Text by Rebecca Travis.
Rosie Morris and Sam Grant have given themselves an unenviable task. Their collaborative exhibition Phase is housed in and responds directly to Newcastle Castle Keep, one of the oldest standing buildings in the city and the last remaining part of the ‘new’ castle that bestowed the city its name.
As a viewer of Phase there is a simple joy of being within a building of immense age and character. Instead of signposting directions Morris and Grant allow you to find your way around the warren of passages and winding staircases to discover the works in a more organic manner. This is particularly effective for the first piece, which I was led to via its metronomic sound.
The work, loosely titled The Chapel (each work title refers to its placement in the building) is a small, wood crafted kinetic sculpture / instrument with a wooden arm that strikes the surface at regular intervals. The piece sits humbly on the floor of the vaulted chapel chamber inviting close inspection of its impressive intricacies, but the echoing of the sound also draws attention to the acoustics of the room and in turn to the architectural details in the surrounding surfaces.
At the heart of the building in The Great Hall, Morris and Grant have collaboratively produced a sound piece and film. The film projection is so subtle that it’s difficult initially to make out, noticeable only if you direct your gaze to the ceiling and observe a delicate flickering. This ephemeral work shows a time-lapse of light entering the space over the course of one day, but becomes evocative of the rise and fall of light as a perpetual cycle over the building’s 800 year history.
A more physical response comes once you emerge onto the rooftop, where Morris has installed a series of angular coloured sculptures, like shards of a deconstructed abstract painting. Initially they seem to jar with the impressive views from the Keep’s peak, however spend time with the work, and with Grant’s ambient sound piece and the forms start to pick up on visual details in the city skyline, offering a scenario in which to pause, reflect and consider the harmony of contemporary intervention and historical environment.
When artists elect to respond to historically loaded buildings, the question remains as ever of how to compete with such steadfast architecture and weighted context without the artwork becoming lost or secondary to the environment. On the other hand there is the challenge to present works that retain presence without overriding features of the building.
By responding to the Keep with sensitivity and lightness, Grant and Morris manage to tread this essential line of balance, working with the ‘untouchable’ elements of the architectural interior – acoustics and light – and creating a more formal and structural addition to the roof space. As the transitory exhibition title suggests, Phase is just a temporary staging within the life of the Castle Keep, one of the various ways the site has been used throughout its lengthy history.
Rebecca Travis is an artist, curator and writer based in Newcastle.