BolwickArts One Viewing What Might Be

Posted by Barry Timms

There’s something to be said in favour of missing a private view if it means you can see a show properly. When I took in the grounds of Bolwick Hall there were few distractions. It was a quiet, drizzly Sunday morning, with pigeons calling from the tops of trees and the unmistakable smell of autumn nature.

swan.jpgBolwickArts One is the first exhibition in an annual residency programme, and the work of five artists takes you on a circular route through the estate. I picked up a map designed by Faye Claridge and set off, soon realising that this map in giving an omniscient view of the grounds - was my first glimpse in a look-and-look-again pattern called for by this show. Much of the art is of a subtle aesthetic, using natural materials and found objects that whisper softly for attention. The numbers marked on the map would serve as clues, points at which to be alert.

summerhouse.jpgFaye Claridge’s book of photographs, on show in the first outbuilding, helps to set up this issue of looking and seeing. Taken in the grounds during her residency, they are images on the fringe of reality. A quick flick through this portfolio suggests a PR exercise for the English Heritage. It wasn’t until I viewed the photographs a second time (in the rotating summerhouse where Claridge exhibits more of her work) that I realised the extent to which they had been manipulated. Way beyond mere colour enhancement, shocking contrivances had edged their way into the frame. Reflections in the lake counter their muses too perfectly, tempting the viewer to invert the image. Flowers and shrubs grow in arrangements of flawless symmetry, as if mirrors had long ago been scattered among the seeds and bulbs. In this way, Claridge makes us self-conscious of what we hope to see when revisiting history, and leaves us stranded somewhere between our hopes and the reality. I left the summerhouse and realised that the flowers I had breezed past upon entering were similarly fake.

apples.jpgFollowing arrows through the hedged walkways and vegetable gardens, I came to the orchard. Out of sight from the hall and outbuildings, nature was now left more to its own devices, making any signs of human intervention especially poignant. Below one of the apple trees rested a basket containing several handsome apple forms, ingeniously woven from steel wool by Tony Charles. Standing in the rain, I anticipated how these forms might ‘ripen’ from their dull grey into a rich rusty brown, to match the leaves on surrounding trees. The artistic interventions punctuating Bolwick’s grounds have a knock-on effect for the spaces in between: these begin to glow with a sense of potential. Glancing up from the unreal metal apples to the vegetable patch beyond, the alien shapes and intense colours of ripened pumpkins seemed equally unearthly. As if for a second opinion, I turned around to find a lone peacock the only other eyes present.

boathouse.jpgCharles has continued his signature use of steel wool further along the trail, covering the boathouse in ample swathes of the stuff. Again, the potential for a chemical reaction hung heavily in the air I could almost taste the rusting metal as the lakes ripples circled below the steel drapes. (Interestingly, in his collaborative video with Sarah Cole, it is fire, not water, that consumes a miniature house, also made of steel wool.)

maze.jpgThe filtered light inside the boathouse sets the tone for Sarah Cole’s maze, further into the woods. Cole has stretched sheets of black plastic netting between the trunks of fir trees to create the dimly translucent walls of her labyrinth. This netting both mimics and exaggerates the density of fir forests and the difficulty of seeing in such dusky light. Despite the simple layout, the temptation to imagine myself truly lost in the maze was equal to, if not greater than, my wish to continue following the map.

buckets.jpgEmerging from the trees back into the drizzle, the theme of water returned. An old sieve has been set into the turf of the bank, and the gurgling and rushing of water underfoot seems to lend a voice to the lake. The path leads on to a tree laden with piping and receptacles. An old baby bath lounges in the branches, while buckets dangle heavily in tiers. The sounds of water continue: rhythmic dripping from one container to another, countered by the fierce rushing of the sluice gate further along the path. Chalked marks and figures on the buckets suggest a scientific monitoring, as does the paperwork curling in the damp weather. Bolwick’s water supply is self-contained drawing on natural springs and hence has a history of testing and assessment. Yet the observations here come over as blinkered and erratic. The project appears abandoned, as if contamination was suspected, and the atmosphere is somewhat unsettling.

fence.jpgI took the path back up towards the Hall itself where the final piece, by Sophie Horton, comes as a surprise in its boldness and scale. A taut woollen covering envelopes the wooden fence that divides Bolwick’s gardens from its pastures. The contrast between the grey steel wool of Charles’ boathouse and Horton’s vibrant red and yellow knitting is particularly marked. This artist adds dye to the equation and makes a bold statement, slicing through the land with the softest of materials. I thought back to the fake flowers I had walked past earlier, their artificial colours failing to register. Further associations come to mind: the tuffs of natural wool left on barbed wire fences, often remaining long after the livestock have been moved on; the bright chevrons of barriers, where the line must not be crossed. In a sense, Horton had marked an ending, and I could venture no further. Next year another set of artists will arrive, bringing their own personal viewing platforms to Bolwick. I look forward to seeing the grounds again through different eyes.

November 26th, 2003 | Residents, Other Exhibitions, Reading Room, Barry Timms

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