Steve Messam, Temple of Piety

British Environmental Artist Steve Messam Creates a Dramatic Installation in a Classical Portico

A former freelance photographer and journalist, 52-year-old British environmental artist Steve Messam has devoted the last two decades to creating temporary site-specific installations—bold, colorful, and thoughtful works (usually “bigger than a house,” as he puts it) that interact with their surroundings, both natural and manmade. Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Park—an 800-acre National Trust and UNESCO World Heritage Site in northern England comprising the ruins of a medieval monastery in an 18th-century landscaped park—was the setting for “These Passing Things,” an exhibition of three related Messam works—Drifted, Bridged, and Spiked—that ran last summer and fall.

For the latter, the artist appropriated a Georgian garden folly, the Temple of Piety, filling its classical portico with an inflated textile form with pointed spines that protruded dramatically through the columns. Consulting old plans and elevations of the temple, Messam used CAD to create life-size paper patterns for the work’s machine-sewed nylon pieces, in a striking sunshine yellow. He worked closely with the trust’s conservation team to adjust the original spiky starburst design so the installation wouldn’t harm the landmarked structure, especially its plaster ceiling moldings. And he inflated the water- and fire-proofed sculpture with a single quiet ventilation fan so as not to disturb the calm of the gardens during the exhibition, which was postponed more than a year due to the pandemic. “That did give us a lot longer to fabricate the piece,” Messam concedes, “which is always nice.”

Steve Messam

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