As soon as I saw the option of a placement at Littoral Arts’ Merz Barn project in Cumbria I could think of nowhere else I’d rather go. Being a regular visitor to Langdale, the valley at the heart of the Lake District where the Merz Barn is situated, I had always been intrigued by what was behind the gates to the site, but never sure if I could go in and find out more. Working there revealed a completely unique environment, which constantly inspires artists, writers, curators and many others from all over the world.
What brings these people together is German artist Kurt Schwitters, who created the last in his series of ‘Merzbau’ in Langdale in 1947. These were immersive sculptural spaces built directly into the buildings that housed them, starting with his home and studio in Hanover. The work itself has since been moved to the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle, but the barn still stands today. Following a public fundraising campaign, the Littoral Arts Trust, run by Ian Hunter and Celia Larner, bought the site in 2006, and set about restoring its buildings to create a small gallery space and accommodation. However, despite large amounts of public interest and Ian and Celia’s enduring enthusiasm for the project, they have only ever received short term funding, and are still unable to realise their long-term vision of a museum, residency and research centre at the site.
Our main placement task involved developing an exhibition plan for a ‘Merz Barn in Context’ project, which we then pitched to Tony Trehy, director of Bury Art Museum, where the exhibition is likely to be held in 2018. This involved researching the work of Schwitters and his time in the Lake District in particular, which revealed a fascinating character, alongside a rich portfolio of work. Schwitters had been marked a ‘degenerate artist’ by the Nazis, and fled Germany before World War II, moving first to Norway, then Britain. Accounts of his time in the Lake District describe an eccentric personality; he would be seen collecting materials for his collages on walks round his home in Ambleside, reciting poetry in the local pubs, and earning a living selling landscapes to tourists.
Staying on site was perhaps the most memorable part of the placement; my temporary home there was a static caravan complete with 70s décor and occasionally leaky ceiling! This seemed a small price to pay for the chance to work in the beautiful woodland environment of the site, and being able to walk round the surrounding countryside at the end of the day. The rural setting bought with it several encounters with local wildlife too, and we were kept entertained by wandering sheep and chickens, occasional deer sightings, and even having to rescue a frog from the gallery one morning.
What stands out too, is the huge number of people who have been inspired by this place. During my stay I met several artists and writers developing work about Schwitters, and constantly found new traces of artists and art students who had left behind work there. Just looking at the fridge in the communal kitchen, which is covered in written messages of support for the project, shows the amount of people who have visited over the years. Despite issues of lack of funding, there is no doubt the Merz Barn is of great importance to countless numbers of people, and I’m sure will continue to inspire people for many years to come.