The great 18th-century English landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown acquired his can-do nickname because he used frequently to speak of what he called the “capabilities” of the land of his aristocratic employers and could tell them of the transformations promised. Walking through his parkland at Compton Verney, a Robert Adam house in Warwickshire – now an art gallery – the lake is indolently still as if it knew better than to stir in the summer heat, and it’s tempting to imagine how gratified its creator would be by Crossings and the beautiful way in which multidisciplinary artist Luke Jerram, in collaboration with Radio 4 producer Julian May, has identified new capability within the landscape.
Nine rowing boats, freshly painted, wait by the water’s edge. There is a list of 10 stories – a multifarious anthology, mostly about traveling by boat on water – on a board on the bank. Each story is given a couple of sentences – you have to choose just one. You then take out a boat with your story (the boats are equipped with speakers and can accommodate four people at most). Each story lasts 20 minutes and the outing takes half an hour. Row, row, row your boat gently across the … I listen to the testimony of gallant Iranian Mana Azarish, who, aged 13, when her father’s courage failed him, guided a boat of refugees across the Channel. She was as lost as she was brave: “How do I know the boat is going the right direction?” she asked. She was told to follow a star – a biblical instruction.
I love the sound of her voice, its light and warmth. She sounds untraumatized. But what are you to feel about her terrifying ordeal as you idly pull on the oars? I am accompanied by a cluster of dragonflies and try carefully to avoid a swan preening itself with standoffish – swim-offish – grace. Across the lawn is the becalmed house with its magnificently restored Adam facade and stone the color of milky tea. There are oaks and cedars and hopeful new plantings. On a bridge spanning the lake, four sphinxes keep watch. The tranquility is profound. How does this English idyll connect with remembered hell? What does it make you feel? A lazy schadenfreude? An I’m-all-right-Jack complacency? Or, more wholesomely, an enhanced gratitude for an English summer’s day? I step out of the boat undecided yet delighted by the rarity of reverie, the way the peace of the lake allows for the driftwood of thought. Half an hour feels tantalizingly short.
I’m curious about the other stories on offer, and it turns out to be possible to listen to an edited selection at an audio post (good tip for landlubbers). But it’s only once I’ve sampled the stories in full (this can be done at Compton Verney’s welcome centre) that I understand the meticulous variety and scope of the project. It makes you think that each of our stories is a vessel of sorts. I am especially moved by Currach, a lyrical account by three women of building a boat on the west coast of Ireland, in memory of a sister and friend – an act of faith and continuing life. Fishing With Cormorants is fascinating, too – at once admirable and sinister – an account of how these wild birds are used to fish in Japan; the ancient tradition of ok. I relished the obsessive quality of Richard King’s cormorant knowledge and the accompanying recitation, by Togo Igawa, of austere haikus about cormorant fishing – Japanese nocturnes.
But standing out from the crowd for sheer charm is Mr Fan (I am now a fan), a retired barber from Greenwich who once cut the hair of Julian May and his sons. One of the Vietnamese boat people, he set off in 1975 with his family in a boat none of them knew how to sail. Their journey to Hong Kong should have taken a week but lasted three months. As they sighted the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, a typhoon blew them back, as in a nightmare, to Vietnam. Mr Fan punctuates his desperate story with bursts of cheery laughter. He expresses gratitude towards England. Against the odds, his favorite word would seem to be “lucky”.
Crossings makes you register keenly the difference between stepping into a boat on a whim and out of dire need. There is another important difference, too, between a necessary journey and a self-sought endurance test. Seb Coulthard, out of heroism or insane folly (you decide), underwent a freezing, 800-mile journey, in competition with the elements, to sample what Ernest Shackleton endured sailing from Antarctica to South Georgia to rescue stranded colleagues.
There is, I confess, a satisfaction to listening to these shattering, drenching, epic voyages within dry, safe, self-contained 20-minute slots. But what also intrigues, once Coulthard’s punishing report of his experience is done, is his account of returning home. He is staggered by the choices in the supermarket – the bewildering excess. Why so many versions of cornflakes? And if there is a shared message in these narratives, it is to have a rethink about what one needs. Crossings revives the miracle of being alive at all – of staying afloat.
There is an obvious connection between Luke Jerram’s vision and that of Color Is, a show by the Scottish artist David Batchelor, inside the house at Compton Verney. Jo Royle is the link: she skippered the Plastiki, a boat constructed from 12,500 recycled two-litre plastic bottles, from San Francisco to Sydney to draw attention to plastic in the oceans. Hanging within Compton Verney’s grand entrance hall, instead of the expected chandelier, is Candle (2002) – a bunch of lights inside plastic bleach bottles like strange fruit on vines of cable: bright green, blue and chilli-pepper red. This is a show of colorful repurposing and the first large-scale survey of Batchelor’s work: 40 years of painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, animation and tapestry. It is a unified adventure in which anything might turn out to be ornamental and playfully recycled – especially objects that never asked to be seen.
The most appealing – because beautiful – exhibit is Concretely (one of several related pieces): three shelves – like tiered mantelpieces. These display variously festive objects: paint lids, a bottle-brush, Mexican beads – a party to meet and greet the eye. The piece was inspired by walls topped with shards of turquoise glass seen in Sicily. The concrete works as a base for colors of Matisse-like gaiety. Batchelor’s quest to make something out of (almost) nothing is a delight. It is highly skilled yet happy-go-lucky – as Mr Fan would surely agree.
Star ratings (out of five)
Luke Jerram: Crossings ★★★★
David Batchelor: Color Is ★★★★