Shepherd Barbie: Problems with Beauty, Museums and Collecting

Added on by Georgina Barney.

My commission with artist and farmer Kate Genever for the Museum of English Rural Life's Making, Using and Enjoying research project stems from a workshop in July 2017 discussing 'Intangible Culture' along with other artists, design practitioners and academic researchers. 

Kate and I spent much of the workshop deep in discussion. 'Intangible Cultural Heritage' comes from a UNESCO definition that recognises that there are other kinds of material deserving of museological attention, of collecting, presenting and preserving, than physical objects: such as stories, craft practices and religious rituals. The workshop was particularly timely for the MERL, after a £3 million redevelopment project that reorganised its collection thematically. Making use of interactive digital devices, with little prior knowledge of rural subject matter required, the rehang has been designed with a contemporary public audience in mind, in addition to the academic community at MERL. From my dim, dusty memories of the previous museum, an almost overwhelming mass of wondrous stacked display after stacked display, it appears brighter and clearer, cheerful and fun. Many of its objects are obviously beautiful, too. That last sentence - I've been re-reading and re-reading it and wondering whether I can say that - is really problematic.

Over the years, Kate has talked often about the problem of the outsider's gaze towards her farm. Kate's artwork is steeped in its imagery and her draftsmanship is exquisite, thus rendering much of what she draws very beautiful. As a student at the Royal College of Art she became conscious and uncomfortable with the common reception of farming through her work - the rural within a contemporary urban setting - as exotic. Consequently she consistently adopts tactics that resist an interpretative gaze that is purely aesthetic, drawing items from her farm to demonstrate their use, always reminding you of her working role as a farmer. The things themselves can never be displayed in a gallery to be enjoyed aesthetically, for the very practical reason that they are used daily - but also because it is in their use that their meaning is articulated. Beauty is a problematic response for the viewer's relationship with a farm's material culture as it detaches the person from item.

Beauty is also a problem for the curators at MERL who must make reasoned decisions, governed by considered policies about what items to collect, display and preserve, in which there is little room for the subjective. And yet. A row of hand-woven baskets; a line of wagons; a wall of wooden tools...

During the workshop we gathered around a table of objects collected by some of the Museum's founders. Kate and I both initially found it difficult to engage with them. We weren't sure how to respond; we didn't have the academic knowledge to engage with a discussion about farm tools. But we were struck by the stories of how they had been acquired in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, leading to the Museum's founding collection. As a collector sought to gather the important material elements of a shepherd's life, one of every kind of smock for example, it reminded us of a child compiling a football sticker album or acquiring the latest, Shepherd Barbie. But the piece that was missing, Kate suggested, was the shepherd himself. We knew nothing of him. Objects were sometimes taken out of use into the founders' collections. The UNESCO convention of 'Intangible Cultural Heritage' feels like a reaction against such an acquisitive museological approach that removed objects from people - and people from objects.

Is the Museum itself the problem? Farming is an activity that is often associated with the past: an activity located in the countryside where older ways of life are believed to be upheld, whilst the metropolis is the place of change. For Kate and I, concerned with farming as a contemporary practice and its meaning today, such an assumption can be problematic, and a traditional museum inherently reinforces the conflation of farming with the past. It must house "stuff": objects, material, artefacts; and these will always be from the past, for as soon as they are acquired, they are fixed within the forward-moving trajectory of time.

Our collaboration for the Museum of English Rural Life will therefore revolve around challenging and resolving some of these problems, of restoring stories to objects, of being self-aware in our subjectivity and relationship with beauty; and understanding the stuff of museums through how objects are used by people.

Best of the best at Compton Verney: 'Creating the Countryside'

Added on by Georgina Barney.

Far, far away, somewhere deep in darkest Warwickshire... Rosemary Shirley and Verity Elson have brought together a nuanced collection of some of the most interesting artwork on the subject of (those nebulous words) 'the countryside'; 'rural' and 'farming'.  My work squeaked in and made the grade, a triptych of light-boxes from my milestone 2007 project 'GB Farming' featuring a snapshot of the complex tapestry of 'farms' in the UK: the patchwork roof of a lambing shed of a family farm in the quilted hills of the Scottish Borders; the muscle of scything arms at an eco-community in Somerset; the artificial blue crates of endless seedlings mirrored under the infinite blue dome of an East Anglian sky.  And what a treat to be hung next to Stubbs, an historic and important artwork featuring a picturesque scene of immaculate peasant reapers, dressed in white, overseen by the authoritarian, possibly benevolent farmer, an artwork I have previously written about as it reveals a penchant for a tidy, ordered countryside both socially and as a landscape (and yet the 'star', addressing the viewer directly, being the peasant).  

One of the highlights of this exhibition, is surely the interplay between historic and contemporary artworks that traces attitudes towards the countryside and reveals those references with which contemporary artists have been grappling, to disturb and question prevalent notions on this our subject.  And what quality: show-stopping classics greet you in the first room, including a Claude Lorraine drawing, an original Claude glass and - no major historic UK show complete without it - a Turner!  In the same room, contemporary artist Mat Collishaw's Hollow Oak, a projection of this tree into a nineteenth century carry case for glass negatives, meditates on the historically loaded iconography of the British countryside whilst Hilary Jack's Souvenir, a curiosity of a knotted wooden relic from the wooded landscape, provides a peephole through the walls of the gallery, towards an alternative landscape slideshow - perhaps a metaphor for the exhibition as a whole.

Jack's work was certainly one of my highlights from the exhibition: her prior series of photographs of turquoise plastic bags caught in trees (also a subject of Joanne Lee's artwork shown at the Harris Museum's exhibition 'Green and Pleasant Land?' in 2015, known colloquially as 'witches' knickers'), having been developed into a bronze cast hanging from a real-dead-tree installed into the gallery space.  Another fave was a selection of photographs by Andy Sewell from his gentle, slowly observed chronicle of anonymous lives' connection to the landscape, 'Something Like a Nest': the banal, yet sacred view of and from a kitchen sink; a pile of Tesco's bags on a church altar at harvest-time; a string of washing blowing in a domestic garden abutting the green edge of farmland, echoed compositionally above by the strings of telegraph wires criss-crossing the-not-natural-either-landscape.  One of the many successes of Sewell's work is its exposure of the ambiguity of all those notions, of green, natural, countryside, rural, food; and their ironies.  Nothing is simple (I'm thinking of the word 'authentic').  Embedded in each of his images (you'll want to seek out Sewell's publication) is also a sense of humanity, however potentially available to ridicule: old hands around a commemorative 'Diana and Charles' biscuit tin with an advert of rurally priced tea (£1) and coffee (£1.50) at, I'm guessing, some kind of village fundraiser or fete. His breadth of industrial-domestic-rural subject matter is a reminder of the surprising diversity in how we intersect with, and derive meaning and value from this thing, the Countryside.

Something that made me chuckle whilst I travelled the exhibition was a suspicion that some of the many visitors (may I say elderly?) were doing their best - as in a recent Country Life review - to sidestep the contemporary works, stumbling over the Collishaw on their way from the Claude Lorraine to the Turner.  Be it an error in marketing (?) it also spoke to me of issues of taste in generational relationships both towards art and the countryside, and possibly of class through Compton Verney's attraction as an endowed country house, set in a Capability Brown landscaped estate: the very latent themes historically embedded in the aesthetic lens of 'landscape' so powerfully brought into the foreground by Ingrid Pollard's important 1988 photographic and text series Pastoral Interlude, featuring herself as a surprising, disruptive black figure in the historically 'white' picture postcard Lake District countryside.  This suspicion seemed to invert some of the problems of representation and the countryside that I've engaged with in ten years of practice: Tom Hackett's review of my 2014 exhibition Sheep Sketchbook highlighted the snobbery against the dangerous 'fluffiness' and - heaven forbid! - nostalgia associated with the countryside, all but banned from the imagination by Art School.

When I embarked upon my post-graduation 2007 tour around fourteen UK farms ten years ago, I was conscious that it was an entirely contrary choice, even for an art school graduate.  I had no particular career ambitions for it as a project (though, ironically, it has forged and established my practice); it was simply something that I was interested in doing, and I accepted an attitude from my peers and tutors that I was a little bit weird.  Creating the Countryside therefore is an astonishing landmark from my perspective, interrogating a subject with a high quality of contemporary work that, since 2007, has scaled the walls of public consciousness.  It's good to be in the company of these artists.

A drawback as well as a value, is that this exhibition is at Compton Verney.  The exhibition interrogates the art gallery's setting and a complex, rich art history but good as it is, Compton Verney still feels 'far away' as a site, perhaps further away from London than New York and Shanghai (I only briefly entertained trying to drum up enthusiasm for a trip from my home city of Nottingham, let alone London); and its subject matter therefore still has an invisibility.  This year London's Science Museum permanently closed its Agriculture Gallery, demolishing a unique collection of in-built post-war dioramas and the only major national museum presence for farming in the capital.  Though proposals are afoot for something new, I can't help feeling saddened by the loss of this resource, a rare site within the city, for having conversations about that world 'out there' that feeds and nourishes us: a place that is so much more than an empty space to draw a line across, as historical landscape art might view it.  Whilst it is still difficult to envision an art world that isn't metropolitan, it seems that there is still a problematic, essential incompatibility between contemporary art and the countryside.  But perhaps that's why I like it.

Hannah Brown's current exhibition Lain Fallow For Too Long at the Dalla Rosa gallery in Camden moots itself as a quietly subversive approach, partly because it is in London, because it is painting and because it looks dammed lovely.  I regret, that when I was a dilettante of the city last weekend, I didn't make it.

'GB Farming' is successfully launched!

Added on by Georgina Barney.


In the first 24 hours donors helped me raise 25% of my target amount for GB Farming and on Day 3 it's still going strong. We're heading towards the 50% mark as I write from Small Food Bakery where I'm exhibiting artwork over the course of the campaign. 2 out of 3 drawings have flown off the virtual shelves, as well as several 'Playmobil 07' screen prints and a number of books from the first edition. Kickstarter themselves have also chosen 'GB Farming' as a "project we love". 

Thank you so much to everyone who's donated already. It means everything to me: not just that I'll be able to bring the book into the world and out of my head; but just as importantly your commitment to my work and to 'GB Farming' as an important project, is hugely encouraging. 

I'm really excited about the remaining days of the campaign, looking forward to two events in particular: tomorrow at Whirlow, a farm I visited during 'GB Farming' during it's Open Farm Sunday event; and later in June at the Science Museum, where a special collection of dioramas speak of farming in the capital.  I hope to see you there!  Please help keep the campaign rolling by sharing information about the campaign, and the events below, with friends and contacts.

Many thanks, Georgina x

Pop-up Exhibition Sunday 5th June 2016 11am - 4pm in The Cruck Barn, Whirlow Hall Farm Trust Sheffield S11 9QF. Visit the exhibition and observe sheep-shearing during Open Farm Sunday

Closing Discussion Wednesday 29th June 2016 7:30-9pm in The Agriculture Gallery, Science Museum Exhibition Road, London SW7 2DD Hosted by Haystacks with guests Guy Smith, Vice President of the National Farmers Union and Kate Genever, artist and farmer.




'GB Farming' Kickstarter Campaign, June 2016

Added on by Georgina Barney.

My Kickstarter campaign to publish 'GB Farming' will launch at PRIMARY, Nottingham with drinks in the Small Food Bakery on Saturday 4th June, 10am - 2pm.

I'm producing a first edition of 100 signed, numbered copies with a special Midland Cheese, which will be available to donors.

Several other tiered rewards for donors will be available, from postcards to prints, drawings and a one-off experience at my studio in PRIMARY.

I'm collaborating with Haystacks for a discussion closing event about farming in art, starting at London's Science Museum in the Agricultural Gallery during their Lates evening on Wednesday 29th June.

Installing at the Harris Museum

Added on by Georgina Barney.

I'm delighted to be installing works tomorrow at the Harris Museum's summer exhibition 'Green and Pleasant Land?'  It's exciting to be showing a selection of my artwork from GB Farming, Sheep Sketchbook and A Perfect Line alongside historic paintings from the Museum's collection and work of landscape and agricultural themes by other contemporary artists.  Can't wait to see the full, confirmed line up of artists and artworks; and finally see how my newly presented images, including lightboxes, hang alongside the older pieces!

'Sheep Sketchbook' at Embrace Arts and Leicester Cathedral

Added on by Georgina Barney.

I'm delighted that 'Sheep Sketchbook' is travelling to Embrace Arts at Leicester University, open from Monday 21st July - Sunday 21st September 2014.  There will be a few new pieces: artwork  by Rachel Foster 2014 NTU graduating student and an offsite installation at Leicester Cathedral.

Please join me:

Preview event at Embrace Arts on 23rd July from 3pm

Discussion at Leicester Cathedral 23rd July from 6:30pm