Artichoke House

I first encountered the sketch for 'Artichoke House' in early 2014 as artist in residence at Edward James's ancestral home, now, West Dean College. Wandering along the purple landing above the Oak Hall I discovered the sketch, sandwiched between Salvador DalĂ­'s Mae West Lips Sofa (1938) (commissioned by James for Monkton House) and Leonora Carrington's Sketches of the Sphinx (1966).

My project started its life as an idea for a mould of an object that never existed, taking inspiration from James's original design for 'Artichoke House' and from the mould-making technique James employed as the principle construction method in the building of his monumental concrete forms at Las Pozas, Mexico. I developed a series of drawings playing on the idea that James's design for 'Artichoke House' could be seen as the mould by which Las Pozas, James's most successful Surrealist venture, was cast.

James initiated his ventures into the realm of Surrealist architecture with the overhaul of his home, Monkton House. Originally built by Edwin Lutyens for Edward's father, William, in 1902, as a hunting lodge on the West Dean Estate, Monkton House was transformed by James into a Surrealist hermitage.

Alongside an old framed photograph of Monkton House at West Dean, you find 'Artichoke House'. More specifically, an idea rendered in pencil and watercolour of what 'Artichoke House' might have been had James's vision for the pavilion been realised. Plans for the pavilion, designed to resemble a giant globe artichoke, were conceived by James and developed with Christopher Nicholson and Sir Hugh Casson in 1936 as a gallery to house a sample of James's collection of Surrealist paintings.

In 1944 Edward James left England for the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico. Purchasing 100 acres of virgin rain forest just outside the small town of Xilitla, James spent the next twenty years cultivating an orchid forest born from his substantial collection of imported specimens. After a freak frost decimated his cultivated Eden, James moved in a different direction, choosing instead to work with a more robust, cheep and readily available material: Concrete. With this new material, James would continue his exploration of vegetal inspired architectural forms that began with the design of 'Artichoke House', constructing more than 200 monumental Surrealist structures cast in reinforced concrete.

Re-imagining this surreal proposition was about exploring the fluid back-and-forth relationship between image and object that was as integral to the way James approached the creative process as it is for my own way of working.

As for Edward James, drawing for me too marks the beginning of possibilities. Las Pozas's many structures were constructed from sketches and scribbles feverishly rendered by James on scraps of paper, on wood and on the walls, columns and stairways of half formed ruins rising from the jungles leaf litter. The fact that James's design for 'Artichoke House' never made that shift from 2D image to 3D object allowed me the freedom to re-imagine a present context for Artichoke House, drawn from a past life.

Less grandiose in its appearances than James's design, resting on its side, Artichoke House 2014 appears to sink into the ground like an abandoned geodesic Dome. Its lopsided profile suggests the ephemeral nature of built things, destined like James's concrete structures in the Mexican jungle to fall into ruin or perhaps more purposely like Robert Smithson's monuments of Passaic New Jersey, to rise into ruin and become engulfed by the environment that cradles it, leaving in its absence a collage of images for a future overwhelmed by nature.

Originally intended by James as a vessel to support images of the surreal, Artichoke House 2014 and its camera obscura, supports a different kind of image, one that alludes to the past, relative to its specific location, but is always operating in a reversed present. Born from this optical somersault, Artichoke House becomes an inhabitable eye through which the visual double exposure of past and present can be reinterpreted. This dynamic image within the object completes a type of organic loop from image to object and back again. The surface of the object becomes a platform for the development of new images that in turn will form new objects of inevitable decay.

Artist George Charman was artist-in-residence on the Visual Arts programme (2014) @westdeancollege

This article originally appeared in Discover More (2015) the Friends of West Dean magazine.

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