Steve's mission to create great art outdoors
Middleton-in-Teesdale artist Steve Messam has made his name with big, bold outdoor instalations and last summer he made global headlines with The Hush in upper Teesdale. He speaks of art and what inspires him
How did you keep busy during the coronavirus lockdown, and how did the restrictions impact on your plans?
It’s been a tricky year – I’m sure it’s been the same for thousands of artists. At the end of March we were about to start installing the first of a number of artworks in what would have been my largest exhibition to date.
But on the first day of installation the news broke that lockdown was happening so the decision was made to postpone the show. Within a week my entire year of work was cancelled or indefinitely postponed.
After a few weeks of probably panic, I settled down to resignation and busied myself with other things. While the loss of income has been painful and often tricky, in some ways I’ve enjoyed being able to do the things I never usually have time to do – walking, reading and more time listening to and making music.
You have done several installations in Teesdale including covering a barn in wool, projecting videos of the dale’s waterfalls onto the iconic white walls of Raby Estate buildings and the massive Hush installation – what is it about the dale that inspires you?
I’ve worked all over the world in some amazing locations. I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to work in places no other artist has ever done and had access to historic buildings the public never get the chance to go to normally, but on the rare occasions I’ve been able to work on my doorstep and in the landscape I know best, it’s always a privilege.
The pieces I do here are inevitably a bit special because it’s where I live, and why wouldn’t I make them that bit special. But it’s also the people – you have a different relationship with the people you live among which makes it easier to be more adventurous. I don’t think I could have done any of those projects anywhere else because of that.
Which is the favourite installation you have done, and which has been the most challenging?
Artworks are like children I guess – I’m not supposed to have a favourite. For lots of reasons I’m usually most proud of whichever one I’ve done most recently. At the moment that would be Apollo – a series of giant textile forms on Victor Pasmore’s pavilion on the Sunny Blunts estate in Peterlee that I did in September 2019 (yes, it’s been over a year since I last made a big piece).
For its 50th anniversary I transformed it for a weekend with four large inflatable blocks that hugged and encased the concrete structure of the brutalist masterpiece. At night the forms glowed a vibrant orange, bathing the spaces inside the building with colour. We had four days of glorious wall-to-wall sunshine that really made the colour pop during the day, with deep blue and purple skies in the evenings.
It was such a colourful transformation.
On the final day we had rain in the evening and the lights reflected on the wet surfaces of the pavilion so it became almost magical inside. I also loved the way the piece brought people to the pavilion who wouldn’t normally go there, along with people from the estate who had mixed feelings about the concrete pavilion normally, and everyone just hung around and chatted to each other. It was a really welcoming atmosphere.
That’s the bit I like about my larger pieces – I love seeing how the public enjoy them. It was the same at Hush and Waterfall too. The people become part of the whole experience of being there.
The most challenging pieces are always the ones I’m working on next. Mostly because I start off not knowing how to make them, but also because I like to keep pushing the limits of what is possible. Most of my pieces look really simple, but they rarely are.
Making them look simple takes a lot of time and there’s usually weeks or months of testing and engineering to make that happen. Working outside means they have to be built to withstand anything the weather decides to throw at them.
On top of that, with the numbers of visitors that come and see them we have to make sure they are safe and secure and meet all the rules and regulations without making any compromises on the overall experience. One of the pieces we’re hoping to reschedule next year has taken over a year to get right, and we’re still working on it.
How did you become involved in installation art?
I kind of fell into it. It was never an ambition. I guess the starting point was an exhibition of portraits of pop stars from the past I did in record shops when I was a music photographer in Glasgow.
I printed them the same size as 12” vinyl records and displayed them in the windows in those little clear plastic sleeves record shops used to put their vinyl in. At night the windows were lit so people – music lovers who went to the record shops anyway – would gather round them at all hours to look at the pictures and read the interviews.
I liked the way it spoke to that audience in a way they could connect with it and as a result it was seen by far more people than I would ever had got in a gallery. After I moved south to Cumbria, I developed those ideas and gradually moved away from photography and started using what we have most here – lots of outdoors.
For a few years I also ran a festival of outdoor installation art across Cumbria, working in up to 60 locations across the county every year. That was a huge learning curve, but it also built my passion for exploring the potential of contemporary art in rural environments.
Which other installation artist do you admire, and what is it about their work that impresses you?
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were undoubtedly the masters of the really large scale art installation.
Sadly Christo passed away earlier this year, but they leave behind a legacy of truly great pieces. My Hush installation I’m quite sure was me exorcising my inner Christo, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Their works were immense and audacious – from wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin in silver fabric to a white fabric fence 15ft high and running over 25 miles of hill farms in California. They were pretty much the first artists to create work on such a scale.
What was even more impressive for me was the way they realised these projects. At that scale they cost millions each, but every single one was paid for by the artists themselves and financed entirely by the sale of their preparatory sketches and artworks. I was lucky enough to speak with Jeanne-Claude a few times before she died ten years ago. Always abrupt and no nonsense, she was the driving force behind the realisation of their creations, but always had time to speak to me just starting out.
Their last piece, the wrapping of the Arc de Triumph in Paris, has been postponed until next year now, but I already have my train tickets – this will be the last chance to ever see work like this.
What projects do you have in the pipeline?
Besides a year’s worth of projects currently on hold, I’ve been making a start on a couple of personal projects.
It’s been refreshing to create work for myself. I usually only work to commission which is a very different way of working. The biggest one of these projects looks at redundant and ruined buildings and how they tell the story of how the landscape has been shaped by people over the centuries.
For this project I’m transforming a range of structures in the landscape and turning them into temporary follies for a day.
These are generally unremarkable buildings, but are still an essential part of the character of the landscape in Teesdale and Weardale. As they’re not commissioned I don’t need to publicise them of confine myself to certain timescale, so I can pick the days when the weather is right for the piece. The pieces are then photographed and filmed for a future exhibition. I’ve done the first two this summer already and I’m looking to do another two later this year. As these are just a personal project at the moment I’m self-funding it through print sales on my website (something else I’d never done until this year).
This seems to be working at the moment for these sized pieces, but I’m also talking to other organisations to help realise some larger ones and maybe make them public events so other people can come along and see them for real.
What do you think people look for in art, and what makes good art?
I think everybody looks for something different in art - and that’s what makes it diverse and interesting. Personally I think there’s art and there’s great art and I’m always striving towards great art. For me it’s not so much about being a pretty picture – that can be, and frequently is, a bit shallow on its own. Good art is about having something to say – it has a reason for existing. Whereas great art is art that really matters.
Visit www.stevemessam.co.uk to see more of Steve’s work. Prints and the ‘Hush’ photo essay book are all available in the online shop.