If you think of the National Trust you probably think of a stately pile somewhere in the rolling countryside; somewhere like Stowe or Waddesdon Manor. You’re probably much less likely to think of a London townhouse or flat, of the British coastline, or indeed of contemporary art. But these are three areas in which the Trust is equally, and increasingly, involved.
The Trust launched its dedicated campaign to look after the British coastline 50 years ago, and reflected recently on the success of the conservation project so far in a report entitled ‘Mapping our shores’. Its London branch (which has its own Twitter account @NTlovesLondon) runs a series of pop-up property openings, city tours on Routemaster buses, dining events and even a competition to open your own home. Trust New Art has been working with the Arts Council since 2009 to place contemporary art commissions in Trust properties, bringing new angles and new audiences to bear on much-loved places. I have been excited by all of these avenues for some time.
Now an exhibition in London unites these sensitivities. ‘One and All’ brings together three contemporary artists to consider the wonders and vulnerabilities of the British coastline within previously disused spaces off the River Terrace of Somerset House. The result is a haunting series of four rooms that give physical expression to works by Owen Sheers, Martyn Ware and Tania Kovats, which are also available online in films made with Ben Wigley. They inject expanses of sea and sky into these crumbling rooms.
In the first room you encounter the changing coastal landscape filmed by Wigley as he travelled the NT coastline. Martyn Ware’s soundscape What does the sea say? responds particularly to industrial parts of the coast. He collected public stories of the sea in a portable beach hut, which is now sitting out on the River Terrace. Ben Wigley has created a projection film, which you can mix with Ware’s soundscape online.
Owen Sheers walked the southern coastline of the Gower peninsula for two weeks to inspire his poem On the sea’s land (Ar-for-dir). His prologue presents the simple choice behind coastal walking, ‘sea to your left, or sea to your right?’ Each broadcast in the exhibition will change this direction. ‘Face the waves, feel the wind, breathe out and let the inclination of muscle decide.’
Kovats has responded to the tidal nature of the coast, creating a digital drawing that tracks the British tides and can be sped up or paused by visitors. She worked with a travelling foundry to cast a bell at the autumn equinox on the beach at Porthcurno. Wigley’s film captures the physical, fiery process of creation. The bell hangs quietly on a simple scaffold at Somerset House in a room where the walls are lined with the names of British tidal points. It looks like a roll call of honour or memorial. The bell will be rung in Somerset House, every day at the time of high tide on the Thames, whether the building is open to the public or not.
What particularly struck me was the sensitive use of the Somerset House spaces. A simple boardwalk snakes through the rooms. The structures of existing paneling, alcoves and plaster damage have been used to frame the different projections and word pieces. It feels like the walls have melted at the quiet pressure of an external watery world – a sentiment that seems worryingly prescient in the light of these works dwelling on the vulnerability of our coastline. ‘A broken vessel of rock, bird and grass. The dream of a cliff released out to sea.’