A few weeks ago a friend called from San Francisco with a question. “I’m visiting London with my mother soon and we want to take a day trip into the country. Any ideas for where we can go without having to drive?” I know they’re both interested in contemporary art, so Hauser & Wirth immediately came to mind.
Hauser & Wirth Co-founders Iwan Wirth and Ursula Hauser recently established a brand-new outpost for their collection of galleries nestled in the green pastures of Somerset. Seems like an odd choice on first thought with the vast majority of art establishments firmly ensconced within urban centers. But no one ever had any success in the art world by doing what’s expected. So in a business where contrarian thinking can often garner spectacular results, this is worth checking out. I suggested that my friend and her mom take the train to Hauser & Wirth in the small town of Bruton, about an hour and a half west of London.
Hauser & Wirth, Somerset is not a gallery in the conventional sense. It’s a new kind of art experience combining education, conservation, sustainability, shopping, dining, performance and accommodation, centered around a beautiful rural gallery space and all set within a classic-English-pastoral landscape.
So what are the chances this is going to work? Well, the numbers speak for themselves. Since opening in July 2014, there has been a steady stream of visitors from near and far. I planned my trip on a Tuesday thinking I would have the run of the place. No such luck. Even on a cold and grey winter’s day the galleries were bustling and the dining room was fully booked. On weekends there are many more visitors.
From the start Hauser & Wirth placed a strong emphasis of reaching out to the community. Children from local schools visit often, there are family Saturdays, lectures, DJ Fridays and many more events occurring year round. All this adds up to a great place both for the community and city dwellers on a day-trip, like us.
The foundation of the complex is the original historic buildings of the Durslade Farm. When you first enter through the main courtyard you are greeted by a collection of sculptures. On the day of our visit, to the right was a large Paul McCarthy sculpture and to the left a massive milking pail by Subodh Gupta.
At the far end of the courtyard sits a wonderful 18th century farmhouse adorned with a Martin Creed light installation announcing to all visitors “everything is going to be alright”.
The Parisian architects Laplace restored the derelict stables, cow sheds and threshing barns, and linked them with a new structure containing galleries, with space more suitable to larger scale work. The existing buildings are often left with the original stone walls and roof beams exposed, set in contrast to large expanses of glass, where barn doors used to stand, directing the view outside.
The gardens are equally interesting, designed by Dutch garden architect Piet Oudolf whose signature planting schemes you will also find on New York’s Highline elevated urban park. We are visiting in winter when gardens do not typically show their best face, but I find Oudolf’s planting beautiful even when ostensibly barren. There is a poetry and beauty in the plants just carrying seeds and grass turning yellow and bearing the scars of winter. Grass circles lend a graphic element to the center of the garden which changes in character with each season.
Offsetting a cold and grey winter day was Pipilotti Rist’s lovely video shot on the farm during the previous summer. To produce the work Swiss-based Rist took up residency on the farm with her son in tow. Projected on three large walls of the gallery, the images speak of a warm lazy summer’s day. People look on, sitting on the gallery floor strewn with sheep skins, as if still grazing in a field.
After touring the gardens and galleries we visit the restaurant located in the farm’s former cow shed. Roth Bar and Grill is run by husband and wife team Julia and Steve Horell. It is a mixing space where people arriving with different agendas all end up together. I think this is the lynch pin of the whole place and the main reason the complex works so well. People come for the art and stay for the food. And conversely, people with little interest in art, stop in for a bite and can’t help but share their sense of enchantment. In each case everyone is engaged and enjoying the experience.
The walls of the dining room are adorned with tightly packed works by artists of the Hauser & Wirth family. Large vibrant neon chandeliers by the late Jason Rhodes cast a multi-colored glow over the room.
Steve serves a simple, honest, seasonal menu with local produce, usually sourced within a 5 mile radius. We tried 1/2 Woolly Park Farm Chicken with lemon mayonnaise which was lovely. I can really recommend it – but I am a sucker for the simple things. Nothing beats homemade bread and butter. Steve makes his own, and it is excellent.
After lunch we checked out the farmhouse. If you can’t get enough in one day, why not stay over at the farmhouse. It has six rooms and can sleep up to 12 people. The house is an artwork in its deconstruction executed through a collaboration between Laplace and conservation architects Benjamin & Beauchamp. The team set about excavating the house’s history, revealing the traces of the families that have lived there since the 1700s.
Walls have been peeled exposing their various paint layers. Temporary walls from the 20th century have been reinforced and put to new use, and furnishings have been found in local thrift stores and flea markets to keep the spaces grounded in local character.
One area has been used as an installation space for a recent artist in residence. Hauser & Wirth gave one of their famously open briefs, asking Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca to create something in the dining room during his five week residency. He started painting on one of the walls and gradually it expanded to encompass the whole room, floor to ceiling. With nowhere else to go the project came to a natural end. Along with the five green glasses we found on the table when we arrived, it seemed like a complete piece of art.
All through the house you see old and new in beautiful tension: It really is an inspirational place, a living art space. As the day drew a close we made the short walk back to the tiny Bruton train station, and headed back to the big city.
< More fascinating vacation destinations await. Let’s go.