Landscape with visions of Britten

Simon Liddiment’s ‘Parable’ (2013)

“A bit Dad’s Army” is how Abigail Lane describes Snap, the contemporary art exhibition attached to the world-renowned Aldeburgh Festival that Benjamin Britten and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, established in 1948 in the Suffolk coastal town. “That’s not to say we’re not organised,” adds Lane, as we chug through verdant fields in a single-carriage train, “it’s just much more home-made.”

The first Aldeburgh Festivals happened in halls and churches in and around the town – at Orford, Framlingham and Blythburgh. In 1967, the festival moved five miles inland to red-brick Victorian maltings converted into a concert hall at Snape. “When I was reading about the Aldeburgh Festival in the early days,” Lane tells me, “one of the things I thought was quite funny was that these days it’s quite a smooth operation – there’s 100 staff and everyone knows what they’re doing – and we [Snap] are probably a bit more like what it was in the first place.”

Snap certainly has a sprawling, homespun feel, spread over Snape Maltings’ lawns, foyers and beautiful derelict buildings, with its “headquarters” in a bright blue shipping container where exhibition maps are handed out. More importantly, Snap is also reinstating the visual arts as a major strand of the festival – which Britten and Pears originally conceived as a “Festival of Music and the Arts”. Over the years, work by Constable, Sidney Nolan, John Piper and Howard Hodgkin has been shown. But Snap, now in its third year, is the only recent temporary exhibition here of such scale and ambition.

An artist herself, Lane is the organisational force behind it. She resists the term “curator” because the artists choose what to exhibit, and explains: “I don’t get that tied up in the detail of what each person’s work is about. But I do steer things quite carefully so that everything flows.”

Lane is not new to this business: she co-curated the game-changing 1988 exhibition Freeze with fellow Goldsmiths College of Art graduates Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume and Michael Landy – thereafter known as the Young British Artists.

But, now pushing 50, some of the so-called YBAs have swapped their fast-paced London lifestyles for more peaceful rural surrounds. In the early 2000s, Lucas bought the Suffolk farmhouse where Britten lived at the end of his life. Her gallerist Sadie Coles and Coles’ husband, the photographer Juergen Teller, have a weekend house nearby; Lane lives locally; and Hume, who exhibited in Snap last year, has a studio in Suffolk.

Maggi Hambling’s ‘Victim 2’ (2013)

This year’s exhibition is made up of artists who took part in Snap’s previous two editions, all of whom have some connection to the area. They are not a group and certainly not a colony – indeed, some had never met before Snap. Yet they were all, for various reasons, attracted to the same reedy marshlands and huge skies that Constable depicted some 200 years before.

Ryan Gander, the conceptual artist based in London and Suffolk, was surprised by the quality and ambition of the exhibition when he took part last year. “He wasn’t expecting that here,” Lane says. Although Suffolk may be a small pond, many of these artists are big fish: Lucas, Teller, the painter Glenn Brown and veteran sculptor and painter Maggi Hambling, all of whom are exhibiting this year, have had big solo shows around the world.

But unlike previous editions, Snap 2013 has a theme: Benjamin Britten. It makes sense – this is the composer’s centenary and the Aldeburgh Festival is, naturally, at the centre of the celebrations – but it proved a difficult brief for many of the artists. Of the 16 participants, Lane tells me that only Lucas and Cerith Wyn Evans “actually listen to Britten”.

So most of them had to find a way in – and the resulting work says more about the individual artists than it does about Britten as some unifying inspiration. For some, the link with the composer is loose: Glenn Brown’s intricate yet strikingly dynamic drawings reference art history – he cites Rubens – rather than music. But there are affinities. “I think there’s a sort of ambiguity about how we’re supposed to read them, which is very Britten,” Brown says, “maybe a sort of darkness and a sexual tension which you find in Britten.”

Sarah Lucas’s ‘Eros’ and ‘Priapus’ (both 2013)

Benedict Drew’s inspiration was more specific: the revelation that Britten had invited Pierre Henry, pioneer of musique concrète and an influence on Drew, to the Aldeburgh Festival in 1954 – the first time such “music” (which includes recordings from nature) was performed in Britain. Drew’s engrossing, witty video “Matériel” imagines the effects of that concert, splicing psychedelic sequences and footage of local sites, such as the “breast-like” Sizewell nuclear power station.

In the roofless derelict building next door are Lucas’s two enormous concrete phalluses, gleaming in the sun. One mounted on a rusty piece of machinery and the other on the ground, “Eros” and “Priapus” (both 2013) appear to be engaged in some kind of stand-off. A miscellany of curious things surrounds them: a duck-egg-blue Morris car thick with dust; an old-fashioned bathtub; forgotten timber and unidentifiable mechanisms. The concrete sculptures here riff on two others by Lucas, “Big Marrow BB” and “Big Marrow PP” (both 2006), on the front lawn – name-checking Britten and Pears. The phallic marrows on the grass are jolly and jokey while the actual phallus sculptures, against a backdrop of strange, rusting contraptions, seem threatening and foreign. Though their reference to Britten and Pears is obvious – for me, overly so – the sculptures are also “about Julian and me”, Lucas says, referring to her partner, the artist Julian Simmons, who is also exhibiting. Not only is it “his knob” but Simmons’ eerie sound piece “Numberstream100” plays in the building where Lucas’s works are installed.

At the heart of the piece is a program, designed by Simmons, that creates sounds from streams of numbers; in this case those numbers are generated by analysis of information, such as pitch and amplitude, in recordings of Britten’s music. “I’m not using pre-recorded sounds or sounds generated from a synthesiser,” he explains. “And none of the sounds from the Britten pieces are coming through, it’s only the information.” Britten, it seems, has permeated both his and Lucas’s artistic practices. “Julian wasn’t making music before he came to that house. There’s something there,” Lucas insists.

There is more sound art and music in this year’s show – which both connects Snap to the main festival and gives it greater fluidity. The clicking and snapping of Drew’s video soundtrack mingles with Simmons’ discordant notes, while Lane’s audio piece – an “orchestra of British birds” performing Britten songs, playing through speakers hidden in the canopy of a willow tree on the lawn – wafts over Barbara Hepworth’s monumental sculpture “The Family of Man”, as if poking fun at its seriousness and longevity.

There’s an unlikely visual connection, too, between Simon Liddiment’s “Parable” – a fan-like construction of rural road signs – and Teller’s billboard-size portrait of the photographer William Eggleston listening to Tchaikovsky, his arms outstretched and fingers tensed as if playing an imaginary piano. While Teller’s photograph portrays an intensely private moment, Liddiment’s sculpture was inspired by Britten’s public-mindedness – specifically, the 1963 post office-commissioned film Night Mail on which Britten and WH Auden collaborated. Yet, facing each other – Liddiment’s rising from the lawn, Teller’s mounted on the end of the concert hall – both works clearly reference the language of communication: a road sign and a billboard. There are countless conversations and reverberations between the art works in Snap, even in their extreme diversity.

Hambling’s arresting installation “War Requiem” makes use of Britten’s piece of the same name, written for the reopening of Coventry Cathedral after the second world war. Hambling has turned the tiny pitched-roof dovecote at the Maltings into a quasi-cathedral, with near-abstracted portraits painted in impasto swirls and smudges. Here they become Britten’s choir, freed from their canvases by the more abstract medium of music. Indeed, Hambling’s exploration of the relationship between sound and vision is the most interesting of any Snap artist: the Requiem seems solid and precise, its singers real, their diction clear, then melts into abstraction, Hambling’s paintings becoming powerful, subtly individualised portraits, only to be submerged by the music once more.

Across Snap, Britten’s influence is often either loose or tangential, raising questions about the nature of artistic response. While many artists have shied away from Britten’s music to focus on biographical details, Hambling’s installation gives a powerful impression of a collaboration with the composer in its constant play of musical and pictorial tone.

‘Snap’, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, June 9-30; open day June 8 1pm-4pm

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