London, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong…Somerset?
When Swiss contemporary art gallery Hauser & Wirth were deciding on the location of their next outpost, nobody would have guessed that the small, quaint town of Bruton was in the running. Nestled in the beautiful Somerset countryside, what was once an abandoned farm and outbuilding has been transformed into a modern space that hosts exhibitions from world-renowned artists.
Hauser & Wirth Somerset opened in 2014, and has seen a flurry of activity ever since. Entry to the gallery is free, there are two shops and the award-winning Roth Bar & Grill restaurant uses local produce to create vibrant and tasty dishes. A renovated farmhouse next to the main gallery is available to stay in year round, filled with artwork and character alike. The whole site was renovated by international designers, with special attention being paid to the field at the back of the gallery. Dutch architect Piet Oudolf designed the perennial garden so that it would bloom all year round, filling it with hundreds of species of colourful flowers and grasses. It’s one of my favourite parts of the gallery, with the array of colours and textures making it look like a giant artist’s palette. The clusters of plants give the impression of being in a wild meadow, and only add to the beauty of the surrounding landscape.
At the top of the garden is the Radić pavilion. This is a giant, shell-like structure which looks a bit like a doughnut. It was designed by leading Chilean architect Smiljan Radić, and is both enclosed and open at the same time, appearing to have been cracked open. The body of the structure is translucent and made of fiberglass – and appears to be floating at first glance! It was originally installed in London’s Hyde Park but Radić thought that Somerset was the perfect place for its permanent home. For him, the pavilion is a mysterious construction that somehow finds itself in the midst of nature. You can see how well the setting of the gallery fits into his vision, providing the balance between a man-made and natural setting, where people can take the time to sit and reflect.
From May to September 2018, the exhibition was From The Stony River To The Sky, a celebration of the work of Alexander Calder. He was one of the 20th century’s most influential and innovative artists, and the majority of works in the exhibit had never been seen in the UK before. Hauser & Wirth created the exhibition in collaboration with the Calder Foundation and made sure that it carried Calder’s spirit with it. He’s best known for his pioneering work with sculpture, although he worked in many different forms, such as paint, paper, jewellery and furniture. Calder particularly drew inspiration from the countryside and nature, which can be clearly seen in his work. One of his pieces, ‘Apple Monster’, is literally the fallen branch from one of the trees on his farm that he painted and turned into art. He also invented the mobile, studying the movements of air currents and weighing sheets of metal so that they would be perfectly suspended. What was so groundbreaking about his mobiles is that they moved with the wind, giving the pieces a unique fluidity and balance. I love how they create shadows and silhouettes against the walls as they rotate, allowing you to view them at different angles and in different ways.
One of my favourite bits of the exhibition was Calder’s series of domestic objects created for everyday use by his family. Whimsical and fun, they range from scissor guards made from wire to rattles made from tin cans. There was a chess set that Calder carved from wood and painted, and he apparently liked to play the game with fellow artist Marcel Duchamp. Red is a colour that often appears in Calder’s art and is perhaps reminiscent of the metal and tin that he used for some of his sculptures. I also see the use of it as reflecting Calder’s personality; fun, playful and full of life. The whole exhibition is full of this energy, and you can see the joy he took in making his art. He was inspired by the natural world and other artists such as Picasso, and this can be seen in his use of colour and movement. It is said that Calder carried pliers and wire with him wherever he went and that he would literally draw in the air, transforming his ideas into reality. I love the image of him testing out his vision using wire, with wherever he happened to be at the time providing the backdrop.
Calder was undoubtedly ahead of his time; he was making what we today would call modern art in the 1930s-80s. I was struck by how timeless it was, and from looking at his body at work, you’d be fooled into thinking he was an artist working now. Sadly, the exhibition has finished now, but with Hauser & Wirth’s ever changing exhibits and enchanting setting, I know that I’ll be back soon to see what else there is to offer!
~ Miranda Parkinson, all images her own