When swarms of black ceramic butterflies descended on the Royal Pavilion last year, visitors were divided.
Dotted all over the lavish interior of the Prince Regent’s pleasure palace, artist Clare Twomey’s installations, with their whiff of disease or decay, were both startling and discomforting.
It was the first time contemporary artwork had been displayed there and it shook up the historic building.
Now the Pavilion has announced the launch of Pavilion Contemporary, a three-year project that will see a programme of contemporary art exhibitions, performance and events staged in the central city site.
The project is inspired by The Tate’s Turbine Hall and the vogue for hosting artists in heritage buildings. The National Trust has enjoyed great success with Trust Contemporary, which commissions artists to create work for the grounds or interiors of its properties, while in France this summer the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos made waves when she installed a giant pair of stainless-steel stilettos and a feather-covered helicopter in the Palace of Versaille.
Pavilion programmer Nicola Coleby is quick to point out they won’t be staging anything quite as outlandish in Brighton.
“Any artist we work with will need to respond to the Pavilion, partly because it’s so overpowering you can’t really ignore it. We wouldn’t want to work with an artist who worked in a medium that bore no relation to either the physical make-up or history of the Pavilion.”
The programme opens this month with The Lost Pagodas by artist Geraldine Pilgrim.
Best known for her evocative installations and site-specific performances in both occupied and deserted historic houses, she has created four unique pagodas inspired by the Prince Regent who, in the 1800s commissioned six three-metre-high porcelain pagodas to impress guests in the Music Room.
The original pagodas are now part of the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace. Pilgrim’s self-contained structures, placed in different areas around the building, visually echo the spirit of the Royal Pavilion – opulence with a hint of naughtiness – and celebrate the Prince Regent’s passions for food, music and love.
“They’re quite spectacular,”
says Coleby. “The first, which is in the Long Gallery, has crystals and lights on. The second is in the kitchen and has water flowing down it. The third is next to the fireplace in the Music Room, like the original pagodas, and is based on the idea of the fairground, with music and a carousel that goes round. The last pagoda is located at the top of the first set of stairs near the North Gallery.”
Pilgrim is primarily a performance and installation artist. “She works hard to animate buildings and bring them to life, which was one of the reasons we were so keen to work with her.”
In addition to the installation, she will host an artist’s talk with David Beevers, keeper of the Pavilion, on Wednesday, November 14, and give performances of dance piece Handbag at the Brighton Dome Corn Exchange in February next year.
Coleby is excited at the potential of the Pavilion Contemporary project.
Previously head of exhibitions at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, she hopes it will be an opportunity to being interesting national and international artists to the city and will give the Pavilion a new lease of life. While names have not yet been confirmed for the exhibitions in autumn 2013 and 2014, talks have already begun.
“We’ve always had a lot of interest from artists in staging work here but it’s been tricky. It’s a listed building and nearly everything inside is original so we’re limited in not being able to touch the fabric of the building or the furniture.
Also, we’re open 363 days a year so in terms of installing work, it’s problematic. But this funding opens up a lot of possibilities and has come at just the right time. Over the past five years we’ve seen a lot more artists and makers working in heritage sites and I think there’s a more open attitude towards it.
“We will make available to the artists whatever they need, whether that’s our archives or the Pavilion’s non-public areas. The hope is it will either bring out hidden narratives in the Pavilion or it might just make the building resonate more. It’s a win-win situation for the Pavilion, for artists and for the city.”
*Entry to The Lost Pagodas is free with Royal Pavilion admission: adult £10, child (5-15 years) £5.70, concession £8, Brighton and Hove residents (with proof of address) £5.
Visit www.brightonhove- rpml.org.uk