South Hill Park Arts Centre

There is a long art history tradition of exploring the dichotomy of desire; and it is arguably one of the most widely explored themes in contemporary art. In her work Beauty Spot (diptych) at South Hill Park in Bracknell, Rowena Easton, whilst drawing upon this tradition, expands the concept beyond mere emotion to engulf nature and landscape, sites and spaces. The work on display at South Hill Park is an aesthetic work in white neon, hidden amongst the leaves with the illuminated words ‘If I were to kiss you, I would take you here’ and then subsequently morphing into the words ‘If I were to kill you, I would bury you here’. It is a semiotic study, an ode to the pleasure and pain of desire, and a challenge to our perceptions of the spaces we inhabit.

The key issues surrounding Beauty Spot are explored and raised in three short essays featured in the exhibition’s catalogue. Both Lucy Bullivant and Dr Nina Power address the taming of the wilderness, both in terms of human nature (particularly women) and also in terms of wider society, notably the way in which capitalism, urbanisation and also colonialism have tamed the wild and natural landscape. They raise questions such as: Are we still in a legacy of colonialism with our privatisation of public spaces? Are we afraid of uncultivated and wild spaces with their mystery and ambiguity?

In light of these ideas it is with great sensibility that the site for Beauty Spot was chosen. The setting enhances all the concepts that the artwork and the essays raise, subtly manifesting the challenges laid out. Whilst South Hill Park sits in the tradition of the private, the refined, the civilised and cultivated it is now a public arts space. Beauty Spot is placed in a more ‘wild spot’ over looking a neatly boxed, bordered garden. The location allows for a dialogue between the conceptual and the tangible elements of the work; it allows a clearer realisation of its meanings and allows its challenges to confront the viewer. The location also allows for public interaction with the outside space, and leads them into a lesser known and lesser explored area of the grounds.

A third essay in the catalogue, written by Matthew Dennis addresses (in part) Beauty Spot’s concerns with the ambivalence of desire and the semiotic undertones of the work, drawing attention to the contemporary art world’s affinity with psycho-analysis. He also raises the point that Beauty Spot whilst alluding to the ambivalence of desire subsequently explores that same ambivalence in the context of picturesque sites – the way in which the transition of day into night can transform the use of a space often into something more sinister. This leads me to my only criticism, if it can be called that, which is that due to the public space Beauty Spot occupies it cannot be seen at night. If the artwork was to be viewed in darkness, all the ambiguity, uncertainty, mystery and danger behind the piece would be unlocked. The neon letters and its associations with seedy urbanism would stand out and the antithetic message and concepts about the paradoxical nature of a changing demographic would be far more stark.

Rowena’s work is humorous, the title and the message both in the form of a pun, present us with yet another dichotomy, the fine line between humour and seriousness. The double entendres display the concepts and semiotics of the work and as Dennis writes, ‘… it is jokes that reveal, albeit light heartedly, how closely connected the desires of love and hate actually are’[i]. Easton’s subtle humour is inviting and accessible which creates an immediate appreciation and enjoyment of the work.

Beauty Spot resonates with some of Tracy Emin’s neon works, with the example of Those Who Suffer Love with its provocative wordplay. Amusingly but unsurprisingly a local rumour spread that Easton’s work was in fact the work of Emin: It bears many of the same physical and conceptual hallmarks. However, Easton is exploring something different. She takes the semiotics that psycho-analysts have generally applied exclusively to human emotion and applies them more widely as Dennis explains, ‘…to places and sites that canvas different kinds of collective desire to places that witness the inversion of desire and its conversion of love into hate’[ii].

The success of Rowena Easton’s Beauty Spot (diptych) is that it resonates with us on a number of levels. It both evokes and challenges as we relate to the romance, the beauty of nature and perhaps also to the other side of desire and it also challenges as we are made to rethink the way in which we perceive particular spaces and the reasons why we fear them. It is also a beautiful piece of art. It celebrates the beauty of language, the beauty of the old and the natural but also of the contemporary and urban, and in this it celebrates the mysterious beauty found in ambiguity.

[i] Dennis, Matthew, 2010, ‘Rowena Easton and the Ambivalence of Desire’, Beauty Spot (diptych), 15 Shudders p.12

[ii] Dennis, Matthew, 2010, ‘Rowena Easton and the Ambivalence of Desire’, Beauty Spot (diptych),15 Shudders p. 14