Karen Lois Whiteread
An Essay By Jeremy Akerman

Karen Lois Whiteread
Karen Lois Whiteread's residency at Wysing
Arts Following simple directions I found the turn off I was looking for. After fifteen minutes more driving I spotted a sign sticking out of a hedge; the designer graphic, slightly incongruous against the trees and fields, confirmed that I'd arrived at Wysing Arts. Driving out of any city into the countryside brings a mix of feelings.There is that on-rush of freedom as the big road stretches ahead, the sense of going somewhere; all of which is very seductive, especially on a sunny day.

The B1046 is a road that Karen Whiteread must be pretty familiar with and not just on bright days. As one of Wysing Arts' artists-in-residence she has been motoring back and forth for a year now watching the seasons change.There probably isn't so much road-movie magic on a cold dark morning in February. Staying on site midweek and back home with the family the rest of the time, this travelling has clearly had its influence.The artwork she's made reflects the way our modern life is a series of nodal points that we transport between. Rightly, she points out that there is a slippage between what we do in each different place, that things don't stay neatly compartmentalised but cross over.The word that seems best able to describe Whiteread's work in a general sense is interfusion.

Whiteread's journey to Wysing Arts began with a previous residency at Gunpowder Park in the Lee Valley, a newly regenerated green space on the edge of London dedicated to arts-led collaborations.This first stop led to a new piece called 'capture' made through a collaboration between Gunpowder Park and Wysing Arts. It hasn't been all plain sailing; an initial challenge from Gunpowder Park to make eyecatching images met a sad end.Whiteread's photographic series charted a woman's pregnancy over the months to full term and ended with a photo of mother and new baby.These pictures blown up to forty foot were to be displayed at the park's entrance month by month leading up to its opening until a committee decided against public images depicting nudity. Now they're in storage awaiting their own birth into the world.

Disappointing, as this must have been to Whiteread at the time, Gunpowder Park has remained supportive, helping her to find new opportunities to develop her work. She in turn seems to have put the episode down to experience and takes a pragmatic approach to the set of circumstances her current residency affords. Pragmatism is to be recommended for residencies such as these. Funding bodies and arts organisations have their limits -sometimes conservative limits. Similarly artists should remember not to box themselves in with overly prescriptive proposals.

Whiteread explained to me how discussions with the gardeners had proved most helpful for making her new work. Although this seems a bit of a leap for someone who went to Wysing Arts as a photographer, it is typical of what happens on residencies. Her practice as a photographer hasn't been squeezed out; it's just popped up in a less likely way.Whiteread has the word 'capture' growing in two separate landscapes. She has written the word four metres high at Gunpowder Park and at Wysing Arts and then cut the letters out of the ground.The sod and the soil from each she then transplanted in its respective twin location.The process involved in making capture is what seems to be most important to Whiteread, with other more permanent gallery works spinning off as a result. She speaks enthusiastically about those people who helped make capture and the lorry trips in-between sites. Obviously on the day of the transplant it rained, making life quite difficult for the muddy workers. Soon capture will only exist as documentary evidence.Whiteread says that the intention of capture was 'to create physical links between two sites'.This linking action documented by Whiteread using video and photography shows those people involved and their labour. In a sense capture is more performative than a site-specific installation.

Very often with videos documenting installations, one ends up with a film whose purpose appears primarily to validate the artwork rather than illuminate it.This necessarily betrays a lack of faith in the artwork in all its lumpy inarticulate glory. (See for example Tate Britain; Michael Landy and Modern Art Oxford; Mike Nelson). Whiteread has I think taken a better approach, understanding 'capture' as something in its own right, something directly for those involved and as a vehicle for making footage and new work that may or may not relate to the parent work.


There is something very nice about the idea of writing into the landscape. It reminds one of chalk horses carved into hillsides and seaside towns with gaudy floral displays. It's literal as an action but the word 'capture' is a good choice, playing with the idea of something caught, be it a photo or a prisoner.The twinning and exchange is also poetic reminding us that the world is about constant exchange, a permanent migration that defies claims of origin.Whiteread is frank in the way she discusses 'capture' describing her struggles to scale the letters up. Even at four metres high 'the letters looked so tiny' once transcribed into a field. Indeed, one can't help wanting them to be much bigger so that their literalness can be comprehended from the air or by physically walking them.The power of this artwork seems to be as something to inhabit and not as a one-off spectacle.Walking in amongst the letters p and t made up of long grasses, poppies and meadow flowers is teasingly suggestive but at its present scale the work is a little too easily caught.

Programme Director Andrew Hunter shows me around more of the extensive site and takes me to visit past projects scattered in the grounds.There's a huge chapel or shrine by Ben Wilson that looks like Cecil Collins meets Gaudi. Other outdoor works highlight tensions between a 'natural' world in opposition to a mechanical world. One thing I noticed was how often artwork of this kind involves and relies upon multi-media components.This is a weak link practically; weather makes extremely short work of most materials, especially electrical circuits.The beauty of the open space at Wysing Arts is that there's plenty of room for others to come in and advance these debates about art with their own work.Wysing Arts' great asset is space and this might be just the antidote needed by recent art graduates used to a two-foot square studio shared with three others.


The words craft and community aren't mentioned in the Wysing Arts blurb, which is hardly surprising since both conjure up images and ideologies that many people are wary of. Nomenclature is tricky, all part of the design and packaging game the 'arts' are embroiled in. But when a group of people live, work, cook, talk and make together, a community momentum is inevitable. Andy Fountain and Terry Hickman, whose practical expertise proved so helpful to Whiteread's artwork, manage an on site gardening programme, this means a supply of fresh vegetables.There are excellent kitchen facilities so group dinners and discussions late into the night can be expected. One can't help but be reminded of the art and craft movement as an ancestor.Wysing Arts is quite rightly proud of running traditional skillbased practices side by side with 'conceptual' projects. It's daft to polarise art practice the way some people do: art is an area of speculative activity and behaviour, not any one set of rules.


Andrew Hunter mentions plans to introduce a series of short residency projects to encourage a greater diversity of artists working on site.With the increasingly high calibre of artists Wysing Arts attracts, there also comes the chance for a parallel critical discourse, offering the kind of feedback artists find so difficult to get outside of college. Wysing Arts is already a site where artists can develop their work to enormous effect, and is also perfect for seminars about public art or how galleries can extend their work into wider communities.


Clearly what Wysing Arts does best is to provideappropriate conditions for artists to work. It gives them a context and a peer group and it helps them establish contacts in the art world. Not that this guarantees artistic output, you can't farm art, but paradoxically a trip to the middle of nowhere might be the best way of getting the contacts an artist needs. Artists know that they don't have to be in London to operate and indeed many exciting things are happening outside the Capital.Therefore residencies with space and the desire to be critically engaged look increasingly attractive.Wysing Arts offers a place to be that has developed its own distinct identity away from the crowd.


Jeremy Akerman, August 2004 Wysing Arts,

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