by Dilpreet BhullarSep 17, 2022
To spot a coloured fabric art sculpture in a rural landscape would not just foster a mode of inquisitive spectatorship, but trigger curiosity to comprehend how and why this ‘bigger than a house’ sized sculpture finds its way to an uncommon place. This inflatable intervention led by the UK-based environmental artist Steve Messam disrupts the familiarity with which a historical landscape is associated. The site-specific art installations revisit the geological, cultural and agricultural practices common to the place only to open an opportunity to unfold the many layers of the narrative around it.
In an interview with STIR, Messam elaborates how a landscape is not limited to the geological deposits and rather serves as a repository of stories, “I am particularly interested in the narratives of the landscape. How they have been shaped over time by nature as well as by human interaction. How people have shaped them through farming, mining, leisure and culture. All those stories are wrapped up in every landscape. My pieces hope to temporarily uncover some of those. My work is very much about storytelling, but as a very temporary intervention they also become part of the ongoing story of that place - in a ‘Once upon a time...’ moment.”
The white sculpture installation Pointed in a similar fashion narrates the story of the place where it is installed to the current audience. The sculptures visible in vibrant colour, if punctuate the wide fields, also find a home in a vacant architecture located far from the hustle of a city. Pointed within the Robert Adam designed gatehouse at Mellerstain House is one such work. The 28 elongated peaks, going three metres into the air, from the roofline could be a representation of either an explosion or a burning star. The surrealism of the large scale installation hints at the history of the mystery around the précises purpose of the gatehouse, which now stands dilapidated.
To talk about the inflatable nature of Messam's sculpture it is of interest to know that it has been part of his practice for the past nearly 20 years now. Given the scale of his work, the inflatables are a light touch on the environment and use relatively small amounts of materials. The artist explains, “As much of my work is in delicate, protected landscapes or historic architecture, there are a lot of restrictions about what I can and can’t do when installing an artwork. With the architectural locations, the inflatables either fill voids or wrap around the buildings using only air pressure. In this way, there are no fixings into the fabric of the building so that when it comes down there is no damage or even trace of the artwork ever having been there. The inflatables aren’t secure or stable enough in the outdoors to stand on their own, so they work in partnership with the architecture to give them stability.”
The large-scale installation art takes months, sometimes years to prepare and realise the final execution. The installation Hush took two years of researching, making and installation. Over 600 large saffron-yellow flags - 370m long, 50m wide - at the top of the hill, hung in rows, did not fail to create a sonic effect at the touch of the winds. Commissioned by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Hush looks at the special geology of the North Pennine landscape.
The vast open uplands has a rich history and for 100 years most of the world’s lead came out of the hills. It was a very industrial landscape, 250 years ago with hundreds of lead mines. The scars on the landscape which now seem to be an integral natural feature are actually manmade. The deep research was conducted with the local historians and Messam traversed the landscape to decide on the final site for installation, “because of its orientation for the way the light falls across it during the day, how it can be seen from a nearby road as well as the views from much further away.”
Once the site was settled the permissions were sought from the landowners, tenant farmers and other people with access to the land. Moreover, the artwork had to comply with very strict environmental conservation standards and the exhibition time was moved in order to protect the rare ground-nesting birds on the site. A small team led visits and testing to minimise disruption to the wildlife.
Messam states, “The materials had to be suitable for surviving harsh weather conditions. I did weeks of testing materials for colour, weight and how it moved in the wind. The anchoring system was designed to be quick to install but leave no lasting marks on the land. The anchors had to withstand the wind-drag of 80 mph winds on the flags as well as support the weight of people should anyone swing from the ropes. All the materials had to have a clear path for re-use or recycling for environmental reasons - you can’t make an artwork on a protected landscape without being responsible about the material production and waste.”
The temporary immersive installation PaperBridge, made out of 20,000 papers, was a temporary installation at the landscape of the Lake District. The bright red colour stood out when seen against the natural landscape. Like the distinctive appearance of the Lake District and its aesthetic appeal, the Paperbridge was made to let it be a “part of its continuing and evolving legacy.” As a visual artist who takes all the measures to make the material of the large installation environmental friendly, the paper used in the interactive installation was made by James Cropper at the Burneside Mill: a known name across the globe to create bright papers and a few ones that met the environmental standards of the site-specific installation. At the end of the exhibit, the papers used in the installation were recollected and returned to Burneside Mill for the purpose of recycling.
Messam is cognizant of the fact that most of his works, installed at not the commonly frequented sites, are seen only as photographs, available online or in books. The real-time response when the viewers experience the way installations move in the wind, the sound they make, the way light moves across them, how they look in the rain is what “interests” and “fascinates” him the most.
The site-specific work of Messam with its research, execution and magnitude, pinned by humane touch, rightly complements the presence of abundance in the environment.