Striding up a hill to view an open-air artwork oxygenates the encounter like no gallery can. From a distance, the first glimpses of Steve Messam’s temporary installation Hush suggested the pennants of a cohort of cavalry, or a band of saffron-robed pilgrims advancing over the moor.
Consisting in fact of hundreds of fabric sails suspended in rows over a four hundred-metre-long gully, this vast work could be walked under, through and around, for an immersive experience of viewscape transformation that changed every minute in the flux of wind, sun and rain.
Present for seventeen days in July, Hush was commissioned by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in contemplation of the geological heritage of the area. (The title refers to the old surface-mining practice of ‘hushing’, where a head of water would be released to gouge out a channel, exposing mineral seams).
Messam is local, but has made large-scale works in landscapes around the world. The style and concepts sometimes have obvious antecedents, and Hush looks very like something Strijdom van der Merwe or Christo and Jeanne-Claude might have made. That, however, takes nothing away from its evident enjoyment by more than five thousand visitors who were enticed by it to venture into a less familiar part of the dale.
The sensory impact was undeniable. A restless billow of bright orange, flapping more softly than expected, counterpointing the landform and making all the winds of the compass visible in a curious slow-motion rise and fall. Flags of prayer; sails of travel; giant trefoil flowers – evocations aplenty.
Some witnesses questioned the impact of this on the ‘natural beauty’ that earns the area its scenic designation; though of course the work’s presence was only brief. Perhaps Hush prompted useful conversations about interpolations of artificial colour in the land more generally – plastic silage-wraps, colour-marked sheep and rapeseed fields being obvious to most, but fertilised grass and planted conifers changing the palette in major ways too.
The flag-arrays seemed at their most communicative when blown vertically upward – straining to the heavens with a different kind of pulling energy. The piece overall was perhaps most effective as a meditation on energy flows in the landscape; whether those be the wind, the glacial wearing of the rock, migrating swallows, ripening plants, the miners’ ‘hush’, or all the unseen nutrient cycling and busy-ness of micro-organisms underground. Perhaps this was even a glimpse of a future when sun-catching photovoltaic panels might be made on textile panels like these.
During the installation’s last days, the news was full of flash-flood events further south. A nineteenth Century Teesdale lead-miner would have known exactly what those look like. Thanks to contemporary artworks like this that interact with the landscape and our historic heritage, we have growing opportunities to take a more rounded view of the processes of change in the world.
Hush was a temporary artwork shown between 19 July and 4 August at Bales Hush, an old lead mining site on the Raby Estate in Upper Teesdale, County Durham. For more information visit the North Pennines AONB website.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.