Perceptual illusions at Extraordinary Measures art exhibit

[From The Guardian]

Extraordinary Measures

Belsay Hall, Northumberland

Laura Cumming
The Observer, Sunday 2 May 2010

The beautiful room is empty. The atmosphere is tense and cold, even though the sun glows beyond the high windows. You open the door to leave, only to find another door before you – and through it a further surprise. In the next room sits a naked man, flinching and clutching at his wooden stool as if terrified by your sudden arrival.

This is what strikes first: the sense that he was waiting there in fear, perhaps even listening out for your footsteps. Which is a most extraordinary illusion, to be sure. For the figure that confronts you in the library is very nearly 10ft tall and quite clearly blind and insentient, being one of Ron Mueck‘s stupendous hyperreal sculptures.

Wild Man is a figure fit for our museum age – vast enough to fill a white cube gallery, lifelike enough, down to the last follicle and mole, to beggar belief beneath the sharpest of spotlights. He needs no context, this frightened giant. Indeed you might say he’s among the most site-specific art works ever made: a man caught in continuous response to the here and now, cowed and even reduced, despite his size, by the presence of every viewer.

But something happens to him in the filtered light of Belsay Hall. He seems more out of time in this Regency library, with its stylised Greek friezes, and more out of place in his nakedness than ever. And he puts you on the spot in this strange, silent place, with its ghostly rooms, so that you too become conscious of yourself as a trespasser.

Extraordinary Measures is one of those out-of-gallery shows where contemporary art is arranged like a treasure hunt in some period building – St Pancras, say, or the claustrophobia of the Freud Museum. The juxtaposition is generally stark, so you see art and architecture anew through successive contrasts. But this show is not just arresting, and full of good art, it is ideally selected to emphasise the absolute singularity of Belsay’s gardens and buildings.

Belsay Hall is an immense mansion of golden stone, colonnaded like a Greek temple yet minimal as a modernist box. It was designed by Sir Charles Monck as a permanent souvenir of his honeymoon in Greece, every tympanum, pedestal and column based upon the fanatically detailed sketches he made wherever he went. The entrance hall, beneath its shadowy cupola, is an acropolis of stone hewn from the ground outside. The resulting quarry is so cunningly landscaped that you wander through its canyons like a Lilliputian, gazing up at cliffs covered in blue-green lichen among gigantic trees and plants. Even the magnolia blossoms seem supernaturally vast.

And scale is the ostensible theme of Extraordinary Measures. The show has works by established stars such as Mueck, Mariele Neudecker and Mat Collishaw as well as several new names. It runs all the way from a 40ft work by Neudecker to Freddie Robins’s miniaturised tableau of Ariadne abandoned by Theseus, her heart bleeding ruby pinpricks in a dolls’ house-sized grotto. In the smallest work, the figures are so tiny they are dwarfed by a cigarette butt: two English Heritage visitors being presented with a dinosaur-sized relic of the past.

This piece is by the urban artist Slinkachu, whose minuscule models are discovered outdoors like Borrowers trying to make their way in the human world. One is busily painting a marigold blue, as if nature’s decor was an affront to good taste. Another is sunbathing among the hellebores like a daytripper renting a deckchair in Hyde Park.

Slinkachu is frequently sardonic – a Mr Whippy vendor sets up by the ha-ha, heedless of the magnificent hall – but always humorous. The teenager astride a beetle, snapped by his dad, is a piquant portrait of the way we try to cut the Heritage Experience down to size. You find their photograph in the exact same spot, and laugh just as they do among the prize blossoms.

In a reversal of convention, most of this show takes place beyond the main building. An optical illusion by Ciarán Treanor, still a student – bentwood lines that read as rearing horses if you look long and very hard – stands outside the resplendent stables. There’s an animated film in the kennels. The young English artist Tessa Farmer has found a clearing in the quarry and filled it with macabre sculptures: a squirrel whose tail has turned into a cobweb trapping moths and iridescent beetles, skeletal fairies cannibalised from dead insects, butterflies and bees suspended from silk threads in a fluttering danse macabre.

In this crepuscular bell jar of a clearing, the art is glass-cased like a Victorian spectacle, flora and fauna turning from fairytale to nightmare. And Mat Collishaw’s zoetrope in the tower of the ruined 14th-century castle makes a Victorian fantastique of the gardens: malign imps shatter robin’s eggs, fish leap, butterflies flap like marauding bats, round and round in the spinning wheel’s mesmerising dystopia.

Collishaw has both magnified and miniaturised what’s there (and what is not), just as the grounds themselves are full of staggering reversals of scale.

But the strangeness of Belsay is not just to do with the unearthly gardens or the picturesque ruins (the distant village, for instance, with its dilapidated church: every inch of it designed as a folly). The hall itself stands in suspense, waiting for someone or something to come. Stripped bare of everything but scraps of torn wallpaper and the fading Naafi notice from the second world war, its architecture is superbly exposed: towering windows, Greek friezes, the bizarre proportions of doors, stairs and corridors more evocative of classical civilisations than English country life.

The half-dozen Mueck sculptures, from the tiny sunbather perilously adrift on his lilo to the immense dead bird – devastating memento mori – are brilliantly proportioned so that inner emotion is dramatised in outer scale. All is counterintuitive. But the work that most captures the queer spirit of Belsay is a special commission that simply enlarges what was already vast: one of the picture windows.

Mariele Neudecker’s window stands 40ft high in the quarry with no visible means of support. The sun comes and goes in its brilliantly reflective glass, so that it appears semi-transparent. Nor does the world seem quite the same on either side. Anyone who wants to understand this mystery may step through a pane, like Alice through her mirror, in this Northumbrian wonderland.

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