A kingdom of the unexpected

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Allowing contemporary sculptors to invade the grounds of a stately home is a bold endeavour. Sometimes, the location is so grandiose that it dwarfs anything installed within. Even when the artworks survive and retain their rightful presence, they can still look jarring: the work and its location have nothing in common, and the result is visual mayhem.

How, then, does the ambitious summer exhibition at Sudeley Castle manage to avoid these pitfalls? Without losing a vital sense of challenge and excitement, curators Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst and Elliot McDonald insist on attending to the subtle, complex character of the place itself. Sudeley, set in a beguiling part of the Cotswold hills, flourished in the Tudor era, when Queen Katherine Parr cleverly outlived Henry VIII and made it her favourite residence, but the castle was partly obliterated by Cromwell’s army, and the melancholy of its ruins gives present-day Sudeley as much of its allure as the Victorian buildings erected during an 1830s restoration. Dent-Brocklehurst and McDonald encouraged their exhibitors to make new pieces in response to Sudeley’s gardens and grounds, and their decision pays off.

The show, Reconstruction 2, is filled with unpredictable images that assert a spirit of adventure. The first sculpture I encounter is Conrad Shawcross’s untitled piece installed in the middle of the pond. The starkness of its aluminium and stainless steel structure echoes the stripped austerity of the nearby Tithe Barn, a once- resplendent medieval building reduced to ruins. But there is nothing static about Shawcross’s intervention. With the aid of motors, he sets his work into supple, arresting motion. The sculpture’s metal limbs terminate in brilliant points of light that glide towards each other like dancers, then shoot apart dramatically.

To experience Jane and Louise Wilson’s contribution, we are invited to follow a green signboard bearing the word “Strangers”. It directs you down a long, narrow path bordered on either side by tall hedges. Yet the Wilsons’ work turns out, for the first time in their careers, to consist purely of sound. They recorded an eight-bell peal with the ringers of St Peter’s church in nearby Winchcombe. At its height, the sound is almost ecstatic and seems to fill the air around us. But the Wilsons were also inspired by the score from Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée. So at other stages along this path, the chiming of single bells creates an ominous mood, more akin to a journey through the underworld.

The further I venture into this seductive yet disquieting show, the more unsettled I become. Entering the Sudeley chapel I discover a heavy oak pulpit looming from the shadows. Light glows from an oval aperture at the front, beckoning me forward. Inside is a silhouetted carving of a Madonna holding a shroud. And there, in the centre of the cloth, my own face appears. Mat Collishaw, who made this subversive piece, surely intends to provoke me into thinking about Christ’s face on the Turin shroud. I cannot help wondering what the Madonna thinks about my usurpation of her son’s place on the sacred fabric. Her features, however, are lost in the gloom.

Elsewhere, in Sudeley’s so-called dungeon block, Collishaw has created a nocturnal room where the presence of visitors activates thick smoke rising up from a vessel. Within this swirling whiteness, minuscule figures with spectral wings can be detected – the ghosts of long-dead prisoners?

In the next room, Paul Fryer has installed an electromagnetic work clearly intended to haunt us. Before we enter his space, a notice warns: “Do not enter if you have any heart problems or suffer from epilepsy.” Inside, flashes of lightning suddenly shoot through the darkness. Created by geiger counters and high-voltage transformers, they seem to assert a stubborn will to remain undefeated by incarceration. At any rate, Fryer calls this unnerving work “That Which Survives”, and a similar life-force is asserted deep within the third room of the dungeon block as well. This time, Tim Noble and Sue Webster invite visitors to peer through the barred window of a padlocked door. Deep inside the forbidden room, a light projector throws a shaft of intense brightness on a heap of scrap metal and other debris. It looks, at first, like an incoherent mess, yet this apparent detritus casts an uncannily precise shadow on the wall beyond. In the past, Noble and Webster have favoured silhouetted images of themselves. This time, though, two rats are seen embroiled in a frantic act of copulation.

Wherever I wander in this laudably audacious show, Jim Lambie ambushes me with one of his keyholes. No fewer than seven of these large steel structures are dotted around the castle grounds, punctuating our journey with their exclamatory presence. So far, Lambie’s reputation has rested on his ability to transform entire gallery floors with spectacular, often provocative images. Now, for the first time, he has been persuaded to move outside and tackle an open-air project. He relishes this venture, and I cannot resist stepping through his keyholes.

The curators of Reconstruction 2 want the idea of a labyrinth to provide an underlying theme. And I certainly feel, roaming through the grounds, as if it would be easy to lose myself; I can never guess where the next exhibit might be installed, nor how it might grab me. Carlos Amorales, a tirelessly inventive Mexican artist, confronts me with a jumbo-size jigsaw puzzle spread across a terrace. He calls it “Exotic Raven”, and has covered its interlocking birch-plywood segments with coats of polyurethane paint. Highly reflective, so that trees and sky become part of it, this multi-coloured creature appears to radiate outwards. But it is a participatory work, and I find myself grabbing pieces to push them around in different configurations.

Despite its sculptural bulk, “Exotic Raven” has a sense of mobility and improvisation. In this respect, it is linked with an otherwise very different piece by the Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed that fills an arched space beneath Katherine Parr’s bedroom. Made of glowing fluorescent tubes, “Head On” loosely resembles a sketch of a brain. But it has nothing to do with anatomical realism. Abdessemed works very freely, as if she sees the brain as a restless place perpetually on the move. It seems likely to burst out of its architectural confines, while hints of profile faces, arrows and dancing animals akin to prehistoric cave paintings can all be detected within the melee.

Keith Tyson’s “Disembodied Dynamic No. 1” draws me in straight away. As brightly coloured as a field of rape, this immense spiral pathway of curved steel demands to be walked through. Tyson’s Turner Prize-winning work delights in bringing together a dizzying jumble of heterogeneous elements, and this is no exception: riddled with organic and astronomical references, it resembles a particle shooting through bodily or cosmic space.

Sudeley’s supremely effervescent show deserves to be relished by a host of visitors during the summer months. At one point, my peregrination is interrupted by a violent rainstorm and I run for cover. But it soon passes, and does nothing to spoil my enjoyment of a venture that constantly upsets expectations.

On my way out, I pass Pedro Cabrita Reis’s vast horizontal sculpture “You Shouldn’t Walk Over Ploughed Fields”. The title suggests a resolutely organic experience, concocted by a diehard ruralist. But this canny Portuguese artist wanted the entire work to be made of metal girders, red clay bricks and fluorescent tubes. It still resembles a field, yet one defiled by an alarming cocktail of high-tech materials and building-site leftovers. Softly shining among the rich foliage of Sudeley’s trees and bushes, it sums up our vision of embattled nature today, caught halfway between the urge to preserve and the desire to impose urban expansion on even the most verdant, irresistible stretches of the English countryside.


Exhibition continues until October 31, Tel )1242 602308

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