In 2011 Tate and Grizedale Arts commissioned artists Adam Chodzko and Laure Prouvost to make new work in response to the history and legacy of Kurt Schwitters. Their works respond to the locality and history of Schwitters’s incomplete Merz Barn, but also reflect upon wider concerns, such as the role and perception of an artist within society. The artists share an interest in how memories and factual narratives about a historical figure can shift and be revised and re-used over time and through circumstance.
The commissions are curated by Katharine Stout, Curator of Contemporary Art, Tate Britain and Grizedale Arts.
In the meadow at Lawson Park, looking out towards Coniston and Elterwater, Laure Prouvost had constructed a wooden cabin, in which she created a dark, mud coated room as the setting for the new video work presented here. The room is conceived as the living room of Prouvost’s fictional grandfather who is described as a conceptual artist and one of Schwitters’ close friends around the time of his death. Prouvost’s work draws upon the dual aspect of Schwitter’s work – his celebrated Merz works, as well as the conventional portraits and landscapes that he produced while in the Lake District. The room also suggests itself as a tearoom, as Schwitters propsed for the Merzbarn, inspired by Edith Thomas, Schwitters’s companion during his British years, who was nicknamed ‘Wantee’, due to her habit of saying, ‘want tea?’
Prouvost combines a spoken narrative with filmed images to construct invented storylines that both seduce and disturb, while exposing the slippage between fiction and reality within the retelling of art history. Here she is concerned with how an artist has little control over the way their work is perceived and used over time.
Adam Chodzko explores the international context for Schwitters’s activities during the period he lived in the Lake District, in particular the contact he had with a number of individuals and institutions. This interest led Chodzko to an office designed in 1937 by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright for Edgar J Kaufmann within his department store in Pittsburgh. It was Kaufmann who arranged a grant of $1000 that MoMA wired to Schwitters while he was living in poverty in Ambleside. The office was later donated to the V&A and Chodzko reconfigures it here in the manner of Schwitters’s Merz structures in order to house a new video work. Chodzko imagines this transformation as being caused by a vacuum, formed by the emptiness of the Merz Barn, drawing in the furthest edges of the Schwitters story in an attempt to conclude it.
As the final element in this process, Chodzko proposes that one of Germany’s leading banks, Commerzbank, from which Schwitters appropriated the word Merz, is relocating to the Lake District. Apparently having been delivered ahead of the move boxes of Commerzbank headed paper have been stacked up in the Merz Barn entrance in Elterwater, as though sealing it off. Before being presented here at Tate they have sat there for the last few months, covered in fallen leaves and soaking up rainwater.
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