Last night I attended a private viewing of the newly launched exhibition at Blickling Hall – The Word Defiant - an installation based artwork using books as a starting point. Theatre company Les Enfants Terribles was commissioned to make a set of seven interventions within the National Trust property and stately home Blickling Hall. The artworks respond to the theme of books and threats to them from different quarters – political, environmental or simply because they are out of date.
The exhibition as commissioned by the National Trust to draw attention to the threat to books and the written word, and to highlight the international importance of the library in Blickling’s Long Gallery and its book collection. Each atmospheric installation represents a different way that the written word is at risk. The library and collection of books at Blickling is currently undergoing a comprehensive conservation programme as it has been plagued by damp and deathwatch beetle for many decades. It is hope that The Word Defiant will alert the public to the magnificence of the important collection at Blickling.
So, I arrived at Blickling Hall on foot having parked at the Buckinghamshire Arms pub not far away. Early evening, after a beautiful sunny day and it felt like rain so there was a strange light, common in Norfolk. I was met at the main gate and directed down the drive towards someone, called Sebastian I was told, who would meet me. I felt like a character from Alice in Wonderland as I took a long lonely walk between two tall hedges down a long, long drive towards a distant figure who poked his head out from behind a silver-coloured car and beckoned me towards him. Finally we met and he greeted me and welcomed me to Blickling. It is a long time since I been to the hall and never without crowds of people. I was reminded of what an amazing place it is. I was told to start with the Neglected Word and then directed with a (very polite) handwave towards The Temple – which I couldn’t see for hedges - but I headed off in the indicated direction nevertheless. Gradually I met other wanderers and eventually a pink light appeared. It was the doorway of a small temple and inside, books half-buried in sand which we could walk around and through. I was still not ‘quite on the page’ with what I had come to see. The description of the artists as a theatre company meant I expected a performance but it was when I returned to the house (still under the threat of rain) that I realised we had started with the one outdoor installation first and that the house contained the rest. Once back inside I was given a piece of paper which explained everything, including the introduction at the top of this review. I also started to comprehend that the role of the theatre company was one of artists using the skills of theatrical set designers and that no-one was likely to leap out on me from behind a screen or out of the wallpaper.
The paper sheet I was given introduced seven installations and gave a little background to each one. I have to say that it really helped having some interpretation as it enabled me to get much more from each piece as I followed the trail.
The trail takes you around the house from the grand hallway, through the lush drawing rooms, below stairs and even into the cellars and bathrooms, each piece highlighting a contemporary issue from book-burning in Afghanistan, to censorship in China to redaction in the USA and plain old water damage in places such as Venice – probably this was one of my favourites The Word Drowned – books in a bath – apparently the bath is where bookshops in Venice store their books to protect them from rising tides! And The Word Redacted in the long corridor below stairs where many, many words had been deleted from the memoir Operation Dark Heart. This piece is visually dramatic (as they all are) and accompanied by a Morse code soundtrack. In fact, many of the pieces have some sound attached which adds to the atmosphere, such as Sat Nav instructions that accompany maps and charts flowing from a cabinet in The Word Superseded in the Chinese Dressing Room.
The final point in the trail is the enormous Long Gallery. I had never been in there before and my jaw literally dropped as I entered the room. An incredible decorative plaster ceiling above, metres of book shelves lining the walls and a huge pile of books falling from the shelves, onto the carpet, over the grand piano and out of the window. We were told that all of the books were destined for recycling before being used for the artwork – even that fact is quite startling as many of the books looked ‘valuable’ but are in fact no longer needed.
This exhibition is a great opportunity to take a new look at Blickling Hall – which is completely awesome – in the true sense of the word, combined with these interesting intersections with the interior spaces and furnishings. Both the house and the installations would be interesting on their own, but together they make a compelling reason to visit Blickling Hall this summer.
The exhibition is open now until 28 October
At Blickling Hall and Estate, Norfolk NR11 6NF