Merz: The Experience

On Saturday the 4th October, the group of students set off from the Arts Tower at 8am to visit the site that Kurt Schwitters called home for the last years of his life. The aims of the weekend were to finalise the brief, to survey the site, and ultimately to do some team bonding. There is a risk that the following paragraphs will be somewhat of a narrative, but they will feed into a general idea for the outcomes of the project.

Narrative of the weekend

Firstly, as soon as the team arrived they were greeted by their host, and client, Ian, who provided a great spread of food for the hungry students. The nourishment received would prove vital as the afternoon progressed. As soon as the food had disappeared, the students had a tour of the site to get to know the locations, and significance of certain buildings on Cylinders Farm. The Merzbarn itself is situated at the far end of the site: Ian’s home, and where the students slept was nearer to the entrance. After this, the students clambered to the top of the quasi hill mountain behind Ian’s property to survey the landscape that Schwitters worked in. The following day, a survey of the site took place – photos document all the character of the site, whilst measurements were taken so that accurate representations can be drawn up.

One of the many, many, views from the hill behind the site


It is clear from the visit that the Merzbarn is merely building fabric – local slate, glass, wood, and builder’s plaster. The significance of the building is the shape, as it is extremely similar to that of Schwitters’s Norwegian effort produced prior to the Nazi invasion of late 1939. However, the barn at Elterwater has no remaining works from Schwitters, other than his old painting desk and a window installed to sell cakes to ramblers that wander past through the site towards Windermere and Grasmere.

The Experience

It was imperative for the students that they ‘filled the shoes’ of Kurt Schwitters, as this would give them an understanding of why his works were made in such a thrifty manner. The majority of the group slept inside the a barn dedicated for visitors, whilst one slept in the library ‘yurt’, built by another group of students that worked with Ian, and another member slept in what seemed like an abandoned caravan – it did in fact have electricity. Schwitters was not a wealthy man, and as such could not afford everyday luxuries. Subsequently, a night in a damp yurt, or on the floor of a barn, provided a much needed insight to the life of a struggling artist.

The interior of the library yurt
The interior of the caravan in the woods


There are three predominant outputs for the outcomes of the project that will be produced by the students. The first, is the ‘KS14’ meeting at Elterwater hosted by Ian, and attended by Schwitters enthusiasts from far and wide, this will be held on the weekend of the 25th October. The second is the formal presentation and exhibit that is to be marked and processed by staff at the university. The last is an exhibition and conference at Tate Britain in November. The physical model that the students produce, it is hoped, will grace the foyer of the conference that is to be attended by famous names such as Lord Melvyn Bragg, and Andrew Graham-Dixon.

In order to fulfil the brief, it has been decided that the project shall focus upon the legacy of Schwitters and his art in Britain. Consequently, this shall be split into three areas:

  • The man
  • The Physical
  • The significance of his legacy

In the section of the man, there shall be significant research into who Schwitters was, and how his movements in the latter years of his life affected the works he produced in Hanover, Norway and the Lake District.

The physical is what shall be seen visually at KS14, the formal presentation to the university, and what shall be exhibited at the Tate. A model of the site as a whole, including topography, and a model of the Merzbarn shall be produced to fulfil this criteria. The idea of an interactive model has been floated and accepted, as it is important to the group that the notion that Schwitters’s art was ‘unfinished business’.

Finally, due to the lack of surviving work by Schwitters, the legacy that he has left upon the art world, British artists, and students shall be analysed. Whilst this is also important, the philosophy that he left behind shall also be evaluated and argued that this is the significance of his legacy, rather than the physical.

The ‘physical’ Merzbarn


Ultimately, the team had a fruitful weekend in the Lake District. Arguably, one of the most important results was that the team bonded, whilst being productive. It was extremely important that the team came away from the Lakes knowing what the client wants, and that has certainly been achieved. His enthusiasm for the students’ ideas was infectious, and what will be produced will undoubtedly be of great use for Ian as he looks to further the legacy of Schwitters, his art, and his theory of Merz. As a concluding thought, it is greatly important that the overall outcome of this project is to create questions, rather than answer them. This certainly will happen with the high profile platforms that the group will present their work upon.

The team bonding over pizza. Probably the best kind of bonding?

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