sat 20/07/2024

theartsdesk at Land's End: The Penzance Convention | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at Land's End: The Penzance Convention

theartsdesk at Land's End: The Penzance Convention

Redefining art at the very end of England

Field trip: Walk from Gurnard’s Head to PenzanceMark Hudson

Standing in Tate St Ives with the sun gleaming on the Atlantic, you wonder who they are, all these chilled, nonchalantly now people. Through the great curved window, the sun is setting over the barren headland of the Land’s End peninsular, the landscape that inspired Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson et al.

But in here, in the Alex Katz private view, white-haired survivors of the town’s Fifties and Sixties heyday are outnumbered by people who look like they’ve stepped through a door from Hoxton and points further east in London’s underground art hinterland.

There are a few Mayfair-on-the-beach types, a couple of art world heavy hitters: Nick Serota of Tate (well, this is Tate), veteran über-dealer Anthony d’Offay. And if some of this appearance of change may be superficial – many of these people will be back in London by this time tomorrow – the overall demographic is about 30 years younger than you’d expect, and the majority really do live here.

Rather than sit in a room talking, participants went on field trips into Land’s End - down tin mines, along quaysides

For decades Cornwall lived off its somewhat inflated reputation as a mid-century Modernist Mecca – with steadily diminishing returns. Only recently a sculptor of my acquaintance was advised by his dealer not to tell people he lived in Cornwall for fear of being written off as sub-modernist retro-tat. But now a new spirit is abroad that has nothing to do with celebrating or even deconstructing the achievements of Hepworth, Nicholson, Heron and co, and by and large it avoids St Ives.

It’s got something to do with the expansion of the once sleepy Falmouth College of Art into the go-ahead University College Falmouth; and if that growth has more to do with corporate empire building than anything that’s organically happening here, these things have a way of rippling outwards. Then there’s the fact that a critical mass of artists whose interests have little to do with established notions of "Cornish art" have come to live here over the past few years.

Penzance, Land’s End’s scruffy but subtly funky metropolis, played host to an event that provided a focus and a forum for this spirit; an event that was part academic conference, part performative work of art in its own right: the Penzance Convention. Basing itself in the Exchange, the recently created gallery in the town’s old telephone exchange – a venue generally reviled by the Cornish old guard – the Convention took as its theme "extraction", both in relation to Cornwall’s traditional industries – mining, farming and fishing (pictured above right, Newlyn Fish Auction) – and to the "processes by which artists draw meaning from history and site". Rather than sit in a room talking, participants went on "field trips" into Land’s End and the surrounding area: down one of the tin mines, whose chimneys are iconic symbols of this part of Cornwall; along the quaysides of Newlyn, still the biggest fishing port in England; on a hike across the peninsular (pictured overleaf, Walk from Gurnard’s Head to Penzance); and into the artist’s mind, in an attempt to extract creativity.

With the participants reconvening in the Exchange on the Saturday morning, geologist Robin Shail, of the Camborne School of Mines, began things in punchy pop-science style, reporting back on a field trip into South Crofty, Cornwall’s last working tin mine, which closed in 1998. Did we realise that simply by using a mobile phone we were adding to the despoliation of the earth? Or that the granite we were on is still rich in mineral resources? It is the economics of getting them out that’s at issue. If the viability of reactivating the tin industry is being tested at South Crofty, a free new visitor attraction, Heartlands, has just opened in Robinson’s Shaft, the mine immediately next door. Billing itself as "19 acres of cultural candy", its forthcoming attraction is a bouncy-castle version of Stonehenge. Sound like a rip-off of Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege? It is Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege. Nobody in the room wanted to wish this much-needed employment-creator ill.

In contrast, the farming field trip led by art-research duo Fieldclub appeared whimsical to the point of opacity. Artist Paul Chaney and researcher Kenna Hernley investigate "hypothetical and post-apocalyptic models of farm production" from a four-acre site "somewhere in Cornwall". Their presentation "The Story of NPK" looked at the way plants "steal energy from the sun to facilitate higher life". While I was left unsure as to the scientific validity of their experiments – or if they even exist – the places visited on their field trip were real enough, from an neolithic farming enclosure near Zennor to an industrial daffodil farm – the largest in Europe – where the mostly Eastern European workforce receive the health and safety training necessary to putting plastic bands round the 160,000,000 bunches produced each year. Now that is an image of Cornwall I very much recognise.

It was an event that was about possibilities, cross-currents and meetings rather than solutions

In a session on "Extraction and its Complications", Falmouth-based philosopher Robin Mackay looked at the way images and experiences are extracted from Cornwall’s economically depressed landscape by and for the tourist industry. He speculated that public art commissions extract from the areas they take place in, and it’s questionable how much they put back – a worthwhile point that could have been taken further.

Marxist philosopher Esther Leslie, meanwhile, considered the ways science extracts colour from coal in the form of dyes, and explored the idea of mines as places for dreaming. Intriguing as this was, it removed the event to the realm of observation. Artist John Gerrard returned it to the area of action with his mind-boggling digital recreations of dust storms in parts of America that were desertified in the 1930s, and are being further depleted by robotised industrial farming.

The Penzance Convention felt like a moment on the road somewhere. If the notion of extraction never seemed to quite cohere, it was an event that was about possibilities, cross-currents and meetings rather than solutions. Yet perhaps the framing of extraction was a little too narrow. References to tourism were tangential. There was no mention of other forms of post-modern extraction such as second-home ownership or DJ culture on Redruth housing estates. And there was absolutely zero on the extraction from the legacies of Bernard Leach, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson that is such a feature of the area. But then that would have been far too close to everything this event was trying to get away from.

A sculptor was advised by his dealer not to tell people he lived in Cornwall for fear of being written off as sub-modernist retro-tat

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This article is mean spirited and inaccurate. I went on the field trip led by FIELDCLUB. It was in no way whimsical or opaque. The researcher and artist in this collaborative endeavor are engaged in a serious and far-reaching study that addresses off-grid living, self-sufficiency and agrarian reform. I had the privilege to visit them at home during the conference and was really impressed by their commitment. Your text is a disservice to FIELDCLUB and the entire convention.

I think thats a great report from Mark Hudson. I really enjoyed reading it. I gained a lot form the Conference and appreciate the diversity of input. Mark Hudson's observations challenged me to think about the additional issues that could have been covered. I hope to be able to attend again.

A good report with some nice connections and observations – like the descent of the great and the good from London. Cornwall’s economy depends on art and tourism. The conference embodied both. Let’s not forget that places like the Camborne School of Mines and University College Falmouth got their European funding because of Cornish poverty. Did the conference address and do much to help that poverty of the local people and local artists? Probably not. But there is something special being developed here. The conference provided a model for some important encounters – not just being talked at – encounters with the environment, with history, between strangers. Was it perfect? No. It is an exciting work in progress.

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