Out of Place exhibits work from deeply-researched commissions by six respected artists, and is a satisfying gallery experience. This, however, is not its only purpose. Each project was originally for a non-gallery space, and the aim here is to test what happens when that context shifts.
Robert Smithson in the 1960s famously espoused an artistic semiotics distinguishing ‘site’ (artworks constructed in the landscape) from ‘non-site’ (samples and visual representations presented in a gallery), and theorised about ‘travelling’ the ‘journey’ between them.
The Hatton itself is famous for displaying the wall of Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn, having removed it (for safety) from its original location in the Lake District.
The artists in this show installed temporary works at inspiring heritage locations in the North East, as part of the research project ‘Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience’. (Each installation is covered separately by Corridor8 here, and their individual merits are not the focus of this review). The Hatton brings aspects of them together to be experienced in a different setting.
The experience will be very different according to whether one has witnessed the ‘originals’ in situ or not. Views will also vary on how ‘successfully’ they each appeal after translocation.
One response might be to say, for example, that Andrew Burton’s sculpted urns activate the white-walled rooms here better than they did the outdoors, and that they were tied less to the physicality of the original place (Gibside) than to portable stories from that place. By contrast, it might be said that Susan Philipsz’ haunting sound-sculpture was designed as a superb ‘architectural fit’ for Belsay Hall, and that it has little impact anywhere else.
The redolent musical recording by Matt Stokes is nicely rendered, though robbed somewhat of the echoey acoustics of its original church setting. Mark Fairnington’s immaculate and ‘subtexty’ paintings, in homage to Thomas Bewick, travel well from Bewick’s birthplace at Cherryburn, not least because Fairnington has rebuilt the entire wall they were displayed upon. All we miss from the original in this instance is the ability to lean outside and be immersed in the rural subject-matter.
Marcus Coates also worked at Cherryburn. Taking a different approach to the Hatton translocation, he has reconfigured his piece, here inviting visitors to occupy ‘delegates’ seats’ at his Conference for the Birds.
Finally, Fiona Curran’s work (at Gibside) was, like that of Phillipsz, highly site-particular (and also huge) – but Curran’s response to the new location has been to provide entirely new textile prints, collages and tree-sculptures that reference the Gibside work, rather than translocating it. This may even strengthen her feminist narrative of constraints and reinvention.
The exhibition asks whether an artwork changes its meaning when moved from a historic house or landscape to a contemporary art gallery. When place-specific context is integral to the work, the answer must be yes; but this will vary from case to case, and meanings anyway are open to interpretation. Moreover, as some would argue the Merz Barn illustrates, the change may be a mix of positive and negative.
Although not raised overtly, it is possible to imagine that these questions are paralleled in concerns about ‘displacement’ in a wider sociocultural sense.
Either way, if the Hatton exhibition motivates its visitors to visit the associated heritage locations too, the experience can ultimately take in both ‘non-site’ and ‘site’.
Out of Place is on until 10 August. Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm. Free entry.
For further details, see the gallery website.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.