Monday, 11 August 2014

For what its Wirth

Rumour long foretold of an affluent, prestigious, world-class, contemporary art gallery whose arrival in a small rural town in Somerset was going to bring much joy, prosperity and branded re-useable tote bags throughout the vale. Its name, Hauser and Wirth and we had all been waiting with great expectation for the opening of its latest gallery in Bruton, Somerset this summer. Sharing its name with its other established galleries in London, New York and Zurich, Bruton might not seem like the obvious place for a commercial city-based gallery to set up, but with a gap in the art map that sees Bristol and Bath already hosting our largest contemporary art centres, there was perhaps an opportunity to establish some of the arts market elsewhere. And as the Somerset creative community have already proved, we don’t let being rural get in our way and continue to ensure, ‘there’s art in them thar hills’, often whether people love it/want it, support it or not! Maybe it is our resilience superseded only by our beautiful scenery that inspired the owners of Hauser and Wirth to bring a slice of the city to our middle of nowhere! (or possibly that the gallery’s owners send their children to school in Bruton?... although I prefer  to think it was a bit of both)    

Whatever the reason, Hauser and Wirth's arrival provides a fantastic opportunity to form new links between Somerset and the national/international contemporary art world as well as encouraging more tourism to the area. Now nearly a month has passed since it first opened its doors to the public I went to visit and find out for myself if it all really was ‘wirth’ the wait (forgive the puns, I can’t help myself!)

Subodh Gupta's 'Untitled' (2008) stainless steel bucket in the courtyard of Durslade Farm.
Set in the grounds of Durslade Farm, (a former piggery, barns and stables around a central courtyard) Hauser and Wirth boasts five gallery spaces equating to a total 2483 square meters, a one and a half acre meadow garden designed by Piet Oudolf, education rooms, studio spaces and Bar/Bistro.  It is hard to find fault as it is, all without question, beautiful. The standards of design, detail are high from the practical layout of the car-park to courtyard entrance complete with its own outdoor sculptures; a giant stainless steel bucket by Subodh Gupta and humongous bronze by Paul McCarthy (amongst others) to the gallery rooms themselves which feature both contemporary white-walls and spaces where they have retained the original barn features, beams and brick walls. The bar and grill is one of the gallery’s unique highlights and features a bar made from a mêlée of scavenged materials from railway tracks and fragmented paintings on wood with an equally impressive cloakroom, described as ‘a unique installation’ made from industrial lockers and paint cans. I assume it is there to be used...?

Paul McCarthy's 'Ship of Fools, Ship Adrift' (2009-2010) Bronze. 
Although this perfection comes at a cost too and I fear its ‘middle-class chic’ could brand Hauser and Wirth Somerset as a place stereotyped to the well-off, retired/middle aged or readers of Country Living magazine. There is nothing wrong with any of those groups per say, as they do make a significant majority of the audiences that view/invest in art in the county (and indeed I have my suspicions they are one of the target audiences Hauser and Wirth are looking to attract, after all they are a commercial gallery) however even though I have studied and seen much art in my modest 27 years, I still felt slight trepidation created by the air of fanciness at Hauser and Wirth, as though such a place was not for the likes of me, that my worthiness of being there was somehow dependant on how many interior design books I owned and kept on my Ikea coffee table (the answer is none by the way, I don’t even own a coffee table!). This was, in part a misconception that was soon dispelled by the friendliness of the staff. I did just come to 'see the art', but as this post proves I often find the context of the art world more distracting in than that of the art work itself.
I predict that attracting a wide variety of audiences is Hauser and Wirth Somerset’s greatest challenge (and one that, notably, is shared by many other arts institutions) especially now they are unable to rely on the passing footfall of their naturally busy city venues, this rural and remote gallery will need to ensure that they make an effort to attract and not isolate a wide variety of audiences through its doors (a few road signs to it wouldn’t go amiss either!?) Hauser and Wirth has been successful and got off to a good start in the way it hasn’t just muscled its way into this community simply by throwing its wealth around, it has employed local builders, artists, residents and looked to the local town’s businesses for support and partnership. At present it seems that they are achieving a diverse audience in having learning/events programmes as well as residences with local artists that look to engage with the wider community. I can only hope this is sustained and grown upon in the opening months as it continues to live up-to its reputation and forge new links within the South West.

Louise Bourgeois 'Spider' (1994) Bronze, silver nitrate and brown patina, granite.
Its danger of inclusivity could also be helped by the omission of some of its rules which are handed to you on an information sheet on arrival. It feels a bit unnecessarily protective and a negative way to welcome visitors, ‘Please do not drop litter’ being one inane example. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have rules; I am perfectly mature enough understand the sense of not dropping litter or need to protect thousands of pounds of artwork from the onslaught of many fingers poking it, but if anything fills me with a mischievous sense of anarchism it’s when rules are created at the expense of trusting/assuming people have any common sense.  Broadly speaking, it does highlight the problem with Art gallery’s dictum of wanting more people to engage and interact with them/ understand them, being met by their contradictory set of ‘Don'ts’, “we want you to come into our gallery but whilst your here could you engage with the art only by just looking at it, talking’s ok, just don’t do it too loudly and make sure you don’t run, touch, climb, photograph anything but we hope you’ve had an immersive experience.” Perhaps it is unfair of me to vocalise this concern in a post about Hauser and Wirth when it is an issue that affects many arts institutions. I just think that Hauser and Wirth can only seek to gain and would not damage their image of being a professional gallery, by relaxing some of their rules, trusting the general public and their gallery stewards to protect the work. Relax a little!
Phyllida Barlow 'Untitled Gig' (2014) Fabric, paper, cord.
The opening exhibition was always in danger of being over shadowed by the gallery itself, however an excellent decision to choose sculptor Phylidda Barlow, whose work could easily compete for attention, made a grand opening impression. Her bold/colourful, mixed media (often suspended) installed sculptures do a fantastic job at both invading, if not dominating the space as they do at drawing your attention to the gallery’s architecture and potential.  In some instances they actually block and act like obstacles that have to be navigated either through or around the edges of the room. This is intentional by the artist whose work is, I think, also incredibly playful being both abstract and looking-like objects such as chairs, megaphones, machinery and pompoms. Barlow makes use of strips of coloured fabric, rope, polystyrene, modroc, cardboard and other inexpensive or everyday materials which she manipulates on a large scale in response to the space (think Arte Povera). For me, Barlow’s work is interesting in that it tricks you into being unsure how to determine the weight or density of her work, of which I’ve also seen some of in the Venice Biennale; and appears weighty/heavy in its mass (due to its often large scale) but light at the same time (due to the airy materials she uses). They are quite rhythmical and dynamic in their compositions as well reminding me of paintings by Vorticists, like Wyndham Lewis and looking at them I feel tempted to take a photo so as to flatten them into these remarkable 2-D compositions so I can be aware of the many different works created by viewing it from different angles. Undoubtedly in my mind, it was a bold opening first exhibition that will have created an impact without being too controversial, conceptual or particularly challenging. Perhaps a safe bet, but then it would do no good in alienating people on the opening of its first exhibition.
Phyllida Barlow 'Untitled: Grinder' (2014) Plywood, paint.
Good things do come to those who wait as Hauser and Wirth Somerset certainly proves. For me personally I find it all a bit similar to the Damien Hirst affect in Ilfracombe. Hauser and Wirth, like Hirst, has the will, the professional business knowledge and money that are needed to fund what are ambitious and impressive galleries, fill them with international art and bring them to these remote rural areas of the South West. However, in order to thrive they must be supported by the public and continue to work with local organisations and local artists; many whom have lived and worked in these areas sustaining the arts for a long time and have equally long had the ambition, the knowledge and desire to do similar things but have struggled to develop under lack of funding or been eradicated completely due to the 2010 Arts Cuts. It is vital that they work together.  Hauser and Wirth Somerset is a great asset and more importantly than the place itself is the impact it will have on the surrounding area, what it may breed and inspire...only time will tell.

Phyllida Barlow's 'Gig' is on at Hauser and Wirth Somerset until 2nd November 2014.
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