Postcard from Kurt Schwitters' Merzbarn — Launch of Littoral Artists' Residency

(1) The last of German artist Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau installations stands at the centre of the site for a new residency programme, run by arts trust Littoral, near Ambleside in the Lake District. Fleeing from the Nazis, Scwhitters came to England in 1940, moving to Elterwater in 1945 where he began his third Merzbau, or Merzbarn as Schwitters called it, two years later. After years of neglect however the Merzbarn is barely hanging on. The sparse light sifted through a humus of fallen leaves on the corrugated roof does little to illuminate the ‘digital replica’ (a printed canvas from photograph) that stands in for the long removed wall structure, relocated to the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle. There is nothing really here then but a shell precariously propped in the slate and mud, clinging to the geist of its creator. But the removal of Schwitters’ installation – albeit for the sake of preservation – is the removal of Merz, the borrowed term he applied to his work and that for some denotes the essence of his practice. And with the eradication of ‘Merz’, what’s left is no more than a barn.

(2) Littoral, having purchased the Cylinders Estate in which the Merzbarn is sited, are set to rectify this beginning with a two-year artists residency and education programme. Particularly aimed at students at postgraduate level, the scheme has already attracted groups from the Royal College of Art as well as a pioneering programme with the MA Sculpture students at The Slade. The Slade students commenced what is a period of ‘bedding-in’, of exploration and play to determine how the programme will be structured. 14 artists were invited to come up for a week, to make work or not (something we’ll come to later). In this initial stage, what the Littoral residency offers artists is both a stake in the future of the programme but also to those it invites, a sense of freedom; a freedom before the project becomes structured, a freedom before it becomes ‘institutionalised’. This is a term at which we need not necessarily shudder; ask any artist, freedom without parameters can do nothing more than stifle creativity rather than accelerate it. As an aisle’s worth of ingredients make a cake-mix of no discernable flavour, an overabundance of ideas can lead to a muddied practice, to ambivalence, and at worst, cliché. To make it work, one must lose ideas.

(2.1) A whole discussion is to be had about what this slippery term ‘freedom’ actually constitutes when framed within an artists’ residency programme such as this. For many, and lazily it would seem, ‘residency’ has become shorthand for ‘time, space and freedom’. But rather than an alternative to the ‘structured freedom’ sanctioned college courses purport, the artist residency has become no more than an annexe to art school education, the equivalent of the offsite management-training course or company-sponsored personal development programme. Where is this freedom, really? I’m loath to bang my drum about this too vehemently here (yet it is a drum worth banging), but it is a notion particularly relevant to this initiative considering how the Merzbarn itself came about in the first place.

(3) After a period of internment, Schwitters came to England an exile and in many ways that is what he received in the making of his final Merzbarn in the Lake District. Rather than the offer of exile (which would be perhaps too glib a notion to apply to a bunch of art school students under the guise of self-banishment) Littoral promote more the chance of withdrawal or ‘retreat’. This does, of course, suggest a level of self-gratification and indulgence over artistic production; a holiday. But why not? A little time for non-thinking, non-making, perhaps this is the freedom artists need. As Isa Genzken says, ‘Artists never take vacations. The entire art system urgently needs a vacation.’ Well, give them one then. The danger is when this behaviour is sustained and all too self-conscious, the artist falls into a state of cognitive dissonance – where one engages in behaviour that conflicts with one's beliefs – that results in ‘non-productive making’. This is what artists call ‘the itch’.

(4) At the end of Littoral’s first week-long artists’ residency, most of The Slade artists could not abstain from (or at least thinking about) making art work, much of which was left on site to be subsumed into the landscape (people like that, don’t they?). The final evening was marked by an excellent recitation of Schwitters’ sound poem, Ursonate, by Florian Kaplik (delivered with such vim, its author was left like a purring cat), along with other poetry readings and fiddle music battered out over the flames of the bonfire.

(5) The Kurt Schwitter’s Merzbarn at Cylinders Estate is one of many projects Littoral have undertaken and it will no doubt prove successful despite some teething troubles. The facilities are not quite there yet and the project perhaps lacks a clear focus at present. But they are asking the right questions: Who to engage? How to engage them? and How to make the project sustainable? Of course, with an agenda of preservation – particularly of the artists’ legacy – one of Littoral’s key concerns here is the promotion of the work of Kurt Schwitters to a new generation of artists. Even they admit, this is something Schwitters himself would have balked at; he was an advocate of the work of contemporary artists and not the fetishisation and canonisation of older artists. Leaving the old dichotomy of iconoclasm vs. conservationism aside, rumours of plans to construct a facsimile of the original Merzbarn structure in place of the ‘digital replica’ makes one a little uneasy. With the first Merzbau in the artist’s home in Hanover destroyed by an air raid during WWII and the second in Norway destroyed by fire, perhaps the most apt recourse is to leave the Merzbarn as a barn. As a site of pilgrimage to a diffident building that contains nothing but anecdote and damp, to leave the Merzbarn as it is perhaps no bad thing, and perhaps even enough to ensure Schwitters’ legacy, irrespective of whether he wants it to or not.

(6) To find out more about Littoral and their residency programme at the Cylinders Estate – the site of Schwitters’ Merzbarn - visit

Siôn Parkinson

Untitled (Celebration Hole), 2008A collaborative project by The Slade MA Sculpture, initiated by Siôn Parkinsonhole, slate, timber, ash, bunting, fireworks

Untitled (Celebration Hole), 2008
A collaborative project by The Slade MA Sculpture, initiated by Siôn Parkinson
hole, slate, timber, ash, bunting, fireworks