Kunsthalle Cromer: The First Year
Dr. Sarah Lowndes, writer, curator and Research Fellow at Norwich University of the Arts, established Kunsthalle Cromer in 2017, to enhance the cultural provision available within the seaside town of Cromer and the wider area of Norfolk through the promotion of visual art, music, literature, cinema, performance and interdisciplinary art forms. Lowndes works together with relevant local community organisations, developing positive, supportive and sustainable relationships and offering accessible, free and exciting cultural activity to bring people from diverse backgrounds together to enjoy meaningful shared experiences.
The first public art event initiated by Dr. Lowndes under the auspices of Kunsthalle Cromer was the Panoramic Sea Happening on East Beach, Cromer in June 2017. This event was a re-enactment of part of the 1967 happening, The Sea Concert (The Panoramic Sea Happening) by Tadeusz Kantor, first staged at Osieki on the Polish coast, with conceptual artist Edward Krasiński, dressed in a black tailcoat, conducting the waves from a stepladder while being watched by spectators in striped deck chairs. In the Kunsthalle Cromer re-enactment, which took place 50 years after the original happening, the conductor was played by the proprietor of Norwich’s The Book Hive and Propolis publisher, Henry Layte. In re-staging Kantor’s seminal work in this new context, Lowndes hoped to reach new audiences, who would directly experience the wit and magic of part of Kantor’s original “score”, but this time imbued with local resonances and the multivalent possibilities of the live situation. While Kantor’s original work had several movements, which included motorbikes scrambling on the sand, the artist himself shouting instructions through a megaphone and the audience being pelted with fish, Lowndes’s re-enactment deliberately focussed on the best-known aspect of the work – the first movement, captured in Eustachy Kossakowski’s famous black and white photograph of Krasiński conducting the symphony of the sea.
Kantor’s work is an invitation to be fully present in the natural world and to see, feel and hear the beach, where, as he put it, proximity to the sea, works to “impose motion, rhythm and sound values not surpassing the abilities of human perception.” The sizeable audience who assembled in the bright June sunlight on Cromer beach to watch the re-enactment, consisted of those involved in the art world and academia in the South East of England (including attendees from Outpost Gallery, originalprojects, University of East Anglia, Norwich University of the Arts, the Courtauld Institute and Coventry University), but also many locals who had attended out of curiosity after reading about the event in the Eastern Daily Press, or simply stumbled upon the happening and been drawn in, whether watching quietly or being inspired to get in the sea themselves. Local resident Gary Clark brought his family along to watch the event. He said: “It’s very fitting to the atmosphere here on the beach. We all think it’s marvellous.” Another spectator, who came across the event by chance, tourist Anna Hill, said: “What a unique thing to do. It’s not a sight I was expecting to see, that’s for sure.”
There were a wide range of ages present, including elderly people and many children, neither of whom had been in evidence in photographs of Kantor’s original piece, which had been performed during a three-week-long meeting of artists and art theorists. Lowndes provided free drinks and a barbeque for the audience, and after the performance, the communal picnicking on the beach continued for some time. Some local residents afterwards wrote describing their experience (their first of attending a Happening): “So we wandered along the beach feeling a little self-conscious to be honest. But soon we were joined by a lot more people. Some deck chairs were unfolded and lined up, flapping in the wind and a podium was dragged into the sea. As the tide lapped up against the podium our conductor arrived, looking resplendent in black tail coat, carrying a baton. Everyone watched as he climbed the steps and began conducting the sea! Children splashed about in the waves and people sat having a drink in the deck chairs watching. It was all very exciting and…. well, different!”
The second Kunsthalle Cromer public art project was Esplanade: A Procession for Women, a celebratory group promenade of 100 local girls and women, each carrying a red parasol along Cromer Seafront from the Zig Zag, along the Esplanade, and around the Pier, before ascending to disperse at Jetty Cliff outside the Hotel de Paris. The procession gestured towards Cromer’s historic beach culture and drew attention to stunning aspects of the built environment on the seafront, highlighting noted architectural features such as the Zig Zag, Esplanade, Pier, Jetty Cliff and Hotel de Paris. The 100 red parasols used in the promenade symbolised the 100 years since some British women received the vote in 1918 and thus functioned as a symbol of celebration, pride and unity on International Women’s Day, while the physical act of promenading also connected meaningfully with the 2018 International Women’s Day theme, Press for Progress. Esplanade was a celebratory performative communal event, which linked together ideas of performativity, empowerment, claiming public space and feminism, and was part-funded by the Research Support Fund at Norwich University of the Arts.
Lowndes explains, “I got the idea for this project after reading about an extended visit to Cromer by Empress Elisabeth of Austria in 1887. Elisabeth had many other titles including Queen of Bohemia and Grand Princess of Transylvania, and was a non-conformist who didn’t take well to court life; preferring instead to absent herself to go riding and hunting and to travel widely. She was revered as the most beautiful woman in Europe but after she was thirty-five she would not allow anyone to paint her or to photograph her. Whenever she was outdoors she protected herself from prying eyes and photographers with a white parasol. When Elisabeth visited Cromer, she was 50 years old, and deeply concerned for her safety due to the growing anarchist movement in Europe – perhaps she came to Cromer seeking some peace. She brought her horses and even her cows and every morning a cow would be brought onto the Promenade beneath her window in the Lower Tuckers Hotel where it was milked and the uncontaminated milk taken directly up to her suite. She spent many long hours on the beach, reading and staring out to sea. (Her caution for her life was justified as 11 years after her trip to Cromer, she was stabbed through the heart with a sharpened needle file by an anarchist and died, aged 61.) I found the idea of the Empress with the white parasol on the promenade at Cromer rather haunting – but wanted to find a way to revisit that history in a way that was celebratory. The parasol represents many things: shelter, modesty, privacy, shade. But it also can be a prop that draws attention to the lady carrying the parasol, and has a stylish, fun aspect that is more to do with display than concealment. This is especially the case when the parasol is red, a colour that signifies revolution.“
The Esplanade procession reconnected with and reactivated the historic activity of the ladies’ evening promenade which began to be a significant leisure activity in Cromer during the Victorian era after the arrival of the railways in the town. Lowndes travelled across the region to recruit Norfolk girls and women who wanted to participate, ranging in age from students to pensioners, including students and staff from the University of East Anglia, local councillor Hilary Cox, The Voice Project co-director Sian Croose, members of the Green Fuse women’s art group (Cromer), Art & Wellbeing group (Cromer Library), ArtatWork CIC (Norwich) and their Well Arty women’s groups (Norwich and Mildenhall). Many of the girls and women took part in the procession with friends and in cross-generational family groups, with grandmothers, mothers and daughters all promenading in Cromer together on International Women’s Day. Liz Bass, one of the participants, said she was also moved after hearing about Elisabeth’s visit to Cromer. She said: “When I read the story of who she was and what happened to her I was fascinated with it. It’s got very romantic connotations.” Also taking part was Alison Howe, representing the Norwich-based group community interest company ArtatWork. She said International Women’s Day was a reminder of how much things were changing. She said: “In times past women were always the underdogs – doing the cooking, cleaning, looking after the children. But more and more, we’re getting our voices back and we’re being heard.” Susie Anderson, who attended with her young daughter, wrote afterwards, “Just to say thank you! My daughter and I had a wonderful time in Cromer. Thank you for organising this – I think we will remember being part of something special for years to come.”
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Karolina Czerska, “Panoramic Sea Happening – Tadeusz Kantor”, December 2014, https://culture.pl/en/work/panoramic-sea-happening-tadeusz-kantor
Donna Louise Bishop, “Watch how Norwich’s Henry Layte conducts Cromer’s sea from the top of a step ladder”, June 2017, http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/watch-how-norwich-s-henry-layte-conducts-cromer-s-sea-from-the-top-of-a-step-ladder-1-5056938
Stuart Anderson, “100 red parasols raised in celebration for International Women’s Day”, March 2018, http://www.northnorfolknews.co.uk/news/red-parasols-raised-for-international-womens-day-in-cromer-1-5426774
All photographs by Sarah Lowndes.