For the last year I’ve been engaged with the largest single work I’ve ever made – a free-standing hand-made paper sculpture, 1 metre high and 17 metres long, constructed in the form of a huge concertina book, called Thames to Dunkirk. During May/June 2010 it will form half of my online interactive installation The Dunkirk Project, at http://thedunkirkproject.wordpress.com. Here I’ll discuss making the work and the progress of the installation.
The British Library’s major exhibition for London 2012, Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands explores the connections between landscape and literature in 150 fascinating and revealing objects from its 150 million-strong collection, including my huge book Thames to Dunkirk, which is on display fully opened (almost) for the first time. I’m honoured that my work is in such good company.
There’s a short preview of the exhibition on my blog, at http://daughtersofearth.wordpress.com
Here you can read the story of the making of Thames to Dunkirk and the inspiration behind the work from the beginning by clicking on the ‘reverse order’ button on the right.
I’m very pleased to be able to conclude this blog about the making process of my monumental artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk, and my online interactive installation The Dunkirk Project, by reporting that the British Library has purchased Thames to Dunkirk, and selected The Dunkirk Project for their UK Web Archive, so that both will be permanently preserved within the British Library collection.
Once I’d got the idea of making an interactive installation around Thames to Dunkirk, with the sculpture as the centrepiece round which a River of Stories would flow, it occurred to me that a good way to start this installation off communally would be online, where people could easily see and respond to my work, interact with it, and contribute something of their own to a collective artwork that would thereby reflect a wider range of views, uncover some hidden voices, and perhaps give a platform for some unexpected or unconventional responses. I thought that it would be a very effective use of the blog format to actually make an artwork communally online by providing a primary experience and alongside it, a facilitating space for the response of other voices – making an artwork within the internet, rather than just showing one on it.
Also unusual would be the real-time unfolding of the River of Stories, telling fragments of accounts from Dunkirk daily as they happened seventy years ago, on the right days, running throughout the nine days of the event, 26th May to 3rd June, and then continuing to the aftermath, giving the reader an experience of re-enactment in real-time – even the weather the same. This proved extremely effective, keeping the suspense of the story as the days passed, allowing readers to engage with individuals and follow their progress throughout, and emphasising the sheer scale of the event, including its timescale. Some time-relevant contributions were sent on the right day – one person added a story (about her father realising it was his 22nd birthday on the beach at Dunkirk) on the anniversary of the day that happened, and another sent images of a postcard – ‘Safe and well in England’ – on the day it was written, seventy years ago.
Many people have followed the unfolding story daily, finding The Dunkirk Project through invitations (to my mailing list), adverts in the TLS and listings (including AN ‘what’s on’); I also set up a couple of conversations on message boards where people were likely to be interested. I was excited to find that visitor numbers, encouraging to begin with, increased, almost doubling daily throughout the nine days, and that many people contacted The Dunkirk Project either by email or through the message boards. And quite a few people added comments directly into the River of Stories using the comment boxes. So far, well over 700 have visited, responded or contributed over nine days (and I’m still counting), and the British Library has invited The Dunkirk Project on to its selected website archive for preservation.
Today, 4th June, is the last of the daily unfoldings of the story; entitled 4th June 1940 – Beyond Dunkirk, it recounts some stories from the last people to be evacuated, those left behind and some who were sent back in to France after the evacuation (what a thought), as well as some retrospective views. But the comments boxes on each of the daily pages are still open, and the stories are still coming in. I hope that people will continue to respond and discuss the issues raised – including whether we have a right to re-evaluate our national myths, and (if we do) how Dunkirk looks from here. I’ve been moved and heartened by the generosity of the contributions, and it seems clear that a physical installation of The Dunkirk Project where people can contribute to a River of Stories anonymously will achieve an enormous response – it seems to have tapped a rich seam, and gripped the imagination of so many.
Now I feel that I’ve read and written so much about Dunkirk, so many stories, that I want to take myself back to Thames to Dunkirk, my own artwork that came from this great source of individual accounts. I made that work to include all the stories, and for me, they are all contained in the tensions and correspondences between my original ‘four lines at once’: the river of little ships, the queues of men’s names on the beaches, the gripping story in BG Bonallack’s poem, and the introspective undercurrent revealed by Virginia Woolf’s text.
After Thames to Dunkirk was made and photographed, I felt that perhaps it would need to be exhibited in a context of related work, rather than alone. I made a group of 32 works called Watermark, including clay waterfalls, artist’s books, large stoneware vessels and artist’s films, exploring the river/life metaphor in poetry and positing Thames to Dunkirk as its ultimate edge. My work on Watermark has developed and deepened my understanding of the inter-relationship of the processes I’m engaged with to a very significant extent – all this work has come out of Thames to Dunkirk for me, which is very satisfactory, and I’m still engaged with the particular problems it presented, and ideas it raised to the surface. However, I made this group of work with a particular (big) gallery in mind, preparing for a specific proposal (not without encouragement, I must add), only to discover that at the moment when I had been advised to present, the gallery’s contemporary art programme was suspended due to lack of funding for a curator. Alternative arrangements for exhibition are still not finalised, but I have also developed the concept in another direction.
I have long had an interest in communal or interactive artworks or events. At the private view of my installation in the Southbank Centre Poetry Library in 2008, over fifty people completed an artwork with me on a glass lift wall. This event was very exciting, and generated a lot of interest among the participants, some of whom have told me that they will never forget it. But it was not without its difficulties: one contributor, a rather well-known artist who had come to the PV, said ‘How brave to let other people muck about with your work’ – and indeed, though most participants engaged wholeheartedly with the work, one person got a bit overexcited and defaced other people’s contributions with her lipstick – an unexpected and unwelcome intervention/sabotage. And though the resulting collective work Sea of Space was really interesting and curiously fragile/expressive, it was not wholly appreciated by some viewers, who thought it ‘messy’. Just what I’d hoped for, actually, but never mind. Anyway, this experience fed my taste for something a bit more anarchic and uncontrollable than we’re usually allowed to do, and also raised some questions for me about the relative values of participants’ contributions, and how we judge them.
All this led me towards developing the idea of an online interactive installation that would invite participation in making a River of Stories, layering fragments of individual stories from a huge collective event (Dunkirk 1940) in a inter-connected stream, where each contribution, whether ‘true story’, memory, anecdote or imaginative engagement would have an equal place, and where hidden, previously unheard voices would find a hearing, including those from outside the established archive, or the accepted or usual sources. I hoped to hear from women who had participated or whose lives had been affected by the war, from pacifists, from people with a different take, as well as from people whose memories hadn’t seemed important enough for telling outside the family, and thereby to gather a very vivid and detailed picture of the phenomenon, that would engage younger people who weren’t there in an imaginative response, and would perhaps prove enlightening about our inheritance of the continuing issues. This collective artwork would run alongside Thames to Dunkirk. I see now it was a very ambitious aim.
Next time I’ll talk about setting up The Dunkirk Project, how it’s going (which is astonishingly well, so far), and some of the issues it has raised.
To continue the tale of the making of Thames to Dunkirk, the 17m long freestanding paper sculpture on my online installation The Dunkirk Project:
Once I had achieved my stack of pages, dried and fixed, my partner Frances and I started the construction. After we’d folded the pages again and arranged them in order, we used several litres of archive EVA (Shepherds Conservation adhesive) to make them into a concertina book – this was slightly easier said than done on this scale, and took us a few days, as I didn’t want the paste to soak into the paper too much and blur the ink lettering, or worse still, make it print on the facing page. Once pasted together, the sections were pressed overnight in our patent Heath-Robinson-Large-Book-Press, constructed from all the largest books on our shelves, with the help of our sturdy dining table. Rather stressful, these few days, as I felt I already had so much work invested, and that anything going wrong could easily ruin the whole thing. But ultimately successful – after a week’s pressing, the work-in-progress emerged as a book, with pages we could turn, all the right way up, and even in the right order. I could now assess the continuity, and was relieved to find that the line of the river joined up all the way along, and that the shore and sky lines on the Dunkirk side were continuous too. Hurrah, success.
Now we had a very large handmade book on our dining table, I started to think it was rather vulnerable. The next few days were occupied in making a portfolio case for it (with sheets of Stockwell unbleached paper from Falkiners, lots more archive EVA, and some linen canvas facing for the spine and corners). This portfolio turned into quite a sculptural object itself, and of course in its turn required protection, so a second, waterproof cover was the next thing we made, with a huge plastic sheet and a lot of duck-tape. This has proved very useful in transporting the work – it’s a two-person job to carry, and we put the handles in just the right place.
By the end of the month we were ready to think about photographing the work. We took a first series of page by page photos on the dining table (where else), but it’s hard to get far enough back from something this big. The Rev. Kevin Scully, rector of the beautiful St Matthew’s Church in Bow (rebuilt since it was bombed to a shell in the war, and now containing a fine collection of artworks) very kindly gave permission for us to photograph there, and even shifted all the pews. It was a great venue, with a shining wooden floor and huge clear windows, so I was able to see the ‘freestanding sculpture’ aspect of the work for the first time, and take a series of very usable photos. These are the photographs I’ve used in the page of my online installation devoted to Thames to Dunkirk, and I think they give a strong impression of the scale of the work, while still allowing the viewer to see the detail.
Next time I’ll talk about developing ideas for the installation, and some other work associated with it.
On the progress of the installation: this is the third day of the daily stories, and numbers of visits to the site have doubled each day so far. I’m really pleased with the response – I was very much hoping for an imaginative engagement in visitors, as well as some more literal responses of memories and accounts, and so far, some really interesting questions have been raised, and some very pertinent points made.