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RCA Fine Art Students Explore Nature and Human Intervention at Cowley Manor

For the fifth year running, RCA Fine Art students have been challenged to propose sculptures for the 55 acres of grade II listed gardens at Cowley Manor in Gloucestershire. This year, Marco Miehling was selected as the overall winner and his piece Untitled (Nature) will join winning sculptures from previous years permanently within the grounds of Cowley Manor.

‘We wanted to give young artists the opportunity to express themselves using Cowley Manor as a platform’ explained Jessica Frankopan, co-owner of Cowley Manor, who established the prize with partner Peter in 2012. ‘The awards provide an opportunity to showcase the work of some very talented artists and it’s a great privilege to have their outstanding work in the grounds.’

Now a hotel and spa, Cowley Manor was once a private country house. The surrounding parkland and gardens, which feature Victorian cascades, woodland, meadows and lakes, famously inspired Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Cowley Manor Arts Award, challenges students to conceive sculptures for this unique context. The growing collection works in harmony with the natural surroundings or provocatively with its context, exploring both the current uses of Cowley Manor and its history.

‘Inevitably, Cowley Manor’s architecture and conception lead to an omnipresent reconciliation with its surroundings,’ explained Marco, discussing his winning sculpture. ‘The work‚ Untitled (Nature) emphasises the relation between geometry and nature; between the ordered and the unordered, between presence and absence.’ 

Untitled (Nature) consists of a bronze cleat on the bank of the river connected by rope to a sunken raw metal object. The two opposing objects merge the space controlled by human intervention with the unspoiled space of nature. ‘On the one hand they differentiate themselves in space, material and method of casting’ explained Marco. ‘On the other hand they have the same ritual of casting in general: a common denominator and a shared heritage. Both will be a contemporary witness of their space.’

Other shortlisted works explore Cowley Manor’s association with leisure, relaxation and pleasure. A Playground for Homo Ludens by Nora Silva is a dysfunctional playground that demands interaction and activation through play, whereas Holly Hendry’s Pummel references guests’ use of Cowley Manor as a place of relaxation and complete immersion. Holly explained the starting point for her sculpture: ‘The work was based on ideas of furniture that is specifically made to shape our bodies, like the odd curvaceousness of massage chairs, and this idea of matter and spirit – our desires to be worked and pummelled, peeled and rubbed down by hands, an intimacy to work out physical and mental tensions.’ The twisting pink form of Pummel is held and clamped together by machine cut metal parts that resemble corrective prostheses and orthopaedic casts, exploring the idea of what we do to our bodies to repair, improve or protect them. 

One of the challenges faced by the students was creating work that would withstand the outdoor setting. ‘The fact that the work was to be sited outdoors meant having a different approach to materials,’ Holly explained. ‘Everything I made had to take the weather into consideration, as well as the fact that people would be touching the work and interacting with it.’ 

Natalia Skobeeva looked to the heritage of Cowley Manor for Encounter, a short video that imagines an encounter between Lewis Caroll and Godzilla, rather than Alice, within the grounds of Cowley Manor. Creating the work offered Natalia the chance to learn new skills and also opened an enquiry that shaped her MA dissertation: ‘I am still thinking about their meeting, I have too much to say about it.’

The other shortlisted works include A Cat Without a Grin, But Not a Grin Without a Cat by Joel Chan, an interactive kinetic sculpture responding to a Japanese Shunga painting from the British Museum. Paula Linke’s Summer of my Life (Set in Stone) also draws on Japanese culture. Paula playfully combined ideas of a Zen Garden with shower gel bottles covered in temporary tattoos, exploring the appropriation and blending of cultures. Untitled Pensacola by David Stearn is a re-siting of an American State Highway sign, which stands out, incongruous in the typically English grounds of Cowley Manor.

Each year, students are invited to make proposals, from which a shortlist is selected for the exhibition. ‘It is a great opportunity for the students to be challenged and try to propose a public sculptural work,’ explained Anne Duffau, Special Projects Co-ordinator for the School of Fine Art. ‘The entries have to be interesting, realistic and bold.’ All entrants receive feedback from a prestigious panel and the finalists are supported in making their final piece through tutorials and funding towards materials. The judging panel this year included: Millicent Wilner, London Director Gagosian Gallery; Alex Sainsbury, Raven Row; Jenni Lomax OBE, Camden Arts Centre; journalist Lucinda Bredin; RCA Dean of Fine Art Juan Cruz; and Cowley Manor owners Peter and Jessica Frankopan.


The six shortlisted sculptures will be on display at Cowley Manor until the end of September, Untitled (Nature) will remain on permanent display with previous years' winners. For more information, see the Cowley Manor website.