I recently returned from the Lake District after a short yet blissful retreat at the iconic Merzbarn in the quaint village of Elterwater. My colleague, Sarah Tew, received a travel grant form Slade and invited me, Jazmin Donaldson and Choe One to spend a few days learning and working in the countryside.
I didn’t realise at first how much I needed the solitude. As much as I do work alone, I always have constraints. My time is divided between myself and my family and almost every decision I make is influenced by the needs, wants and wills of others. So for the first time, in I don’t know how long, I found myself free. Free to roam, free to play, free to do whatever I wanted for a few days.
Aside from this initial reaction, I fell in love with this little corner of the world. The air was so crisp and fresh, I couldn’t seem to take enough deep breaths. It is also impossible to turn a corner or climb a hill without stumbling into another perfectly picturesque landscape. One cannot take enough pictures. However, as euphoric as it was, and with as much gratitude and joy, there was a melancholy with the reminder of loss that Merzbarn represents. Merzbarn is the unfinished creation of Kurt Schwitters who died before getting the chance to finish it. The original work that once stood in the barn has been moved to the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle for preservation. The barn now sits as a memorial to his life and legacy to which many artists have claimed inspiration from. The incompleteness of the Merzbarn speaks to the tragedy of his life. His original Merzbau in Hanover was destroyed in WWII by Allied bombings and while living in exile in Norway, he created a second Merzbau which was destroyed in a fire.
Kurt Schwitters had to also flee Norway when the Nazis invaded and he came to Scotland as a refugee; an “enemy alien”. He was moved between internment camps in Scotland and England, eventually landing on the Isle of Man among many other German and Austrian artists and writers. Upon release from this internment, Schwitters moved to London and eventually to the Lake District. He received a $1,000 fellowship from MOMA in New York to create a new Merzbau installation at Cylinders Farm in Elterwater. With the help of his partner Edith Thomas and Langdale gardner Jack Cook, Schwitters worked on the installation every day except when illness kept him home. On 7 January 1948, he received news that he had been granted British citizenship. The following day, on 8 January, Schwitters died from acute pulmonary edema and myocarditis, in nearby Kendal Hospital.
It’s a tragic story, but Kurt Schwitters never gave up hope and persevered through the darkest of times to continue his work, bringing forth revolutionary ideas in art- the idea that art never ends; it merges into life and thats what his merzbau were all about- an ambiguity; a blurring between art and life; the interconnectedness of all things and the validation of experimentation and performance. Due to the nature of their existence and sub-sequential destruction; the merzbau were never finished works of art, they existed always on the precipice of becoming, which is a point of interest for me. Dr Sarah Wilson, professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at Courtauld Institute says that the Merzbarn is a “celebration of an achieved love, as well as of life itself and the will to survive.”
Now the property is managed by Ian Andrew Hunter and Celia Ruth Mary Marner. They are gracious hosts who work tirelessly to keep the venue open and accessible to artists and the community.
During my time at Merzbarn, I spent a few days learning and making. I took inspiration from and worked in collaboration with the surrounding environment. The following is a documentation of these experiments and observations.
My intention with this mural was to create a wall that changes each day; to be always on the verge of becoming something else. I am interested in the blending of natural and “unnatural” space and capturing that which is on the verge of renewal. I knew I wanted to incorporate paper forms that would interact with the mural. Whether the forms were attached to the wall or free-standing in the space, they would inevitably create a depth, in which one would have to walk around to take in the full and various perspectives.
I began with the idea that the back sides of the paper forms would be painted and the fronts would be white and I would play with “positive and negative” with the blurring of natural and illusory space. However, I was also wary of making too many rules on myself as then I become restricted, so it was important to allow drips, mistakes and incident- it is always about dealing with the unexpected and finding new paths and connections. With this reminder, I became very relaxed with ripping and cutting into the paper forms and collaging the scraps elsewhere. There almost always comes a point in my process where I am scared I’ve lost it and won’t find my way out. (I’m always finding analogies with life…) But this anxiety feeds my process and pushes me to find resolutions. In the end, I’m quite happy with my mural. I was consistent with my brainstorms and initial idea whilst allowing freedom in change and incident.
I enjoy where the mural interacts with my colleagues’ (Jack Sutherland and Araminta Blue) and where it begins to collide with the floor- as it reiterates Jean Arp and Kurt Schwitter’s concepts of art merging with life and environment.
During the Easter break, I did a two week residency at Griffin Gallery located in the ColArt headquarters in London. The Fine Art Collective (TFAC) is home to a collective of art material brands such as Windsor & Newton and Liquitex and it was fun to see chemists at work while I painted with their creations. This residency offered a platform to explore materials. I delved into ink, acrylics and really became interested in working with paper- pushing the material to the brink of it capabilities by warping, painting, constructing and deconstructing. I was quite satisfied with the results and realized that giving myself boundaries is useful in my work. With the time limitation of two weeks and limiting my materials to paper, acrylic and ink- it gave me a structure which guided my process. Because I tend to incorporate so many different elements- it was actually quite satisfying to realize how much I can do with acrylic media and that it can be a means to an end. This first year of my mfa I’ve been so eager to try everything, that it was sort of a relief to simplify my materials.
Speaking of simplifying- probably the most exciting discovery was warping one large sheet of arches watercolour paper. I almost felt guilty to do such a simple thing with an expensive piece of paper- but in the end- the simple act of curling it was the most exciting thing. I am really intrigued with its form and rigidity, I hope to do more with paper in that way. Overall, it was a great experience which gives the freedom to explore materials without the pressure of resolving anything or worrying about the idea of preciousness in a piece.
Have you heard about my latest project? Together, with a group of artists and writers in Amsterdam, I started a magazine about home and migration. I was inspired to do something in reaction to the refugee crisis and the growing xenophobia in my homeland and adopted lands. I wanted to create an outlet for voices of migration, seeing as how nearly every person in my life is a migrant and has a story.
With the magazine, I launched the podcast and we have debuted our first episode!
My opening was last Saturday 7, March 2015. I had a great turn out. It was great to see all my friends from Utrecht and thankful for those who came from out of town. The show will remain up until 25 April.
Studio 30a is a new art space run by Sarah Blackwelder and Monica Perez Vega located in the vibrant heart of Indishe Buurt West. It is a studio, project space and home to ‘Creating Artists’, an art school for kids and adults. We will be holding our grand opening saturday 25th January between 17 – 20:00 – come a long and join us!
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