CHRIS FREMANTLE

MerzBarn

Posted in News, Research, Sited work by chrisfremantle on June 11, 2014
MerzBarn site on the Cylinders Estate near Elterwater in the Lake District (Photo Chris Fremantle)

The Chicken Shed near MerzBarn on the Cylinders Estate near Elterwater in the Lake District (Photo Chris Fremantle)

When you visit the MerzBarn at Elterwater, now being cared for and developed by the Littoral Trust, you realise that Kurt Schwitters may have “ended up in Langdale like a piece of flotsam on the currents of a world war,” but it is a remarkable place and his presence is distinctive. Schwitters is also somewhat of a Trojan Horse. Living as an artist refugee he painted landscape scenes and portraits whilst simultaneously working on a new Merzbau (Schwitters called these works Merzbau which translates as ‘Merz buildings’. He called this work specifically MerzBarn.  Merz is a word Schwitters found in the process of making a collage in 1919). On the one hand he conformed to a Lake District stereotype, and on the other he steered the direction of 20th Century Art.

You can see there are some serious tensions embodied in this landscape. It was necessary in the mid 60s, and probably in the terms of the time correct, to remove one whole wall of the Barn and take it into a museum to be preserved. Thus the ‘art’ bit of the Merzbarn is now in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle. The analogy might be the Elgin Marbles: something conceived of as a ‘whole’ (art and architecture) that has been separated. Art, sometimes the legacy of great cultures, is political, but is often managed by people who are unwilling to acknowledge the political dimension as ‘present’ rather than historical.

So outside the MerzBarn each year Littoral organises an event where the names of all the artists included by the Nazi Party as Entartete Kunst Degenerate Art (including Schwitters and more than 100 others) are read out and then written in chalk on the wall of the MerzBarn. This symbolic act might seem curious standing outside a tiny barn on an estate in Cumbria, rather than perhaps in a square in Berlin or at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but the symbolism of the last place a refugee artist worked is rich and powerful (and draws other artists to work there now).

The avoidance of politics in art were replayed in the Schwitters in Britain exhibition at the Tate last year where it was clear that the curators focused on the paintings with only nods to the other media such as the sound poetry and the Merzbau. The curators of the contemporaneous Duchamp exhibition The Bride and the Batchelors at the Barbican succeeded in creating a space for works across multiple media including dance and performance, sound, set design and visual art. The curators at the Tate chose a different trajectory, offering what was really a conventional exhibition of paintings with some contemporary art tacked on the end (not that Provost and Chodzko’s contributions were negligible). But the positioning of contemporary art in the exhibition inevitably pushed the works by Schwitters into the past in a way that the construction of a multi-media environment at the Barbican brought Duchamp, Cage, Cunningham, Johns and Rauchenberg into the present. A different trajectory was created by the reconstruction of the MerzBarn in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in London as part of the Modern British Sculpture show.

The Langdale landscape is in a constant state of flux: a dialogue between human and non-human agencies. It was the non-human agencies that necessitated the removal of the ‘art’. But the way the Littoral Trust is imagining the site conceives of the MerzBarn (the original barn with the missing wall reinstated) in a state of flux. The circumstances at Elterwater are open to that process of change, where the part of the work in the care of the Hatton is ‘preserved’. The Littoral Trust brings its 30+ years of knowledge and work as a social and political art organisation to the development of the MerzBarn. In addition to events to honour the memory of artists called ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi Party, there is an art making and outdoor education programme for children and young people – and of course Schwitters’ Merz works, his use of found waste materials, and his ‘painting with nails’ approach are a Trojan Horse in the context of conventional primary school art.

As the Armitt Museum (which has its own collection of Schwitters’ works from his time in the Lake District)  website says in describing the first Merzbau, “It was unfinished because it was unfinishable; it was environmental and engulfing in scope, but its significance was that it marked the birth of installation or conceptual art that we see today.” In the capable hands of the Littoral Trust the state of unfinishedness is an asset and an opportunity.

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