- Arnolfini, Bristol
- South West England
‘The Slow Violence of the Earth’: A Weekend at Hotel Palenque with OSR Projects
A low indistinct hum. Gates unhinged. Tyres, stacked. Discarded. An unruly pyramid. Corrugated steel columns. Humming growing louder.
‘A Weekend at Hotel Palenque’, a takeover of the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol by Somerset-based, artist-led OSR Projects, is a clamour of assemblages; an intervention of contemporary rurality in the midst of the city. The exhibition takes its name from the influential sculptor and land artist Robert Smithson, and his concept of ‘dearchitecturalisation,’ a term related to his explorations of the haphazard architecture of the Hotel Palenque in Eastern Mexico in the late 60’s, which called for an unravelling of dominant modes of aesthetic representation and derivative ways of reading the world. ‘A Weekend at Hotel Palenque’ is an invitation to attune closer to everyday rurality, beyond the pristine and romanticised images still peddled by tourist boards and middle England. The OSR artists invite us to look at what is hidden in rural edgelands, rather than the Gainsborough-inflected nostalgia for a perfect past that never truly existed in the contested rural landscapes of England. All three artists — Sam Jukes, Andy Parker and Simon Lee Dicker — revel in the mundane everydayness of contemporary rural life; its ongoingness. These works seem to disenchant and desentimentalise modern rurality, whilst drawing us closer to the lived reality of spaces often fleetingly passed through on the way to the next town or city.
All three pieces seem to play on what proximity reveals whilst, in the spirit of Smithson, refusing to offer up a clear and easily packaged coherence of meaning. Each of Sam Jukes’ Sound Silos, made of corrugated steel and rivets fashioned into columns, can only be distinguished from the whole by putting your ear beside each column. Proximity matters here, you have to really listen close to try and discern the sounds. Yet just as you think you can make out telegraph lines buzzing, scattered bird song interrupts, before morphing into planes surging overhead and what could be the whirr of an industrial plough. When stepping away from each individual column the sounds blur into an indiscriminate, ever-so gradually rising whole. “That’s the sound of the countryside”, one of the OSR-crew tells me, in all its messy cacophony.
From a distance, the stacked gates of Andy Parker’s Sailing Equipped appear to be the ‘real deal’, as direct translation from their original rural context as Simon Lee Dicker’s unruly stacks of tyres which take up the centre of the space. Yet proximity here reveals artifice: they are sculpted from old cardboard boxes, taken from neighbours’ delivery items, as well as paper tape and household paint. Even the rope tied around a domestic gate is constructed from coloured carrier bags tightly woven to resemble bailing twine. The gates seem to ask: what happens when something is detached from its original purpose and context? What does it mean when a gate becomes unhinged, no longer something to enclose, or something to keep out? Yet the layers go further; these cardboard gates were never truly gates, made from containers of consumer goods which comprise a global network of trade through the likes of Amazon (the warehouses of which loom so troublingly on the edges of rural spaces and are variously gestured towards elsewhere in the exhibition).
Parker’s self-conscious attention to the artifice of these gates and the gallery context feels distinctly Brechtian, in the sense of revealing the seams of the artistic construct. That this work is situated within an urban gallery, and moreover, the part of the gallery which often hosts experimental theatre, adds a further dimension to this self-revealing artifice of meaning. There is intricate play at work here: Parker’s work is deeply interested by obsolete objects and what they reveal of the landscapes surrounding them: these gates gesture towards enclosure, and through the title of the work towards the nautical connections of the slave trade, with repurposed objects from ship-breaking becoming a big part of the Royal Navy’s suppression of the slave trade. As with so much of our rural landscape, the global is so often inextricably intertwined with the local. Yet Parker writes that one of the farmers working the current land warns him that the moving gates are ‘really rare’ and admonishes him not to ‘go off on a tangent about moving gateways and make this a theme of your exhibition in Bristol’. Yet Parker’s work refuses to be led down any one tangent, path or gate. This is work that feels anti-didactic, objects that are open to a multiplicity of meanings and readings with no single way through. The apparent simplicity of Parker’s physical intervention in the space — a stack of sculpted gates from repurposed materials— belies the complexity of ideas held here: it is work that is borne from an acute process of paying attention to the landscape in which he lives, as well as to people who work within it, and a refusal to neatly cohere to one way of looking at, say, an unhinged gate, no matter how tempting this may be.
The layout of the exhibition further plays on notions of concealment and proximity as a way to attune to rural landscape. In the final piece of the exhibition, Simon Lee Dicker’s The Flatlands, the screen showing his film is nestled beneath the other side of the discarded tyre stack that towers up to the ceiling as viewers first enter the space. The film itself is a sustained piece of deft and subtle irony, playfully gesturing towards our predisposition to mythologise rural landscapes— misty eyed narratives of Avebury, Stone Henge, Cerne Abbas etc — and yet here this romanticised language is torqued by the narrator into over-baked analysis of the contemporary rural landscape: gravel piles ‘resemble the peaked roofs of ancient roundhouses’, tyre stacks ‘often house an interior chamber’, skid marks in a country road become ‘sites of conscious performance and expression rather than unintentional reactionary manoeuvres’ which ‘reveal depictions of local flora and fauna, family portraits and maps’. The narrator’s voice and persona is detached and calm, living in a future moment recognisable to our own, and they seem to present as what could be an objective ‘art critic’ or ‘historian’, inhabiting a position outside the community they are describing. Their absurd and excessive search for meaning in the rural landscape seems to be mocking our too-easy objectification of rurality into pristine idylls or backdrops and routes to other places; areas to be photographed and visited and passed through but —god forbid!— lived in.
Dicker’s film in many ways echoes back towards Smithson’s frustration at the dominant modes of artistic critique, constantly searching for clear meaning that can be easily packaged up. ‘You think there is a centre and there is not’[i], Smithson said of the Hotel Palenque. And here, within Dicker’s film, the pastoral gaze — our centuries-long objectification of the rural landscape, neutralised in the aristocrat-inflected imaginaries of Gainsborough, Constable and their like — is carefully undermined. As the subtle irony of the narration builds, layers of images of the contemporary rural landscape stack on top of each other, creating another kind of assemblage, whilst Sam Jukes’ soundscapes reach deafening proportions from the other side of the tyre stack installation. These sonic interruptions further discomfort the ‘comfort’ of the gallery space, just as the film draws us into a false sense of ease with its dulcet tones and lyricism.
These are active landscapes, complicatedly inhabited. You are not here to feel comfortable, to be a passive spectator or consumer. Throughout, the spectre of exploitation lingers beneath the surface, just out of view. In Dicker’s film, the spectre is the tip of the hyper-modernist Amazon factory, just within view behind a hedgerow (though playfully reimagined in the future landscape of the film to be ‘consumed by the internal structure and emerge as if it is a moth from a cocoon’). Parker’s piece, as mentioned, gestures towards the global movement of consumer goods through its use of used cardboard boxes and plastic bags, the everyday detritus cast off from value from capitalist webs of global relation. Dr. Rosemary Shirley pushes this aspect to the exhibition further with her fictional WhatsApp messages, written by a worker holiday temping at an Amazon factory, which capture the precarity and exploitation at the heart of these vast modern workhouses on the peripheries of rural communities. “People just won’t stop buying shit” the protagonist writes at one point. “I can’t stop thinking about the feel of that lamb in my arms”, at another. The messages, like Parker’s gates, Jukes columns, or Dicker’s stacks, build through layering, rather than over-explanation. They are conversational, direct, void of easy sentimentality. This exhibition develops meaning through assemblage; paying attention and seeing what is there.
That these are artists living in rural areas making work about the people and places they live amongst, feels a vital intervention within a famed contemporary art gallery in the middle of the city. For centuries a polarity has been entrenched between rural and urban landscapes and workers. The artists of ‘The Weekend of Hotel Palenque’ offer us an invitation to look closer at rural edgelands; to see them as living, breathing, complex communities. The exhibition is a bridge from the rural periphery to the city, an opportunity to pay a different kind of attention to rural spaces far too rarely documented, or too easily enclosed within tidy categories of understanding.
[i] Taken from Robert Smithson’s lectures on Hotel Palenque recording, which can be found online here: