Museums should embrace event art’s mass appeal

19 October 2015

On Fridays and Saturdays between June and October this year there’s been something rather extraordinary happening in the Norfolk landscape. Hundreds of people are gathering with picnics, rugs and children in tow, to watch James Turrell’s illuminations on the west façade of Houghton Hall. This is undoubtedly ‘event art’, even if it is an event repeated weekly over a number of months, and conceived by a renowned contemporary artist. It is the perfect example of why such art, and such events matter: bringing a new audience to the stately home as well as to the artist, ‘shining a new light’ on both, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Houghton is staging a solo exhibition of Turrell’s work, of which the illuminations are a part, with other pieces in the grounds and the ground floor of the house, as well as the stables. When I visited on a Saturday afternoon, I was struck by how visitors earlier in the day seemed to have come for the Hall and been pleasantly surprised by the Turrells, or vice versa. As the day drew on there arrived more and more families who were clearly unused to either, and had come for the evening events, their children agape at Turrell’s lights and colours.

Come dusk Turrell’s illuminations began their stately, subtle progress across the Hall’s façade. Visitors sat with their picnics and drinks on the vast lawn in front, and watched the 45–60 minute ‘show’. It felt in many ways like a night at the proms or the fireworks, with a festival atmosphere and a sense of camaraderie developing between adjacent picnickers. The word ‘illuminations’ is interesting, I think, conjuring up experiences at Blackpool that we would consider far removed from contemporary art, and having a very particular kind of mass appeal.

(2015), James Turrell.

West Façade Illumination (2015), James Turrell. Photo: Hugo Glendinning, courtesy of the artist and Houghton Hall

Yet here the projection of colour onto an 18th-century mansion is working to make hundreds of visitors look afresh both at the house and at Turrell’s work. This is event art produced by a world-famous artist in a celebrated English country house. Both enjoy cultural capital and accolades, but both are also easily pigeon-holed into being for a particular kind of audience. What the ‘illuminations’ do is open this up more widely.

Admittedly there are many more diverse or difficult to reach audiences that are not being reached here. Getting to Houghton still requires a car, and a reasonable entrance fee, not to mention a picnic, and an interest in some part of the diverse arts being brought together here. Just think of all the broader programming that places like the British Museum would have done around light. But if we are considering the value of ‘event’ art, then Houghton is flying the flag. For the value of art, at its most basic, is surely to make us look, think, see, and feel differently, and it’s amazing how much a colour wash on an old building can do that.

‘Lightscape: James Turrell at Houghton’ is at Houghton Hall from 7 June–24 October.

Hear the other side: Tiffany Jenkins on why event art is overrated 

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