IF WE would take a little pains,” wrote Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, “the nettle would be useful; we neglect it, and it becomes harmful. Then we kill it. How much men are like the nettle! My friends, remember this, that there are no weeds, and no worthless men, there are only bad farmers.”
It is an insight that needs little encouragement to work as a metaphor for the fears and scandals that have been sparked by the crises of migration and Islamic extremism in Europe. That anthropomorphic way we look at weeds can be found in numerous places: books like The Day of the Triffids, films Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the very language we use about these “invasive” plants. Weeds are uncanny. They follow us, they creep us out with the resilience and their speed of growth. Their dark associations are even clearer in Hugo’s original French “mauvaises herbes”.
This duality, intrigue and uncertainty is the starting point for the Allegra Pesenti-curated summer exhibition at Lismore Castle this year, A Weed Is a Plant Out of Place, a multidisciplinary exhibition spread across Lismore’s gallery and its impressive gardens. Pesenti has included under her theme specimen books from the 18th and 19th centuries, a new site-specific work in the gardens by Pae White, works by a host of local and international artists, vintage photographs, and, as a centre piece, Nourishment, a series of etched portraits of weeds by Michael Landy.
Landy’s series symbolises regrowth: he made the etchings shortly after a performances piece during which he destroyed all his possessions on a factory line set up in a disused department store.
The etchings were a starting point for Pesenti’s investigations into the knotty world of weeds. “I started thinking, what are weeds?,” she says, “And the answer is the title here, A Plant Out of Place. I started to think about this in human terms, too. I’m a weed in a way. I’m Italian, I grew up in London, here I was planting my roots in LA, where I was at the time. But weeds are not only out of place and away from home, they also develop these really sturdy roots, and often where they are not wanted, so I started thinking about populations of people who have moved.
“For instance, in Los Angeles, the Iranian population is the largest outside of Tehran. Although it would have been very difficult for them to adapt to this culture when they first moved here, they’ve really made it there own, and developed such sturdy roots that that is where they belong. The mayor of Beverly Hills is of Iranian origin, for instance.”
With all that in mind, Pesenti, who spent time volunteering in Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee camp, wanted to tie her exhibition to reflect what was happening in the world today. “The theme is so timely,” she says. “We can’t not know or be following what’s happening in terms of migrants from the Middle East coming into Europe at the moment, so there are works that are reminiscent of that.”
She cites one of the artists, Adrian Paci, whose work, she says, “is very much about lost populations: population displacement, dispossession and war and crises. There’s a work by a young Italian artist Luisa Rabbia … that reminds me of these rows of people walking through Europe.”
A conversation with William Burlington, son of Peregrine Cavendish, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, and the heir to Lismore Castle, led to the idea that Pesenti’s research could form an exhibition there. “And it really felt so perfect,” she says. “I knew about the gardens and the importance of them, it’s what most people know about Lismore. The gardens are the attraction so I proposed an exhibition that would really tie the garden and the landscape to the gallery. The exhibition then took a turn and really adapted itself to Lismore specifically.”
If weeds can grow in unlikely places, so too, can art and artists. That, says Nicholas Serota, is one of the remarkable things about a place like Lismore. Serota, director of the Tate galleries, who will open the exhibition tomorrow, is at the epicentre of the art world. But, for him, the relationship between the metropolis and the periphery is getting more interesting.
“A lot of the activity in the art world does occur in the urban centres and that is partly to do with the fact that the business of exhibitions, meetings, discussions, debates, is a social enterprise and that’s often more difficult to achieve in rural communities. People don’t come together quite so naturally, so you have to construct opportunities and in a way that is what Lismore is doing by making these exhibitions and bringing a focus and what I think is interesting is that they are making some commissions that are long term and also engaged in these shorter-term projects.”
Serota cites places in the UK such as Grizedale Arts, in the Cumbria Lake District, and the studios in Wysing, near Cambridge, as examples of out-of-town resources for artists. He also talks about the potential of Cornwall where, he says, he’s beginning to spend more time, as he nears his 70th birthday.
“It’s interesting to see what opportunities there are for artist to work in rural communities and in small towns,” he says.
“I think it’s very important for younger artists in particular. I think the challenge of working in those circumstances is how do you retain a sense of communication with what’s happening in the major centres of exhibition and debate. That’s much easier now than it was 20 or 30 years ago.”
He thinks it’s much more possible to live and work in places such as Lismore and still be part of the debate than it would have been 20 or 30 years ago.
The problems facing somewhere like Lismore stem from location and lack of population. The trick is to turn those into opportunities. Serota has faced the opposite problem since the Tate Modern opened: satisfying vast numbers while at the same time not damaging the artistic integrity of what’s on offer.
Naturally, his critics have queued up to point to failures on both sides of this equation, but, nonetheless, he is ranked as the most powerful man in the art world, reflective of Tate Modern’s completist ambitions, ambitions which will take on a new dimension on June 17, when an extension to the museum opens.
But are there lessons from his experience that can be applied to the periphery?
No one expects the numbers in Lismore that would be expected in London, he says. “But what I would say is that the way you build an audience is by being very consistent in what you do. I think the more you are able to do that, and the more consistent you are, the more you will build and carry an audience with you.
“My sense is that this is what has been happening in Lismore. If you look back over the shows they’ve done over the last five years, there are some very consistent patterns there and they have certainly built a reputation for themselves nationally and internationally.”