Extraordinary Measures

Extraordinary Measures
Belsay Hall, Castle and Grounds, Northumberland
May 1 – September 26, 2010

I interpreted the title of this exhibition to mean extraordinary measurements – works that are an unusual size – to put it bluntly big and small. Big and small is at play here, but ‘extraordinary measures’ seems also to refer to the lengths the eight invited artists will go to create their work, as much as it does the final physical dimensions. All this is very much in keeping with the history of the English Heritage site, which is a story not simply of size, but also the perfectionism Sir Charles Monck sought in his construction of the austere Belsay Hall inspired by his obsession with classical Greek architecture.

The hyper-real surfaces of Ron Mueck’s six sculptures installed in the bare rooms of the Hall are a prime example of these extremes of both scale and attention to detail. In particular, two new works housed in the same room – Wild Man and Spooning – are, respectively, larger and smaller than life, but in many ways more remarkable is the astounding detail of their surfaces. The sunken eyes of the couple Spooning suggest the harrowing end of a relationship bound in the confusion of intimacy holding hurt; the startled expression of Wild Man reveals he is as surprised by his existence as we are.

Alice in Wonderland proportions also appear in Mariele Neudecker’s From Here to There is Not That Far, which places an oversized version of the Hall’s dining room window in the quarry gorge. Sadly the imposing work struggles to preserve the sense of magic conjured elsewhere in the exhibition. Nearby, tucked under a ledge in the quarry face and framed by a window, Freddie Robins has recreated in miniature a scene from the Greek myth of Theseus and Ariadne with a pair of knitted robins. On Robins’ stage the wise Ariadne’s red breast is unravelling to provide Theseus with a guide out of the labyrinth tucked amongst the leaves, while she sheds red crystal tears at the dangers that lie ahead.

Also sited on the walk between the Hall and the Castle, Tessa Farmer’s A Darker Shade of Grey deploys taxidermied squirrels and fairies fashioned from insect parts. In the remarkable beauty of the Belsay grounds, Farmer’s grotesque world suggests nastiness. (The accompanying animation Den of Iniquity screened in the kennels provides a little more mystery without resorting to shock.) In contrast, Mat Collishaw’s Garden of Unearthly Delights balances a darker side of life with pure magic. Sited in a darkened upper room of the castle ruins, Collishaw uses our persistence of vision to animate a zoetrope of humans wrecking havoc on the fecund animal world. Hard at work stealing birds’ eggs and attacking giant snails, Collishaw’s little humans expose an alarming but not altogether unfamiliar cruelty. Downstairs a far more down-to-earth installation Scalesdale by architects MGA purports to “use architectural models to chart the transformation of a community over the centuries.” I was keen to cast my vote and see how the model would evolve – the stated intention of the work – but this interactive element was unavailable during my visit.

Oddest of all are a series of photographs that document ‘interventions’ by the artist Slinkachu. These miniature works are at times humorous, such as a painter dwarfed by the task of painting a flower petal blue. Elsewhere they unsettle from the start. For example, if you pause to ponder the English Heritage ticket prices too long, your attention is drawn to Tourist Trap sited next to the signage. Slinkachu’s innocent passer by regrettably looks to have fallen victim of a fatal stab wound wielded from a larger-than-life “I love Belsay” button. The incongruity of this gesture sums up this brave exhibition, which might not always hit the mark, but in some cases wasn’t trying to in the first place.

Crafts Magazine (July-August 2010: 56-57)