The Beginning of History – a view from inside

This exhibition stays alive in me, and every time I mentally step inside new layers of beauty and meaning beckon. Pain too, and challenge.

First thing you encounter is Ben Cove‘s Big Bopper – gorgeous, mysterious sentinel, with wool of many hues painstakingly wound around a tall, slightly curved plywood structure, on wheels. It looks sturdy and unstable, imposing and transitory. There’s a sense of impending motion (a ten-legged stagger) or unfolding (umbrella-like), although both are impossible. The wool stripes around its upper half seem pleasantly familiar, like those on deckchairs or a favourite sweater. The Big Bopper is unlike anything I’ve seen, so I’m clambering about for cues. I’ll have another look later.

For Nick Kaplony‘s Asleep Somewhere a pair of artificial eyelashes is projected on the wall in a rectangle of light, their perfect out-sized arcs childlike as well as theatrical. Going close you see how they are constructed, with cross-hatched webbing where the lashes are rooted. Little hovering smiles. The light a stage light on a star in a silent movie. A person is summoned, a memory; a dream of femininity and glamour. Desire drawn in failing light. Who’ll come across the threshold – a mother or a boy in drag? We will those eyes to open, look back at us, make us.

Right opposite a domestic scene is set, for a woman of a different generation, a different class, to put her face on with care and deliberation. Kate Murdoch‘s Here Today a summon too, through material things: a powder puff (even the word by-gone?) and make-up case placed on a bedside table painted in the same antique rose tone. A kind of stillness, suspension here, like in a room kept unchanged after a loved one died, only every time I come something has changed, as the artist unobtrusively intervenes, adds, arranges. The tone remains affectionate, tender; away from the lime-light, Kate’s nana is conjured in the daily effort of making herself beautiful. There’s a sense of warmth and respectability, of pride and aspiration. Skin English rose, with a hint of Scottish heather.

Now a half turn, drawn by the flicker of a film where a small rectangle has been cut out of an old head-board. Three people, a woman, a man, a woman, black, are ascending a staircase sidebyside, squashed together in an uncomfortable but mesmerising choreography, until they reach a bedroom where a drama quietly unfolds of complicated constellations, relations… Printed leaflets are fanned out on a small round table nearby, telling the story behind Shelley Rae‘s The Griot, of …, a slave, who married and was forcibly separated from his wife when sold on. How hard to write this, how easy. He married again and after the Civil War, now a free man, went with his new wife to find the wife he had to leave behind. They made a life together. A story you could see in a film and suspend belief, a story handed down in a family, domestic and public, where notions of race and gender are negotiated in pre-scribed prohibited spaces. A silent movie, until he/the man starts playing a mournful tune on a mouth organ, stretched out on the bed where earlier the women had lain, head next to toes, braced in a pledge of shared affections, but safe too in this world of three. No turning back now: pink skin is charged too, grandmothers firmly pulled into history.

Next to The Griot is Shelley‘s Exodus, a light box on which lie two pages of a letter, yellow with age, written in pencil in the 30s, here enlarged and printed. A letter written sister to sister by a great aunt of Shelley’s, descendants of The Griot, still struggling to make a life, a bare life, in circumstances still and ever reduced and restrained. That letter could be written today, the way things are going, with its worries about relatives out of work, a husband going astray, maybe homeless, and no New Deal in sight. The care of women is offered, of relatives, communities, inspite, against, with.

(more below —>)


But, this is where I catch my breath, on its left hangs This is a room I’ve never lived in, the piece that brought the return of the repressed Hitler salute in my work, dare I write it, a small outfit where a child’s upper body becomes a huge outstretched arm. A black sleeve crocheted from wool that stained my hands, with a pink and white cuff or is it a collar – little crochet pillar in underpants, incongruous and ordinary, pathetic really, but its verticality bold, almost brazen now, and I go still at the curator’s choice of placing these pieces together.

On its other side Charlotte Brown‘s etchings, Necklace I and II, coils of pearls starkly black against white paper, like ink transferred from fingertips. There are undercurrents: of value and violence, beauty and stricture, pearls (presented by husband to wife, their lustre a sign of wealth, status) burning into skin like acid into zinc. The sooty colour renders something precious punishing – those are the pearls that were his eyes – Blaubart’s maybe? And placed next to This is a room I think of the dark stains I imagined on my hands. And then they take on yet another sinister hue – think of all the valuables taken off Jewish men and women on arrival at a concentration camp.

Connections keep shifting. Nick Kaplony, curator laid out the exhibition by shared formal aspects, small details, colours, shapes, thus allowing for surprising juxtapositions. Moving through the show, even mentally as I lie here, is a vertiginous endeavor, where, as I start to ‘see’ the pieces, relationships emerge, and with them new meanting.

On to Nick’s Memento Mori / Aide-Mémoire, two small photographs of some of his parents’ professional tools, shown oversized. A denture’s grimace; eye-shadow with an almost atomic tint, crimsonish purple, now you see me, now you don’t. Together they threaten with the knowledge of transitory beauty, even death and decay, and strive to withhold it, cover it up. How light and hopeful Asleep Somewhere seems now, even if those lashes are tools of the trade too. Although hugely enlarged their delicacy carried on golden light, lure us in, and for an instant we imagine life as a happy song and dance in the rain. The dentures don a trail of history though, of gold teeth broken from mouths, and that black sleeve swings back into view, and a child unaware of what it stretches towards.

I turn to Kate Murdoch‘s Fabric of Life. A series of swatches, treasured heirlooms, fixed in embroidery-loops with edges painted dark grey and hung from threads. They’d move in a breeze: a tiny doll’s dress, part of a patchworked tea-cosy, such pretty fabrics, colours, textures – but then the top of a stocking and its suspender, weirdly creepily flesh-doomed, undercuts these pleasures. A woman’s body, brought down not only by notions but the ways of all flesh. Desire. Inflamer and destroyer of nostalgia.

Mourning and a thread left hanging… Kate‘s nana made this, owned this, mending, stitching, hemming in, making her home beautiful. We can’t know how much is masked: a hard life, fraught roles and relationships, domestic and other, work and worries. Now we may look but not touch. Memories are made of this, a shard here, a rip there, for us to ponder over. The artist has chosen and cut to fit, in one gesture tender, restorative and destructive, swatches hanging lightly, with air around them, weighted with loss.

Karen Stripp‘s installation Goodbye to the Genius Loci, speaks of a different loss: a house left behind, a home. Her installation of small colour photos with white edges, showing fragmentary views of the house’s interior, corners, walls, a bed, a fuse box, are arranged to fill a circle on the wall, with gaps between. On its sides hang four larger framed photos in gradations of dark ochre and black, taken at night, haunted by memories that have already become untethered. Last glimpses of life lived there, its patina.
Assembled on the floor as if fallen from a mirror: photos scattered around a large one of a figure laid out from bits of the house’s timber, pieces from age-worn bannisters, shelf brackets, maybe chair legs. The genius loci a partial figure, expired too. The whole set-up like a gravesite. What remains when something falls apart? There’s a sense that this installation could grow indefinitely, spread, and in the end overlay the original house, replace, alter, in/through memory. The act of remembering changes the thing we are trying to remember.

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And now look up, there’s I am a stick, I am a stone, as if the wood from Karen‘s Genius loci were thrown in the air and shift-shaped. The piece, mounted high up on the wall next to the doorway, seems filled with life and motion, and, with a child’s uncurdled exuberance, may be about to hurtle away: ‘I am out of here!’ But hang on, not so fast, history calls, and this work, born in the shadow of a swastika, there, I’ve written the word, falls without a clank, after all it’s been crocheted – soft materials, disarming medium, even in black and white, but falls, is felled, for a moment, before it cartwheels off again, as if nothing ever happened.

Grey stripes re-appear in Ben Cove‘s Head Construct (3), hanging below. Although linked to his other paintings by means of title this one is different as it purports readability. Tension arises between aspects of archetypes and ancient masks on the one hand, and features which make you think of a small child, even if those large eyes are nothing but half-circles daubed on in pink and the faceness emerges from scanty details – grey stripes geometrically forming cheeks, a mouth conjured through placement and not through its red and beige bars overlaying what seems like a burning map. But a face does appear and can’t be denied, a brown face, and those pink marks make eyes that seem caught in a glare, a stare. At what is around them, here, and what is fought over, often enough glossed over? Not only in and between art historical isms, but in ideologies of all hues: the materialization of difference and otherness.

Which makes my mind leap towards Charlotte Brown’s Weaklings, make-up cases cast in sugar and laid out on top of a table on long thin legs, fossil-like but much more temporary, all white bar one in ochre, one out. Close up you can see the imprint of tiny hinges and clasps at the edges. Tools of a daily masquerade, sweet hope. Women of another generation making themselves presentable. I can see handbag and shoes, matching, a suit worn only on Sundays. Putting on airs, putting on faces. Not thinking that they penetrate, seep into the mental states that inspired them in the first place. We do different things now, cut even into skin and flesh. In the fragility of these casts lies unforgotten the notion, the reality, not only of skin shrinking and wrinkling till death do us part, but also of sugar plantations, white skin under parasols, black skin exposed to the burning sun. We can imagine but maybe wouldn’t if we are white.

Across now, to a little shelf bearing Charlotte’s Curse II, a spectacle case cast in lead, and as in her etching Box (pitch black, as if the lightless interior had sucked any tones from the exterior), with precise imprints of hinges and lock almost mocking us. Such different media, both in their own ways conveying weight and finality. Little tombs, severe, sombre, past use, but useful in new ways, as containers of secrets, even though they lack space inside to hold things. In a strange way they are filled with themselves; what isn’t spoken is fused into this dense, impenetrable shape. The spectacle case small yet threatening, a modern Pandora’s box, in which evils are sealed, or our means to discern them. Freighted, toxic heirlooms.

At the other end of the space Ben Cove’s Trans: Lean-to sculpture, graceful, fragile, precarious, with a ceremonial aspect. The almost futuristic painting mounted on the wall seems to stand in for a head. Stately and superior, like a brain that operates without a body. In painting and sculpture Ben’s work hovers between abstraction and figuration, veering this way and that, not declaring itself. Trans too is unlike anything else, collapsing categories: painting? sculpture? 3D? 2D? abstract? figurative? precious? playful? from this earth? alien? As soon as you make up your mind about one thing its opposite spins out at you. Best to give in and admit that it’s not a matter of either/or but of and, and more. Something alive in this construction (for want of a better word) in ways that give a breathing space, if only for a moment or two.

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Ben‘s paintings, A construct (2) and Head Construct (1) frame Kate’s Here Today. With Charlotte’s Weaklings and my Every day we tried to be good they make an interesting little grouping, partially anchored in the real, the every day, partly situated in other realms. These paintings question abstraction and figuration. Built from circles, which conjure openings and eyes of a kind, and sharp angles that form barriers, thresholds, they make things of beauty, of beguiling strangeness. Futuristic elements here too. Is this a form of escapism? Towards a life beyond the fragilities and demands of embodiment, beyond narrow minds and the measuring tools with which we delineate physicalities, countries, identities.

Every day we tried to be good speaks of bodies cut to size, or is it minds? Twin pieces, crocheted in soft pinks and blues, with neatly aligned sides and internal doublings, a multitude of openings for a surfeit of limbs and heads, all the while maintaining an air of ordinariness. Those diagonals as if drawn with rulers, soft edges hardened. A sense of having to fit in, of templates for streamlined bodies, bodies pressed into shape and into use. Deformation defamation. With Charlotte’s Weaklings nearby the vulnerability of these imagined anatomies seems to increase exponentially.

Which leads me straight to Riefenstahl’s children. The little crocheted dress almost all there, at first glance at least, and with each new outfit a progressive severing, resulting in outlines that almost, but never quite, approach abstraction. Embodiment conjured and injured, constrained and contained. In a homely medium shapes mutate, losing limbs and unlocking notions around authenticity and pathos. The link to history in the title, adding layers of meaning.

Moult. A child’s bodice, crocheted heirloom, like one found among delicate garments wrapped in tissue-paper in an old chest or drawer – the only one not eaten by moths. Hair-work, fair work, fairy-tale work. Such a shirt will scratch your skin no matter how many layers you wear under. Any aspiring saint would want one. Little animal pelt, lanugo never shed, blond and with connotations before you even start to think – did that chest hold zigzags sharp as knives, folded in grey cloth? Big leaps: beauty myths, Aryan ideals, Auschwitz… Suddenly I think of Ashiepattle, sorting through ashes. Die guten ins Töpfchen, die schlechten ins Kröpfchen. No spell to be uncast, but a history to be carried.

Next to Moult an old bird-cage, blue and rusty on a plinth, in which a miniature Virgin Mary figure has been placed. She stands on bibles as if on a soap-box, eyes down-cast, hands raised in prayer. Kate Murdoch’s Do Not Touch, this side of light on lashes… Little crosses and religious medals hang behind her, but faith is in question, used to cast judgement, to divide. Prayers become injunctions, an ideal a false idol. On the other side of the light Kate’s She was no Snow White, a little figure tumbling into a cup, legs peaking out, the rest of ‘her’ drowning in the softness of a yellow artificial rose. Sweet and trip-up funny, oh, if the Virgin knew about girls felled by maxims and morals and nowhere to hide. Much of that around today still, in all kinds of new and old ways.

In this show we follow trails of different kinds of sorrow – for the loss of a loved one, a home, work; for limitations and rules applied along arbitrary lines, divisions and demarcations; for those difficult legacies come to us, passed on by us. History is a kind of home too. Acknowledged or not, we live with its inflictions and inflections. Neither solution nor healing on offer here – but the work is engaged and engaging in conversations we don’t have (enough). A self is relational, rubs against other selves, often without recognition that everything is connected, that we are implicated in what happens now, is done now, in our name, everywhere. Art at its best is relational too.

On the way out I find the Big Bopper changed. Those threads obsessively wound around its structure, giving it ‘body’ and painting stripes which now evoke not frocks or deckchairs, but flags, enveloping, covering, casting out. An incongruous construct, vertical, phallic, and empty at the centre.

All of us:
Ben Cove @Ben__Cove
Charlotte Brown @ciebrown
Nick Kaplony @NickKaplony
Marion Michell @marjojo2004
Kate Murdoch @katemurdochart
Shelley Rae @ShelleyRaeArt
Karen Stripp @MissBricabrac


I’m writing about The Beginning of History by mentally moving through the exhibition piece by piece. It’s a bit like praying the rosary, feeling bead after bead between your fingers, only I’m not following the show’s lay-out in the round but finding my own criss-crossing trail, with similar deliberation. I’m on piece six now, out of 23, so this may well become the slowest exhibition review ever. That my body seems to be stuck in permanent pain-review mode and for extended periods puts my brain on the blink doesn’t help.

At the same time I’m preparing to go see my mother, whose 80th birthday is nigh. I decided to make a photo-book, about her and my dad, whose absence she feels most acutely at this time of year, and started by juxtaposing photos of each as babies, children, teenagers. While I was selecting the images I found myself in a quandary. Should I include a photo of my dad as a young soldier? First I thought, yes, of course, that’s part of what shaped him, and tried to ignore the niggling notion that it might upset my mom who not only has her own memories of a childhood affected by war, but of my father waking up screaming every night at the beginning of their life together. (While I was growing in her womb my father went into therapy, not the done thing at the time and something I really admire him for.)

In the end, sidestepping the self-righteous part of me, I decided I could, even should, allow the book to be without the photo in question. After all I wasn’t making it for myself, nor was it an attempt at Vergangenheitsbewältigung. I still feel ambivalent, but also realise I was imposing my own need to work through these aspects of my father’s life.

In the summer, when we looked through old photo-albums together and I listened to her stories, even recorded them, I had to reign myself in too. She talked about fleeing from East Prussia with her mother and four younger siblings just before the Russian army arrived, at the age of 11, something it’s taken me a decade or two to even acknowledge as trauma. When she described dead horses lying frozen at the side of the trail where a long line of sledges and horse-carts made slow progress, my impulse again was to press her. I thought: why no mention of dead people, and caught myself moments later, appalled at how judgemental I was. What right have I to dictate how she should remember, and what to share? Shouldn’t I respect her way of dealing with what she lived through? On one hand there’s the abstract as well as concrete need of challenging silences and suppressions with regard to German history, on the other is the personal engagement with someone who was a child then and made sense of what she saw and experienced on her own terms. As one of the post-war generation (lucky) I need to find my own relationship to German history, a conscious affect-laden process which challenges me on all kinds of levels…

You could say Verkehrtes Mädchen grew out of our conversations. I actually started crocheting while I was lying on her sofa, listening – I get fidgety if I can’t occupy my hands. Also on my mind was Hannah Höch‘s collage Deutsches Mädchen/German Girl, made 1930, to which this is a kind of reply in crochet. Verkehrt can be translated as wrong, inverted, amiss, and verkehren (verb) as ‘put something the wrong way around’; ‘consort with someone’, ‘keep company or do business with’. I think it is partly about her, and partly about me. Verkehrt in different ways, at different times.

Verkehrtes Mädchen (2012/13)
Materials: crocheted from wool/polyester mixture and cotton yarn
Dimensions: 57.5 cm x 36 cm

And before I forget, a small ode to joy: Last week I was able to follow from afar a very interesting talk by @annabeltilley @ZeitgeistAP about the development of her practice since art-college – tweetwise! As ever I would have loved to be there in person, but as I was laid up this was the next best and much enjoyed opportunity, thanks to the nimble fingers and supple mind of legendary @rosalinddavis who tweeted quotes&photographs and even took questions. Thinking back to last year I can say we’ve come far, and I’m really grateful for the continuation of efforts and experiments. Having pix made all the difference. Blogger-friend @sophiecullan was there too and will carry the baton to @Fermynwoods

The start of a new era!