Eleanor Wright/Sam Watson “Continuous Material” at Durham Castle Museum, Durham and Drop City, Newcastle
The contemporary is consumed by its own immediate past. Our histories set parameters for the present and the present seeks historicity. However, in an age of iconoclasm, political sleight of hand and a multitude of decentered cultural spheres, how do we perceive our physical and conceptual world? Continuous Material enters into a dialogue between the current and the past through their material cultures. The temporal disjunct is presented as both internecine and emancipatory, and through the poised negotiation of object and exhibition, Continuous Material offers guidance, not concrete absolutism.
Taking place over two sites the exhibition incorporates a range of practitioners and media, taking the form of subtle interventions in a heritage site, work displayed in Drop City’s gallery, a newly commissioned text and a critical essay. Part I of Continuous Material takes place at Durham Castle, a site of profound political, ecclesiastical and educational morphing over its existence. The site contains conflicting and overlapping narratives that are augmented and remixed through curatorial and artistic punctuation. In the medieval chapel within the site Eleanor Wright and Sam Watson present Kneeler for Tunstal Chapel (2015), which are fashioned in the style of kneeling stools for prayer. The various patterned fabrics used for this work and others in the exhibition, mimic and reflect the architectural features of the site, but also draw upon influence from beyond the immediate surroundings. Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia Hall and the organic qualities of design and material it signifies to the artists is of particular importance. Alvar and Elissa Aalto’s approach to design as a Gesamtkunstwerk reflects the interests of the curators and practitioners involved in Continuous Material – using the exhibition format as an intersection for disciplines and principles. This work also offers a different reading of ‘temporal’ in this context. The religious axiom of the spiritual being of chief concern – not the temporal or worldly – is shown to be a fallacy in practical terms. The visual language of the site is not of simple reverence, but of complex power through opulence. This exhibition does not set to critique religion, but it does elucidate the rift between the ideological/conceptual and the practical/material. The title of the exhibition takes the discontinuity of material and theory, by referencing continuum mechanics then extrapolates ad infinitum.
Further work in the Durham iteration of the exhibition sits in the castle’s gallery. Here there is a key interplay between the historic and contemporary notion of the gallery and the relations between curator, artist and object. The castle gallery is a gallery in the most traditional sense, essentially a corridor where the cultural agency of an organisation or individual can be displayed. This is a transitional space, a passage, a place of revered individuals rather than hallowed objects. Ralf Brög, Eric Bainbridge, Wright and Watson carefully toy with methods of museological display and the status of objects in this environment. Three of Bainbridge’s works from 1997 are interspersed through the space and they explore hierarchies of material in a Modernist framework. His constructions of Melamine chip board (MFC) bring to the fore this ubiquitous material of cheap Scandi furniture via IKEA, its recycled innards contained by a deceptive façade. In the exhibition’s accompanying essay Josh Wilson confesses his early ‘material naivety’ upon breaking his cupboard doors and discovering the ‘mahogany’ was only skin deep. Untitled (1997) sits in dwarfed dialogue with the surrounding architecture and status of the site, but the placement of this object also signals a humorous acknowledgement of Durham Castle’s current function as University College and student accommodation. Perhaps Wilson’s material revelations are similarly unfolding through the destruction of furniture in the surrounding dorms?
Ralf Brög’s Isolations sit in Loggia (2015), display cases by Wright and Watson. The digitally reworked historic images contain in them material and narrative layering that typifies this exhibition. Drawing on the relationships between site, artist and object, there remixed images have a duality between past and present, the cases’ traditional function to preserve, protect and consign to artefact are deliberately obfuscated; instead of the objects existing in separate practical or theoretical planes, they converge. The same can be said of the semi-transparent hangings over a window and stained glass image; layering object to alter function and to reconsider formal functions of the composite parts (Bruno Munari’s The Square is cited as a reference point for this work), or the introduction of Wright’s patterned fabrics to the pre-existing displays of Civil War and Napoleonic War weaponry. The boundary strength of classifications emerging from professions or ritual, is tested. It is found to be porous and responsive, not rigid and inflexible; weaker and less hierarchical.
In Wilson’s essay, Place and Pace (2015), he makes reference to Russell Hoban’s ‘Ridley Walker’, and particularly the degradation of language and the return to the image as a means of compensating for illiteracy. What is particularly compelling about Hoban’s work is altering, appropriation and reconfiguring of myth, memory and history, in order to find a palatable narrative for the present. There are correlations between this and the format in which an audience can view the work in Durham. The guided tour offers parameters to the site and finds purchase through story. In the castle’s Norman chapel, a carving of St. Eustace stands amongst pagan imagery put to Christian use. Eustace was said to have seen an image of the crucifixion between the antlers of a stag – prompting his conversion; but ushering his martyrdom by the Roman authorities. Hoban offered a reworked version of the story, where Eustace, or “Eusa” (also User) sees “Addom” (atom, and its destructive capacity) in a conflated Adamic and atomic telling of the past. In this parable the fall and Armageddon are married by splitting the atom. The malleable nature of narrative is furthered by Paul Becker’s The Opposite of a Pulpit (2015). His semi-fictitious relaying of artist Ian Breakwell and his relationship with Durham is delivered via a walking tour. The city is as much a subject as the atomic in Continuous Material.
The exhibition’s second part at Drop City, Newcastle, sees the atmosphere of place shift, but potency remains. Sini Pelkki’s Embarkation (2011) finds a similar taste for fiction as Becker’s work, her camera paces about, never revealing the totality of the shot and maintains the editorial gaze of the filmmaker. Small discontinuities give indication of what is beyond the image. Wright and Watson’s photographic work, A Gradual Stiffening (2015), again looks to the relations of display and the porous classifications offered within that frame. The balance between subject and support are formally explored in these composed images. The pineapple featured offers a discordant form in these manicured arrangements, but also offers a tie to the Durham site. Within the castle a grand ‘Flying’ staircase is decorated with oak carvings of the medieval conception of this exotic
indulgence. A misrepresentation, misguided generation of cultural capital, withering away into abstraction; detritus for the confusion of image and text in and between time.
If there is a single point to orientate oneself then it is around Alexsandra Konopek’s OC2, a hanging folded paper lamp. Like Eusa’s vision of the atom, it sits as a catalyst for that which is to come. This domestic, functional object resonates beyond its immediate boundaries (analogous to the split atom), and acts as an anecdotal appeal to a core text in this exhibition, Christopher Alexander’s ‘A Pattern Language’. The text dismisses the ill-fitting spaces and unconsidered arrangement, and calls for an upheaval of the built environment. The component parts of a space are isolated into their pattern and reconstituted in a poetic language that provides the means to construct. The patterns of this exhibition create fluidity and continuum, addressing the stasis of object and concept whilst denying any currency in endism.
From the atom to the city, Continuous Material fixes its gaze. Through site, object and participant the exhibition pulls away from a didactic centre and embraces a transitory position through time and space. Like a Mnemosyne Atlas for the current, Continuous Material looks to the space between with positivity, responsive to the present and not daunted by the past.
until 24 May 2015
Eleanor Wright/Sam Watson “Continuos Material” installation views at Durham Castle Museum, Durham and Drop City, Newcastle, 2015
Courtesy: Drop City, Newcastle. Photo: Dominic Alwyn.