Initiatives situating contemporary art in historic settings have come a long way recently, and there is excitement on both sides of this equation about the effect that each has on the other. Now, for the first time, a major project in northern England is investigating the impact this has on artists, venues and audiences alike.
The project ‘Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience’ has commissioned four new works as part of this; and the first two were recently unveiled by the National Trust at Gibside, Tyne and Wear.
The Trust is currently marking the centenary of female suffrage in Britain, and Gibside is prominent as the 18th Century home of the tragic yet inspiringly iconoclastic Countess of Strathmore, Mary Eleanor Bowes. Unusually rich and well educated, she became an expert in exotic botany, was imprisoned in an abusive marriage and eventually won a precedent-setting divorce. Contemporary artists Fiona Curran and Andrew Burton have responded to her story with installations in the Gibside grounds.
In Your Sweetest Empire is to Please, Curran offers an architectural folly representing a scaled-up version of the ‘Wardian case’ used for specimen transport by botanists of the period. Inside this giant box, luridly paint-coated palm trees jostle for space, poking through its air-holes and knocking against its sides in the wind. Curran evokes moral qualms about imperialism, complex theories about historical metaphors and social norms concerning botany and the role of women, and (more palpably to the casual viewer perhaps) Mary Eleanor’s own defiant struggle for liberty.
Burton’s The Orangery Urns pays homage to a dozen urns that formerly adorned the Gibside orangery. These too are magnified, and re-worked into a fantasy amalgam of Greek and Roman styles, breaks and repairs, incised texts and hieroglyphs, and they are topped with growing plants and ceramic carnival birds. Each element refers to something of Mary Eleanor’s life – perhaps partly imagined, but also featuring extracts from real journals and literary texts. There are allusions to the wealth that built the estate; both the fruits of Britain’s colonies and the coal seams of Durham.
These works are more about Mary Eleanor’s story than they are responses to Gibside as a place; but both artists have also made arresting choices of scale and materials that serve to animate in fresh ways the architectural features and landscaped gardens they sit within.
Both artists (who are also academics) have brought a density of background research and references to the layered themes and stories to these works. This repays some effort to investigate, as it is not all revealed in a walk-by encounter.
In this setting we might be prompted to think about the British history of class; but fittingly on this occasion there is more to be learned about feminism. There are many ambiguities too, reminding us that there are usually two sides to every story: prosperity and oppression; natural and artificial, captains and captives. With this thought-provoking project we might also conclude that the historic and contemporary are likewise always co-existent.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.