By Tim Richardson for The Telegraph - 28 July 2017
It has perhaps rather crept under the radar, but an exhibition that unites historical horticulture with the hottest of contemporary art is about to open at the Bowes Museum in Co Durham. The show, entitled Turkish Tulips, was curated by British conceptual artist Gavin Turk and involves an impressive roster of contemporary British artists, including Damien Hirst, Cornelia Parker and Peter Blake. Conceived originally for the Van Loon Museum in Amsterdam, where I saw it, the exhibition is at the Bowes until November 5.
The Van Loon Museum is a late 17th-century house in the heart of the old canal district. Its 18th- and 19th-century interiors are presented as a glimpse of aristocratic life in Amsterdam, yet there is still something of a domestic atmosphere about the place. Perhaps that is because the house/museum is still in the hands of the Van Loon family, who occupy the former servants’ quarters on the top floors.
Over coffee in the garden, Philippa Van Loon, who chairs the museum foundation and is its contemporary art advisor, tells me how the exhibition came about. It transpires she was at Chelsea School of Art, studying sculpture, at the same time as Turk in the late Eighties. Since then Philippa’s art practice has moved more towards curation – the Van Loon Museum hosts two contemporary exhibitions every year – while Turk became one of the most celebrated of the YBAs (Young British Artists) in the Nineties and 2000s.
“Gavin came to us in a way,” Philippa says. “He’s always wanted to do something here. But I knew he didn’t want to do a ‘Gavin Turk show’ – I could see he and Deborah wanted to curate something.” (Deborah Curtis is Turk’s wife; together they run the art charity The House of Fairy Tales, where the emphasis is on work accessible to children.) “We have to have something trans-historical here,” Philippa continues. “There must always be a conversation with the house in our exhibitions – it isn’t a white cube gallery.”
Philippa was initially unsure about its theme. “When Gavin first suggested tulips I thought, ‘Oh no!’ because in Holland we’re bombarded with tulips.” But, as she points out, the first exhibit – a perfect replica by Turk of a Dutch commercial tulip box, in bronze – effectively subverts the cliché.
Philippa shows me two works of her own that she contributed to the show. The first is a tiny glass coffin, with real dried tulips sandwiched between its panels. “It refers to my taking care of this house,” Philippa says. “It’s a coffin: it’s about death and the coming and going of generations, the fragility of flowers and the fragility of this house.” The second is a single gilded tulip stem. “It’s a real tulip which I took just before it wilted,” Philippa says. “I had it dipped in a gold bath. This is a tradition in Holland. If you have a wedding bouquet or a pair of baby shoes, it’s a way of preserving the moment. It’s a comment on tulipmania and the cost of these bulbs.”
Turk says the idea for the exhibition came when he found himself in the foyer looking at a flower display. He said: “I was thinking, ‘Isn’t it interesting that in a museum you make a flower display as a way of starting to engage the audience in the process of looking?’ With a name like Gavin Turk, and as someone who deals with cultural cliché, or cultural identity, I thought that what I would do is deliver my own box of tulips to the museum.”
Hirst’s Tulip Varieties is a mock-up of a bulb catalogue page featuring mainly pink varieties with elaborate names such as 'Bastogne Parrot' and 'Doorman’s Record'. Mat Colishaw’s Tulipmania is a photographic print of an exploding flower, while Michael Craig-Martin has contributed a silkscreen print in blue and purple tones inspired by the entwining tulips in a celebrated photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe. Most of the works were created specifically for this exhibition.
The list of famous names goes on. Anya Gallaccio’s Steep is a beguiling digital print of petals frozen in a block of ice, creating a luscious abstract. Equally celebratory is Georgie Hopton’s Two Tulips with Blue Square, where exuberant pink-tinged flowers play off an austere, constructivist-inspired backdrop. Yinka Shonibare’s Tulip Fieldis a digital print of a coloured line drawing with gold foil.
Peter Blake’s contribution is a reprise of a Nineties National Gallery commission in which the artist painted a series of portraits of isolated tulips from Dutch still-life paintings.
For me, the most engaging works in the Amsterdam show were those which felt most embedded in the life of the house. Successful in this regard were the works by Rob and Nick Carter, a husband-and-wife artistic partnership based in London. In a corner of the Sheep Room (named for its wallpaper design) was a framed video piece entitled Five Tulips in a Wan-Li Vase. The beautifully-lit 25-minute film is a distillation of 10 days’ continuous filming of the flowers in a vase, as they slowly wilt, their petals fall and the stems droop.
In the end, perhaps the show says more about friendship than anything else. In Amsterdam, Philippa took me to a small exhibit in a case in one of the upper rooms of the museum. It contains the Liber Amicorum, the Van Loon family’s “friendship book”, a kind of autograph book dating from 1597 in which friends and family associates signed their names. She explained that Gavin Turk conceived the exhibition as a kind of friendship book celebrating his bond with artistic contemporaries.
In the spirit of artistic subversion, Turkish Tulips might just as easily be dubbed, “Temple to British Friendship”.
Turkish Tulips runs at the Bowes Museum until November 5, 2017.
The exhibition then travels to Istanbul and in 2018 it will be at the Horniman Museum, London SE23. For further information, visit thebowesmuseum.org.uk.
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