Ron Mueck's Drift. 2010
Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens has quickly become one of my favourite places in England, or anywhere else for that matter. My first visit in April resulted in some fantastic photographs thanks to Belsay's various photogenic, magical muses, both permanent and ephemeral. English Heritage began using the historical site's attractions to host full-scale art exhibitions in 1996 such as Fashion at Belsay - which included Stella McCartney's crystal horse housed in the medieval castle, fortunately back for a reunion when I visited - as well as 2007's stunning Picture House project featuring an installation by Viktor & Rolf.
Belsay's latest art exhibition, Extraordinary Measures, showcases the work of some of England's most ingenious and curious creative talents. Each handpicked artist visited the site to gain inspiration, then set to work with the central idea of scale in mind. The exhibition as a whole has a kind of shrinking and growing effect, something like an Alice in Wonderland experience with malevolent insect fairies and fish-bashing babies in place of the murderous Queen of Hearts. While much of the exhibition will bring a smile to the observer's face, equal parts will strike a nerve in their own peculiar ways.
I was lucky as Stella's Spot to be invited to their press which included an introduction by curator Judith King, a short film, and tour of each of the installations which were most times explained by the artists themselves as nearly all were present.
Extraordinary Measures runs at Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens until September 26th in Northumberland. There's a warning about nudity (the same goes for this post!) and strobes which accompany Mat Collishaw's zoetrope in the castle. Pity for anyone who can't watch as it's the most impressive piece of the exhibition, in my opinion.
Here are my photos from the day, beginning with one of my feel-good favourites, Slinkachu's miniature reproductions of rather normal events made curious by the incongruency of their settings. The actual installations were set up last year throughout the gardens and grounds and Slinkachu photographed them to preserve what was the most fleeting part of the exhibition - they were left to be snatched up by the hawk-eyed or carried away by animals or the wind. So in the place of the figures are the photographs.
Tessa Farmer's A Darker Shade of Grey was one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen. I felt sick looking at it, yet it was the installation I took the most pictures of. What I'm showing here is the most palatable of the work; it was actually the crispy insect carcasses and not so much the taxidermied rodents that elicited the visceral response. There is something morbidly fascinating about dead animals, especially ones arranged in battle scenes and adorned with crab shell armour with scorpion artillery fighting malevolent insect fairies.
Come again? Fair enough. Farmer's narrative centres on the war between the Northumberland native red squirrel and the outsider, the grey squirrel who is apparently kicking red's fluffy tail. With the help of the skeletal insect fairies who think their grey foreign counterpart shouldn't be penalised for being successful. There's a metaphor in there somewhere but after hearing Farmer speak about her work I don't believe there's a hidden message, it's simply a dramatised version of conflict between two species.
This reminds me that I saw a skinned whole squirrel at the food market last weekend, marked with a stuffed toy version so you'd know what it was. I would rather eat the stuffed animal.
There was a bit of condensation in some of the glass cases from the rain - the hazy effect is not me trying to impart a dreaminess on this scene, especially as it was more of a nightmare! This mouse is being attacked by a militia of the bug-riding malevolent fairies made from insect parts - it looks like they're holding bayonets!
No animals were sacrificed for the sake of art. Farmer purchased the taxidermied squirrels and rodents from Ebay, the red squirrels being of Victorian origin. You really can get anything on there. A journalist asked after taking in the full spectrum of the painstakingly fashioned scene,'Why go to all this trouble, wouldn't it be easier to just paint?' And then the artist ordered the evil fairies to descend upon him and poke his flesh relentlessly with their tiny, crude weapons. At least that's what I feared might happen when I heard the question. Oh, Dude.
Scalesdale is an interactive, evolving model village located in the castle kitchen created by Newcastle architects Jenny Gillat and Tim Mosedale. Visitors will decide how the community develops.
Mat Collishaw's The Garden of Earthly Delights is just the coolest thing. It's a zoetrope or spinning wheel that runs for 90 seconds at a time (I think), and in that short span you are mesmerised and disturbed by the scene that appears to be unfolding in front of you. I say 'appears' because those babies whacking fish with clubs to a soundtrack of layered, unnerving noises that is giving me shivers as I recall it now (I'm serious, real shivers which is odd because it's more creepy to me in memory than it was in person) aren't really moving at all. It's like an animation. Me and the journalist next to me didn't realise that they weren't moving until he asked a question and was told so. I don't know how Collishaw configured and callibrated the zoetrope to create such a compelling effect, but he's done a few of these so the man has certainly mastered the task.
Woodland Unhappy Families by Freddie Robins is an homage in yarn to the classical Greek architecture that inspired Belsay Hall. Set behind a window nestled in the quarry gardens, two knitted birds play the characters in a sorrowful tale of love and loss from Greek mythology.
Wild Horses by Ciaran Treanor was made possible thanks to his award of the Belsay Fellowship in 2009 that enables a young, emerging artist to participate in the major contemporary art exhibitions at Belsay. The Newcastle University architecture student referenced Belsay's stables outside the castle for his installation of gestural figures that, from specific vantage points, appear as running, jumping horses.
Ron Mueck is a master at creating utterly convincing sculptures of the human figure. Here he has placed his various 'people' (and one giant chicken) within the rooms of Belsay Hall to play with scale. Standing next to Spooning Couple was a fascinating experience. Observations of how real the two look and how sweet they are juxtaposes with the fact that they are obviously not real as they are less than half the size of adult humans. But you want to believe they are. And you can't help but want to put some pants on the guy.
This was certainly disconcerting. I first felt as if I should just let the poor guy be naked in privacy, he looked so uncomfortable (yes, I was aware he wasn't real, he's nearly 10 feet tall sitting - those are some high ceilings in that house). But the emptiness of the room was actually quite inviting, the contrast to the feeling one would get sharing a small, low-ceilinged room with the giant Wild Man. Now that would be uncomfortable.
(Sorry for pointing that thing at you.)
Youth, Ron Mueck.
A giant panel of windows in the Quarry Garden is an awesome sight to behold. Mariele Neudecker's From Here to There is Not That Far is an ambitious undertaking that was well worth the effort. It was a bit surreal, walking through its doorway felt as if I was passing over into another dimension which is what the artist intended; in developing the idea she was drawn to the moment in Alice in Wonderland where Alice passes through one reality to another, entering a rich and luscious garden.
Photos © The Swelle Life