‘Nostalgia is not what it used to be’
Reappraising my many tests and experiments, it strikes me they often wrestle with the same thing: how to represent accumulated, evolving time and memory. Art compresses time and experience since all of an image is viewable simultaneously. But I’ve been testing ways to build layers back into my work to remove such simultaneity. It’s the opposite of what novelists such as Jeanette Winterson and Ali Smith are attempting to do; they’re writing experimentally to make many things happen at the same time on the page rather than sequentially. In a reverse experiment, I’m trying to put sequential time back into my work.
Capturing natural, living objects such as leaves and seaweed in ice, photographing them, and making photopolymer images is one way in which I’ve tried to layer my work – the viewer has to look through the ice to see what lies beneath. My next test is to assess how my five-layered photo-lithograph on translucent paper could be transformed by being frozen into a flat, rectilinear block. The way in which objects are transmuted by the freezing process renders them uncanny doubles of themselves, making them both familiar and strangely unheimlich. I’m thinking, as I create, how the onlooker might be invited to lean in, look harder, stay longer.
Finding sheets of Victorian children’s handwriting packed between the rafters of my house was literally the leaking roof’s silver lining. The lines the children had been forced to write repeatedly were so authoritarian that they took me immediately back to my research question: how to engage creatively with the vexed question of the abandoned coastal village of Tyneham in Dorset. In 1943, all the residents were ordered to leave by the Ministry of Defence who argued the land was needed for military training. Villagers were promised they’d be allowed back but the pledge was never honoured; instead, they were given a few coins for the vegetables they’d left growing in their gardens. But, like the children forced to write ‘Nominate the Just’ or ‘Venerate Sacred Institutions’ repeatedly, the villagers didn’t even complain. The deeply ironic consequence of their obedience is that the beach at Worbarrow Bay is as beautiful and unspoiled as any beach in the UK.
The damp, moulding sheets of handwriting led me to the idea of what a text does and doesn’t say, and from there to my great-aunt’s slightly mournful postcard collection. Born in 1900, she carefully saved all the cards she’d exchanged with her brothers and sisters over her life, but most of them were inscribed with nothing but the same, sparse message: ‘wishing you happy returns of the day.’ Yet she’d saved them all in a large pile tied with ribbon, so the brief messages must have meant a great deal.
It made me think about all the things that are left unsaid: the under-writing, the buried words, the redacted text. The restrained, authoritarian, even punitive messages in the homework seemed part of that same tradition: don’t say what you mean but what you ought. Combining the homework with postcards made sense and, in turn, to place them in the form of a virtual pilgrimage at Worbarrow Bay, the beach over which Tyneham looks, felt appropriate.
The virtual pilgrimage was often used as a way to circumscribe women. It allowed them to complete a religious journey but within the tiny confines of an imposed, patriarchal system. My virtual pilgrimage is entirely secular, but it’s a challenge to those who would offer authoritarian restraint. My great-aunt was forced to leave school at eleven to look after her younger siblings. My spiral ceramic pilgrimage on the beach at Worbarrow Bay is an evocation of the past, history, and memory. But it deliberately has a blank postcard at its centre: freed from constraints, it’s the card yet to be written.
I experimented with both glazed and non-glazed ceramics when making the postcards. Whilst I liked the polished nature of the glazed card, I discarded the idea because it seemed too elegant, too refined for my purpose. I also made rolled-out miniature postcards in paper clay to see whether inked or embossed type would work best for this project. Using the words the MoD deployed to order the villagers of Tyneham to leave, my conclusion was that in trying to capture the past, the ghostly impressions of embossed type suited my ideas best.
Reading my great-aunt’s postcards and trying to imagine what lies beneath the clipped, economical messages, has led me to fresco: what lies beneath the surface? Is the image on top of the surface or is the surface on top of the image? In many ways there’s a link here with my frozen photopolymer images: what really lies beneath the distortions of the ice? Alternatively, what messages sits on top, redacting the real words below? In pursuing this idea, I conducted an experiment, inspired by novelist Jane Austen’s method of correcting her manuscripts. She pinned replacement pieces of text over her original words to avoid wasting paper. I cut up pieces of drypoint print to pin onto images, but I was unhappy with the result which seemed clumsy. As a form of redaction, I still feel drawn to Austen’s idea, but not in its current form.
Making plaster prints from etching and polymer plates has been more successful. The way the ink is absorbed into the plaster is, after all, a form of fresco which is where my experiment began. Printed plaster postcards may form a new avenue, following my experiments with porcelain.
In the past three months I’ve experimented with etching, letterpress, aquatint, sugar-lift, spit-bite, photo-litho, photopolymer, camera obscura, ceramics, plaster-casting, drawing, digital print, and photography. One such experiment was to use both polished and unpolished steel to compare the tonal range of each. I wasn’t drawn to the completed image which I think is unrefined and too literal, but the tests were useful. Similarly, my drawing of a Mobiüs strip didn’t ultimately appeal to me, but its different angles and contours provided a useful way to learn the technique of aquatint.
As I reflect on my practice, it seems that I’m drawn not so much to the impress of plate on paper, but the imprint of hands, feet, eyes, and consciousness on landscape and sometimes history itself. The foot on the postcard; the fingers on the typewriter; the hands on the bus conductor’s ticket machine; the imprint of time on sedimentary rock; the layers of translucent paper which combine to form a single image which hits the eye simultaneously. In the next section, ‘Where next’, I’ll explore where I might take these ideas…