'The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind' at Hauser & Wirth Somerset

Is the title the best thing about this exhibition?  The phrase was used by migrants as a toast in the 18th and 19th centuries - looking to a hope filled future in their adopted land and remembering the country they left behind.  The title promises much, the exhibition delivers rather less. 

Hauser & Wirth Somerset website announces that the show, curated by Adam Sutherland of Grizedale Arts ‘features over 100 international artists and creatives … and tells the story of humanity’s evolving connection to the land, our perception of, and reliance upon it.’  The exhibition explores how humanity has made use of the land and how our relationship with it has developed.  The show is installed both indoors and out, consisting of a bewildering range of elements, historical and contemporary, and includes everything from agricultural artefacts to drawings, paintings, prints, installations, assemblages and film.  Every media is covered.  Perhaps this is part of the problem.  There is too much to take in, too many ideas are alluded to but all too briefly with no clear narrative to help visitors navigate the rooms.  Perhaps visitors lucky enough to be present during the many practical presentations and the participatory projects running alongside the exhibition were able to engage with artists and participants and benefited from a necessary degree of insight.

View of the Workshop, Hauser & Wirth Somerset

View of the Workshop, Hauser & Wirth Somerset

Society’s current discrepant connection and confused attitude to the countryside and to food production is laid bare.  One wall text claims that ‘our interaction with the rural has evolved, but not really changed’.  It can be argued instead that a great proportion of the general population has grown more distant from and now lives in total ignorance of the realities of the countryside and has no awareness of the actuality of rural life.  Items as disparate as Marcus Coates’ Stoat Stilts, created for a performance in which the artist imitated animal behaviour in an attempt to get closer to nature and a long handled ragworth puller measuring at least one metre, by way of a 17th or 18th century Korean Dragon Jar need more to knit them into a coherent narrative than a series of interpretive wall drawings by Fernando Garcia-Dory.  The same can be said of the vitrine filled with a diversity of archival documents and objects, which include a farmer's smock, an engraving of Druids celebrating at Stonehenge and a Bernard Leach tankard.  The display, liberally sprinkled with bronze casts of British wild mammal droppings (Marcus Coates), is more baffling than illuminating.  It is difficult not to regret the absence of significant supporting literature.  A Grayson Perry map is hung above a doorway and is impossible to decipher.  A laminated A3 copy of the map left on the window sill does little to help remedy the situation.

Stoat Stilts , 2000, Marcus Coates

Stoat Stilts, 2000, Marcus Coates

The exhibition ends on more a positive, if somewhat romantic, note.  In complete contrast, the final room is filled with books and with information from a variety of organisations running rural themed projects in urban areas.  Though this is highly encouraging, these schemes bring to mind Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulations. 

All residents of the local area are invited to offer handmade goods for sale in The Honesty Shop.  Buyers are asked simply to record the transaction in a ledger and to place the money in the honesty box.  This arrangement sustains links between Hauser & Wirth Somerset and the community within which it is developing.  Curator Adam Sutherland believes that making is part of an enhanced everyday life.  It is difficult to disagree with this point.