It is several years since I last produced an exhibition inside a building.
I was particularly interested in the work with Bideford Black – Next Generation because of its link to the outdoors. The earth pigment that has inspired and informed the work by all of the artists is found along the coast path. So whilst the show is gallery-bound, its concept is still out there, in the wild, being battered by weather and waves, cracking and crumbling as it concedes to the power of evolution.
The day after we opened, I walked back to the beach to visit the seam, to pay homage to this fascinating material that had become the muse of so many artists for the past year.
I live in Gloucestershire, so didn’t have the same connection with place that I usually have on projects. So it has been invaluable to work with Claire Gulliver who has a background of contemporary arts and museum practices and lives near Bideford. We’ve worked as a team and through that process have enjoyed intense dialogues about the artworks and the stories around the works.
It has been brilliant working with Claire and the museum. It’s a challenging show for the Burton Gallery. They hosted the Tate Artists Rooms show of Richard Long last year and in between have had some extremely interesting print and mixed media shows. Commissioning work from scratch is, however, a very different to hanging a show. There’s a lot more risk involved, demanding a high level of trust from all parties. Projects like this are, by their very nature, collaborative, leaving no place for hierarchies. Teams aren’t like that and unless you are familiar with working in this way, it can be tricky.
As more and more contemporary arts producers like myself work in the museum sector, some guidelines of good practice would be welcome. There are some embedded behaviours in both sectors that need a bit of reflection and negotiation. We can learn from each other, be flexible, open to change.
One thing we talked about a lot was allowing audiences to explore the material itself. We agreed to construct a resource room that enabled people to do that, as well as sit and watch the fantastic 30 minute documentary film commissioned from film maker Liberty Smith. She recorded the artist’s processes by doing site and studio visits. Her film is astounding – her rapport developed with the artists shines through, as they reveal their inner thoughts and expose their grubby black fingers.
The film is a dilemma – I want the world to see it, but if we have a sniff of it being produced for TV we need to keep it in the gallery, not expose it online. I feel like I am caging a powerful animal by not sharing it – the only way you can view it is to go to Bideford to see the show. I think you should. People who make the pilgrimage to Devon are giving us some great feedback. I’m told that some people stay for hours, investigating and unravelling the stories. The film helps that process.
Here are a few comments from the comment book:
What an impressive collection of work. An innovative and inspiring project that demonstrates the power of vision and integration of heritage, art, collaboration and expertise. Well done!
Interesting on a personal level as my grandfather mined Bideford Black at East the Water in the 1930’s. Good to see its modern application as an art medium.
Became more and more intrigued by this exhibition. I spent a long time here.
There are, of course, some of the old clichés too – the emperors new clothes narrative, but that’s fine. We can’t please all the people all the time.
We installed the work with the audience in mind – we choreographed how they would move through the space. Putting the film in the back room was a tough decision, because in many ways the film is also a commissioned artwork. Liberty’s footage is not traditional documentary – she offers a range of interpretations, starting not with the art but with the landscape and geology.
Just as we all did.
So the installation should feel like wandering around a landscape, rather than following a line of wall-mounted images. Your eyes travel up walls, across corners, down to the floor. You encounter scents and sounds. It’s like a field trip.
So it doesn’t feel far from my comfort zone of working outdoors – it is a refreshing gallery experience.
BURTON ART GALLERY
Kingsley Road, Bideford, Devon EX39 2QQ
Telephone: 01237 471455
Admission is Free
Open Daily 10am – 4pm
Sundays 11am – 4pm