Ewan Clayton, MBE, Professor in Design, University of Sunderland
Songs of Experience
What the anvil? What dread grasp, Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
The scarring of a total struggle runs deep. It affects the land, generations of those who fought, their families and friends as well as the institutions created to contain the forces of disassociation that conflict can unleash.
What place has art in this? The poets and artists of the First World War have left us a resounding testament to the power of art to engage these difficult themes. But the work continues. In wartime fearsome images of sound, spoken language and sight can enter our inner landscapes unbidden, unless we work with them they can run amok through the generations, at the level of an individual, a community or an entire society. As with physical wounds their effusions may be staunched, their ‘fearful symmetry’ wrestled with, connections established. ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ asks Blake in his famous poem The Tyger. The establishment of relations between disparate materials is one of arts defining activities. The primal roar of the Tyger is ‘contained’ in Blakes’s poem. So too we can act against the disassociations that fearfulness, pain, conflict and loss may materialize. Yet this pathway has a mystery at its heart. Standing on the edge of a great plain three artists have come together to share a journey, an exploration of the ‘landscape’ they inhabit. They come to reflect on the Great War, on war in general, aware in one case of a childhood in Northern Ireland, in another seared by the terrors of the Rhodesian Bush War. Their immediate landscape presents them with contradictions and provoking associations. An open plain containing prohibited space. Villages, once home to living communities, emptied. They find fragments of the Great War from collapsed trenches to the ‘Fums up’ good luck charms Henny Burnett works with; baby dolls with winged feet carried by soldiers as protection against bullets, shells and gas. The film by Susan Francis hints at a further truth. On her journey through an isolated landscape we see barbed wire enclosures where nature is allowed free rein. These images reverse those of the garden whose enclosing walls keep rampant nature at bay. But in the garden is the mystery. Acts of enclosure help us relate to the whole; the garden enclosed, the charm, the research laboratory, are ways of resisting the overwhelming character of the wild – of the open plain or the engulfing forest or the terrors of an unknown death. Disassociation can be a mechanism that allows necessary acts of survival. Through one lens it seems to be a falling apart, yet through another it represents an act of containment, and a new assemblage becomes possible, paralysis potentially overcome. The plain’s monuments – circles, avenues and pathways – indicate other acts of connection that art makes possible – the use of ritual and myth: re-enactment. There are hints of this in Prudence Maltby’s drawings scarifying the paper surface, part map, part dream, part pure embodiment. Her grandfather, Joseph Cribb, worked for a while at Ditchling in Sussex alongside the great poet of the first World War David Jones – mythologizing was the path Jones trod in his great long poem about the war In Parenthesis. So what is a scar, a cicatrix (Jones would have loved the word – it sounds like the name of an ancestor sleeping beneath the barrow). It is the new tissue that binds a wound together, the evidence, after the trauma, of inter-connections that holds things in being. In this exhibition it is the theme that reaches out to visitors, binding past and future, ourselves and others, in shared reflection amidst the ambiguous legacies of human conflict.
We are nearly at the end of 2014 and have four years to go to 2018 and so three years to continue to memorialize the Great War. There have been a lot of different attempts already to jump on the bandwagon with all the potential for hastily thrown together superficial shows. Cicatrix is not in that category. It is thoughtful, poignant and respectful.
Henny Burnett has constructed 100 Wiltshire Towers filling the recesses of each one with tiny objects, some as found, others fabricated, altered and displayed alongside small cast figures based on the ‘Fums-Up’ good luck charms which were given to soldiers by their sweethearts before they set off for the Front. All these tiny sculptures contain an element gathered on Salisbury Plain.
The miniscule figures are topped with Juniper berry heads, a plant that grows on the Plain and which is reputed to have a life of a hundred years. This is a touching installation and in a curious and engaging twist visitors are invited to exchange one of the figures with something they have made, a reminder of impermanence, of the charms lost by their lost owners. The scale of the towers and the scale of the figures, so small and insignificant are in gross contrast to the enormity of what happened and the huge forces of power which resulted in so many bodies being blown into smithereens, into tiny pieces and discarded on French soil. It is not difficult to be struck by the sadness of the appalling waste that WW1 was responsible for, but Burnett’s Salisbury Plain Mess Tins are also heartbreakingly evocative. Collections of objects contained in Kilner jars together with stitched fragments of cloth maps of the area on Salisbury Plain where each object was found. All this could just as easily have been gathered from Flanders Fields, transferring the location to an English Plain associated with the Military, brings it closer to home.
The fragility hinted at in Burnett’s sculpture is present in Prudence Maltby’s installation of small drawings, paper, scarred and marked, lines pushed and pulled across surfaces, fragile objects in need of protection. Raw pigment and overlaid mark making building layers, a sense of scar tissue healing but always leaving the evidence of the original damage beneath the layers.
Susan Francis’ approach is different, using installation and a video which sees all of this through a lens. The lens is that of a camera but inevitably it parallels the barrier of time, the disconnection caused by the placing of glass between an object viewed and the viewer. 21stcentury perceptions of what happened in 1914 are seen through the wrong end of the telescope of time. Memories are ring-fenced by time, there is no one left now to reminisce, to mull over events, to weave new memories. What we know is now stagnated and set within an enclosure which holds within it, beyond reach, the lost voices of first hand.