Ayscoughfee Hall, Spalding
East England

Working in the real world as an artist, particularly when public engagement is a central plank of your project is a challenging prospect at the best of times.  How do engage in a meaningful and pertinent manner? Mix in a series of interventions in a historic Museum house like Ayscoughfee Hall in Spalding and you’ve got an even bigger job on your hands.

Fi Burke has spent a substantial period of time researching the journey of wheat and flour from field to fork in the flat rural lands of Lincolnshire. She has visited dozens of windmills and other historic sites.  She has been meeting, talking to and working with people from all generations, to glean facts and information about the world of bread production, past and present. A basic, in our diet for many centuries. The challenge for any artist is how to elevate this beyond  ‘dry’ educational research, that simply spews up history with little more panache than an enthusiastic and well-meaning primary School teacher.  How do we translate research into an interesting subject into something visually enticing or even profound for the viewer?

It takes a particular hybrid of skill sets to achieve this and Fi Burke has deployed these well at Ayscoughfee Hall. Firstly she utilizes her ability to communicate and explore ideas with people and then she choreographs these into  considered artworks. This is evident in her piece ‘Community garden of wisdom’, where phrases and proverbs are written on lolly sticks and planted in grain waste, in flower plots.  This is an approachable, tangible and likeable collaborative piece. This piece is sited inside a glass vitrine and intertwines well with other more classic museum objects. Adjacent to this, another glass case contains a sequence hardened lumps of salt dough with squished hand prints defining their forms.  Each one embodies a sense of work via the force of the squeeze mark. They act as indexical signs of the many lives and the sheer graft of working in the Milling industry.

In addition to these public collaborations, Fi has installed her own pieces throughout the Museum. Upstairs on the Balcony are a series of prints of historic watercolours of the Lincolnshire Landscape. Adjacent to each of these are placed digitally manipulated lens based image of the same sites as revisited by Fi this year.  These set up an intriguing discourse between the landscape then and the evolving landscape of today.  The rich ‘pushed’ colours set up an uncanny sense of displacement which is highly charged and begs questions over the continued sentimental construct of the rural.

Other works include a set of printed flour sack canvas forms, with stencilled on historic flour milling statistics. These bring in a strong sense of utility into the space. This juxtaposes well with the elegant ornamentation of the house. This matter of fact block text sets up a delightful reference to the gap between the moneyed and the working classes in yesteryears rural domain. But to quote from ‘Won’t get fooled again’ by ‘The Who’. ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss’.  This imbalance between those working in agriculture and those running agriculture is arguably ever present in the flatlands today.

Fi Burke has managed to juggle this cocktail of research, collaboration and dynamic art to the ‘nth degree’. But she saves the best to last. In a subterranean space viewable only by a window she has installed an absolutely stunning installation. A field of hand-made fabric windmills stand in immaculate rows set in a gravel base. The result is redolent of a World War Military cemetery. The piece harnesses this emotive force with a clear reference to the bread baskets of England and the sheer work and sacrifice made by the rural communities.  This work is both considered and captivating. I have followed this project from its inception to its final execution and it is a delight to see it carried off with research translated into tight resolution.  This is a great example of what can be done when research is pushed forward into practice beyond mere illustration. Well done indeed.

The exhibition runs from October 8th to December 14th, 2014.
Wednesday – Sunday between 10.30am and 4pm.