The unique character of a Gothic Revival cemetery provides the inspiration and setting for an art trail that opens this weekend in West Norwood, south London.
Curious features works by 21 artists and creatives who explore ideas of death, memorials, loss and remembering, as well as the histories and geographies of the site. Works range from Tim Meacham‘s pedal-powered train carriage that enables visitors to navigate the cemetery whilst creating a memento drawing of their journey, to Jane Brockbank‘s Flower Theatre, which references the Victorian tradition of displaying auricula flowers against a theatrical black backdrop.
Curator and artist Jane Millar explains that the project began in 2012, when she worked with a number of artists interested in working in a site-specific way for the first Curious trail. “As an artist and curator, I’m interested in what happens between a ‘place’ and an artist’s work,” she explains. “And West Norwood Cemetery really is an extraordinary place.”
Millar describes cemeteries as both local and global sites, due to the way they reflect migration and immigration. “Curious is about opening up both the cemetery and contemporary art to an inter-generational audience. But it’s also about the way creative practice-as-research works with both tangible content of a place and also uncovers, explores and brings to light its hidden content.”
West Norwood Cemetery is one of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries, built to solve overcrowding in inner city churchyards in the early 19th century. In the 1830s it was proposed that larger cemeteries be built on the outskirts of London so that safe burials could take place – grave robbing and looting were not uncommon. But unlike many of the other Magnificent Seven that today act mainly as heritage sites, West Norwood is still a working cemetery.
“Because it’s a working cemetery, the artists have to work with the sensibilities of the people who go there to tend graves and pay their respects. Cemetery users have been very positive about the project – people who have relatives buried here have a great pride about the cemetery that creates a very profound connection. But it’s also very important to connect back to the cemetery as a tourist attraction, which it was in Victorian times. Victorians would visit cemeteries to contemplate ideas of mortality, death and the after life.”
The trail is in its second year thanks in part to a two-year regeneration project for West Norwood supported by the Mayor’s Regeneration Fund, which is contributing over £1.6million towards a range of measures to enhance the area.
“Curious is a small part of a programme to regenerate West Norwood, including a shop front improvement programme and support for local businesses. So we’ve been encouraged to work with local businesses and are receiving support from a local specialist paint manufacturer, Mylands.”
This support will be apparent in a very tangible way – the company’s new Colours of London paint range is being showcased in a commissioned piece by Ian McCaughrean, sited in one of the cemetery’s boarded up Mausoleum doorways. Mylands also has a personal connection to the cemetery. “The founder of the company is buried there, so there’s a deeper connection between the business and the project,” says Millar.
Archives and histories
A number of themes have emerged in this year’s Curious trail, with some artists working with the cemetery as a kind of archive and others looking at the hidden history of the working-class Londoners buried there.
“Jane Wildgoose is creating an installation in the Maddick Mausoleum that uses items from her own archive – including some items from the cemetery – as well as from the cemetery’s ledgers, held in the office. Her installation also includes work by textile artist Rozanne Hawksley: an undertaker’s order book from 1830s Camberwell, presented with gloves, a lock of hair and wax flowers.
“I’m working with historian Ruth Richardson, looking at the common burial area. Graves in this part of the cemetery were not marked individually but everyone that is buried there is recorded in the cemetery ledger.”
Millar’s piece, A Grand Picnic held by the Living for the Common Dead, will take place on 21 July, 12-5pm, and will include performance, music, poetry, food and a spontaneous installation to remember the hidden histories of these working-class Victorians.
And for those looking to make contact with the cemetery’s long dead, Steven Levon Ounanian‘s work connects with the site at a more paranormal level. “Steven is creating a sound piece,” explains Millar. “Visitors can plug attached electrodes into the cemetery earth, and listen to conversations and existential diatribes going on underground.”
Curious, West Norwood Cemetery, Norwood Road, London SE27 9JU, 22 June – 28 July 2013, every day 9am to 6pm. For a full list of special events including artists’ talks, performance and live music see www.facebook.com/SiteCurious
More on a-n.co.uk:
Engaged practice – Knowledge bank resource looking at how visual arts practice engages with people and social or environmental contexts.
Community engagement – a-n Collection publication looking at the myriad ways artists can engage with specific communities.