Flights of Fancy at Tatton Park Biennial, Cheshire

The human urge to reach for the impossible and aeronautical innovation are the twin sources of inspiration behind Flights of Fancy, Tatton Park’s third biennial of contemporary art. Biennial curators Danielle Arnaud and Jordan Kaplan of Parabola have invited artists and writers to respond to the themes in the context of the National Trust’s Tatton Park in Cheshire, using the Park, Gardens and Mansion to display their works. Aesthetica caught up with the curators to find out more.

BR: Why is Tatton Park Biennal important? How will it stand out on the Biennal circuit?

DA & JK: Tatton Park Biennial is the only biennial in the UK that takes its thematic inspirations from its host site, which comprises a Grade I listed Georgian Mansion, its surrounding pleasure gardens and a 1,000-acre deer park in rural Cheshire. All of the works are commissioned: artists are given a national platform to present new rather than existing work and while this is a great opportunity, it does throw up issues for a site that is owned by the National Trust, managed by Cheshire East Council and is listed down to its lawns and ponds!

Each edition of the Biennial carries with it a curatorial theme that new commissions are expected to acknowledge. Some artists develop work that fits snugly into the theme, while others respond with proposals that tangentially (at best!) address our brief. It is a balancing act, and we are at pains to see work produced that can stand on its own rather than sit as an illustrative tool.

The Biennial is a tightly curated event – it has to be as many of our visitors are not regular contemporary art goers and need to find a way in to the work. We have always been at pains to commission artists from a range of backgrounds to create work that challenges and surprises audiences, and to do this in a way that doesn’t alienate our visitors, we develop a strong curatorial rationale, with outreach work, signage, guides and audio tours that can discuss complex work and its inspirations in a manner that welcomes (rather than repels) new audiences.

BR: How has the event developed since the inaugural year in 2008?

DA & JK: We were selected as curators in 2007 to deliver the 2008 Biennial with less than a year to go before the opening. We were full of enthusiasm and artistic vision, but didn’t know what we were doing within the organisation (to be honest, the organisation didn’t really know either). 2008 was a real baptism of fire, with toes stepped on left and right as the Biennial appeared and TattonPark was asked to make room for it. Some remarkable pieces were made – Heather & Ivan Morisons’ Escape Vehicle Number 4, Nicky Coutts’ pagoda made of sheds stacked one on the other and David Blandy’s appearances as his Barefoot Pilgrim were all highlights, but it was hard going for just two curators (who are based in London!). By 2010, we knew Tatton and, critically, Tatton staff and volunteers, much better and were able to commission work with a deeper knowledge of what was possible within the heavily listed site. This meant we could focus on building stronger relationships with arts organisations, working on small-scale partnerships and shared events. The 2012 edition of the Biennial is by far the most ambitious – we have worked for nearly two years developing meaningful partnerships, thematically engaged artists’ proposals and, really critically, the funding to deliver large-scale commissions that carry artistic integrity.

BR: How crucial is the location? Have you chosen work that actively responds to the architecture and landscape?

DA & JK: The location is critical to the Biennial – the artists we commission need to engage with the site and we have never undertaken work with an artist unless they have visited the site prior to proposal

The theme changes for each edition, and this is what links the works to one another and the site, as the themes are careful to take in (but not be driven down by) the history of the site. So, while some commissions respond to the landscape or the architecture, they will do so with an acknowledgement of the Biennial theme; others will be responsive to an idea or site-specific narrative, but this will always be considered in the formal terms of the site in which the work exits.

BR: What are the thematic strands?

DA & JK: In 2012, over twenty new commissions will be presented in the Mansion, Gardens and Parkland. Flights of Fancy is the third edition of the Biennial – it considers the human urge to fly, to accomplish the impossible in fragile times. Its artists are considering the impact of experimentation on delicate eco-systems, looking backward and forward for guidance, wisdom and/or humour. Their proposed results are experiments in time, space and imagination.

BR: Juneau Projects have been commissioned to create Gleaners of the Infocalypse for the Biennal. How does this project fit in with the overall aims of the Biennal?

DA & JK: Juneau Projects have worked for the past year to develop a body of work that addresses both the Flights of Fancy theme and their own artistic practice. Gleaners of the Infocalypse comprises the hand-painted tail section of a BAe 146-200, taken over as a studio and “hide”. The result of an undefined event in which the pair now live as feral wildlife artists, the work is presented as a stage set fantasy about what life could be like in the aftermath of a technology-driven disaster. Referencing both Millet’s 1857The Gleaners and Sci-fi author Neal Stephenson’s contraction of “information” and “apocalypse”, the work explores the nature of Cargo Cults and asks questions about just how technologically savvy our society really is.

BR: Could you talk us through some of the other programme highlights?

DA & JK: There are over twenty new works at Flights of Fancy: Tom Dale has produced a “culture bomb” with a 1950s Thunderbird rocket; Simon Faithfull has filmed in Manchester Airport’s fire simulator to create a new film considering the travails of the contemporary traveller; Ultimate Holding Company have delivered a work based on the relationships between Dame Barbara Cartland, The “Colditz Cock” and British politics of the 1990s; David Cotterrell has worked with Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics to deliver a planetarium that translates radio waves into a visual spectrum and French artist Olivier Grossetête has created an 18-m long suspension bridge that is held aloft by three enormous helium-filled balloons.

BR: How can local artists get involved with the Biennal?

DA & JK: Since 2010, we have run two Open Competitions for each Biennial: one is open to artists living or working within the North West, and the other is open to artists originally from Cheshire who have completed formal education within the past five years. One of the artists we commissioned in 2010 (Austin Houldsworth, who trained at the RCA and is from Congleton) has been invited back in 2012 to deliver part of Contact, the Biennial’s outreach programme and we’ve also started working in collaboration with the local authority to develop a commission that brings the Biennial to local people.

Sound good? Tatton Park Biennial 2012: Flights of Fancy, 12-05-2012 until 30-09-2012, Tatton Park, Knutsford, Chesire, WA16 6QN.

1. Brass Art Trine Messenger
2. Ultimate Holding Company The Cartland Institute for Romance Research
3. Jem Finer ¡Arriba!
4. Juneau Projects Gleaners of the Infocalypse
Photography: Thierry Bal

Text: Bethany Rex