Eric Ravilious, Drift Boat, 1941, Museums Sheffield
Some vernacular wisdom gleaned from my Mum (a retired teacher) is that you have to tell someone something 3 times before it will sink in. This advice makes me picture a magician tapping a coin three times on a container until the coin vanishes, later to be revealed within. It came to mind recently too after I visited the exhibition Ravilious & Co. at Sheffield Millennium Galleries.
I hadn’t heard of Eric Ravilious before (or so I thought) and only went to the exhibition to pass the time when in Sheffield for an unrelated reason. I’m glad that I did; it was an enjoyable show. There was a lot to look at in the densely packed hang of over 400 pieces including paintings, drawings, engravings, ceramics, books and wallpaper by Ravilious and his associates; chronicling their impact on British visual culture during the 1930s. I was most enamoured by the work of Tirzah Garwood – which spanned figurative wood engravings and patterned paper and textile designs – and of Eric Ravilious himself. Ravilious’ designs for murals at Morley college struck me in particular. They depicted life in a boarding house with the front of the represented building cut away, to reveal interior furnishings and activities of residents.
But back to tapping thrice.
The day after I visited Sheffield I looked at the online journal Corridor8 to read a review by Jack Welsh of an event I had attended the month before. Artist Jenny Steele – whose recent work references ‘Seaside Moderne’ architecture – launched her solo exhibition ‘This Building For Hope’ at Morecambe’s Midland Hotel with a symposium that included a building tour. Jenny is a talented artist and Jack a talented writer; I wanted to use his reflections to help me reflect back on my own experiences. But what his write-up made me realise is how little of what I’d been told at the symposium had actually sunk in. Jack’s article opens with a quote from Garwood who, Jack writes: “painted the lost Ravilious mural alongside husband Eric Ravilious.” The mural he is referring to is one that was painted at the Midland Hotel in 1933. It deteriorated – thus was lost – but was rekindled in a 2013 homage that now dominates the hotel’s rotunda cafe. This mural provided a central element of our tour. It turned out, I’d been told about Ravilious and Garwood only weeks before.
Jenny Steele, The Fountain- North Beach, Screenprint on card, print on metal, 2017.
That was tap two, so what about the first?
Well, when I looked at Garwood’s work in Sheffield it brought to mind the book papers used by Persephone books. The association was confirmed when – in the gallery bookshop – I noticed Garwood’s autobiography, published by Persephone. Still (I believed) I hadn’t actually heard of Garwood before Morecambe, even if I might have seen her designs. But then last week when I was sorting out old papers for recycling, I found a copy of the Persephone biannually magazine. On the front cover a painted portrait of Garwood and inside a preview of said book that I now remember reading. Accompanying the previous was a photograph of the artist on a ladder painting the Midland mural with Ravilious.
After a question from a friend about whether I listen to podcasts, I decided this week to search a few out. My go-to topic, of course, was art. So far I have discovered The Art Newspaper (U.K. based) and Artsy (U.S.) which both do weekly offerings averaging around 30 minutes focused on a particular, and often newsworthy, topic. I don’t suppose I’ll be interested every week but the end of 2017/start of 2018 has seemed a good time to tune in for their looking-back and looking-ahead round ups. They include the kind of discussion of the art market and the art world that I find incredibly dull to read about but which is pretty engaging in a more candid, conversational style.
In a more creative vein, Raw Material from SFMOMA partners with different “podcaster-in-residences” to explore modern and contemporary art through the lens of topics such as ‘The Body’ and ‘Bewilderment.’ This seems a great way to discover new artists and explore ideas pertinent to contemporary art.
These are the podcasts that I’ve found so far that I think deal best with the listening medium. They are focused, succinct and don’t leave me wishing too much that I was near a computer to look up pictures of what they’re talking about.
It’s a long time since I’ve written anything here. I’d largely put that down to starting a teaching job at Leeds Arts University whereby most of my critical thinking energies over the last 2 years when not used in producing artworks have been spent planning seminars. Coming to the end of year 2 I am starting to get the hang of the role (at least a little!) So I am hoping to reprieve the blog as a space to mull, to begin to form new thoughts and review things made or seen.
As a first step (to take stock and get back in the writing swing of things) I’ve updated my website so it includes a page of articles and reviews I have written over the years. Some are quite old but I have done a few bits slightly more recently – including articles about Lucy Beech and Chris Paul Daniels written last year when I was a participant in a CVAN critical writing programme, and an article on public art commissioned by Corridor8. Watch this space to see if I succeed in my intention to get other sketchy fragments of writing out of my notebook and onto this page.
One of my favourite films at Leeds International Film Festival this year (and an audience favourite overall too) was ‘In The Crosswind’ (or ‘Risttuules’ in Estonian). The film is like an epic history painting, composed – apart from a brief opening scene – entirely of a series of tableaux vivants. Characters stand motionless whilst the camera weaves between them; their poses and expressions fleshing out the story of each scene. The film is set in 1941 when Stalin’s regime separated Baltic families, with men sent to prision and women and children to forced labour camps. A narrative voiceover reads letters written by a woman, Erna, to her husband when she and her daughter are deported from their home in Estonia to Siberia. On watching the film I presumed the letters were real, archive documents written and kept by the women as a kind of diaristic record and a gesture of communicating with her husband even though they were probably never sent. Research since has indicated that around 60% of the content came from letters written by a relative of the director. The remaining 40% of content was sourced from archives. Thus the woman Erna is based on a real woman but is also in part a composite character, combining details of several people’s stories.
The film is harrowing, its power comes from the sadness of the personal story it relates (one story representing the fate of thousands at this time). It also comes from the film’s artistic language and the interplay between the verbal voiceover and the visual scenes. The films’ posed scenes and its bleak landscape, all filmed in black and white, are beautiful. Scenes range from tableaux of small groups to those featuring hundreds of protagonists. I particularly recall an early scene at the railway station, where Estonian families are being forced onto a train, crammed in with their belongings. Numerous faces and poses fill this epic image. Later in a Siberian forest, swathed in snow, the vertical black lines of the trees and contrasting white provide a harsh but weirdly intimate location for a sad personal event. On the soundtrack, the letters are restrained and incredibly sad as Erna attempts to put a positive slant on her situation, yet the images we see tell us otherwise. Interaction between voice and image is well paced. Camera movement generally alternates with verbal voiceover, so the letters accompany still scenes and then the camera explores the scene further to reveal more details or nuances. Added to this is a subtle but evocative musical soundtrack of low drones, orchestral swoops, choral singing and character sounds such as whispers.
The film is directed by Martti Helde. I wanted to find out more about how the film was made and what he’s done before. It turns out he’s a first time director which I think is pretty amazing for a film of this ambition. I find it hard to imagine how the more complex scenes in the film were produced and I guess that this type of film may only have become possible with recent equipment and computer software. I found a ‘making of’ video which gives some details of how original footage was combined with 3d mapping and post-production digital editing.
I’ll be really interested to see what Martti Helde does next. ‘In The Crosswind’ has a very specific visual language which is appropriate to the story it tells. Helde explains that the choice to use stills came from a very specific quote he came across in one of the letters, which read: ‘I feel like time has stopped here in Siberia. That my body is in Siberia, but my soul is still in my homeland.’ For me the format works because as a viewer you identify with the main protagonist whose voice is also on the soundtrack, yet the sheer number of others in the shots conveys the mass of people who suffered the same fate and their static poses suggest the lack of agency or control they had over their own lives at this time. It evokes how the individual always lives their lives against the backdrop of a history largely outwith their control. Some of the film’s power may be that I have seen nothing quite like this before. One precedent is Chris Marker’s film La jetée (1962); another film which I love but which is not as complex or epic as this. I hope Helde will go on to push the language of film in other interesting ways in subsequent projects.
Yesterday I visited Coventry for ‘Future day’ as part of the City Arcadia project. City Arcadia is an art project/series of commissions responding to the past, present and imagined future of Coventry. Future day was a meet up and getting to know the city event, for artists (including me) who have made ‘propositions’ to be part of the project.
It was fab to meet Laura Elliot and Michael Mayhew – who run the project – plus some of the other artists who have put in proposals. The structure of the day made a nice change from familiar commissioning processes where you make a proposal and then get either a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on whether it can go ahead. City Arcadia would like, in theory, to work with all the artists they invited to the day. So, funding and practicalities permitting, I hope that I will be able to go back there soon to work on a project with them. I’ll post more about my idea if it does go ahead. In the meantime here’s a few snaps that I took of Coventry, it was enjoyable to explore the city.