Deep in the English Countryside, Mega-Gallery Hauser & Wirth Indulges in Fantasies of Rustic Life

The gallery follows up its celebrated "Bronze Age" presentation at Frieze London by turning its Somerset outpost into a rural life museum.

“The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind,” photograph by Ken Adlard, courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

Remember last October, when Hauser & Wirth styled its Frieze London booth like a ramshackle small museum? Curated for the gallery by the British historian Mary Beard, “Bronze Age c. 3500 BC–AD 2017” mixed works in bronze by the gallery’s artists with archaeological and historical objects, many borrowed from British museums.

Adding to the atmospherics were signage straight out of the 1970s and a gift shop selling bookmarks and mugs. The project was arch, witty, affectionate, knowing. It earned Hauser & Wirth newspaper coverage and praise aplenty. The £10,000 raised by the shop was donated to regional museums, and the booth itself was re-exhibited by the Firstsite gallery in Colchester, Essex, in the southeast of England. A triumph then, by all accounts.

“The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind,” photograph by Ken Adlard,
courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

Hauser & Wirth’s current exhibition at its Somerset outpost, the rural-themed “The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind,” brings with it a certain textural déjà vu for “Bronze Age” fans. Here we find again a dizzying assemblage of stuff, some on the walls and some in vitrine. Borrowed works from local museums—among them paintings by William Holman Hunt, John Martin, and Paul Nash—jostle with maps, magazines, and other historic documents and prints.

The massive exhibition, which brings together the work of more than 100 international artists from the 1500s to the present, aims to explore “the contradictory nature of society’s relationship to the rural,” according to the gallery. 

Works by artists from the Hauser & Wirth stable are so well cached among a plethora of other contemporary pieces that they seem almost an afterthought. I spotted works by Mark Wallinger, Paul McCarthy, Anj Smith, Roni Horn, Henry Moore, and Don McCullin. By my estimate, there are less than a dozen “available” works in the show.

As with “Bronze Age,” the scenography is brilliantly conceived, from the junk shop frames to the rococo banqueting table laden with artists’ ceramics. There’s even an “honesty shop” stocked with crafts by local makers.

“The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind,” photograph by Ken Adlard,
courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

In turning its attention to environmental concerns, “The Land…” echoes a wider re-engagement with matters green. This summer, the Palermo edition of the roving Manifesta biennial will take The Planetary Garden as its theme. Toward the end of last year, artist John Akomfrah’s six-screen environmental disaster movie Purple was installed at London’s Barbican Centre. Even the Andreas Gursky exhibition that just opened at London’s Hayward Gallery reads as a doomy meditation on humankind’s inglorious manipulation of its environment.

Yet “The Land…” is, from many perspectives, tricky. While technically a group show, it functions more as a Gesamtkunswerk assembled by guest curator Adam Sutherland, its narrative not always apparent to those not treated to a lengthy guided tour. The final room, which deals with, among other things, artist-led rural initiatives—among them Fairland Collective from the Lake District, Mildred’s Lane in Pennsylvania, and Kultivator, based on the island of Öland in Sweden—is particularly unyielding.

In its dealings with countryside matters, the exhibition is at once flippant and deadly earnest. The Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s grisly factory farming documentary Our Daily Bread (2005) is projected on a full wall of one gallery: a cautionary tale to any delusional hipster daydreaming of rural utopia. Works from across the centuries present the countryside and those who occupy it as ludicrous—often sentimentalized—artist’s constructs, from the chocolate box styling of a Disneyfied Thomas Kinkade landscape to the “exotic” comeliness of Holman Hunt’s Egyptian harvester.

Mark Wallinger’s eight-panel work in watercolor and charcoal—Stately Home (1985)—offers a fictional family seat for the noble family of Wallinger, complete with a T-Rex in the ornamental lake. As a vision of the British relationship to land, it is very much of its time, produced in an era of lavish costume dramas, 1980s classics such as Brideshead Revisited and A Room With A View. (The continued appetite for palace porn like The Crown and Downton Abbey suggests we have not evolved far.)

Running in parallel to the back-to-the-land movements and fantasies of aristocratic acreage is a folksier image. This is Britain as the country of Tolkien: a nation of comfort-loving hobbits hunkered down in our pseudo-Celtic Arts & Crafts holes. Even John Martin’s Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812) is pure Peter Jackson—a populist precursor to Frodo’s ascent of Mount Doom.

“The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind,” photograph by Ken Adlard,
courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

This complex vision of the rural draws on its curator’s deep knowledge and engagement. Sutherland is the director of Grizedale Arts, a rural arts organization based in the Lake District in the north west of England, conversant equally with the local community and a roster of notable visiting artists, among them Laure Prouvost, Bedwyr Williams and Pablo Bronstein (all of whom feature in “The Land…”).

In staging “The Land…,” you might accuse Hauser & Wirth of many counts of wanting to possess its rustic cake and consume it too. For its Somerset outpost is part of that lineage of utopian visions of rural life—the farm as a wholesome paradise of beauty and good things—which Sutherland’s display suggests are doomed eventually to disintegrate. It is also an updated pursuit of the aristocratic landowner fantasy needled by Wallinger. But perhaps we should congratulate the gallery and its owners for an admirable feat of self-knowledge here.

It is the adoption of a museum-like tone that suggests a rather more troubling identity crisis. With “Bronze Age” at Frieze London, the lines were clearly drawn: it was a commercial display engaging in clever masquerade. With “The Land” this distinction dissolves. With its trumpeted loans of historic works, its roster of community events and educational initiatives, it broadcasts as if it were a local museum exhibition, and yet it is not. The result is that Sutherland’s terrifically, willfully, idiosyncratic show is being mis-sold. Perhaps the telling question here is: Why?

“The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind,”  is at Hauser & Wirth Somerset until May 7.

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