accentuating their moves.
‘I’m interested in the relationship between the body and objects,’ said Whitley, ‘sets create atmospheres that generate specific moods. We can utter a word and immediately know what its meaning is whereas a movement is more ambiguous. The tantalising thing is that you can’t pin it down; its always moving.’
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Rehearsals were underway here today. The video below is a sneak preview of ‘Ulysses Awakes’ ahead of the performances Friday 27 and Saturday 28 July.
‘In reality, we are pan narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee’.
In the late Terry Pratchett’s The Science of Discworld IV, human beings are defined as pan narrans, the storytelling ape, who exist in a dimension known as the ‘narrativium’. The author, who died in Broad Chalke, Wiltshire in 2013 was often inspired by the power of storytelling, indeed by the power of the written and spoken word. This seems like a productive place to commence our narrating of the Festival of Spoken Word on 14-15 July 2018.
Rupert Everett’s, The Happy Prince, a gripping new drama about Oscar Wilde’s final years opened the festival. For this film, one he directed, wrote and starred in, Everett has earnt some of his best reviews to date. It was even the subject of a recent BBC documentary. A screening of the film was followed by an inspiring interview with Everett, who spoke firstly about how ‘tenacity counts above and beyond’, and the film, which took ten years to create, was certainly the result of ‘putting my all into it’.
When questioned about Wilde’s use of language, Everett commented that though some are works of genius, much of Wilde’s rhetoric is ‘fruity’ and sometimes even overstated. Instead, Everett is inspired by him as a character: a vain stair, blind to the outside world and ultimately undone by his own vanity. Wilde was only forty-six when he died. ‘What next?’ Another asked to the answer of ‘no idea’. Everett was an advocate for enjoying a project, and not rushing constantly forward. ‘It’s an amazing feeling when people enjoy your work’ he admitted, adding ‘it was great to have ten years in a way, you need a lot of help as a first-time director’.
Caroline Goyder’s talk Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority marked the Sunday segment of the Festival of the Spoken Word. Goyder is a leading voice coach and keynote speaker, with over fifteen years of experience providing training to celebrities, teachers and broadcasters. Her discussion was particularly relevant to the so-called ‘iPad generation’, an entire age-group of people unable to make eye-contact with one another, a skill lost potentially due to our obsession with our screens.
Local author and playwright Barney Norris was brought up in Salisbury. He spoke about his voice-driven work in the differing fields of fiction and theatre. With readings from his latest novel, Turning for Home, Norris, a passionate proponent of the power of the spoken word, encouraged audience members to find their own voice.
Acclaimed actor Edward Fox OBE recited from the Collective Works of Poet Laureate John Betjeman including ‘Indoor Games Near Newberry’, ‘The “Varsity Students” Rag’ and ‘The Wykehamist’. ‘A poem can be your best friend’ Fox proclaimed, ‘and like Schubert, Betjeman is profound and witty in a very small space of time’.
Like a demon-king Ben Haggarty – one of the world’s leading storytellers – strode around the barn in a long coat, declaiming a fascinating tale as he went. The Devil, The Tsar & 3 Dry Biscuits, a tale he claimed to have learnt from a man he met in a café in Moscow Road, London, who had been a soldier in the army of the Russian Tsars. Thereafter Haggarty moved onto an unusual explanation of Greek myths that had people gripped in terror and delight in equal measure on the edge of their chairs. Later in the evening Haggarty performed The Fate We Bring Ourselves, a very adult finale to our festival, called ‘brutal, unsettling and bloody brilliant’, by TimeOut.
The penultimate event was East Meets West, a showcase of the most exciting young ambassadors of the spoken word from London and Bristol, many contributing to the young poet corner who wrote free-flowing, improvised poetry for festival goers throughout the day. Such an activity consolidates the importance of story-telling, retaining a flexible mind able to communicate with other human beings and the world around us.
Over the next few weeks Messums Wiltshire is continuing our ambitious festival programme with the Alexander Whitley Ballet (27-28 July) and the series of Material: Wood related workshops and events. See more via the links below.
Talk/Supper Club with Alexander Whitley: https://messumswiltshire.com/talk-with-alexander-whitley/
Alexander Whitley Dance Company: https://messumswiltshire.com/performance-alexander-whitley/
Events for Material: Wood: https://messumswiltshire.com/exhibitions/
Our exhibition The Revelation of the Head closed on 8 July with record numbers of visitors, rendering it the unexpected blockbuster of our summer programming. exhibition. Running from 26 May – 8 July this exhibition featured seminal works by artists including Elisabeth Frink, Gavin Turk and Antonio Canova. The Revelation of the Head encompassed artefacts from ancient Greece and Egypt to contemporary depictions such as painter Jonathan Yeo’s first foray into sculpture – a large scale bronze self-portrait, Homage to Paolozzi – created from an ingenious combination of virtual reality and advanced 3D scanning.
These cross-temporal, cross-cultural heads were shown in our medieval, 140ft long barn in two rows, facing inwards towards each other. They filled the length of this magnificent space, evoking the arcades of classical Greece and Rome. The standout sculptures from this time period were a Roman marble Portrait of Emperor Antonius Pius, created in 2nd century CE, Head of Male made in 550-500 BCE Egypt and an Italian, 17th century terracotta Head of a Man.
Contemporary works worth drawing attention to were the first sculpted head conceived in virtual reality and Keith Coventry’s gold-plated Supermodel (Kate Moss) 2000 for their novel takes on the human form, interested in reworking the traditions of certain materials as well as being inspired by modernism and minimalism, first pioneered by sculptors Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti.
We are pleased to announce that the philosophy of this wonderful exhibition will be reflected by our future programming. Later on this year we will be hosting a solo show by the late British sculptor Brian Taylor. Taylor, who died in 2013, was an extraordinarily gifted artist, fascinated by human and animal forms. Taylor only rarely exhibited his sculptures publicly since the early 1960s and they remain best known to a select circle of friends, patrons and enthusiasts.
This future exhibition will provide the opportunity to view important works from early in his career such as the head of Boy from Antigua, 1958 (the life-size won the Rome Prize) and Michele – Nefertiti Head (circa 1985) as well as those which are much later: Gabriel aged Seventeen (2013) and Bella aged Fourteen (2004). In 1998 Taylor was elected a member of the Society of Portrait Sculptors and the Royal Society of British Sculptors. Here the intention is to tell his story from the context of those who found that past a daunting exterior was a man of talent and gifted ability to teach.
Artists exhibited in The Revelation of the Head were: Christy Symington, David Mach, Elisabeth Frink, Emily Young, Jonathan Yeo, Laurence Edwards, Sean Henry, John Davies, Glynn Williams, Brian Taylor, Nuria Torres, Keith Coventry, Abigail Fallis, Ralph Brown, Ellen Christiansen, Gavin Turk, Peter Burke and Kevin Francis Gray, Eric Kennington, Antonio Canova, Simone Bianco and Stephen Pettifer.
Saturday 21 June 2018
Christopher Kurtz is one of the world’s preeminent sculptors in wood – one of a stable of exceptional artists working in the Hudson River area north of New York and due to have a one man show at Messums Wiltshire in the summer of 2019.
Brought up in Kansas, the son of an advertising hoardings designer, Kurtz had an early training in calligraphy by watching his father paint the signs.
‘We think of creativity as breaking down the barriers but if you have boundaries it can free you and I see skills as a form of boundaries,’ he said.
‘In the same way that musicians have to learn musical scales in order to express themselves, learning how to craft wood and making things more narrow has been my ticket for freedom of expression.’
During his talk he talked about a number of his works including (A) Typical Windsor Form, an extraordinary sculpture made of two conjoined Windsor chairs.
In the 18thcentury making chairs was the height of sophistication, he pointed out. ‘Within a single chair could be a lifetime’s work. Steam-bending, carving and engineering of unparalleled complexity made Windsor chairs sturdy but flexible; a chair that yields for comfort.’
Making the twin Windsor chairs, ‘nearly killed me,’ he confessed, ‘I had nightmares about it.’
‘So much art is about death and sex; very little about empathy,’ he continued. ‘A chair is a moment of repose; it feels like a human body, it captures that intermittent moment between lying down and standing up.’
For a number of years Kurtz assisted Martin Puryear, one of America’s pre-eminent wood artists and one who is representing America at the Venice Biennale next year. ‘We have lived through an era when art has equalled intellectuality and difficult things and craft has equalled skill’ said Kurtz. ‘I am lucky to be living now in an era when there is less distinction. A lot of institutions are starting to break down the distinction between art and craft and we are all in the middle of it.
The truth is that most artists are very intuitive. I like letting scholars and historians figure out the meaning of my works. I have a philosophical bent but my job is to do my job. You should own what you do and let everyone else work out what it means.’
Read more on our artist’s page at https://messumswiltshire.com/christopher-kurtz/
On 23 December 2017 a container left Southampton Dock on the Hyperion bound for Sydney for an exhibition that would open in 4 months time in a space that had not yet been found.
120 days later, at 12 Mary Place, Paddington Sydney Laurence Edwards’s exhibition “Part of the landscape: Evolution and Exploration” opened. The context of the building could not be more appropriate. 12 Mary Place has a reputation that is now part of Australian artistic folklore. It was the riotous centre for exhibitions that included Brett Whiteley, Sidney Nolan through to shows of seminal indigenous artists Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Kathleen Petyarre and Billy Thomas. Formally a factory, boat warehouse and chocolate factory over a history dating back to 1916.
It’s heavy timber beams lent themselves immediately to the sculptures by Laurence Edwards. “Sylvan Man” perhaps taking up the most immediate residency by way of context with times and vines encircled within. It was also one of the first pieces to sell before the exhibition had even opened.
The gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday and the exhibition runs until the 6th May. So following a successful opening night on Saturday assisted by London Gin Makers Sipsmith and a Sunday packed with visitors.
It seemed a good idea to head out of Sydney on Monday and Tuesday to view the location of for Laurence’s “Catcher”. The context for Laurence of the landscape in Australia has become particularly apparent in the time that he has been shown on the continent. The first time was in 2013 in Melbourne, the following in 2015 when “Crouching Man III” was exhibited in Sculpture by the Sea where “Upsticks” also won the Macquarie Prize. For those not familiar with Laurence’s work, he is a sculptor and bronze caster. His artistic process is unique in that his artistic intervention occurs through the sculpting process into the Wax (the intermediary moment between clay and bronze) and then the bronze finishing- called chasing. At all points decisions can be made that inform the outcome of the sculpture and it is the resultant vitality for which Laurences’ work is best and increasingly widely recognised.
By the chance that only adventure can bring, we met philosophic wine makers Dan and Philip Shaw and as well as collectors of Laurence’s Sculpture – there are probably less than 50 in the entire country at the moment- whilst on travelling the Blue Mountains. Friends who would travelled to Sydney to hear Laurence talk on later that week.
On the way out of the Blue mountains we stopped to secure some works by Ros Auld for our forthcoming Australian exhibition and by Harrie Fascher, a sculptor and horsewoman who will be in our next show on Horses in 2019.
Meanwhile back in the gallery scene, interest amongst collectors was growing for Laurence’s works and we met over 30 who came to lunch in Melbourne to meet Laurence and hear the about some of the paths that He and his work had taken to get to this point. Who knew for example that the Creekmen (2008) – now something of a cult video in it own right – was originally a protest by Laurence about being excluded from an outdoor art exhibition. These orkish figures literally rising up out of the reeds with the tide to confront and lay siege to the show. Unsurprisingly they became something of the star attraction for his work and the start point for a remarkable commission that will shift cultural awareness in Suffolk and the context of art and the landscape.
Or that a series of miners heads, wrought in wax in intense sessions of observation would be the start point for a commission in Doncaster that would follow the curatorial equivalent of a coal seam to return to Australia and Broken Hill.
Laurence and I have travelled for over two weeks together on a tour of Australia’s cities and countryside. It has been fascinating to see how his work has evolved since last time it was presented here. The context seems so appropriate now. There is a rawness to the Australian landscape where adaptation is required to survive. It is a kind of vitalistic energy that is also implicit in Laurence’s works. When Laurence’s works are created it is often at the point of complete collapse of the sculpture, and by an act of rescue in transformation into bronze it brings with it a sense of reverence for the survivor.
The show runs until the 6th May at 12 Mary Place and then travels to 409 Malvern Road, South Yarra, Melbourne, VIC, 3141 Private view 12th May.
Saturday 21 April, 11am
‘Humans live in fast time. Not as fast as the time of a bird like a house-martin, but weeks and months are significant periods, and a century is as long as any of us is likely to live. Our perceptions are built around that fact. Stones live in the slow zone. For aeon after aeon they remain as they are, their molecular structures frozen, while the millennia slip past without so much as a murmur. Nothing changes or seems even likely to change’.
Christopher Nicholson, In the Slow Zone, (2018)
Tidying his stone collection on the studio window-sill one afternoon Tim Harrisson realised that this display was a fitting analogy for British geology, a huge variety of stones, all packed together in a tiny space. Harrison’s interest in the diversity, longevity and versatility of British stone is certainly reflected in his exhibition As it Was is Now and his talk chaired by Professor Simon Olding.
The conversation commenced with a Q&A between the two speakers. Harrisson began by discussing the sculpture with the same name as the show: a work which is site-specific to Messums Wiltshire’s thirteenth-century barn. The material of this piece is hewn from Portland stone and is littered with an organic pattern of limpet-like fossils, which perforate the surface. This work epitomises Harrisson’s fascination with timescales, namely the differing senses of time between the history of the tithe barn and of the stone which it is built from, themes expanded upon in Nicholson’s wonderful text.
Harrisson is continually enchanted by the resonances of shapes: the continuous round surface of the column; the calm side of an oval accelerating towards a baroque race-track bend; how squares represent the earth, according to Plato, their edges its limits; rectangles with their space sucked to either end and Dante’s interpretation of the celestial, spherical rings circulating around the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradisio. Harrisson’s exhibition layout is itself structured on a shape – a diagonal plane – with its incline increasing towards the end of the barn, as he tries to counterbalance the elegant structure of the roof.
Olding then explored the Harrisson’s connection to Kim Lim, a Singaporean-British sculptor who won a scholarship to the Slade in the 50s. The pair met by working on an exhibit at Roche Court, Wiltshire. He is interested in and influenced by eastern philosophies such as the Buddhist theory of samsara, the idea that life exists on a continuum and that even death is not the end.
Other works of Harrison’s are stationed at Southampton Airport and the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth – both permanent public sculptors. He admits that public art is difficult, as one has a lack of control and is bombarded by changes in the surroundings.
The pair closed with a reference to the show in the Long Gallery, hinterland*, which contains two-dimensional work by Harrisson and pots by Joanna Still. Harrisson explains how his on-paper works, which first started out ‘imitating the microscope’ transformed by his research and analysis of maps, and their way of referencing structure in the landscape. Layers are explored in both his drawings and Still’s smoke-fired pottery, a bridge between two diverse sets of practices.
The talk closed with several more informal questions, with an invitation to the Long Gallery for refreshments from The Mess and a look at Still’s exhibition on this wonderfully sunny day.
Messums Wiltshire is delighted to present the estate of late sculptor Brian Taylor. Taylor, who died in 2013, was an extraordinarily gifted artist, fascinated by both human and animal forms. All of his sculptures are modelled from life and most are life-sized, the scale that he preferred and was most intrigued by.
Taylor was born in 1935, the oldest of three children, to a poor, working-class family. Perpetually drawing, even whilst avidly reading his library books, he was encouraged by his school art teacher and a career in the arts seemed likely, if not inevitable. After time spent at Epsom and Ewell School of Art and Crafts, Taylor was persuaded to apply to the Slade School of Arts in London. In his application Taylor wrote that he was interested in “the study of people; their psychology, character and way of life” – concerns which certainly manifested in his work. In 1954 Taylor successfully enrolled for the Slade’s Diploma in Fine Art but ‘reacted immediately and vehemently to what he perceived as an elitist, public school atmosphere’, at odds with his humble and hardworking background. Adjustments remained difficult throughout this period of schooling. He loved to work from life but found the discipline of the life-room at the school impossible. He developed an intuitive, individualistic response to the model, which, remarkably, his teachers found unacceptable.
During Taylor’s second year at the Slade Henry Moore was to visit a teacher-friend. Moore’s praise for Taylor’s independent vision marked a ‘turning point in the way his work was perceived by the school’. It is said that Taylor established an immediate rapport with Moore, saying that the ingenious sculptor was a “Yorkshire man who spoke to me directly”. One a living legend and the other a novice, the pair found companionship through their mutual interest in the formal power of early sculpture. Indeed, Taylor often frequented the British Museum to look at Archaic, early Greek, Persian and Babylonian work.
Taylor won myriad prizes as a student; the life-size clay nude Boy from Antigua earned him the Rome Prize – a three-year scholarship to the Italian capital. A wonderful anecdote records Taylor having to hire a sex worker at 500 lire an hour as the Slade refused to give him extra funds for a professional life model. He was mesmerised by the city’s art collections, modern and ancient alike, including specific examples of the Belvedere Torso as well as the oeuvre of modernist sculptor Medardo Rosso.
Taylor only rarely exhibited his sculptures publicly since the early 1960s and they remain best known to a select circle of friends, patrons and enthusiasts. This exhibition, therefore, will provide the opportunity to view important works from early in his career such as the head of Boy from Antigua, 1958 (the life-size won the Rome Prize) and Michele – Nefertiti Head (circa 1985) as well as those which are much later: Gabriel aged Seventeen (2013) and Bella aged Fourteen (2004). In 1998 Taylor was elected a member of the Society of Portrait Sculptors and the Royal Society of British Sculptors.
Friday 30 – Saturday 31 March
Messums Wiltshire hosted its second annual Clay Festival on the Bank Holiday Easter weekend (30-31 March). The festival commenced with a lecture from the Keeper of Sculpture at the V&A, Professor Antonia Boström.
On the Saturday maker and lecturer Duncan Hooson started proceedings with his presentation ‘What on Earth is Clay?’ He spoke in depth about clay as a medium alongside the science and history behind the material. He elaborated on its many uses: in paint, paper, medicine, tanning, rubber, pet litter, make-up, fibres; Kevlar, fireproofing and even mud masks. He described ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ clays. Primary clay remains where it has been formed, whereas secondary clay moves and pick up minerals and oxides, colouring it in the process. There are three basic artistic uses of clay: 1. Porcelain, 2. Stoneware and 3. Earthenware. Clay even has interstellar ramifications, with Curiosity, the Mars Rover currently transmitting data to earth for analysis comparing Martian clay samples to earth’s. Clay has the potential to generate life, (perhaps even life on Mars) as bacteria is always present and can quickly germinate mould. On a different note, Duncan has been involved in a project which brings together aspiring surgeons with craftspeople; ceramicists, sculptures and even hairdressers. For surgeons to be successful, they need academic training as well as proficient dexterity, the latter skill of which has recently been declining due to the overreliance on digital technologies.
The lunchtime talk consisted of artists Sam Bakewell, Claire Curneen and Malene Hartmann Rasmussen in conversation with Creative Director of the Craft Council, Annie Warburton. Each of the three artists is exhibiting work in Messums Wiltshire’s Myth, Material and Metamorphosis.
Sam Bakewell was first to speak on his inspiration and work. dead, dying and i, a piece in our medieval barn was inspired by a LA crime scene photograph of a man, head-down in oil. Sam spent an age transforming his parion corpse into an abstracted landscape, with a young boy perched on man’s ‘funny bone’ and watching a deer die below, caught in the fence. His first encounter with death. Sam admits that his father’s profession as a lay preacher is very influential on his already darkened mind and ‘morbid fantasies’. Interestingly, Sam sees objects as sentient beings, that they are ‘quietly dreaming on their own’. He is obsessed with hair, spirals and water, visual motifs which feature heavily throughout his oeuvre.
Claire Curneen was in fact Sam’s tutor when he was studying Ceramics at Cardiff and she said it must be ‘obvious’ to the audience that he was a joy to teach. She loves sculpture, especially those which contain religious iconography, as such object are able to depict their own time and historical location: from them we can learn a lot about the past. Claire grew up amidst the feverous religious background of Ireland, but sees religion as a fascinating litmus test for the culture and political leanings of a time. Tending the Fires, her longest piece at 2.5m, serendipitously includes a ‘quote’ of The Fonthill Vase, now one of Ireland’s national treasures. One of the first examples of Chinese porcelain in thirteenth-century Europe, The Fonthill Vase is also inextricably linked to this area, belonging once to William Beckford’s collection at Fonthill Bishop, only a mile or so from Messums Wiltshire.
Malene Hartmann Rasmussen came to ceramics relatively ‘late’, choosing to peruse it professionally in her mid-thirties. She was fortuitously offered a work placement with Dutch artist Carolein Smit (another in Myths, Materials and Metamorphosis) an experience which inspired her largely autobiographical and figurative work. Many of Malene’s ceramic pieces are inspired by nature those such as Nightfall, her ‘trolls’ and Corn Dolly series. She likes the idea that her ceramic objects have ‘grown themselves’, as if they were alive. Her dog Jango is as present in her work as he is in her studio. His upside-down head was the inspiration for My Inner Beast #5. Malene has been awarded a highly coveted Artist in Residence position at the V&A, which she begins in April.
Messums Wiltshire was delighted to host Margaret O’Rorke and Sandy Brown and their respective demonstrations. During Margaret’s demo, ‘Porcelain in Your Hands’, she explained that after holding porcelain up to the sky she had a ‘eureka’ moment about using domestic lights in her work. She explained her work and how it is made. Margaret then ‘threw’ one of the porcelain pieces that can be seen on her wonderful porcelain and woven fibre optic chandelier at the entrance of the barn. Champion of the positivity of making with the hand, Sandy Brown lead a ‘Spontaneity Performance’ and a hands-on making event for the many that joined. Sandy first exhibited her process and then gave the audience clay to make their own figure. She asked them to ‘empty the mind’ and not to have a goal: letting the hand think rather than the brain.
The last event of the Clay Festival was the highly anticipated performance ‘Resetting the Table’ with Steph Buttle and Duncan Hooson. This was a tale of two halves, first the scene was meditative, with lit candles calming the audience whilst we watched them throwing, (on the potter’s wheel as well as literally onto the central structure on the table) pots, plates, bowls, cups and strips of clay. The second half invited the audience to get up and get involved. Premade handles were stuck on objects in inventive ways and participants were encouraged the deconstruct the traditional tableware that had been made. The event was a success as far as audience interaction was concerned and enjoyed by all.
Workshops took place in regular sessions throughout the day. These included potter’s wheel classes with Wiltshire Creative’s Mirka Golden-Hann in the Long Gallery as well as children’s workshops in a marquee in the courtyard—‘Clay Play’ with Mel Coughlan and ‘Clay & Print’ class with Heidi Steller.
Photos by Paul Nicholls
On Wednesday 14 March, Messums Wiltshire was delighted to welcome internationally renowned taxidermist Polly Morgan to speak on her work, life and inspiration in our thirteenth-century barn. A twenty-foot screen served as the backdrop for huge photographs of finished and in-progress creations. The visual result was certainly awesome and impressive. Taxidermy, stemming from the Greek ‘taxis’ meaning ‘order’ and ‘derma’ meaning ‘skin’ together mean the ‘arrangement of skin’.
Polly Morgan has always had an intimate experience of animals, from the very beginning of her life. Her family owned farmland in Oxfordshire which was inhabited by creatures as exotic as ostriches. It was not uncommon for sick goats to be nursed back to health in the family home. Morgan herself bred hamsters in her bedroom. When an animal died, her father would be determined to discover the mortal cause himself. Morgan remembers viewing her first ‘autopsy’ distinctively, watching as her father ‘nicked’ the goat’s stomach and being amazed at the presence of yet-undigested, intact grass. That grass looked the same internally and externally to a body resonated with the young Morgan in a way which would ultimately shape her life’s interests.
She moved to London to study English, fulfilling a life-long dream of relocating to a city. She settled in artistic Shoreditch – the stomping ground of the infamous yBas. Looking for taxidermy to decorate her home, Morgan realised it was a good deal cheaper to travel to Edinburgh for a day course in making a taxidermy bird than it was to buy one already ‘stuffed’. She booked her ticket and commenced her professional relationship with master taxidermist George Jamieson. Over the years she has built up a network of clients who supply her with animals which have met their maker due to natural causes or the fate of an unpreventable death. Morgan has previously said that she ‘hates the fact that death hangs over all of our lives’ and that she sees the aesthetic of the dead body – one without its soul – as a beautiful ornament. She admits to being squeamish but ‘only with smells’, which are produced by the ‘slipping’ or malting of the animal’s surface caused by bacteria. Maggots, frozen, are also a nasty part of the job.
Morgan has a strong sense of curiosity, seeing taxidermy as a mirror to a fascinating dissection in a biology lesson. It reveals the anatomical structure and sub-layers underneath a familiar body. The idea of the human self as an animal resonated acutely for Morgan during her pregnancy and experience of giving birth, though she believes she is probably more in tune with her biology than the average human. After returning from the Serengeti to England, she discovered her appendix had burst and she had also contracted gangrene. The experience of a segment of her body as rotten and dead influenced ‘Hide and Fight’ (2012), a taxidermy stag (pictured above) with bats nesting in its open stomach. This is one of her few autobiographical pieces and coincidentally is also one of her largest. She commented that big animals are very heavy and require more hands than she regularly has.
She first exhibited in Reconstruction #1(2006) where Vanessa Branson famously bought ‘Rest a Little on the Lap of Life’ (2006) a Surrealist-influenced piece of a rat lying in a champagne glass, underneath a dangling, decadent chandelier. Morgan surprisingly stated that this is not a narrative piece, but a reaction to spending time with animals and their intrinsic forms. Yet I would argue that a viewer could clearly read a tongue-in-cheek undertone to this work in particular and that it is all the more stronger for it. Unlike birds or other creatures, rats seem to take on the shape of the object they are placed within, here the rat is like a furry scoop of ice-cream. Yet Morgan is interested in semiotics, believing that all viewers can have an opinion on her pieces, even if it differs to her own.
Her more recent work is minimal and abstract. As such it takes animals further away from their biological and recognisable forms. Three examples: ‘Ins and Outcomes’ (2017), ‘2 North A’ and ‘3 East B’ (both 2016) can be viewed in Messums Wiltshire’s Long Gallery. They have a limited palette, inspired by the colour scheme of hospitals; so to bind the ‘body’ of work together as a series. Morgan decided to experiment after a period of dissatisfaction with her work. She did not recognise herself as the artist she was described as. She said it is ‘important to get bored of your own work before everyone else does’. Her inspiration arrived in the form of a snake serendipitously frozen into an impossible, Escher-like coil in one of her freezers: a beautiful, modernist sculpture. She loved the idea and executed it in a mad rush. Focusing on snakes was new and required new ways of working. She could no longer depend on feathers and fur to hide the bumps caused by wood-wool stuffing. Instead, she would fix the form of the snake in cling film, freeze the mould and then cast it in dense rubber. The time it takes to complete a snake depends, obviously, on its size. It could take at least three days, plus drying for several weeks, for a small species. The colour can then fade, so painting, varnishing and mounting on a plinth are the final stages. It can take weeks for a massive snake before drying.
At the beginning of her career she was the recipient of death threats. The recent renaissance of the practice in recent years, Morgan postulated, could be down to its rebrand as being more ethical. Taxidermy no longer needs to invoke or be the product of mass murder or hunting. Incredulously Morgan has even been asked to taxidermy a human being, an offer she graciously refused. Bizarrely it is not illegal in the UK, although Morgan admits that along with many ethical reasons she would not want to identify too strongly with a subject close to her own image. I would suggest that the increase of taxidermists could result from the rising ‘neo-Victorian’ movement. Victorian-inspired practices such as taxidermy, scrapbooking and collecting, even making jewellery from hair and artwork from animal skulls are being recast as ‘retro’ and thus all the rage. Perhaps in the internet age these Gothic pastimes offer us a more direct engagement with our own biology and mortality. In the 19th century, death was a daily threat, with the death of a loved one commonplace. A sense of supernatural horror and imminent extinction was grappled with in a more concrete way. Artists inspired by this ‘neo-Victorian’ movement in the Long Gallery arguably include Bouke de Vries ‘Still Life with Kingfisher’, 2017 as well as his two birdcages, Kate MccGwire’s ‘Sentient’ and ‘Sissure’ (Ommateum) (both 2016) and Alastair Mackie’s ‘Untitled’ (sphere) 2004. Interestingly, all of these pieces can be described as still-lives and/or still-deaths. ‘Nature morte’, the French expression for still life, works better as a literal translation.
We are midway through our second Material: Earth exhibition, Myth, Material & Metamorphosis. This show crosses our two spaces, with ceramics, earthenware and porcelain in the barn and two-dimensional work as well as mixed-media sculpture in the Long Gallery.
Highlights in the barn certainly include Barnaby Barford’s sublime polar bear, standing at the life-like height of 8ft at the end of our medieval space. Early works of Grayson Perry’s, dating from 1984 lend a fresh way of viewing this contemporary British master and Kate Malone’s archetypical Whaddeston Big Mother Pumpkin surrounded by other vegetables such as Fennel and Light Artichoke transform quotidian, almost mundane objects into glittering, botanical portraits.
Claire Curneen’s 2.5m long Tending the Fires is an ambitious ode to the possibilities of porcelain as a material. It features martyred St Sebastians, stoic, outward looking torsos and the head of an owl bejewelled with gold-leaf eyes all entangled and pulled inescapably together under a blanket of Christ’s crown of thorns. At Messums Wiltshire we are most excited about Curneen’s artistic inclusion of The Fonthill Vase, a bluish-white Chinese porcelain dating from c.1300. Its namesake is the earliest documented Chinese porcelain object to have reached Europe at the early date of c.1338. The original vase takes its name from its fleeting existence in the collection of the eccentric William Beckford at Fonthill Abbey during the 1800s (only a few miles from our locality).
Other artists in the barn include Christie Brown, Katie Spragg, Sophie Woodrow, Bouke de Vries, Bertozzi and Casoni, Lena Peters, Catrin Howell, Sam Bakewell, Jessica Harrison, Philip Eglin, Kerry Jameson, Livia Marin, Carolein Smit, Malene Hartmann Rasmussen, James Webster, Claire Partington and Vivian van Blerk.
The work in the Long Gallery pertains to the theme of Metamorphosis, which as Ovid describes in his magnum opus Metamorphoses, is the fact that ‘everything changes, nothing perishes’. Three-dimensional, sculptural work includes Alastair Mackie’s Untitled (sphere) a work encased in glass and composed of an orb constructed from hundreds of mouse skulls, each having passed through and cleaned by the digestive tract of an owl.
Polly Morgan’s ethical taxidermy pieces invite us to rethink our position on this rather lost, Victorian art form whilst Bouke de Vries’ winged, Surrealism influenced birdcages pose questions relating to transition, change and anthropomorphism. Alexander the Great and The Source (after Ingres) both by Andy Warhol in the 1980s are surely crowning glories of the two-dimensional work in this room. Attention must be drawn also to neoclassical paintings: John William Waterhouse’s Narcissus and Merry Joseph Blondel’s masterpiece Sappho.
Other artists in the Long Gallery include Ann Carrington, Charlotte Cory, Wolfe von Lenkiewicz, Ori Gersht, Eric Gill, Aubrey Beardsley, Iain Andrews, El Gato Chimney, Simone Pellegrini, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Wilfred de Glehn, Chris Riisager and Kate MccGwire.
Upcoming events – not to be missed – in our programme include the Clay Festival (30-31 March). The Clay Festival is a celebration of all things earth, taking this fundamental material as the starting point and centring it around the wheel of pottery. Talks, demonstrations and workshops for adults and children alike can be booked into and enjoyed, please see links below. This festival will be preceded by a talk by extraordinary taxidermist Polly Morgan on 14 March (last few tickets remaining).
Link to the exhibition: https://messumswiltshire.com/material-earth-ii-myths-and-metamorphoses/
Link to the Clay Festival: https://messumswiltshire.com/clay-festival/
Link to Polly Morgan’s talk: https://messumswiltshire.com/talk-taxidermy-artist-polly-morgan/