The art of rural living

Growing numbers of the creative classes are moving to the countryside The trend represents a demographic shift away from the traditional “intellectualism” of big cities

Antonio Ballester left the city behind to live in the Extremadura countryside with his family.
Antonio Ballester left the city behind to live in the Extremadura countryside with his family.CARLOS ROSILLO

Artist Antonio Ballester lived in Berlin for several years, and did what most of his contemporaries did: conceptual art, videos, photography, and the odd installation. “I ended up tired of so many concepts, of so much intellectualism,” the 45-year-old says from his house in the small village of Valverde de la Vera, in the western region of Extremadura. Far away from the hustle and bustle of the city, surrounded by trees and grassland, along with his own vegetable garden and small vineyard, he says that after returning from Berlin he didn’t want to go back to Madrid, and so “ended up here,” in a cottage he has restored himself, living with his wife and two children, “enjoying making things rather than creating art.”

Ballester is just one example of a growing number of artists, either on their way up, or already successful, who are opting for a life in the countryside. They are looking for a more peaceful way of life, keen to find greater space, and above all, cheaper living costs. At a time when just about every aspect of life is now being questioned, perhaps it’s not such a bad idea to rethink where artists should be based.

Not that there is anything particularly new about the idea of the artist getting away from it all: Jackson Pollock fled New York for a small cabin upstate in the small town of Springs. In the absence of hard data, many experts in the art world say that the current crisis is seeing something of an exodus to the countryside among artists.

Carles Feixa, an anthropologist at the University of Lleida, says that the newcomers are now known as “neo-rural” or “rurbanos.”

“The difference between them and the hippies of the 1970s is that they don’t reject the city, but are simply looking to create a hybrid lifestyle, a mixture of the urban and the rural. They want to live in the countryside without giving up what the city can provide them with. Today, the internet allows any number of professionals to work from home.”

In short, life in the countryside no longer means losing all contact with the city and living in the manner of a hermit.

Fernando García Dory is the creator of Campo Adentro (Open Countryside), and is calling on the Culture and Agriculture Ministries “to address the role of contemporary art in the countryside, as well as the current models of agricultural production we follow, and at the same time look at how immersing ourselves in the rural context can contribute to the new development of art.”

He has outlined a program to build homes for artists in rural areas as a way of keeping the countryside economically viable. “I want to see the creation of artistic communities linked to agriculture,” he says.

This idea might be new to Spain, but it is already being put into practice in other countries. Frieze, the London-based art show, has invited the creators of Campo Adentro to Grizedale Arts, an event run jointly with the Tate Modern that is held in Cumbria, in the northwest of England. There are other such initiatives: last year’s The Art of Survival in Berlin attracted tens of thousands of people to a show celebrating rural products.

For many artists, though, relocating to the countryside is a matter of survival. Rafael SMP, whose En nuestros jardines se preparan bosques (In our gardens forests are being created) was the highlight of the MUSAC festival in León this summer, moved to the village of Cercedilla in the mountains 50 kilometers northwest of Madrid.

Carmen Cañibano has moved back to the village of Prado, in the northwestern region of Zamora, where she grew up. There she is filming, in real time, the process of cultivating cereals, in an analysis of the cost of an hour’s work that she describes as “almost Marxist.”

Other artists, like Antje Schiffers, a German invited to join Campo Adentro, are attracted by the customs and working lives of people in the countryside. Along with Thomas Sprenger, she is carrying out a barter project with farmers in the Basque Country: she paints the traditional farmhouses where she stays, and the farmers tell their stories in videos. “At the same time, I travel around with my easel, like some kind of romantic traveler painter from the 19th century,” says Schiffers.

The pair spends a week in each village, painting, filming, and living with farmers. “The paintings are given to the families we stay with, and we keep the villages.” The project, called “I like being a farmer and want to continue to do so,” has already been taken to Romania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Germany. “Decisions can be made quickly in villages: these places give the impression that people have lots of time, although they still have lots to do,” says Schiffers.

Not far along the windy, narrow roads of Extremadura, from where Antonio Ballester has set up home in Valverde de la Vera, lives sculptor Cristóbal Martín. He knows a great deal about how to make the best use of one’s time when there are few distractions. “I came here because I am attracted by the things that man has not been involved in creating. My life now is simply about dedicating myself as much as possible to meditating.”

Thirty years ago he says he was immersed in the Madrid cultural scene known as the movida, and moved to the country-side more than a decade ago. He is pleased to see a younger generation following his lead. It has to be said, looking out from the window of his studio across his garden to the Gredos mountains, surrounded by trees, pretty much everything seems possible.

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