Memories and Melancholia

The following essay was commissioned by the International 3 Gallery shortly before I packed up and moved to Edinburgh. Here is a link to the International 3 Gallery>>>

Like a musical composition, the work of the two artists in this exhibition is produced from the process of selecting each part to make a whole. According to Gaston Bachelard, “Music’s action is discontinuous; it is our emotional resonance that gives it continuity.” In this way, Laura Lancaster and Katy Woods produce work steeped in the perfume of melancholia, accumulating a quiet drama from the connections we make within the work. Lancaster’s Untitled (2005), a shoal of remade black and white found photographs, scattered liberally onto the gallery wall denoting both the arbitrary nature of the artist’s selection and the capricious composition of family snap shots.

Woods collects images, text and video footage and re-presents the material to the viewer, creating a subjective index of the slippages in everyday existence, bringing attention to the minutiae that may ordinarily be overlooked.

I am traveling back to Manchester, a journey so familiar but only through the hasty perspective of my train window. Occasionally the think darkness of a tunnel interrupts the view. Woods uses a similar device in her carefully constructed and choreographed digital video montage Distant Things (2006). For Woods the process of making her videos is deliberately economic.

Starting from found images, drawings and photographs, she converts them into microfilm, the archaic seductive stuff you will find in traditional libraries and archives and viewed on largely obsolete, clunky microfilm readers. With a lit interface like an ancestor of the computer or a light box in a gallery, this contraption transports any material seen through it into the realm of murder mystery research, hunting for some particular information. Unlike computers, this is sensual. The film feeds into the reader and Woods then manually controls the tempo and duration of the images on the screen.

Woods crystallizes the outmoded and the new into an unprecedented matrimony, the maneuvers recorded onto digital video. The outcome is hypnotic; a rhythmic parading of still images, creating movement and speed where once it could only be evoked or willed. The snap shots are curiously animated motionless images, and which paradoxically remain even more petrified due to the urgent panning of the microfilm operative searching for something. The disembodied searcher performs the task of both seeking and finding, as the DVD captures these efforts and substitutes the act of looking for/into the act of looking at.

Denying the viewer the tactile pleasure and presence of the microfilm reader, Woods removes this outmoded technology from its materiality, in much the same way that we late capitalist folk are both divorced and extended by those prosthetic accoutrements which come in the form of car’s, telephones and ipod’s.

Through the redoubled attention of a microfilm reader and the digital camera, the found images of the banal and overlooked become objects of enduring fascination. A layering process within the work’s construction combines with the swift motion of the microfilm to create a metrical dalliance of signs. These signs garner a melancholy air, a rupturing of the real; a frothy, stormy sea becomes a harbinger of doom to the unsuspecting flora and fauna of the juxtaposed image that follows it. This sense of drama within and accumulation of unconnected material plays out in Woods’ book I should like to repeat some of the strange tales told me, but have already, I am afraid, put a dangerous strain on your patience (2006). Here she collated stories about animals stretching back from the nineteenth century to the present day. Some of these tales are tragic, others tragi-comic. Adverts for much-loved lost and found pets, a thirteen year old catching a thirteen foot tiger shark in his thirteenth world record catch, and two giraffes dying following smoke inhalation at a zoo in Devon.

Rather than the search being to find a particular piece of information, Woods’ search itself gives way to form the artwork, the narrative finds itself through the search and we discover a narrative through reading a symbolic relationship. The DVD Cornholme, (2006), depicts a town in the Calder Valley not far from Hebden Bridge. Here the postindustrial and picturesque combine in a beautifully decaying landscape. A series of still lingering shots allow movement to come from within the frame, however the only activity comprises billowing clouds, rustling trees, birds and cantering horses fleeing the scene of this seemingly post human ghost town.

Certain moments in our lives beg to be caught on camera, or it is as though we were never there; image is proof of presence. The existence of a photograph indexes life’s choices, and decisions that led to a photograph being taken at that moment in that place. Photographs are full stops and Lancaster transforms these captured moments, found at charity shops and junk shops, into paintings. A snap shot taken in an instant is elongated through painting, lending time to the subject. It is not always known who has taken these photographs. Now surplus to requirements, Lancaster takes up the mantle of authorship. For Lancaster these found photographs, often discarded treasured family archives, are material to sift through, searching for starting points in order to move out and into new terrain. Far from photorealism or the ancient method of trompe-l’oeil, there is often a blurring or imprecision. She paints painstakingly, sometimes brusquely, depending on her mood. Boredom, contempt for the photograph or a loss of patience with the repetitive act of copying images continuously and methodically, are all variables that influence the works outcome. Rather than representing scenes and objects realistically, Lancaster’s ritualistic remaking of photographs represent in themselves a method to deal with an inexplicable reality and lost moments.

As Gerhard Richter says of his paintings, he wants to achieve, “pictorial content without sentiment, but I want it as human as possible.”² These snap shots and images are not posited as authorial works of art, they lack art school composition; this is what makes them so interesting. Removing the photographs from the depicted moment takes time, building up meaning like sediment, protracting the gratification of the finished object. Does the rendering in paint, pencil and gouache, of a long forgotten scene somehow reinstate the content, making it organically fixed? Untitled (2005) is without colour, among them a white dog, a faceless couple stopping for a moment to pose for the camera, here the use of monochrome puts parentheses around the neutrality of the photographs in their transition to objects.

The vivid palette of the canvas Untitled (2007) leads to a raft of associations floating to the surface, particularly when seen in relation to the monochrome. This snap shot fleshes out with hyper real colour and energetic brush strokes, and the fluid painting throws the stiff pose of the superhero duo in their back yard into sharp relief. Two young children are standing together, dressed as Batman and Superman, captured first by the camera shutter and secondly by Lancaster’s attentive gaze. The innocence of childhood is cloaked in melancholia, the photograph as a distancing mechanism is remade as painting touched by the artist, returning to the image a human dimension.

Like Woods, Lancaster’s work ruptures the barriers of the real, marking out a delicate transition between symbolic and imaginary. The bizarre elements of the Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque are found in both singular paintings Untitled (2004) and Untitled (2007). Costumes and masks adorned in an act of play, but beneath the surface, there is something lurking, an inclination that there is more to the content than meets the eye. Strip away the layers of paint and the photographic sense of melancholia remains. Lancaster’s delicate, unassuming brush marks in Untitled (2004), combine the humour and pervading sadness contained in a child’s face caked in clown make up, forming a momentary semblance of meaning, shifting what we are looking at. Associated with the loss and return of an object of desire, melancholia is a contradiction in terms, the palpable loss of something that was, in fact, never possessed.

There is a photograph taken when I am maybe eight in the family garden. It is shadowy but not out of focus. There is a wild garden bird, maybe a starling, standing on my hand. My face belies a certain amount of terror and awe, expecting the bird as suddenly it landed, to fly away. Nobody remembers taking this photo and I have no memory of the incident apart from my memory of the photograph. As fleeting as the bird, the close of the shutter caught the space between the bird being there and not being there. Both Katy Woods and Laura Lancaster take these moments, fragments of time and anomalies of continuity, protracting them and building up layers of meaning, adding depth to the story of these flat surfaces, found texts and video footage.
Commissioned by The International 3 on the occasion of the exhibition
Laura Lancaster and Kay Woods at The International 3 19 May – 23 June
2007.
1. Gaston Bachelard, The Dialectic of Duration, Manchester: Clinamen
Press, 124. 2. Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting, London:
Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Collisions and Collusions

I wrote the following text for a group exhibition at Catalyst Arts, Belfast. The exhibition included artists who collaborate in both art and life: Kim Coleman and Jenny Hogarth, Tommy Grace and Kate Owens and Ortonandon. Here’s a link to Catalyst Arts fantastic website and archive featuring images from the exhibition >>> Go see…

Here is a PDF of the exhibition handout Together – Catalyst Arts

***

Collisions and collusions

There is nothing I can tell you to furnish your experience. This is not information. Our minds are already meshed, communication without speech, commonplace thoughts pooled and identities merged. But people are often suspicious of alliances, questioning their function, feeling excluded, always seeking a singular, doubting that you complete me. You are here with me now in an unwitting collaboration. Together momentarily on the page, until we go our separate ways. Then we’ll have walls and space.

Look out of the window; you notice someone else has done the same. Smile at the boy, put your hand in your pocket and take your place in the room. Point out some of my mistakes with your critical thrust.

Sitting here in the smokeless bar waiting for more people to arrive, I feel an urgency alien to me. Maybe they won’t all turn up, as disillusioned as I am discredited. Three of us would suffice, each connected by a date and a time. They knew that we had a plan, decisions had to make, pamphlets and posters to print, something to start. Time passed slowly and a third person entered the scene. Shaking her umbrella inconsiderately she soon noticed all eyes fixed on her. Stray rain droplets dispersed throughout the room, forcing us to reflect on what we had escaped by coming here. I smiled and glanced around at the others trying desperately to register their thoughts on our new arrival. For us this gathering is a refuge from the pointless bustle of the outside. We don’t meet often and when we do it is brief. The proceedings are not always smooth and there are those that seem fraught with doubt. I felt this uncertainty as he focused on me with blank eyes; he was somewhere else, lost in pointless musings about what people thought of him. He was formless and would rebuild himself perpetually. So that when he takes his seat with the rest of the gang, although happily out of the driving rain, his presence distorts the atmosphere. As I catch your eye you look away. Dipped down and deadened. Dialogue between us is a bit thin on the ground and we have begun to enact curious rituals using various static media. Yet our relationship persists.

This particular gathering of people was not united by chance; instead each relationship based on a web of connections. It was a coalition of unlikely bedfellows. It is true that we have things in common although this wasn’t the thing that brought us together. We only become something through each other. Nobody understands it and this is our strength. So the conversation ebbs and flows, but the distance between you and me always seems to close. I think I notice you listening to two conversations at once. The music is ever so slightly tinny but pulsating so that every thought that crystallised in my mind, including the very thing I want to communicate, shatters on each thin beat. Whilst collecting my thoughts you have drifted elsewhere. Vague sounds fall away to background noise; people interrupt us and we eventually get back on track. Now is not the time you say, but this is our place. Someone is crouching next to you, her ill-fitting court shoes creasing severely at the toe. Showing no signs of pain she moves ever closer, whispering something unknown into your ear. After about an hour of conversation she knew that the seed was planted. You looked so beautifully agreeable, and as I catch myself peering into a mirror-less frame; it occurs to me that I wear the same look. We quietly left the smokeless bar, careful to erase any trace of our meeting and fell out onto the smoke-filled street.

Rapidly and in unison the people decide on the following. We would meet at the roller disco. The situation set and the trajectory between us aligned. Imagine this for a moment; figures moving freely around a space, linked arms, flailing or deliberately colliding, gliding without constraint in unforced motion. A temporary railing frames the room, supporting people whilst fencing them in. Images project onto the walls over pasted billposters, splayed out from the center like a voyeuristic mirror ball capable of reflecting something other than light or images of itself. At this stage, this stage is also the orbit around which we gravitate; a centrifugal forcing us apart and holding us together. As I hold on tightly, not quite daring to let go of the railing, you skate off without so much as a backward glance to take part in the roller-ride action. A large group watches over this spectacle from the plastic seats, all of us equal in contemplation. Now we are getting somewhere, back to the vital bit just before something happens. That night we banded together in various collaborative ways, most of these relationships gathering strength with a little time: a family, some friendship and ample fidelity. A spirit of togetherness forged through intuition and fights, love and rivalry. We held out a steady hand to the collective other and reassemble ourselves. I take my time clumsily on the floor; the tempo of experience measured only by the speed of my skating. What is rendered in space is left open-ended so that all our future activities engineered in an attempt to destroy boredom, or just endure boredom or just enjoy boredom.

It is all too easy to become complacent, imagining that you are always already waiting for me, telepresent in the midst of a sheet of paper, some nodes and a screen. The solitary becomes the sedentary. We could meet in the smokeless bar; we could meet on the page, but let’s meet in the roller rink, the social sensorium.

Ortonandon Get Set

The following sentimental story was written on the occasion of Ortonanon’s and their exhibition GET SET, Intermedia Gallery, CCA. Anna, Katie and Sophie Orton make up the sisterly artist trio working under the name Ortonandon, and I am one of four sisters. Here’s a link to their website>>> Go See it…

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***

IT’S AN ODD PLACE TO BEGIN, so close to the end. I will begin at this unmistakable time of year; a period of new starts that coincides with the decay of leaves and flowers and the steady drift into falling. The following story came to me in a vision. By no means perspectival, this was the kind of vision which takes place over tens of years and hours of conversation. As time passed, instead of acquiring strength, my vision was diminishing, so naturally I wanted to render it in text, to capture and fix it. Just imagine I want to go from here to there, but I stall for some reason. So I stop completely, still and waiting, each moment equal and unfolding, time passing, no hierarchy, or force, just trembling and watching the dusk. This slow transition produced as a result of yet another earthly rotation, but nothing repeated. There’s that light again which accompanies this time of day, at this time of year, in this place. I will create the light again next summer, or at a time in the future when this particular kind of fading light is obsolete. My eyes adjust, the shapes become less distinct, and darkness cools the air by a degree or two.

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At some point during this productive darkness I grab a book and begin writing diagonally across the page not knowing if the words are overlapping or slightly ahead of where they should be. Tonight, the comparative depth of colour isn’t uniform and the room is teaming with millions of dots. These specks are vibrating, vying for space and beginning to seek out all the corners, after some time the shadows finally give dimensions to my bedroom. Thinking I am alone in this stirring I start to fidget and something reminds me of the warm bodies who are in the room with me, each in their bed with the scent of sleep barely on their skin. Although deep in our own thoughts, at any point the silent agreement may be broken by a brightly coloured torchlight flashing, on the ceiling off and on, up and down, one at a time, or several lights from opposite sides of the room, then a nudge in your side that maybe accompanied by a whispered “hello, are you awake?” This time I can’t quite recall who started it, but I imagine that I did, by billowing the bed clothes to create theatrical snapping static charges with my nightie, sheets, arms and feet. Never slow to catch on, they all join in with the fizzing and crackling, fusing all the particles, to light up the night.

On the landing, in the coldest part of our house, a long way down the corridor, hang a couple of paintings depicting a rural scene in a pastoral style. The paintings seem a pair, but I wouldn’t like you to make the same assumption. An unknown artist has painted the same scene twice; only close inspection reveals obvious differences. In the foreground a looming, bendy-looking tree inclines at such an awkward angle that by rights it should collapse. An isolated house stands at the zenith of a craggy hill, all tufts of grass and inert grey boulders. The house overlooks a small stretch of water flowing briskly through the mottled landscape, building its strength from an unknown source quietly and unseen beyond the frame. The river appears motionless, still and flat. Much further downstream from the shallow reaches towards the edge of the composition, at the point, a well-dressed romantic is bathing her swollen feet, apparently taking respite from a journey. An animal is close by kicking up hooves and with a nonchalant stance contemplating, as only an insider could, what its really like to be a horse. All these details match, but for a reason known only to the artist, in each work the river flows in an opposite direction across the picture plane, producing a symmetrical effect when placed side by side. It seems significant that one painting is restored to a good standard, leaving the other to await a similar fate when time, money and priorities allow. After living with this seemingly neglected painting for some time, growing accustomed to its muted tones, the cracked and heavily layered oils applied with much effort over a patchy woven canvas, then sandwiched within this flaking golden frame, its carelessly mitred edges fixed with wood glue and mismatched gold leaf filler; I notice that the dandy artisan is clearly exhaling, sighing with her lips barely parted and a misty-eyed gaze following from point to point a particular trajectory some distance away towards the house on the hill. This expression is absent from the painting with the river running in the opposite way. It is neither a poorly executed counterfeit, nor a mass-produced misfit, or indeed a pair in the usual sense; it’s a sibling.

By and by, but with no haste, the girl gets mounts the horse refreshed and ready at last to trot off once more. Through the calm of contemplation, something caught my attention in the corner of my eye. After an initial startle I realised that two more mysterious riders had joined the first. The group disappeared gradually, out of my view to the edge of things and into someone else’s peripheries. I stood quietly, thinking about all these small figments, becoming aware of time contracting around me,the walls gently pulling apart, caused by an unseen force or some imperceptible temperature range change. When I turned around and found the others stood behind me nodding and shaking their heads intermittently we had no choice but to laugh in unison at this awkward situation. Then, facing in the same direction we looked at each other through the mirror with close scrutiny.

Before long we would leave together for the last time, banging the wooden front door and off out into the world. Without straying too far, we traveled on horseback through thickets and forests, over fields and pavement, to the highest mountains, and the smallest brooks, fixing our memories and constructing yours along the way. In our bosom lies a sentimental frontier, a threshold we invite others to cross when uttering under our breath this chant with a sing-song intonation;

Holes in the pocket,
Thread bare thread,
What falls through will make a trail,
But do not be misled;
A northern wind is all around so lend us a hand,
Together we will make a place,
From pixels built on sand

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The Edge of Things

In 2010 I was invited to write something for David Mackintosh’s exhibition The Edge of Things at Cornerhouse, Manchester. Here is a link to his website >>> Go see it

The Edge of Things installation

Here’s a PDF of the exhibition guide. David_Mackintosh_The_Edge_of_Things

Periphery
The only way to begin is to talk to you.
The harr has almost lifted and the tenement
opposite is becoming visible. Something
compels me to look out of the window, and
I take leave of my task as well as my senses.
Looking beyond the foreground and past the
empty street below into the middle distance,
the golden section of the composition draws
my eye up until it reaches a singular seagull
hovering and still against an ominous grey
sky. The scraggy bird swoops down taking
my eyes with it. It is only then that I catch
sight of a shadowy figure stooping low inside
the window opposite me. He rises up gently,
meeting my gaze with equal inquisition. The
hooded man continues to stare intently and
glides a little closer to his glass, one world
separated from another. I am riveted to the
spot. I forget when I blink or when I stop
looking but both the moment and the spectre
are gone. Disappeared from my line of sight
and the frame of vision to the back of my
mind and the edge of things.

Margin
I understand that I am at the seaside and
believe you when you say this. But the
water is murky and I can see that its foam is
thick with rancid effluence as it encroaches
onto compacted sand. An estuary is neither
of service to the sea nor its slave, hardly
one thing or the other. Not a river or an
ocean but at the cusp of both. The tidal
ebb begins and the fl ow recedes, shifting
territory and boundaries without purpose.
All manner of things have bobbed to the
surface and washed up on these shores.
Things are thrown up like thoughts from
an unknown source, disappearing as fast
as they seem if they are not singled out
for some other purpose. Each fragment is
pummelled, distorted and remade by the
water. I catch sight of something glimmering
in the early morning sun, and notice that a
tiny crustacean has made itself a home in a
golden locket. Legends of lost manacles and
ship-wrecked treasures are told as often as
stories of severed limbs and blood stained
tables. Like the sea, our tales stretch out
before and after us so that we never reach
the end of the narrative. The people walk
slowly and with great care because the
climate is stifling. Why are they here and
what do they plan to do? It is true that
the mind does not move much in the still
and hot air.

Border

A stage, like paper has four edges and
more often than not only one side is used.
Sometimes a frame delineates the edges.
An edge has no identity as such and each
sentence is a blink. So when is a frame not
a frame? A drawing is no more contained by
a support and its structures than a sudden
thought intent on escaping the confines of
the most rational mind. The protagonist turns
a corner and finds herself within a forest
with no visible glade. Have I been here all
along she wonders? In a trance-like state it is
tricky to distinguish fact from fiction and one
surface from another. It came from nowhere
and looms in to envelop her, as far as she
can see. Branches stretch out, overlapping,
sinewy and wet with dew. The treetops are
not visible but she rightly assumes them to
be up there somewhere out of sight. She
observes the scene reluctantly, panicking
and unsure if it is safer to go deeper into
the forest than to seek out its edges. As she
moves evermore swiftly moonlight catches
her, its silvery tones illuminating her skin
and not the way forward. So she runs.
The faster her legs spring forward the more
the light flickers to strobe and confuse. The
trees are densely packed with shadows and
decaying vegetation. She must fight her
way through, occasionally and breathlessly
uttering, what brought me here? Now the
snow is falling, the page is white and our
protagonist will keep running.

Outside
As I catch your eye you look away. Dipped
down and deadened. Yet our relationship
persists. Dialogue between us is thin on the
ground and we have begun to enact curious
rituals invoking a kind of discourse channeled
between various static media. This media is
the conduit and without it we would run out
of things to say. We go for journeys in books
to places we can no longer visit. If we both
read at the same passage at the same time
we might bump into each other. We place our
cheeks against the page. Where the paper is
smooth, the skin feels rough. These days we
sit together, in the top floor tenement, chins
on the back of my sofa peering like lovelorn
dogs through the wintry sashed glass. This
perfect viewing device promises to protect
those inside from the contamination of the
streets, and the unknown. These edges might
save us from an abyss. The world appears fl at
when we look out of the window, through its
four mitred corners. Like the clouds that pass
by from edge to edge life does not come to us
here. They drift onwards, becoming our past,
sometimes slow, sometimes fast. My dreams
are fl at, my screens are fl at, the world, for all
I know, outside my window is fl at. There are
certain limits and I am unable to see past
them. Self-imposed boundaries are there for a
reason. When I can’t think what I should do, or
what I think I should be doing, I make a list.

Brink
Because we have not left the house for long
enough, the remnants of life that we receive
through our outmoded technologies and
which we see from our windowsill are
always second-hand. This does not mean
we are unfamiliar with them. At first we
presumed that it would, but this is
not the case. The more we compare our
visions, the more wildly they seem to differ.
I had dusted our collection of knick
knacks and art upstairs in the back bedroom.
Dust needs removing from the inside as
well as the outside and it is important not to
forget the crevices which debris can so easily
settle in. The objects are quite heavy and
the job requires concentration. If I am honest
it is quite laborious and something I put off
doing until the accretion of bluey fluff and odd
gritty particles is visible and detracts from the
contours, rims and colours of the collection.
I might be collecting dust now and it would
be a much more impressive hobby. The dust
has settled and so have I, to take action only
when it seems ridiculous not to. Accumulated
particles have softened my edges, covering
up the true quality of things so at the point
when cleaning becomes a necessity I begin
the ritual.

Interface
The relic is still operable and it has no center.
We have access to sections, various sites and
pages; it is just that now it is not so easy to
find them. We will find them, collect them
and create a map. We will cut into them,
force them out and reassemble them without
classification. I would like to do the same with
all the things and thoughts that have passed
through my mind of late. This would be one
way to acknowledge the troubling phenomena
occurring at the periphery of the thought. My
account is disjointed and maybe this
is a reflection on how I have come to think.
I can only speak for myself, but it might also
be the case for you. I write to extend
my concentration span, to fix the fleeting, to
get to the point, to get to the end. I know that
things are often empty but the difference now
is that I have no urge to fill them. No need to
furnish them with my misgivings. Some things
you will recall from the past and others could
jog your memory, this is not important; the
way things resonate with you is surely a
by-product. What I consider to be edges have
all but dissolved. Thoughts delineated and
outgrown. You need to get somewhere and I
want to help you.