Exploring UK-based Artangel's commissioned site-specific art installations

In conversation with STIR, James Lingwood and Michael Morris of Artangel talk about bringing site-specific installations and large-scale artworks to London.

by Niyati DavePublished on : Oct 12, 2022

On a hilltop in Sykkishólmur, Iceland. 2007- Ongoing:

Twenty four glass columns stretch from the floor to the ceiling, creating a transparent maze that onlookers must traverse as they navigate this library– a converted space that once housed books but is now Vatnasafn/Library of Water, Artangel’s first international commission by visual artist Roni Horn. Each column carries in its interior, water, melted from 24 of Iceland’s major glaciers, one of which no — Ok — no longer exists.

Library of Water/ Vatnasafn is housed in a former library on a rocky promontory at Stykkishólmur in Iceland | STIRworld
Library of Water/ Vatnasafn is housed in a former library on a rocky promontory at Stykkishólmur in Iceland Image: Courtesy of Getty Images

As light refracts through these still and immutable remnants and reminders of landscapes past that are now marked by flux, it casts patterns and shadows onto a rubber floor which is printed with words in Icelandic and English related to the weather. The space operates as one that, in Horn’s words could be thought of as “a lighthouse in which the viewer becomes the light” and has over the years, evolved to become a space that allows visitors to create their own experiences of understanding weathers, words and a changing world.

A visitor at Library of Water looks out from the Icelandic Coast | STIRworld
A visitor at Library of Water looks out from the Icelandic Coast, 2007 Image: Dadi Sigurthorsson

Grove Road in East London, where a row of typical Victorian terraces has gradually been demolished over the years, 1993:

Rachel Whiteread’s Turner Prize-winning House — akin to a fossil turned inside out — registered the trace of a Victorian house by creating a building within a building. It began as a wild idea over a cup of tea when James Lingwood from Artangel visited Whiteread in her studio. Using an existing structure on Grove Road that had been slated for demolition as a mould, Whiteread coated the interior of the house in multiple layers of de-bonding membrane, concrete — sealing up the house entirely, before removing the exterior brick by brick, leaving only the hardened concrete visible to onlookers. Reminiscent of ossification or an embalmment, the work memorialised an intimate, domestic space by rendering its interior visible.

The heft of this concrete mass occupying what was once a home kindled contentious debates on the state of housing in the country, on whether it was a monstrosity in the name of art; graffiti on the structure asked “Wot for?” and was answered by a countering “Why not?” spray-painted under it. On the same day in 1993, Whiteread simultaneously won the Turner Prize around the same time that the local council confirmed the decision to demolish the house.

Columns of melted glacial water create a maze at the Library of Water, 2007 | STIRworld
Columns of melted glacial water create a maze at the Library of Water, 2007 Image: Stefan Altenburger

Trinity Buoy Wharf Lighthouse. December 1999 - December 2999:

On the eve of the new millennium, a thousand-year-long musical composition began to play and continues to play today — in December 2999, when it ends, it will start again at its very beginning. Longplayer, by Jem Finer, is an exercise in thinking about temporality that applies simple and precise rules to six short pieces of music, using software to ensure that one section from each piece is playing at all times to create a unique soundscape for the 1000 years that composition will take to exhaust all permutations and combinations.

 Arranged for Tibetan Singing Bowls that are themselves 1000-years-old, creating the piece and ensuring its sustainability meant contemplating the multiple scales on which time operates: the human, the cosmological and the geological. As a work of art that grapples with questions of care and stewardship in its conceptualisation itself, it becomes a metaphor for generational sustainability — how to think about our place as agents of change (for good and bad) within an unfathomable stretch of time?

Interior room during the construction of Rachel Whiteread’s House, 1993 | STIRworld
Interior room during the construction of Rachel Whiteread’s House, 1993 Image: Edward Woodman

If there’s one word that ties these projects by Artangel together, it’s this: unpredictable.

Ever since Artangel was founded in 1985 as an independent art commissioning agency, it has consistently produced ambitious cultural work in collaboration with British artists across the UK and the world — most of it available to a multiplicity of audiences while being deeply rooted in specific locations. With more than 125 projects over three decades, there is no singular theme, form or medium that gains primacy in Artangel’s work. Rather it is a happy confluence of ideas — a certain fearlessness driven by their commitment to work first and foremost as facilitators of an artist’s vision – no matter how outlandish it might seem in scale or scope.

“At its heart, the projects are about the relationships with the artists,” Michael Morris says when I sit down to speak to him and James Lingwood, both of whom recently stepped down as co-directors of Artangel, “because it's the relationship that allows the trust to develop, which means that both the producer and the artist doing something they not sure they can do.”

This doubt, he says, is as important a part as faith in the trajectory of any of their projects.

The demolition of House by Rachel Whiteread, 1993 | STIRworld
The demolition of House by Rachel Whiteread, 1993 Image: Stephen White

As we speak about how they define their role, it is evident that they see it as a step beyond curation, referring to themselves as producers who build something from nothing. “We are open to the boldest, the most unusual, unexpected ideas from artists and want to realise those fearless ideas in the most uncompromised way possible. At a certain point, it rubs up against the conditions and the circumstances of the world in which we are working — the real work is to negotiate that relationship between these amazing ideas and the environments in which they are realised, to take the idea to something which people can experience.”

Longplayer 2000 at its listening post in Trinity Buoy Wharf Lighthouse London, 2013 | STIRworld
Longplayer 2000 at its listening post in Trinity Buoy Wharf Lighthouse London, 2013 Image: James Whitaker

Throughout our conversation, Lingwood and Morris underscore this idea: that they see their work as — to put it in the words of Jeremy Deller, whose own work with Artangel is testimony to this — always having their artist’s backs.

Longplayer Live, at the Roundhouse London, 2009 | STIRworld
Longplayer Live, at the Roundhouse London, 2009 Image: Bruce Atherton and Jana Chiellino

Tap on the cover video to watch the full conversation.

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