Heritage Reimagined

For his latest exhibition, Aesthetica Art Prize 2021 longlisted artist Steve Messam worked with the National Trust to create a series of three inflatable and floating installations for Studley Royal water gardens as part of their Folly! programme. Here, he talks to Aesthetica about creating heritage for the future, rural exhibitions and the role of installation art in the age of Instagram.

A: The exhibition nods to the past. Drifted, with its 12 floating pyramids, for example, references designs for a lost 18th century folly. Tell us more about this influence? 
My work on one level is about storytelling. I loved the story of this folly that has all the documentation – architects drawings, builders receipts – everything except accounts of anyone having seen it. So we don’t know if it ever got built or not. But regardless it’s still part of the story of the place. And that got me thinking: how real do things need to be in the historical record of a place to be deemed as being part of the story? But also a recognition that what I was making was just as much a part of the story of a historical place. I like the concept of creating heritage for the future.

A: Although your works use bold colour, form is often your starting point. Each of the three works here are spiked. Why?
The spikes are drawn from the lost pyramid folly. It became a motif across the pieces holding them together. It’s about the search for the lost pyramid and finding it in all the pieces.

A: You’ve made site specific artworks in many places, including Blackpool, the Lake District and the Pennines. What was unique about Studley Royal water gardens?
SM: I like working in wilder landscapes, but I also have a particular interest in traditional Chinese garden design. Studley Royal water gardens have a fascinating intersection between the taming of the landscape and the set-piece views you get in Chinese gardens. There are bits of the evolution of the gardens at Studley that hint at a knowledge of Chinese garden design too, which I find particularly interesting.

A: Do you regret that some people will only experience works like these digitally?
I’m very aware of the Instagram effect on my pieces. However, all my pieces are created with that in mind. I know that people who visit them will want to take a photo as a memory, so they’re created around sightlines, the direction of light, and composition in the landscape so that when someone takes a photo I know where they’re taking from and how it will look. They go away with a great looking photo, but only because I’ve made sure it is.

But the artworks really are a physical thing and have a presence that you only get by being with them. There’s something about scale that has a very real emotional impact that you only get by being there. That’s something I’m really interested in as a medium – scale.

Then there’s all the little transient bits about being in the landscape – the way they move constantly, and the noises they make, and the way the light moves across them. Also the landscape they sit in – the scale of landscape, its constant change, the weather and the journey you take to get there – even at Fountains Abbey it’s still a good walk from the car before you get a glimpse of them round a corner or through the trees. That’s all part of the art. I consider all of that and none of that you get from a photo.

A: As you mentioned, your work is characterised by its transience. Why is that important?
Mostly it’s about a fleeting moment – in much the same way that a photograph is just a fraction of a second captured in time. I like the transient nature – they’re just there for a short while and you have to see them while they’re there before they’re gone forever. But from a practical point they’re made from delicate materials which just don’t last long in the outdoor environment and that juxtaposition of fragility and environment is part of how they work. I have done more permanent pieces, but on the whole I find the temporary stuff more interesting.

A: You started out as a music photographer. How did you develop your artistic practice of creating large-scale installations?
The installations are all photographs. Just ones you can see for real.

A: The rural landscape has always been a source of inspiration for artists but tended to be less prominent as a setting to exhibit artworks. Do you think this is changing?
SM: Artists have been exhibiting art in the rural landscape for centuries. It’s not easy to do though. The art world has a strong bias towards art as a commodity. Things in galleries for people to buy – it’s how galleries work which in turn dictates the trends in art. Works in the landscape need that landscape for them to work. All those subtle nuances I mentioned before – the movement, sound and presence as well as the journey to be with them are hard to commodify, so they’re always going to be a little more niche. And obviously harder to get to.

A: What are you working on next?
I have a long term project – The Architect of Ruins – in which redundant and ruined buildings are temporarily transformed into follies to highlight their role in the history of the landscape and the character of place. The next stage of that will see a number of small buildings filled with illuminated forms this winter in some very remote landscapes. Large projects can take from a few months to years to realise so there’s always a few projects on the go at any one time.

Find out more here.

Words: Rachel Segal Hamilton

Image Credits:
1. Installation: Steve Messam. Image: Anthony Chappel-Ross
2. Installation: Steve Messam.
Image: Steve Messam.