From the moment Man first started creating gardens they’ve been intertwined with art.
The two are – forgive the pun – a natural fit. Both, if you pay attention, put you in another place. They conjure up abstract nouns such as beauty, truth, love or even ugliness, lies and deceit. Merged they can be both nature perfected and the best of us.
There’s something of that in Tatton’s Biennial 2010.
These transcend the artist being clever and tricky and exist in and of themselves. The artist has disappeared and we are just left with the work, just as the gardener leaves his planting schemes behind and his presence fades, and all we see are the shapes, shades and colours without reference to the creator.
But then there’s something else too, art and nature become fused with domesticity – albeit of a grand nature. The Biennial takes the art inside the mansion. This creates an unusual unity between homelife, escapist gardens and the new artwork.
Not that all the pieces pull it off. Some of it is playful, some serious, some frankly dull and some fabulous. Inconsistency was always the risk. And a welcome one.
“There’s a creative process, the firing of the imagination, and then the realisation of the work,” says the curator Danielle Arnaud in her soft French accent. “But we only know if these ideas work when they are in place. When they become physical. Yet that risk is what we want because it is unpredictable, and inevitable, given that this is all new work.”
And it’s all about the site too.
The theme of Tatton’s 2010 Biennial ‘Framing Identity’ focusses on how the 25 chosen artists’ react to Tatton, to the Egerton family that owned it and to its contemporary tourist role.
“It’s an enormous and beautiful site, everything is here, formal gardens, informal gardens, the main house. It’s rare you can have such a space. It’s an opportunity and a joy. No wonder we have such stimulating variety,” says Arnaud. “There’s also vengeance and revolution going on, subverting the aristocratic history of the place.”
There would be of course: it’s a failing of much modern work to equate irony with art. Sometimes maybe the two run together but not all the time. It can get boring.
Ryan Gander’s ’16 Plumed Bird of Paradise’ is a typical ‘ironic’ work. It mocks the notion of the Grand Tour and the acquiring of exotica by the aristocrats of previous centuries, especially when – and this is the joke here - the exotica is a fake. This is intended to mock the supposed education of the wealthy and the pillaging of foreign parts for show-off artefacts. It’s a dull piece, hackneyed almost: a sneer that's too damn obvious.
There’s plenty more of that type of thing. But there are jaw droppers too, that may contain intellectual depth, but are also simply lovely or moving.
These transcend the artist being clever and tricky and exist in and of themselves. The artist has disappeared and we are just left with the work, just as the gardener leaves his planting schemes behind and his presence fades, and all we see are the plants. You might want to imbue the pieces with meaning but they're good enough on their own.
The best two works in the house are Kate MccGwire’s ‘Evacuate’ and Helen Maurer’s ‘Light Landing’.
MccGwire’s composite animal – almost a lizard of cascading colour formed from the discarded plumage of hundreds of game birds – snakes in and out of the massive kitchen fittings in the house. You want to stroke it, pat it. You want to simply gaze at it. It extends the memory of the birds that created it - or maybe marks their sacrifice for our pleasures, mostly it's just lovely and a product of real talent, flair and skill.
‘Light Landing’ takes glass pieces from a former Manchester Airport chandelier and hangs them from an interior space. These are illuminated by a falling and rising light bulb. The work may refer to the Parachute Regiment being based at the nearby airport in World War II but it’s almost as mesmerising as MccGwire’s ‘Evacuate’.
In the grounds Marcia Farhquars’ ‘The Horse is a Noble Animal’, Steve Messam’s ‘Lily’ and Neville Gabie’s ‘A Weight of Ice Carried from the North to You’ are all very strong.
‘Lily’ is a lovely piece, because it is so obvious, you don’t need to know that these enormous pads follow the course of the former River Lily to appreciate the contrast and similarity between manmade and natural beauty, when delivered artfully.
Farhquar’s gigantic rocking horse is fun, an out of size, out of time toy lost in an out of time paradise – who now in Britain creates gardens such as these out of personal wealth? You can’t help but smile when you see it. The whole of Tatton is now our democratic playroom.
Gabie’s work is a block of ice slowly melting in a big container. The ice weighs 2.5 tons, is 10,000 years old and comes from Greenland. It could be a satire on our use of natural resources, or on the plants in the garden, most of which are not native to the UK, or even a celebration of how we can master nature to bring this mighty lump of ice from so far away. It's definitely not a boring piece of 'green' propaganda - another fall back position along with 'irony' for the secondary artist looking for an Arts Council grant.
Either way Gabie's iceberg on the lawn provides a sudden shock as you walk the gardens, a moment of intrigue, it makes you want to get up close. It puts you in another place. It does its job.
There is much to admire at Tatton’s Biennial this year. There’s much to have an argument with. That’s how it should be. But it more than repays a visit. This is after all the National Trust’s largest celebration of contemporary art in the hoary old institution’s calendar. It’s delivered with total commitment and considerable verve.
The Tatton Biennial runs until 28 September. A courtesy bus will operate from Cornerhouse Manchester on: July 17 and 18, July 31 and Aug 1 and Aug 28 to 30, departing at 9.45am and 2pm and leaving Tatton at 1pm and 5.15pm.
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