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.