26 May 1995



The potato is just a vegetable to most of us and while growing them could be called creative, is it madness to call it art? Tessa Gates went to Cuckoo Farm to find out

SOMETHING exciting has happened to the humble spud this year. It has been elevated into an art form.

In a Birmingham gallery, an Argentinean artist laid 500lbs of potatoes out on tables, stuck wires into each one and called it sculpture. And on a farm in Essex, artist Stan Steele is putting his creative talents into growing and harvesting an acre of the vegetable.

Calling a potato crop art might seem madness but at Cuckoo Farm, Colchester, Stan Steeles project "Unearthed/ One Acre", is receiving a lot of attention, and not a little funding.

"Works like this cannot be done unless there is a grant," explains Stan, who seeks to make the art of work a work of art.

His project, which is also being filmed, has many facets and is constantly changing. "I had the idea that I wanted to do a piece of work that involved growing a crop. I chose potatoes because they are very accessible – everyone has planted them in the garden – the surprise comes in lifting them, seeing what they have produced," he says.

Part one of this living "exhibition" – the sculptural effect of chitting trays piled high in a workshop studio in redundant farm buildings – is disappearing quickly as Stan plants the nine varieties of potato he has chosen. These range from an old variety common in Ireland when the potato famine struck, to the modern Santé.

He is working the field with a two-wheeled tractor, the Anzani Iron Horse (made in 1940) and has overcome the aching muscles this unwieldy 6hp machine has caused him.

"I noticed that Stan found it very difficult to handle the Anzani when he started, but he has got it sussed out now," says farmer Peter Siggers on whose land the potatoes are being planted.

Mr Siggers is used to artists on the 121ha (300-acre) farm, where redundant buildings have been turned into a studio complex for 24 artists.

Mr Siggers fattens pigs and grows malting barley, wheat and peas. "Artists concerns are not just growing a crop," he says tellingly.

"I have been working away and doing the job and it straddles art/performance and the real world," says Stan, who is a part-time lecturer at the University of East London. "I am discovering things as I go along and as an artist, this is very important.

"When I am working alone in the middle of the field with just the Anzani, it creates a certain atmosphere that I have never experienced before. Working with this tractor, you are part of the land. There is me slowly planting with time to reflect, and on the other side of the hedge on the A12 people are rushing past with no time to reflect, just seeing the countryside through a car window."

When the potatoes have been lifted they will be transported to a vacant shop in Colchester where Stan will riddle and bag them in front of a multi-screen display of the video of the rest of the project.

In Colchester Library there will be a written display plus a film made by local schoolchildren in conjunction with the artist. A much-edited film just concerned with the Anzani will be also be produced.

"It is a complex work and when people ask me if it is art, I throw the question back at them. I am interested in that debate," says Stan.

He gets many comments about his work and enjoys the one he heard recently from a farmer. "Farmers are a bit like artists," he was told, "no-one understands farmers, either."

Stan Steele seeks to make the art of work a work of art. The Anzani Iron Horse and the chitting trays are integral to the project.