Rows of straw bales occupy a corner of the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s central quad. Lined up like the soldiers who once marched through this former military hospital, the bales are planted with courgette plants. A persistent wind flicks bits of straw around the cobbles and spreads that distinctive farmyard smell, the result of the straw being fermented to make it fertile, a process that involves dousing it with water and some form of nitrate, such as urine.
A bright orange billboard pinned to a nearby fence advertises ‘A FAIR LAND’, in the style of a village fete. It reads: A COURGETTE BASED ECONOMY; EVERYONE USES ART. A couple of women with baskets appear to harvest the courgette flowers and fruit, in preparation for lunch. They both wear white aprons printed with coloured patterns made from cut vegetables: a potato, a courgette. Their baskets are neat but homemade, containers made from cheap oak flooring and nails. Flipped over, the baskets become stools to sit on at the lunch table. They can also become table legs, trays or shelving systems.
Running from 12 to 28 August, A Fair Land was a theatrical version of a model village, an imaginary system of living devised by Grizedale Arts, an arts organisation based in the Lake District where creative thinking is infused into the basics of life. Every action undertaken by artists at Grizedale has some use value. Liam Gillick designed shelves for the library in their local village; during residences artists are at work in the garden by nine in the morning. In A Fair Land participants control every aspect of their lives. They grow and make their own food, clothes, crockery, furniture, houses, economy, and schools. It’s a domestic revolution undertaken with wit and a wry smile, where flower arranging, cutlery and table manners can become radical acts of self-determination. The ideas link back to the Easter Rising of 1916 – of which this project forms part of the centenary celebrations – when artists influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century rejected industrialization in favour of a more creative society. World War I saw such ideals sink beneath a mass of bodies and Maxim machine guns.
At IMMA, harvested courgettes are transferred to a cold kitchen, which has a cantilevered roof made from straw bales and supporting steel ladders. Kitchen units are made from recycled plastic. The building, designed by design practice public works and artist Karen Guthrie, looks like a straw stack with its base cut out. It appears precarious, with a great weight of bales hanging in mid-air, but in reality it’s solid, with thick walls and an elaborate steel support structure hidden within. Large pots for fermenting kimchi and pickles are strung from the ceiling.
Lunch is supervised with strict precision by Grizedale’s director Adam Sutherland, and there are rules: food is served sharply at one o’clock with each course lasting for exactly 20 minutes – servers move in silence around the table. It ends at two o’clock and coffee is banned. There’s a list of etiquette rules taken from actual signs around the world: ‘when you see it needs doing – do it now and do not undertake performance conversations to show yourself off.’
The food is entirely courgette based, served in homemade clay bowls which have been moulded from pumpkins. Courgette soup with courgette pickles is followed by courgette risotto; for dessert, a delicious deep fried courgette flower is sprinkled with sugar. Served in the museum’s quad, all the activity gives the usually serene square the chaos and bustle of a lively community. Children make aprons, pickles, slippers and bowls at a series of making stations, where each simple, functional object can be assembled in less than 15 minutes. At one point, a wedding party wanders through, with their guests – a moving mass of pinks, florals and white – appearing more bemused than amused. Isn’t this supposed to a museum, not a farmyard? There’s a feeling that Grizedale might be lowering the tone. A reverential art crowd reduced to a squabbling mass that eat, laugh, gossip and make a mess.
In A Fair Land, German artist Jonathan Meese appears long-haired and wild-eyed, dressed head-to-toe in a black Adidas tracksuit, his mother alongside him, to preach about the totality of art, John Boorman’s cult film Zardoz (1974), compost and the importance of not voting. In the end, he believes, every action will become art. He yells at the audience until his mum tells him to stop.
American artist Suzanne Lacy runs a ‘School for Revolutionary Girls’, in which 25 teenage girls will be put through ‘consciousness raising exercises’ that prepare each of them to make public statements at the end of the week. With the course drawing once more from the 1916 uprisings, which advocated a more empowered role for women in society, the performances are expected to explore women’s lives, then and now. The girls look at how women played an important role in the 1916 Rising, and how this linked to the Suffragette movement. There will be questions about body image, equal pay and solidarity with other women. The debate about women’s autonomy over their own bodies will be discussed – in a country where abortion is still illegal.
Self-improvement and the body comes into afternoon activities, when a 'Creative Fitness' exercise video by Marcus Coates is played in a corner of the quad, after lunch. Following a series of wrist throws, leg balances and jumps, the audience/participants end up nose down in the cobbles for a final move that takes them from horizontal to standing with one swift leap. Educated, fed and exercised, the crowd scatters, with a few self-conscious sniggers. As they make their way home, they might think a little differently about life and art. Grizedale’s project is engaging, uplifting and amusing. It brings us a little closer to our choices, to question rather than accept the decisions made for us by politicians. Like the Easter Rising, it’s an attempt to make the world different, to take control. That it may not be achievable on a grand scale is not important, because that’s no reason not to keep trying.
Main image: Glut, 2016. A crop of courgettes being grown in straw bales in the courtyard at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin for A Fair Land by Grizedale Arts. Photograph: Emily O'Callaghan