New Hauser & Wirth Somerset opens debate on art delocalization

Geoff Hands

The new Hauser & Wirth Somerset: a gallery space or the ultimate art-linked rural community project?

Down at the farm, Martin Creed’s white neon light sculpture, fixed on the exterior of the farmhouse, proclaims that ‘Everything is going to be alright’ (Work no.1086, 2011) to greet the visitor in both a positive and thought provoking manner.

Installation view, ‘Pipilotti Rist. Stay Stamina Stay’, Hauser & Wirth Somerset, 2014 © Pipilotti Rist. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine, New York Photo: Ken Adlard.

Contemporary art is mostly exhibited in the cities, but Iwan and Manuela Wirth, who have galleries in Zurich, New York and London, opened their new show space in the rural idyll of Bruton, Somerset in southern England this summer. Bruton itself is an interesting place, technically a town, but small enough to feel like a village, it has a provincial and rural charm that might tempt the city-dwelling visitor to re-locate, especially as so many people are beginning to make their pilgrimage to what was once known locally as Durslade Farm.

This meeting, and fusing, of cultures is not so unusual in the modern post-industrial UK of today, as transport and life-style link countryside to the towns and cities so effectively. Hauser & Wirth Somerset celebrates an opportunity to showcase challenging and exciting modern art in one of the ultimate landscape settings: the English countryside. This kind of location is not unique for showcasing art (the Henry Moore Foundation in Perry Green, Hertfordshire is well worth a visit too) but H&W go several stages further.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset. Right: Subodh Gupta, Untitled, 2008. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Hélène Binet

Durslade Farm, re-branded and re-born, is still a work in progress, but the first major displays set the quality bar very high indeed. Phyllida Barlow’s ‘GIG’, a new body of work created in response to the architecture and surrounding landscape, and Piet Oudolf’s preparatory design drawings for some of his most pioneering projects in Britain and further afield, including commissions for The High Line in Manhattan’s West Side and the rejuvenated Serpentine Gallery in London, make the inaugural exhibition something quite special and memorable.

Oudolf’s exhibition prepares the visitor well for gaining a deeper understanding behind the perennial meadow that he has designed and planted on site, although it will not be opened until a later date when visitors can walk in and around the garden – which of course provides good reason to return.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Hélène Binet

So, it is Barlow’s work that currently dominates the exhibition spaces, occupying the 18th-century Threshing Barn (a shelter solely built for storing and processing the grain crop), adjoining farm buildings, outdoor spaces and one of the new galleries. Offering what are termed ‘unmonumental’ sculptures, the work is installed to occupy spaces in sympathetic and challenging ways.

Hauser &Wirth Somerset may not exactly be the next Guggenheim (as teasingly suggested by Sally Shalam in the Guardian) but is more than an alternative or unorthodox site for an art gallery. As a rural Arts Centre, the project will surely enhance the local economy as more tourists visit the region; and promote art as an educational resource for the local schools (of which Bruton has several). In fact, former Bath Spa University lecturer, Debbie Hillyerd, the Learning and Events Co-ordinator, typified the enthusiasm reflected in her team of gallery attendants, by greeting us fervently on arrival and reporting positively on the initial success of the Hauser & Wirth Somerset Youth Group that meets at the gallery once a month with the opportunity to meet the visiting artists, gallery team and to take part in conversations and workshops. Artists’ residencies have already started and there will be studios located in the town to support further residencies. There is also a book shop (with both academic and popular titles to accommodate a broad range of visitors’ interests), a Farm Shop soon to open, and the impressive Roth Bar and Grill restaurant, with site-specific bar designed by Björn and Oddur Roth. Here we ate locally sourced food surrounded by artworks displayed on the wall and suspended from the ceiling (noting the vibrant neon chandeliers made by the late Jason Rhoades).

Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Inner Cloister. Right: Josephsohn, Untitled, 2000. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Hélène Binet

The philosophy of the venture is more than merely generous as Hauser &Wirth Somerset is also ethically linked to the community, sympathetically re-designed architecturally, and provides an environment to offer challenges to pre-conceived notions of the meaning and practice of contemporary art and will provoke debate – as suggested by Creed’s aforementioned neon statement.

This may be the ultimate art-linked rural community project. We look forward to the Pipilotti Rist exhibition opening in November 2014.

September 22, 2020