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MERZ Reconstruction + Fabrication

3 January 2018

MERZ Workshop occupies the buildings and yard of Sanquhar’s former lemonade factory.

MERZ’s objective is to re-use and recast narratives exploring reconstruction and fabrication in the arts.

MERZ draws as a metaphor on Kurt Schwitters’ assemblages and the conceptual and protagonistic approach of Analytical Art and the early Art & Language.

MERZ provides residency accommodation for artists and authors including workshop and exhibition space providing filmed exposition of work/ideas for TV, social media or archive.

MERZ offers a hub for touring, swapping and exchanging art-as-idea among artists, collectives, progressive galleries encouraging the virtual as well as the physical visitor.

Backstory: Interpreting MERZ: Exposition and/or Exhibition
A site of richness and multiple textures which feeds curiosity. It is obviously decaying. But decay, as anyone who has watched meat rot knows, possesses a vitality of its own. Such vitality is definitely preferable to sterility and stadia … what an architect sees, blindly and banally, is not richness …. But, rather, something that is crudely classified as a brown eld site, that is tantamount to being classified as having no intrinsic worth. It is a non-place where derivative architecture can gloriously propagate itself with impunity .A brownfield site is a job opportunity, a place where the world can be physically improved. The architectural urge doesn’t acknowledge the fact that it’ll all turn to dust. Jonathan Meades,‘Ugly Truths’, The Guardian, 19/09/12

The partial-word MERZ was extracted from the name of the COMMERZ-UND PRIVATBANK and was made by Schwitters into a new word. Initially this was possibly an arbitrary selection or interpretation (in the way that Schwitters’ found and used these letters).

But through re-use and repetition the catch-all ‘MERZ’ is now identified with Schwitters’ work and process. From a different trajectory and with a background in surrealism Barnett Newman thought about his more austere stripe painting Onement for over a year in 1947 before deciding to continue painting with the re- stricted language of vertical lines that he then called ‘zips’.

In contrast Schwitters provided an evolving application for MERZ as his naming includes his sculptures and reliefs locked into buildings as well as the more portable work, work that can be destroyed only to be reconstructed. Schwitters’ way of working adjusted his new materials to new circumstances. Yet Schwitters’ persistence with renewal and regeneration – often in an architecturally embedded MERZ building – implies an artist who makes one continuous work, extended to a lifetime. This iteration of MERZ across a variety of forms includes some apparently ephemeral, some uniting what has been broken, some unfinished and others frequently destroyed while Schwitters’ also invites others to intercept and re-use ‘MERZ’. Schwitters avoided seeming too proprietarily or overly authorial with his use of MERZ. He didn’t take exclusive ownership of this new ‘term’ but evolved meanings that continued to invite fresh narratives long- since pinning out from his own insights and interests.

I have sympathy with Schwitters’ sense of generosity in his stimulation of meaning rather that saturation. Instead of imposing artistic copyright or limitation Schwitters’ encouraged meanings for MERZ, suggesting perhaps that he sought to inspire the reader/viewer to evolve an open-ended MERZ. In this I think we can note a shift from the commercial element of an utterance within a corporate name being salvaged for a nuanced social purpose that might instead convey multiple or less privatised projects forward.

Since a student I’ve been interested in the use of words in art and in addressing the simplified possessive language of art reflecting value in the marketplace. That interest – as much as in forms of idiolect or restricted uses of language (in semi-private group-work) – provides a setting in which an artist might avoid easy absorption or definition.

Over the last twenty years or so I’ve been a regular visitor to the Lake District taking long walks. I hadn’t been working in art for some years when I first started visiting Ambleside. I would spend wet days reading about the area and its local personalities. I came across Schwitters’ local paintings in the Armitt gallery/museum in Ambleside and in Kendal. My interest deepened with those books and texts written on Schwitters’ last years in the area, an insight of a different more human tone than the more widely available Thames and Hudson volume by John Elderfield which focused more broadly.

In 2011 I thought of appropriating the word MERZ as the name for a studio-gallery I’d started converting from the old Lemonade Factory in Sanquhar. Located in the Upper Nithsdale area of Dumfries and Gallo- way the connection between Schwitters and this building and area is not at all obvious. In not being obvious the juxtapositions I found interesting in Schwitters’ collage work were reflected in the site. Important too was a reflection on Schwitters’ response to his own evolved and attenuated circumstances, to an enforced change and to his misfortune and happenstance rolled-out as life-experience.

So in a formal sense there are no literal connections between MERZ and MERZSanquhar and any narrative linking the two relies on metaphor and action. But thinking of Schwitters’ process in the assembly of scraps of texts and fragments of images there were resonances of the similar approach being adopted to recover and reassign within a small abandoned landscape elements imprinted with industrial and domestic histories, I thought to call the site ‘MERZ’.

Imagine a quarter acre plot of rubbish-strewn scrub-land in a small town’s conservation area. Something discarded and abandoned is still to be ‘conserved’.
The site is divided by rights of way. These allow access to gardens to the west serving two cottages sited along the eastern edge of the plot. The site is bounded on the south and west sides by a dry stone wall running from the larger lime-spattered single story brick building: the factory. The three strips of land are not easily consolidated or privatised (should one choose) divided as they are by the rights of way. So this was a site without commercial value yet some conserved meaning. Each of the divided strips was too narrow to build a house, and the two most northern strips were land-locked beyond the road.

In 1890 the buildings comprised Sharp’s Aerated Water Manufactures employing eleven people (eight of them women). Later it was Mitchell & Shankland’s plumbers and slaters’ yard, workshop and store. For fifteen years the site had been abandoned and overlooked and abused to the point of becoming a litter and rubbish strewn waste-ground.

The evidence of former industry remained mostly within the main single story building with its small basement. It had been purpose-built in the late 1800s from a variety of local bricks sitting on large stones as a foundation.

Further inspection and clearance uncovered the brick bases of several corrugated tin huts, a large brick courtyard and a small wooded area with a sandstone building. The sandstone building appeared on the area’s first Ordnance Survey map in the mid-19th century.

The plan with the title deeds to the plot show the present buildings as well as the sheds and a railway goods wagon parked up on the brick-yard. The wagon marks out the dogleg course of the right of way from one of the cottages to their plot.
The eaves of the sandstone building are too shallow to suggest the antiquity of thatch and was of no interest to Historic Scotland. This modest six metre square building had possibly served for shepherds working for the former feu of the Duke of Buccleuch but local knowledge suggests it was a wash-house for the nearby cottages. This ‘bothy’ was evidently the earliest building on site and a stone’s throw from William Adam’s 18th century Tolbooth, now a local museum. Both the Tolbooth and the Bothy probably benefitted from stone recovered from the ruined remnants of 13th century Sanquhar Castle.

A debate as to whether the ‘Bothy’ had a domestic purpose was concluded when frost damage opened the top of one of its gables revealing a chimney running down inside the two feet thick wall. This confirmed that the building had once been a dwelling or a more likely a wash-house shared by the cottages nearby and not (as others had suggested) a stable.

II
When I bought the plot, the brick built factory workshop – internally some 5m x 11m – had a tree growing from its foundations and the wall above leaning dangerously to threaten the roof. The chimney stack had collapsed and brought down the surrounding slates; water had rotted the purlins and encouraged woodworm and wet rot across the attic floor. The ground floor was mostly brick and dirt surrounding a ten-foot square pit forming a basement accessed from inside and outside under a rotten floor poised to collapse. The basement beneath was filled with a decade or more of broken toys stretching layer by layer from childhood to teenage years topped with a barbeque and garden waste.

On the southern side of the site a group of sycamore trees were buckling the dry-stone wall onto the ad- joining road. The tree was self-seeding into gardens in the adjoining houses. Cut down in 2010 its vast root structure was finally removed by JCB in 2017.

In 2009 the solicitors had advertised this as a site with a derelict building. But – in a Schwitters’ moment – this was clearly a site that might be reinvented and repurposed: some- where that could retain and redeploy many of its parts so that its past, present and future meanings could reverberate in reassigning old/redundant materials to new uses.

Many of the elements of Schwitters’ work might be reproduced in this architectural project, a collage of old and even older forms of random left-over architectural elements in need of a present or refreshed meanings: giving sense to an otherwise meaningless ‘conservation’ being applied to the site’s decrepit condition. This site was never a blank canvas or a clean sheet of paper. But in its collapsed state what was being con- served was without a continuing purpose. Unable because of its ‘conservation’ to be declared a brownfield site and criss-crossed by paths this was a place in which to rearrange subtly and conserve in a new form as a ‘MERZ’.
Four feet of vegetation was cleared from soil surrounding a brick path, revealing four inches of earth covering a courtyard made up of local Sanquhar, Kelloholm and Buccleuch bricks and several adjacent bricked areas (from brickworks as long gone as their associated coal mines). Remnants of foundation walls emerged where rusted and peeled-black corrugated iron poked towards half-buried evidence of a toilet block and drains.

The earth, metal and vegetation were cleared over the summer of 2009.A search for a well or an aquifer proved fruitless. Yet, why build a Lemonade Factory in 1890 unless it had a secure and pure water supply? The brick path through the weeds linked retired miner Bill’s cottage to his shed. Here Bill made shepherds’ crooks.

Again in this there is an echo of Schwitters in the dissonance of his rural representations (his scenes of Ambleside sold on the town’s bridge) carried on alongside and unfulfilled dialogue on his contribution to Dada with urban New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Another local Sanquhar industry, the Sanquhar glove is dif cult if not impossible to manufacture mechanically on a knitting machine, not only because of its unique finger construction but because the initials of each intended recipient are knitted into the cuff. This knitting by hand thwarts a commercial venture, unless future designs compromise some of the unique qualities that the gloves represent. There is a public as well as historic commitment by the hand-knitters secured locally mostly as presents to family and friends whose initials are incorporated in each design.
Margaret and Fiona’s walk across the site to their garden-ground goes through the courtyard. It was Bill though who maintained this right of way by his own daily use, tending to the ground to left and right of the path, clearing the weeds on the path and by planting an avenue of trees. Although on land belonging to the long-abandoned lemonade factory/plumbers yard the now small wood is mostly Bill’s doing.

Bill’s shed beyond the woods was his workshop, used for carving and steaming hazel and twisting the sheep’s horns.

A couple of years on from 2009 the main brick building had been brought back to life, the collapsed and rotten north facing windows were replaced so far as could be estimated to their former pattern (but with double glazed panels). Reclaimed doors were introduced.

Doors and windows that could be saved or reused were built into the large shed sitting on the foundations of one of the former out-buildings. The main building now has half a new roof and the rest rebuilt.

The purlins offered no support and the loft floor sagged alarmingly, not helped by extensive woodworm. The woodworm was treated and where necessary timbers replaced and a tie from the ridge added to support the ceiling joists. The loft-area has heating, lighting and two roof-lights and houses the hot and cold water tanks. The building has been insulated and a wood-burning stove heats water for the sink in a fold-out kitchen and a small shower and basin in a caravan-size bathroom. These ‘domestic’ elements are present but they are hidden; the bathroom following the line of a wall that housed a toilet and (I imagine) the manager’s office.

With an imaginative leap it is possible to see the spirit of MERZ in the recovery of this site.

In 2017 work was completed on the sandstone bothy conversion into a residential space for those using the studio-gallery. Planning consent has been granted for artists (in the broadest sense) in residence to stay while working in the workshop where their activity might culminate in an exhibition.

This story reflects on Schwitters’ imagination unfolds from many angles.
I’ve had two parallel careers one in art and the other in TV. In a book in 1998 titled ‘Don Quixote’s Art & Television’ I suggested these activities were inter-linked through their interest in ‘space’, in capturing a communications space and in distinguishing noise from meaning in that space. I was also interested in architecture as the enclosure and punctuation of space.

For an interest in art it is increasingly television programmes/TV clips as well as books and catalogues that provide the spaces through which to represent the exhibition, offering another corridor into preferred/possible meanings about whatever the gallery encloses at a particular time.

For ‘gallery’ we could also substitute ‘picture frame’, or the ‘boundary’ – the supposed edge of a work. A sharp or grey fuzzy line in which physically as well as metaphorically we seem to no longer be talking about the work but about something else.

As someone who was a student of art when Minimal and Conceptual work was becoming known what I’ve outlined would then have been called ‘the context’.
In the background to our studies then were Jasper John’s paintings. These included the tools that were used to paint them, the flag paintings. And more broadly there was much conversational unpicking of Donald Judd’s dictum that ‘what the artist calls art is art’ as well as authorship implications of (for example) Robert Morris’ soft-form work, where both manufacture of felt sculpture and its arrangement in the gallery (Tate) were only loosely under Morris’ supervision.
Clearly the ‘assertion of art as art’ enabled anything to be art but the delegation of manufacture and arrangement also took a critical student back to the hollowness of this art as nomination.

In 1970 I knew very little about Schwitters, nothing of his story, or his making of work within a variety of immediate social and built settings. My access to Schwitters was through the collages of Richard Hamilton. So as I stumbled across Schwitters’ legacy in Ambleside and Kendal in the 1980s and in the 1990s sought out the pamphlets and books for evening holiday reading and – I suppose – found in those quieter moments an empathy for his making sense of what you do amongst those you are with.

But … I suggested just now that my longer-standing interest in TV, particularly in policy affecting broadcasting, was related to this.

I think that the artist’s role is fundamentally about changing space, about opening something within a literal space (sculpture) or metaphorical space (painting) or within a language space (some Conceptual art).

In one way the television space (and now the internet space) provides access to the art space (in programming on the arts) but is also that space in which the work itself increasingly or primarily exists (for the audience). Attendance at exhibitions can be so low in person that it is not wildly wrong to suggest that more people are exposed to work not in its original (if this means much) but in its various forms of representation and transformation. The MERZ is also a studio for TV or (for books and catalogues) as well as a photography. Here the representation of work from work is not subordinated but equal.

In written work as well as through art-work in the 70s through the 90s I suggested the representation of art (through the photograph) had become the more obvious and longstanding way that generally we might com to know work. The exhibition is then merely a staging post for a more substantial on-going representation through media.

With the widespread use of digital technology the clone of an original work is to all intents and purposes a second original.

Restoration and conservation is really the application of nineteenth century techniques – or a striving to triumph over reality. Copies (from photocopiers onwards) become fully- edged substitutes. Preserving the original plays to the continued influence of market value when – again from earlier writing – there might be a separately defined methodology for (say) public art, art where ideas prevail regardless and where the concrete is momentary and where transience can be represented through copies.

Elsewhere (The Art Particle) I take these thoughts towards a suggestion that the art market remains stubbornly Newtonian in its physics so that our understanding of art as a transferable and original good is understood in a seventeenth and eighteenth century way, whereas the art produced from the twentieth century onwards is the more interesting if our interpretation of its narratives are not dictated to by market value.
I suggest that in parallel with quantum physics we might regard art as a particle, a transferable, mutable work in progress, not work that shelters under conservation and restoration to perpetuate through defiance its collision and decay: this art-work-preservation strikes a false resistance to being reformed and reused. Work most fundamentally exists now not in any singular physical form, it exists mostly through its representation through language and facsimile, in the narrative that surrounds ‘work’.

When asked ‘what is a work about?’ one answer invites us to reply that ‘about’ also means circumlocution, circulating around as well as a more linear, straightforward traditional search for an artist’s intention as substitution.

This then is the final possible link with Schwitters, ending a way of working in art that largely salvages and encapsulates conversation, then moves on – each work a sketch for the next, each work a stage on a journey from which – if we view this from the market viewpoint – the legacy left standing as being important is a particular arrangement of those stages. If so this remains a story that is readily modified to exclude or to include the figurative or pictorial (in Schwitters’ case), a story predicated on instances of work that left the studio rather than the need for working the singular as art-work. Rather, I would suggest, art-working.

Schwitters’ contribution as someone forced to migrate and journey in life and through work – in creating and recreating the MERZBau – is that significant parts of work were not themselves made to travel, were not even made to be collected, were not made for a market.

So in all this there are reasons why I like MERZ – Schwitters has stripped out of the centre of COM- MERZ-UND PRIVATBANK a multitude of new meanings to use and re-use.

© DR 2011 and updated 2017