Current Artist-in-Residence at West Dean College, George Charman, is working towards the realisation of Artichoke House, a sculptural installation based on an unrealised project conceived by Edward James and designed by Christopher Nicholson. Charman’s project rethinks visual associations with James’s ideas, and ask questions about how his patronage of the Surrealist movement, as well as his own surreal life, can be considered in a contemporary context. It also positions West Dean College amongst a number of high-profile historic properties that have been host to innovative and ambitious contemporary art projects. Such projects provide unique settings for contemporary practitioners, offering enormous opportunities for enriching a site’s history, engaging audiences that may be unfamiliar with contemporary art, and building new relationships.
Chatsworth House, home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, is renowned for its support of contemporary art and is currently hosting a major display of contemporary sculpture by Michael Craig-Martin. Each sculpture is characteristic of his large line drawings – in this instance fabricated in steel and painted with bright colour. Craig-Martin’s large ‘sculptural drawings’ will be a prominent feature in the grounds of Chatsworth House during the exhibition, which runs until June 2014.
James Rigler, winner of the 2012 Jerwood Makers Open and recent visitor to the Visual Arts department at West Dean College, first exhibited his ‘Chatsworth Table’ in-situ in 2011. The large ceramic sculpture was made in response to specific locations within the interior of the House. Rigler also exhibited at the ‘Modern Makers’ exhibition at Chatsworth in 2013, which gave sixteen leading international artists access to the State rooms in order to present a contemporary take on the historic surroundings. Rigler has also worked on a commission at the National Trust property, Pollock House, a commission that saw the installation of a ceramic-tiled floor, specifically designed and crafted by Rigler, alongside various sculptural interventions around the property.
The National Trust is also a great supporter of contemporary art, running an annual series of events called ‘Trust New Art’. These events, which comprise exhibitions, commissions, residencies and live music, are held across the National Trust’s portfolio of properties. Ryan Gander, a leading figure in British contemporary art, is currently exhibiting at 2 Willow Road, the home of groundbreaking architect and designer Erno Goldfinger. Gander has responded to the furniture in the house (also designed by Goldfinger) and is exhibiting a number of works in the space until June 2014. The National Trust were also involved in the ‘Strange Partners’ commission behind Antony Goldsworthy’s 2002 Chalk Stone Trail, which follows public rights of way from West Dean to Cocking. An additional stone from Goldsworthy’s project is positioned on grazing land directly in front of West Dean House, a reminder of the work that winds its way through the wider estate.
English Heritage also stage an ongoing series of commissions for contemporary artists. This series has involved a number of prominent artists, such as Matt Collishaw, Mariele Neudecker and Ron Mueck, all of whom have exhibited within the grounds of Belsay Hall. With the belief that “new art and great heritage should not exist in separate closed-off worlds” (Simon Thurley, Chief Executive), these commissions lead to prominent cultural figures, also including Stella McCartney, Julian Opie and Tilda Swinton, working directly with the rich and unique histories inherent to such properties.
Commission East, one of the UK’s leading public art agencies, has worked with a wide variety of sites and artist, including West Dean College associates Edward Allington and Michael Brennand-Wood. The 2005 project, ‘Contemporary Art in Historic Places’ was a collaboration between National Trust, English Heritage and Commissions East, and was developed to ‘attract new visitors to heritage sites or to engage existing visitors in new ways’. The commission was offered to three contemporary artists: Imogen Stidworthy, Richard Wentworth and Louise K. Wilson, each of whom created a temporary, site-specific project inspired by a location in the East of England. Richard Wentworth, an artist who has played a significant role in British Sculpture since the 1970’s, was based at the National Trust property Felbrigg Hall, where he installed a series of mirrors throughout the house as a means to not only project a subversive presence into the spaces, but also to echo the curiosity with which visitors encounter the historical narratives embodied in historic properties.
West Dean College is no exception here. The history of the college is rich, with interwoven narratives of past histories being consistently evident to staff, students and visitors alike. The juxtaposition of artefacts collected by William, Edward James’ father – rare porcelain, hunting trophies, enormous tapestries and wall hangings – echo the surrealist art and objects collected by his visionary only son. In this unique setting, the combination of objects sourced from wildly different perspectives and tastes, enables visitors to see correlations between past histories that might be otherwise overlooked. The opportunity for artists and students to work in this context positions West Dean amongst an established number of historic sites that see the possibilities of allowing artists to respond to the unique idiosyncrasies inherent to each place. Supported by Arts Council England, Artichoke House will make a significant contribution to the college and enable visitors, students and staff to engage with the legacy of Edward James in a new way.