BRUTON, England — Things move a little slower in Bruton. Cows have caused a traffic jam on the road that connects the train station and my destination, Hauser & Wirth Somerset. When my taxi driver does arrive, we talk about the town’s rustic charm and idyllic setting, two traits that have lasted through the centuries. Primarily composed of farmland, forests, and rolling hills, you can easily see how so many Englishmen and women joined the Romanticism movement in the 18th and 19th centuries. No doubt Hauser & Wirth came here for a similar reason: to indulge in the verdant scenery just beyond London’s drab, gray grasp.
But I wouldn’t exactly conflate the modest rustic charms of Bruton with what the blue-chip gallery has done with its renovations on Durslade Farms, the site of its countryside outpost, which opened in 2014. A meticulous, rural-chic makeover has transformed this dilapidated farm into exactly what you would expect from a well-endowed commercial gallery: exclusive VIP lodgings, a Michelin-rated restaurant, and a piggery. (Okay, that last one is a little unexpected.) Undeniably beautiful, the farm’s focus on luxury frills does somewhat chafe against its more rugged setting. Smartly, the gallery’s latest exhibition investigates that contradiction between our idealized expectations of the countryside and the historic realities of rural living.
The Land We Live In — The Land We Left Behind is a chaotic exploration of the English countryside’s longstanding cultural cache. Curator Adam Sutherland has created what many curators dream of completing at some point: an exhibition that juxtaposes disparate items from across time and space. Unfortunately, the concept is better in thought than in practice. What does a 16th-century Korean jar have to do with Grayson Perry’s nearby “Map of an Englishman” (2004)? One illustrates the sardonic, repressed topography of an Englishman’s Freudian mind and the other is, well, a jar.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The show opens with a rather tame room that contains a few mushroom sculptures by artist Carsten Höller. Outside, we see Fernando García-Dory’s “Goat Pavilion” (2017), a collaboration with Hayatsu Architects. (No goats on the day I visited, but The Guardian’s Adrian Searle has a rather obsessed account of the frolicking farm animals.) Inside, García-Dory has displayed elements from “The Mobile Dairy School” (2016), while the Sweetwater Foundation showcases its “Aquaponics system” (2018). Together, these two works establish the exhibition’s initial themes of environmentalism and self-sufficiency. The Sweetwater Foundation’s work is an aquatic biome where a fish tank cultivates nutritious water that then fertilizes the lettuce growing above. (When ready, greens will be harvested and served in the gallery’s restaurant.) Similarly, García-Dory’s installation allows visitors to learn about the history and process of cheese-making on scheduled days.
In the show’s second room, titled “Rural Revolutions,” we find the aforementioned Korean jar amidst a panoply of Christian paraphernalia. Although the exhibition’s contents can feel at times random, it does provide the rare chance for visitors to stumble across something that caters to their interests. Perhaps it’s a niche interest, but I found myself drawn to a small textile stitched by Betty Waters, an artist living at the turn of the 19th century. “Sampler” (1800) mixes Christian symbols of salvation from disparate traditions. Here we see two examples of the crucifixion alongside delicately rendered flora and fauna: birds of paradise, deer, and the biblical apple tree. A small poetic epigraph hangs at the center: “As on the cross the Saviour hung/ And wept and bled and dy’d/ We pour’d salvation on a wretch/ That languish’d at his side.” Waters’s work illuminates an understated point about rural idealism: it is often predicated on Christian spirituality. The search for an earthly Garden of Eden compelled many Englishmen to create their own.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, clear messages are hard to find. Themes are declared but rarely justified. The third room is organized under the banner of socialism, but it is hard to discern how any of the work explicitly tackles the topic. A central banner reads “Social Credit is Coming,” but that’s about it. Maybe it doesn’t matter much when that same room contains the kitschy spectacles of Thomas Kinkade alongside Beatrix Potter drawings and Henry Moore’s monumental “Reclining Figure: Bunched” (1973/74) tapestry — complete with a preliminary drawing by Moore himself.
The cynical side of me wonders if this arbitrary assembly of objects is some kind of marketing ploy. The show mixes for-sale work with institutional loans, masterpieces with utter schlock. Does the cream help the crop? Does something like Jonathan Meese’s trite photography rise in price when situated next to a Moore work?
Things become much more orderly in the show’s back half. The penultimate gallery, labeled “Revival, Resurrection, and Transformation,” is a museum-quality addition. Set in a spacious dark-blue room, Sutherland has assembled a meditation on modern consumption and agricultural techniques that alienate us from food sources. A row of tables in the gallery’s center stage a Last Supper scene with phallic vases, Laure Provost’s carnal ceramics, and, oddly, bags of red liquid labeled “Intemperate Youth.”
The most important and painful inclusion here is Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s film, “Our Daily Bread” (2005). With a cold, clinical calculus, Geyrhalter trains his camera on the topography of a pig farm. He alternates between scenes of a family dinner and scenes of nonchalant butchery. The family gathers. Next shot: farmers push and coral their piglets toward slaughter. The family begins to eat. Next shot: a butcher inspects the meat of pages on a rack, sliced into two perfectly symmetrical halves. There’s a horrific objectivity to the artist’s film, one that overturns The Land We Live In’s initial hypothesis. Even if we continue to idealize rural life, it is only in retrospect. Contemporary agricultural techniques aimed at quenching the needs of mass production are a far cry from the idylls we treasure in Romantic painting.
The Land We Live In — The Land We Left Behind continues at Hauser & Wirth Somerset (Durslade Farm, Dropping Ln, Bruton, England) through May 7.