David Bethell: Inverted Landscapes

Selina Oakes reviews David Bethell: Inverted Landscapes at the National Trust’s Ilam Park in Staffordshire.

Julian Opie, City.

Meadow Arts‘ latest exhibition Synthetic Landscapes explores our relationship to the land. Taking place at both Weston Park in Shifnal and Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery, the exhibition features a number of new commissions and works by both emerging artists and some of the most prominent British artists working today. Anneka French spoke to Meadow Arts’ Director Anne de Charmant to find out more.


Julian Opie, City. Synthetic Landscapes, Weston Park

How has the theme of Synthetic Landscapes arisen?

The overriding curatorial line that Meadow Arts explores is our relationship to the land we inhabit, whether social, cultural or even emotional: the notion of landscape is very important. We are blessed in this region with some of the most beautiful landscapes in Britain and the area has inspired many artists, writers and designers. For example, the Picturesque movement was born in Herefordshire at the end of the 18tth Century. As Curator, I also have a personal advantage; as a foreigner, firmly established in Britain, I can observe certain traits that might seem obvious to many but are well worth exploring. The relationship to landscape is one of those; there is such a strong bond to the landscape in this country, much more so than in the rest of Europe.

The case of ‘Capability’ Brown and his peers is a high point in this relationship because he offered such a strong ideal. It certainly answered something quite deep in the collective psyche. A point of balance maybe between nature and culture, an enhanced but secure place for man to situate himself in the environment. It has become a reference point but there is nothing truly natural in Brown’s designs and it’s fascinating to see how this works.

Most of the artists in this show wrestle with the landscape being overloaded with cultural and social references and respond in different ways. Ged Quinn, in his magnificent large paintings, literally offers the viewer the clues to the cultural construct that lies behind a landscape proposition. In his film, The Arrival, Salvatore Arancio goes beyond the point of equilibrium and opens the door to otherworldly interpretations. Edward Chell finds pockets of truly modern landscapes on motorway verges, then studies and champions them.

How does this theme interact with the physical landscapes and contexts at Weston Park and Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery?

While at Weston Park the vast Pleasure Grounds were being carved out, over the hills and only a few dozen miles away at Coalbrookdale, near Ironbridge, the instigators of the Industrial Revolution were looking at transforming the landscape too, but with an eye for engineering and productivity. For them, the densely-wooded valley constituted a system to be improved upon and exploited. The natural environment needed to be surveyed, gauged for all its possible uses. Soon brand new enterprises would flourish, such as the first ever iron bridge and key individuals come to the fore such as Thomas Telford.

How is the exhibition being divided across sites and what drew you to these sites?

These two essential models, the idle/idyllic one, epitomised by Brown at Weston Park and the working/economic one, represented by Telford stand in perfect opposition in this corner of Shropshire, so it felt right to have two separate shows with some connection between them.

We asked emerging West Midlands artist David Bethell to select works from the Museum’s collection and respond with his own work. Bethell has built an ambitious and slightly haphazard contraption which is meant to accomplish all sorts of tasks: it is a carriage and a plough but also a surveying machine and a humble cart. It will be displayed at Shrewsbury Museum and support a film of the contraption moving through the landscape at Weston. In the Walled Garden, Bethell has built half a bridge that disappears into the wall, only to reappear as the other half in the museum in Shrewsbury.

Synthetic Landscapes, Granary Art Gallery, Weston Park

Can you tell me more about the works on show and the newly commissioned pieces?

Pablo Bronstein’s Chinese Bridges in the Landscape is a truly stunning piece that is hard to describe but really has an impact. It was always going to be a large outdoor piece, that much I had agreed with Bronstein but it took a while for the right shape to emerge. He had done large scale works but mostly indoors and is at the moment working for the Rambert Ballet on a huge set. So the outdoor/landscape proposition interested him. The two bridges stand in one half of the Walled Garden and they are made of printed and laser cut wood. Treated like billboards, these Chinese Bridges in the Landscape offer a brilliant deconstruction of the artifice of landscape designs. The installation plays tricks with visitors but is also shown not to work.

In the same way Heather & Ivan Morison’s piece is not what is seems and is deliberately strange and slightly unsettling. It is made of scagliola, a sort of fake marble favoured by the Georgians for its opulence. The sculpture is housed in one of the pavilion bothies, lolling on the stone floor. It is an amorphous, but not entirely abstract shape, that both invites and rejects readings.

The third commission is Bethell’s but other artists have modified or adapted their work for Weston. Helen Maurer has used the gardener’s bothy to amazing effect, using the fabric of the place, like water troughs or cavities and shelves to create a suite of little installations that glow like precious jewels in the darkened spaces.

The list of artists include some of the most significant British artists working today alongside some earlier on in their career. How have these artists been drawn together?

At Meadow Arts, we always try to show the work of well recognised artists which are not so easy to see outside the traditional big centres. ‘Big name’ artists are often very happy to escape their usual haunts and are interested in testing out new ideas in interesting new contexts such as the great places where we work. For Synthetic Landscapes I asked artists like Julian Opie, Ryan Gander, Quinn and Bronstein to participate along with other established artists.

For emerging artists, it’s a great opportunity to show their work alongside these established artists. As one of the only contemporary visual arts NPOs working in the region we feel it is part of our role to create these opportunities. In this show we have commissioned Bethell for the first time although he has worked in the region before. Jasleen Kaur is a fascinating young artist. We also work internationally by showing the work of French artist Hélène Muheim for the first time in the UK, and the very gifted Italian artist Salvatore Arancio with whom we hope to work with again next year.

Has the Weston Park location been challenging to work with?

Weston Park is a huge place and we have chosen to work only in the gallery and in the Walled Garden, which gives us a sense of containment like an open-air gallery. The gardeners’ bothies have offered us great opportunities: Maurer has interacted with the ruined space beautifully, she used discarded objects such as an old tin bucket or a watering trough to create amazing incidents. Arancio’s film is being presented in a space that could have been one of the locations of his work.

What can visitors expect?

They will see wonderful work, from very large, stunning interventions in the landscape, such as Opie’s sculpture City, a 3m tall model of a group of skyscrapers, to intimate and stunning little drawings made with eye shadow by Muheim.

What are your hopes for the exhibition?

I’ve been told the exhibition is really enjoyable which is certainly one of our goals! I also hope that it will give rise to new conversations and maybe new perspectives. As well as an arts audience, Meadow Arts invites new audiences to encounter contemporary arts, sometimes for the first time. We hope that by presenting the works in a different context and by creating connections that are clear to follow, we make the experience pleasurable for the audience.

4 June to 3 September 2017 – Weston Park
24 June to 3 September 2017 – Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery

Meadow Arts’ exhibition Synthetic Landscapes explores our relationship to the land and takes place at Weston Park in Shifnal and Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery. Anneka French spoke to Director Anne de Charmant to find out more.