Misplaced trust: tripping along with the teddy bears’ picnic, Laura Gascoigne looks at the obvious mismatch of the National Trust and contemporary art

Philippa Lawrence, Barcode: FB184

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. That’s if the woods are Mortimer Forest in Herefordshire, and the surprise hasn’t by now been deliberately spoiled by tree-hugging vigilante forest rangers.

Last spring, RCA graduate Philippa Lawrence took it into her pretty little head to barcode the trunks of selected young oaks in this ancient woodland at a spot called High Vinnalls, conveniently close to the Forestry Commission Car Park. The trees are due to be felled to make hardwood dowelling, a product for which the builders’ merchant barcode is FB184.

Barcode: FB184, organized by Meadow Arts and funded by ACE, is a site-responsive piece (responsive, mind, not merely specific) whose purpose, sayMeadowArts, is to draw “the viewer’s attention to how the individuality of each tree contrasts sharply with the uniformity of the commodity that it becomes”. You may question whether, four centuries after the invention of the sawmill, we need our attention drawn to this fact, but the artist thinks we do. “Hereford is known for its special relationship to trees,” she says – and special relationships, as we know,  need work. She hopes hers may help us “reconsider our relationship to these places and the centrality of wood in all of our lives” – and, quite possibly, in some of our skulls.

Lawrence’s own relationship with trees, she confides on her website, “is one built on a close and easy physical proximity”. In childhood “local trees accepted my slight young limbs and that [sic] of my friends as we scaled and climbed, testing our dexterity, flushed with delight at our exertions and in being abroad ‘in another place’ within the arms of the tree.” (Steady on, my dear, you’ll get the paedos excited.) Well, I spent much of my childhood up a tree and when the image of her barcoded trunks dropped into my mailbox it made me want to reach for the bow and arrow I used to take up there, dip the arrow tip in curare and lie in wait for Lawrence to waft along, flushed with delight, to install her next site-responsive project.

Unfortunately, the way things are going, I’ll need a quiverful. Since ACE teamed up last year with the National Trust on a new three-year partnerhip, Trust NewArt, site-responsive blights on the landscape have been spreading. The Trust now boasts a fresh young ContemporaryArts Programme Manager called Tom Freshwater who, with advice from experts including seasoned site-responders Ackroyd & Harvey and Richard Wentworth, is under instruction “to encourage new ways of looking at the work and the world”. Sounds harmless enough as far as it goes, but there’s more. The aim of Trust New Art, the launch announcement informed us, is “to build links between the National Trust and the contemporary arts and crafts sector” and “to make contemporary arts and crafts an integral part of the National Trust’s daily offer to visitors” [my

301 Moved Permanently

italics]. This sort of management-speak speaks of one thing and one thing only: money. It’s the same old story of mismatched partners climbing into bed together for mutual warmth in a cold economic climate.

The National Trust has a circulation problem. While more and more visitors swarm freely over its 600,000-acre rural estate the size of Derbyshire, fewer and fewer want to pay an entrance fee to circulate around its historic houses which consequently, like gangrenous limbs,  are in danger of dropping off. Without increased footfall through its miles of stuffy corridors, it cannot meet the expense of keeping up its buildings. But who of the post-end-of-history generation wants to pay good money on a sunny afternoon to traipse around an airless house with the blinds half-drawn admiring the faded possessions of long dead toffs? They’d rather have a tour of Beckingham Palace. While the Trust’s energetic Chairman Simon Jenkins has managed to breathe some warmth into his hypothermic patient by such simple traditional expedients as lighting fires in grates, his organisation has been looking enviously at the inflated attendance figures of contemporary art galleries and, being of a trusting disposition, believing them. The trouble is, the two constituencies are poles apart. The blue-rinsed rump of NT membership wouldn’t Trust New Art further than they could throw it, which at their advanced average age is not very far.

Trust properties that have so far signed up to the new art deal include Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, Tatton Park in Cheshire, Croft Castle in Herefordshire, and Calke Abbey and Kedleston Hall, both in Derbyshire. Waddesdon had already converted its Coach House into a contemporary art space, opened in 2009 somewhat inauspiciously with an exhibition of Angus Fairhurst, a contemporary artist who chose to end it all by hanging himself in a wood. But Waddesdon is au fait with art and not in danger of doing anything silly, unlike 301 Moved Permanently Calke Abbey, winner of our 2010 Trust New Art Bumpkin Prize for a summer programme of supreme artbollocks titled Profusion – devised for it by Beacon Art Projects – that made no concessions to the rural location,  and no sense. Among its advertised attractions were a Doug Fishbone performance in the Deer Shelter of “a stream-of-consciousness mode lecture incorporating images found on the internet into unlikely scenarios, propositions and diatribes”; a Jimmy Durham video in the Ice House showing the artist “smashing his students’ works, reminding us of the origin and end of all things” – as if we were short of reminders of this in the countryside – and a display of Roger Hiorns’s “intention to dust areas of the smithy with powdered antidepressant, triggering different contradictory avenues of association between the setting and his intervention”. Mercifully Health & Safety intervened to nip his intention in the bud at the display stage.

Visitors to contemporary art museums go to look at contemporary art; visitors to National Trust properties go to look at flowers and trees in the gardens and cake display cabinets in the tearooms. Thankfully, the heritage-visiting public seems already to be taking things into its own hands. The fightback started in a small way last September in the grounds of English Heritage’s Belsay Hall in Northumberland, where nine Lilliputian hostages were seized from a mini-installation by street artist Slinkachu forming part of the exhibition Extraordinary Measures. A single escapee was later recovered from the weeds by a gardener, but the others are still missing, despite an amnesty. (Jackdaws were, unsurprisingly, on the list of suspects.)

There is a limit, beyond installing wheelchair ramps and disabled toilets, to how accessible you can make a historic house to a public increasingly uninterested in history. But wait! What’s this? An announcement from the ICA, that body cryogenically frozen in the 1950s and recently chilled to a deeper permafrost by Arts Council cuts.  During the run of its summer exhibition Sketches for Regency Living,  an architectural-cum-choreographic intervention by the fabulously named Pablo Bronstein, gallery guides will be offering daily ‘National Trust-style tours’ of Nash House, with dance performances on the hour and evening talks from historians, architects and antique specialists.  What goes around comes around, in a sexier costume. Time, perhaps, for a revivified National Trust to issue its volunteer room guides with oak leaf-monogrammed tights.

The Jackdaw Jul-Aug 2011