Public/private, urban/rural, commercial/not-for-profit: it’s not like the waters between the two have ever been crystal clear, but now, with the opening in Somerset of the latest outpost of contemporary art giants Hauser & Wirth (London, Zurich, New York) the silt has been stirred up and it all seems just that little bit muddier than before.
Not, of course, that this need be a cause for despair. Yet. Hauser & Wirth Somerset is situated on the outskirts of the smart little town of Bruton, where Iwan and Manuela Wirth have now lived for some years. The town is home to a fourteenth-century church, a lovely packhorse bridge (over the prone-to-flooding river Brue), and the National Trust-managed Dovecote, which overlooks it all from atop a green and gentle mount.
Just past the station and the glossily-signposted King’s Bruton School, Hauser & Wirth Somerset spreads itself comfortably over the various buildings of Durslade Farm, which dates back to the 1760s. There are offices, an art shop, a café-restaurant (run by the brilliant At the Chapel), a building for artist residencies, plenty of gallery spaces of course, and a wonderfully landscaped meadow by Piet Oudolf. The garden is still very much in its infancy on the day I visit, but if previous projects such as Pensthrope and Scampston Hall are anything to go by, maturity will bring with it great beauty and richness. Coming soon is also a shop selling produce from Durslade itself (beyond Hauser & Wirth, we’re told, this is still a working farm).
As well as restoring buildings that had lain unused for some years, the architects (Laplace, with local conservation architects benjamin + beauchamp) have also constructed two new buildings in order to create a continuous series of gallery spaces and “an enclosed external courtyard”. It’s all been most sensitively carried out and the result is as high-end as you’d expect from Hauser & Wirth, but also relaxing, logical and unfussy.
Hauser & Wirth is first and foremost a commercial art dealer, and so must maintain an openness to future works.
The project it reminds me most of is the Ditchling Museum over in Sussex, although the original buildings at Ditchling were the more interesting – both architecturally and for their positioning within the village itself. But perhaps more important is the difference in purpose: Ditchling is a publicly funded museum; its remit to explore an early twentieth century community of artists and craftspeople established in the village by the controversial Eric Gill (of Gill Sans fame). It’s the specificity of such a project that allowed Adam Richards Architects their many moments of brilliance. There is much talk at Hauser & Wirth Somerset about the importance of community, but it’s never as interesting a discussion as those tangled insights that occur at Ditchling. Besides, Hauser & Wirth is first and foremost a commercial art dealer, and so must maintain an openness to future works – an openness, and also a kind of emptiness.
At least Hauser & Wirth are up-front. A sign outside the new gallery complex leaves visitors in no doubt. “This is private property,” it reads, before explaining some of the “house rules”: standard fare such as don’t climb on the art, no photography in the galleries, don’t pinch the flowers, and “please keep your dog on a short lead” (this is Somerset after all). Entry is free. And yet, the presence of gift shops and café demonstrates a gradual encroachment into the traditional terrain of the museum. It’s not one-way traffic, of course: many publicly funded institutions now sell editioned work by contemporary artists, placing them in direct competition with commercial galleries, especially those, unlike Hauser & Wirth, operating towards the lower-middle end of the market. Revenue streams must be diversified, they say. But are the flood waters rising?
Few artists can claim such sensitivity to space, as Phyllida Barlow; few such dexterity with the ambiguities of form and material.
Into this uncertain territory comes the work of Phyllida Barlow. At first, her vast constructions seem utterly at odds here: certainly, many of the local visitors seem baffled by her ungainly mixed media constructions daubed all over with oranges and pinks, vivid red, black, and pale mint green. In some ways, they’re designed to deceive: stacked-up horseshoes of painted board like a scale model for a multi-storey carpark (untitled: holder); a lurching slab of polystyrene, fencing and cloth with which the visitor’s path is suddenly blocked (untitled: blockcratewedge); or what look like three boulders of colossal mass barely balanced on each other (untitled: triplestackboulders) until you realise you can see through the cement exterior to the scrim below the surface. If you look from ground level, you see that, in fact, this great, weighty mass is perched daintily atop a trio of black plastic wheels. The interior is actually polystyrene. For some reason that makes me laugh.
The more time you spend with these works, the more they can be seen as a cogent response to the spaces here. Not only a response, but a series of questions and semi-legible challenges. Few artists can claim such sensitivity to space; few such dexterity with the ambiguities of form and material. Atop a spindly structure in a small outside space that used to be a pigsty is a conical shape: a windsock? No, untitled: megaphone, the work’s title tells us. Not gauging the state of affairs, then, but announcing the new. Through the brickwork, dandelions sprout. A single, sand-toned teasel stretches up the wall.
Barlow’s installation engenders the most extraordinary range of emotional responses.
Inside, and Barlow’s strange sensitivity to place is even more apparent. In what was once the threshing barn a plethora of pom-poms fashioned out of gaudy strips of fabric and paper (untitled: GIG). Each hangs down from the rafters above, and as you look up, you notice Barlow’s own riff on the roof’s structure: a criss-cross of narrow beams in pink and grey and yellow. There are still cobwebs between the stones of the walls. On the floor, bits of the pom-poms have fallen: the detritus of the after-party. All of a sudden, I hear a sound. The jaunty, high-pitched chirp of a swallow? No, the chink of cup on saucer from the adjacent café. A sudden sense of sadness descends, a sorrow for what once was.
Perhaps it’s this, or perhaps the work itself, but Barlow’s installation in the Rhoades Gallery engenders the most extraordinary range of emotional responses. The large, clean gallery space (one of the new wings built by Laplace architects) is dominated by a palisade of cement and painted timber, dotted occasionally with splashes of sand. It is a thing of wonder – playful and ominous at the same time. Just as Laplace have constructed an “enclosed” courtyard (and Piet Oudolf’s meadow is “enclosed” by hedgerows) so Barlow has in turn constructed a second internal enclosure, although to what extent she is playing on the fraught history of that word (its take-over of the public by the private) remains debatable.
What is clear is that the resulting construction forces the visitor to circumnavigate the gallery, close up to its blank white walls. As you do so, you pass under black jetties of polystyrene, looming high up on the gallery walls: one like upturned stairs, another a gallows-cum-diving board. Under each, a claustrophobic sense of dread. Take a step onwards, however, and it soon fades.
What strikes me at this point is the other visitors in the room – up to 1,000 of them per day. They, like me, peer through the gaps in the posts: on the outside, looking in. Straining to see what lies beyond. But there’s nothing there. It’s simply an empty gallery.
Phyllida Barlow – GIG is at Hauser & Wirth Somerset until 2nd November 2014.