Landscape is at the heart of Towner’s Collection, which dates back to a bequest by Alderman Towner in 1920 of twenty-two paintings and £6,000 to create ‘an art gallery for the people’ in Eastbourne. The bequest was primarily paintings of landscapes by popular artists of the time. As with many UK institutions established by philanthropic donation towards the turn of the last century, we were left with a fantastic legacy. But how do we continue to build on that vision to be an art gallery that contributes to people’s lives, and acquire major works by contemporary artists that keep our collections breathing?
Museums like Towner operate on such limited funding. National public funding cuts and the particular pressure that local authorities are now under means that the challenges facing regional museums have become greater. We have no acquisitions budget. We sometimes take funding from an exhibition budget to commission an artist to make new work that may then come into our collection. Other than that we depended entirely on the generosity of funders, and in particular the support of the Contemporary Art Society and the Art Fund has been instrumental for us.
And yet at this moment it seems more important than ever to look outwards towards the world, to be ambitious in terms of how we think about our programme and role in our community, to start conversations between our audiences, art and society, and acquire and show art that is inclusive, diverse and original.
In 2007 Towner was one of five organisations to be awarded the Art Fund International prize to purchase international contemporary art. An international subject theme was developed with a focus around ‘the edge in landscape’; works that explore the land and sea, urban and natural environments, and natural or constructed frontiers. This theme remains central to our collections policy and more recent acquisitions have introduced new ways to consider the ‘edge in landscape’, engaging with ideas such as territory and migration, the technological mediation of landscape, and the relationship between landscape, ritual and performance.
Ten years on, when the call to make an application for the Contemporary Art Society Collections Fund at Frieze was announced we felt it was an opportunity to push further in our engagement with ideas of landscape that is so central to the story of Towner. Our location on the southern coastline of England, along the constantly changing boundary between land and sea, seemed a significant vantage point to look outwards and think about the interrelationship between the local and the global. In particular, to consider the complex relationship between the natural world and the human systems of trade, colonisation and their effects on the environment, culture and identity.
Our current exhibition, ‘A Green and Pleasant Land: British Landscape and the Imagination: 1970s to Now’ focuses on how artists have interpreted the British landscape through the lens of their own cultural, political or spiritual principles. It explores how these diverse approaches shape our understanding of the land we live on, its relationship to identity, place, time, and to the politics of land and its representation. This includes Ben Rivers’ Ah Liberty! (2008), a cinematic portrait exploring wilderness environments and self-contained family working and playing in the remote Scottish highlands. Combining documentary and fiction Ah Liberty! it captures an untamed sense of freedom. But there is a shadow side to this idyll and sense of deep foreboding. There is no particular story; no beginning, middle or end, just fragments of lives lived and rituals performed. A different approach is offered by Donovan Wylie, who photographed the borderland watchtowers in Northern Ireland, creating a systematic survey of the towers, their positions and perspectives within the landscape. They mark the site of conflict, define a military frontline and are a component of the architecture of war which in turn, also become a representation of that war. The towers were finally demolished between 2003 and 2007 as part of the British government’s demilitarization programme for Northern Ireland. The materials of the towners were then moved to Afghanistan so they reappear in another area of conflict.
At Frieze London 2017, the Towner acquired Dineo Seshee Bopape’s Sedibeng, it comes with the rain (2016) via the Contemporary Arts Society Collections Fund at Frieze. Find out more about the acquisition here and scroll through for Brian Cass’s examples of more works from the Towner’s rich collection that explore the ‘the edge in landscape’ in other unexpected ways.
‘A Green and Pleasant Land’ is on view at the Towner, Eastbourne, until 18th January, 2018
Main image: documentation of Jessica Warboys making Sea Painting, Birling Gap. Courtesy: the artist
Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, 2011
Towner holds the largest public collection of works by the English painter Eric Ravilious. His works in our collection reveal his fascination with the ‘pure design’ of the South Downs – a fascination that gave rise to his passion for aerial landscapes that eventually lead him northwards to Iceland where he disappeared on a rescue flight during the Second World War.
Omer Fast’s 5,000 Feet is the Best (2011) is a film about drone warfare and specifically about the pilots who operate these machines. It takes the form of aerial journeys over pastoral and suburban landscapes intercut with re-enactments of the interview the artist conducted with a former drone operator.
The eerie effect of Fast’s work is the way it uncannily brings drone vision close to home, enabling us to visualize events taking place in landscapes we have no direct access to, while the consequences of killing at a distance remain hidden. In the context of Towner’s Collection it also reveals how our perception of landscape has changed from pastoral scenes, topographical records and romantic heights to the all-pervasive but flattening vantage point of a drone pilot’s perspective. This change in how we perceive landscape, with landscape increasingly being mediated through technology, will be the focus of an exhibition exploring altitude in art at Towner next summer.
Yael Bartana, Summer Camp, 2007
Yael Bartana’s stylised documentary Summer Camp (2007) is a powerful, complex twin-screen work which plays with time, mirroring and music to ambiguously interpret Israeli politics and the early ambitions of the kibbutz. The film documents the work of the summer camp co-ordinated by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions in 2006, in which Palestinians, Israelis and other nationalities worked together to rebuild a house destroyed by the Israeli Authorities as part of its withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. The work presents this heroic but ultimately futile example of co-operation and dissent interspersed with audio-visual footage Zionist propaganda films from the 1930 and 40s. It explores the conflicting rationales of nationhood and territorial ownership that define the contested borders of that land.
Isaac Julien, Ten Thousand Waves, 2011
Towner’s location beside the sea and the cockle-picking taking place along the southern coast is a constant reminder of the tragedy that lies at the heart of Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves (2010). Originally inspired by the death of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers who drowned in the high tides of Morecambe Bay, Julien’s multi screen film installation explores representations of territory, migration and contemporary labour. Looping seamlessly around this central tragedy, the film travels back to China following ideas surrounding death, spiritual displacement, and the uniquely Chinese connection with 'ghosts' or 'lost souls'. It weaves together stories linking China’s past and present exploring the nations transition towards modernity, aspiration and affluence.
The film is a remarkable example of how art can contribute to thinking politically, using landscapes as a means to decode a culture’s values at particular times, and as a source of images for the grouping gap between the power of capital and ‘the wretched of the earth.’
Jessica Warboys, Sea Painting, Birling Gap, 2017
Last year we commissioned Jessica Warboys to make a large scape ‘Sea Painting’ for our collection. Made at an enclosed beach set below white chalk cliffs, near Eastbourne, Warboys created the painting by casting and rubbing pigment onto swathes of raw canvas that are submerged and pulled from the sea. The process is closely linked to performance, the ‘painted’ canvas revealing the action of making and the contingencies of that specific time and place - the wind, waves, rocks and tidal sea-pools that disperse and drag the pigment into the creases and pores of the canvas. The resulting work functions as a record of her collaboration with the landscape.
These ‘Sea Paintings’ are central to Warboy’s work, existing at the crossroads of ritual, performance, improvisation and artistic process. It is an approach to making that seeks to manifest the physical and psychic dynamics that give a landscape its shape and meaning. This work is the starting point for an solo exhibition later this year, the large canvas acting as a vista within which she will re-orientates new and existing films, sculptures and painting.