The fun of the fayre: Alex Hartley talks twinning Nowhereisland for Museums at Night

By Mark Sheerin | 09 May 2014

Market Hall Museum in landlocked Warwick is the next stop for Nowhereisland roadshow as artist Alex Hartley stages an eccentric Museums at Night county fair

Colour photo of an artist in a suit standing on a rock in the sea
© Alex Hartley
Alex Hartley is no stranger to a challenge, yet a late-opening museum in the West Midlands was at first making him anxious. “Normally I have full control,” he says. “If something has my name on it, if it's a failure it's my failure.”

Museums at Night may just be one weekend, but participating artists take note: it could be more than you bargained for. And such might have been the case for Hartley, who on May 16 will be at the Market Hall Museum in Warwick.

“I have to say I think when I was originally approached for this, I was told that it would be one evening. Don't really worry. Just turn up,” he recalls via phone. “And then suddenly I realised, it's actually a lot more exposing than that."

Readers who cast their mind back to the Cultural Olympiad in 2012 may recall the artist's bold scheme to float a rocky island around the UK coast. In the year when the rest of the world looked to London, Nowhereisland was touring British waters as a whole new nation.

And, in a sense, it was. The installation came from Nyskjæret, on an archipelago in Norway, where climate change is redrawing the map. So having negotiated with the Norwegian government, Hartley got permission to tow part of the island into international waters.

This is not the first time he has extended his best known project to dry land. The need for a certain amount of public engagement in 2012 led to the establishment of a mobile embassy which travelled the UK in a truck.

“Anyone who approached that embassy vehicle could find some bit of interest in there,” the artist says.

Working like an island-themed cabinet of curiosities, the roadshow allowed him to maintain the integrity of his original idea. “It let the main work remain a sculpture, which didn't have to have any public interference in it.”

This is probably just as well, since not all the public were, to begin with, on board so to speak. “Artist gets £500,000 of taxpayers' money to transport vast lump of Arctic rock” grumbled a headline in the Daily Mail. Hartley’s self-confessed “difficult” sculpture, was just that.

“We had quite a lot of haters, people who thought it was a massive waste of money,” says the artist. “But I think in the whole experience, there were only about two of them who weren't won over by at least one object in the truck”.

Colour photo of a mobile exhibition on a truck parked up by the sea
NOWHEREISLAND the roadshow© Alex Hartley
Now Hartley is trading up from a truck to an entire market. His Museum in the West Midlands is staging a grand fayre where nothing is for sale and no-one is promoting goods or services. In doing so, they aim to twin Warwickshire with Hartley’s nomadic stateless state.

And having since visited the Museum, Hartley is fired up for the event: “I'm properly excited by their dedication and attitude really. I don't feel that it's a compromise at all”. Even so, he admits: “It’s quite hard for someone to make an interpretation of your work”.

This bodes well for Warwick, where the offering promises to be no less curious. “I've always loved those county shows where there's just one man sitting next to a funny pig engine that chugs along,” says Hartley. “He's not selling anything or doing anything.”

So the market staged by a museum should, according to Hartley, be a celebration of the British knack for eccentricity. Even the twinning of one of Britain’s most landlocked towns with Nowhereisland is on the quirky side.

“I'm pushing obviously for the stranger the better, in a Jeremy Deller folk archive type way. There is a real interest in those.

"I think if they can reach out and find some of those people with strange collections, that's when it's going feel really different.”

Copious amounts of bunting and placard-making workshops for kids will add to the charm of the show. It’s what Hartley calls “stuff which makes it as unified as possible as if it’s one thing”. Clearly the artist is not leaving everything to chance.

“I think it's a brilliant model,” he says of the coming fair, “and it echoes a bit what we tried to do with Nowhereisland. You have people who are invested in it right from the start, so I just think they've really run with it”.

But talking to Hartley, you get a sense that this is an artist still learning to love collaboration. “Until Nowhereisland, I've always resisted that, and quite enjoyed the elitism of the gallery.” There is, however, nothing elitist about Museums at Night.

“It's been a real change. I've done something I really enjoyed, that being slightly more open to being exposed to the public,” he continues. But having braved the Arctic, there should be nothing too scary about an art event in a museum. Not even if it goes on into the night.

  • The Great Warwickshire Show and Tell is at Market Hall Museum, Warwick, on May 16 2014. Runs 3pm-10pm. Admission free.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Hundreds of events take place for Museums at Night between May 15-17 2014. Visit museumsatnight.org.uk and follow the festival on Twitter@MuseumsAtNight.

More on Museums at Night:

Space opera: Jessica Voorsanger talks sci-fi in Scunthorpe for Museums at Night

Volunteers share all: Spencer Tunick talks about his daring project for Museums at Night

Museums at Night 2014: Our guide to Newcastle and Gateshead's Late Shows

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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