Issue 204
July/August 2018


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Aug 20, 2018
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    Lindisfarne's new message?

    While it undergoes a £2 million refurb, Lindisfarne has invited conceptual artist Anya Gallaccio to re-visualise its interiors. Nick Jones cruelly wonders whether the resulting installations, featuring oak frames draped with soft blankets, send an unintended message of an institution strangled in 'blankets of red tape and rigid frameworks of corporate protocol.'

    Anya Gallaccio: Oak Frame and Fireplace

    I'M IN A FIREPLACE showroom, one of the best in the country, I think. It's in an Englishman's dream home, a castle. Rather a good one. Hats off to the National Trust for investing some £ 2 million to ensure this wonderful property stays in good fettle.

    Holy Island has always attracted seekers of beauty, isolation, peace and soul. St Aidan founded a monastery here, producing the Lindisfarne Gospels in the 8th century, and it continues to inspire the creative imagination.

    Originally a fort, Lindisfarne Castle was transformed into a holiday retreat by Edwin Lutyens, a century ago. It's one of his best; subtle, respectful of the original building, with great attention to detail, allowing the craftsmanship to shine.

    A master of brick, and stone and slate, Lutyens distilled English vernacular through the crucible of the Arts and Crafts Movement, to create a triumph of small scale, hand-made detail; door latches, built in cupboards, settles, herring-bone brick floors, and those fireplaces!

    Right now, the Castle is wrapped in a delicate tracery of scaffolding topped with a marquee, a rather beautiful cream bun. Furniture was removed so rooms could be replastered with meticulous care, using original recipes and materials.

    The contractors, working with specialist conservators, are doing brilliantly, just forget the endless committees, and the cost.

    While the building dries out, cue "dreamed about the flowers that hide from the light," an installation by international conceptual artist Anya Gallaccio. Part of 'Trust New Art', and the NT's Women and Power programme.

    Anya has drawn inspiration from Gertrude Jekyll's garden at Lindisfarne, and her connection with the suffrage movement. Visual arts commissioning agency, Locus+, from Newcastle, managed selection and appointment.

    It's high-risk, parachuting an international conceptual artist into a popular visitor attraction without doing a lot of 'softening up', preparing the public, explaining and managing expectations.

    There have been a lot of disappointed visitors, feeling frustrated and misled. The NT should know better than to score an own goal like this, especially as the restoration work is so fascinating, and worthy of an exhibition in itself.

    I've visited three times now. Anya's work is growing on me, especially the beautiful naturally dyed blankets. Some are draped over oak frames.There are a few decaying flowers too. The blankets are the work of The Mulberry Dyer, specialists in traditional dyeing and conservation projects. They are a foil to empty rooms, cold stone, and harsh winters. If they want a home after the show, give me a call!

    There's a lot of time, skill and expertise in those blankets and frames. Anya's known for conceiving imaginative, unusual installations that respond to, challenge, and change visitors' relationship with spaces and places. Decay and impermanence is a common theme. At first that seems odd, for a project marking renovation and renewal.

    I think I get it. Blankets making rooms cosy and under wraps during renovation, as the marquee protects the structure; oak frames reflecting scaffolding, with only a few decaying flowers strewn about (apparently sheep got into the Jekyll Garden and ate most of the them).

    Mother Nature's definitely in charge up here. The Beast from the East caused havoc, then everything stopped whilst a barn owl fledged owlets. Quite right too, although delay cost a small fortune, as did this installation. One reason why people are talking about it. Which is what the NT want.

    But I can't help feeling that conceptual art should sometimes remain just that – a concept, an abstract idea. By all means invite artists to submit ideas, but leave it there, and allow the imagination to do the rest... real 'castles in the air'.

    I know the art world will always be driven by big names, big money, glamour and power, but, it doesn't have to be like this. It feels a missed opportunity to showcase the region's own culture in a very high profile way.

    The creative spirit is very much alive and well in Northumberland today, with excellent artists, (and yes, even internationally acclaimed artists!) living and working nearby. Since the 1990s, cultural agencies in Northumberland have pioneered public art commissions: on the ramparts at Berwick, the Kielder Forest project, and the Arts and Heritage programme at Belsay.

    At Wallington, November Club, a Northumbrian performing arts company, has made playful and inspiring theatre and installations, like its celebration of the landscape artist Capability Brown.

    They bring the place to life, engaging staff, volunteers, and the local community. So maybe time for the NT to rethink its approach to arts patronage, in today's world, where it can seem patronising and high handed.

    Visitor feedback is clear; this work is not engaging most people, and suggests the NT is out of touch with its lifeblood - its members, and that immutable British institution, the National Trust Volunteer.

    Passionate, sometimes bolshie and possessive, they need sensitive managing, but their knowledge, enthusiasm and dedication can make visits extra special. It works both ways. Being valued, feeling useful, combating isolation and loneliness, as well as keeping management in touch with locals, and, presumably, saving money.

    The National Trust began as a radical, pioneering, visionary agency for change, dedicated to preserving and enabling access to the best of the country's landscape and heritage. Now, like many national agencies, it's enveloped, strangled even, in blankets of red tape and rigid frameworks of corporate protocol.

    Is that the real message of oak frames, blankets, and decaying flora in empty rooms? Faded beauty and lost vitality? An institution needing a major makeover, losing touch with place, ignoring local people, culture, membership and its roots?

    Come on NT, please get your act together, you need us, and we'd like to think we need you, but don't take that for granted!

    Anya Gallaccio's installation is in situ at Lindisfarne Castle until November 4, 2018. Opening times vary depending on the tide, check at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lindisfarnecastle and at www.northumberland.gov.uk/www2/holyisland/holyisland.asp

    Nick Jones

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