VIVID: Steve Messam under the art, created in a leadmining hush above Bowlees
VIVID: Steve Messam under the art, created in a leadmining hush above Bowlees

A MAJOR art installation in the upper dale created a social media storm before it was even opened to the public last week.

But a few days later, Hush was making headlines across the globe – from China to Germany – with fans saying the artwork had put Newbiggin on the map.

Produced by internationally-recognised installation artist Steve Messam, Hush is a series of gigantic saffron sails hung along a deep gorge cut into the landscape near Newbiggin. Bales Hush was created when lead miners flushed water down the side of the fell to wash away the soil to expose the minerals below. The artwork over it was commissioned by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with £36,000 worth of funding from the Arts Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. But some people questioned the merit of the work within minutes of photographs being posted on Facebook.

Jo van Kampen, an animal portrait artist from Barnard Castle, said: “I don’t agree this is art. This is the emperor’s new clothes blowing in the wind. I dream of Lottery funding for real proper talented artists. We should go to somewhere highly visible and hang some laundry to dry on a few washing lines, and set up a stall selling real decent art.”

Others likened the installation to “multiple washing lines for the Tour de France crew” and “the aftermath of a travellers’ camp”.

Bowes artist Andy Beck said: “As a professional artist for over 30 years I accept that there is other types of art which I do not ‘get’ but I am happy to go and have a look to actually form my own opinion before openly debating what is art and what isn’t, or the merits of this installation.”

He posted a number of photographs of a saffron sail in front of iconic dale scenes, such as The Bowes Museum to the social media site. Mr Beck described them as “satire”.

The installation was launched for a media briefing on Thursday ahead of the public opening.

Asked about the criticism Mr Messam said: “It is important to do art out in the public arena so people can feel able to come up and not like it, and walk away. It is absolutely fine and nobody is judging them.

“You can come up with friends and some of them will like it and some of them won't, and they will discuss it and they will still be friends. I wish the rest of the world could be like that as well.”

The artist, who previously worked as a photographer, said he had already “clocked” Bales Hush as a feature before being approach by the AONB to create something about geology. He lives only two miles from the site and with help from the AONB began to research more about it.

He said: “I didn't know how to tell the difference between a beck and a hush. When you know what they are, you become fascinated. They would channel water from all over into dams and then knock the dam down. It is a simple way, but with a lot of effort. Something like this was done by six people and it might have taken decades. It's nuts.”

The installation is made entirely from propylene, including the sails and cables, making the entire artwork easily recycled once it is dismantled on August 4.

A substantial amount of engineering went into the creation of the artwork to ensure it can withstand the upper dale winds which can range between 25mph and 50mph, Mr Messam said.

Sculptor and stonewaller Ewan Allinson said: “Contemporary art is an easy target for cynical derision but I am confident that most locals will suspend their judgement and just go and see it for themselves.”

People who want to view the work can visit Bowlees Visitor Centre on any of the weekends of the installation where they can catch one of the minibuses that leave every half hour between 10am and 4pm. Alternatively maps are available for a scenic 1.8 mile walk from the centre to the artwork. Public viewing of the installation began from July 19 and will continue to be open until August 4.