Artist of the Month

January 2020

Steve Messam

For January's Artist of the Month we've selected Steve Messam.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your practice, how would you describe the work that you do?

I’m an artist based in the rural County Durham. I’m interested in landscape and exploring the layers of narrative that make up landscapes - their geology, industry, agriculture, architecture, botany, shape, form, function, people. My works are largely temporary and textile-based, although I’m also interested in sound and light as light-touch media. 

Your work combines an aesthetic of monumental sculpture with one of impermanence and fragility - could you talk more about this combination?

I find scale interesting. Initially the scale of my pieces comes from the subject matter - by their nature landscapes are big things - much bigger than a white-walled gallery, so the work is of an appropriate size to work with the landscape. Landscapes are way too big to challenge, but their size is part of their language and you need to understand their language to have a conversation with them. 

There’s something about work of a certain scale where its scale becomes a medium of its own. The presence of experiencing an artwork larger than a house creates a very particular emotional response that you just can’t get with any other medium on their own. It’s also something that only happens when you are actually there and you’ll never get that from any of the documentation. It’s very experiential. The materials and temporary nature are part of that experience. By working in a very temporary way I can use the type of materials that you could never use in something permanent, and vice versa - I like that contrast between the rugged permanence of landscape and architecture with delicate, temporary structures. The power of the temporary is often underestimated. Being only there for a short amount of time adds urgency to the experience and amplifies its sense of presence as once it’s gone it’s gone.


Steve Messam

 Hush, 2019

You frequently intervene in heritage sites as part of your practice - how do you see your role in this intervention? 

Listed buildings and protected landscapes are part of the perils and joys of working in the places I do. Part of the reason they are protected is how they tell a bit of the story of their place. However, while they are good at telling their histories and the past, they can sometimes struggle with their place in the present. I think that’s where my work makes a link - albeit temporarily - between a history of the past and a moment in the present by making the present a real and tangible thing. A moment in time. By removing a site from a bubble of history it allows them to be reframed, seen and experienced in a new way. Technically working with these sites presents a whole load of logistical challenges, but that’s the bit I really enjoy the most.

The scale of your projects must require collaboration - how does working with other people inform your practice?

It’s great working with other people on projects. Over the year I’ve built up quite a team of people I can call on to work on projects. Generally at the start of each project I start with a blank sheet of paper with no preconceived ideas on what I’m going to do or how I’m going to do it. It saves me worrying about what’s possible - because I’m sure most things are, it’s just a matter of finding people that know how to make them possible. So once I have a basic idea I can go to someone who really knows their stuff - engineers, craftsmen, builders, technicians, fabricators and start a conversation about how to realise it. A lot of my pieces are really complicated to do, but the illusion is that they just happen and look simple. That’s sometimes the hardest part, so having a bunch of people who have very specialised knowledge is really important. But so too are the people that really know a location - the knowledge and experience of farmers, gardeners, gamekeepers and historians is equally invaluable. It’s about getting the detail right so you don’t see the joins. At the end of the day, if I don’t know how to do something, or make something flawlessly, I know someone who does.


Steve Messam

 Pointed, 2017

While it's clear you privilege an embodied experience between participants and your installations, many of your installations have also been extensively documented - how do you attempt to translate these embodied experience through the media of photography and video? What status do these have?

My work has always been primarily about the experience - that unique emotional response you only get by witnessing their presence. That bit never changes. However, more recently we’ve been exploring the role of video to capture the wider story. Particularly with pieces like ‘Whistle’ in Newcastle, 2018, where the process of realising the installation was very much part of the overall narrative. It’s still a work in process, working out how to frame video and where its audience may be. 

I’ve always photographed my installations. I started out as a photographer so the visual image of the final pieces is built-in from the beginning - the sightlines, direction of lighting (sunlight) and composition within the landscape - so that when the public sees it and they take a photo on their phone or whatever, they go away with a great image. That’s their takeaway and an aide memoir to back up their experience. The installations aren’t just about abut what they look like - they also move in the wind and make sound and capture the light differently throughout the day and night. In that respect there is never a definitive image of any of the pieces.
At first I documented the installations myself as there was never the budget to commission another photographer. I did it begrudgingly as I was trying to move away from photography. But more recently I’ve come to embrace my own documentation as part of the overall process and seeing where that goes.

‘Watched’ - a recent project in Denmark, was primarily photographic. In this the installations were very temporary and not all public events and so the final products are fine art prints. In this way the project is much more gallery friendly, which is a whole new world to me but one I’m looking to do more with in the future.

With the larger outdoor pieces, I’ve been exploring the documentation of them throughout their entire duration rather than looking for a selection of definitive views. So I’ve been looking at their wider presence, how they look in all light and weather, their movement, their conversation with the wider landscape and how the presence of the audience becomes part of the piece. I’ve now started publishing these as photo-essays in limited edition books. These are being simply produced to keep the costs down and allowing them to be very affordable and collectable. Again it’s a work in progress but it’s good to keep experimenting.


 Whistle, 2018

What do you have coming up in 2020?

A lot of my larger works have tightly managed marketing and PR in order to maximise on the element of surprise and the unexpected, so while I can say there are some quite large and potentially high profile pieces this year, just at the moment I’m not able to say anything about any of them. Also, due to the scale and complexity of the pieces, I tend to work a year to 18 months in advance, so the reality is most of my time this year will be spent on pieces for 2021 and beyond.


More information

Steve Messam on Axisweb >