The Heritage Gallery, at the heart of the Old Royal Naval College, with its’ views of the River Thames was the ideal location for an exhibition which took the ‘Liminal Matter’ of the constantly shifting shoreline as its subject matter. Attracting audiences who had come to visit the grade I listed building on a World Heritage Site or to events such as the ‘The State of Maritime History Research’ Conference, enabled some interesting dialogue around historical artefacts, artistic interpretation and maritime issues.
One visitor identified the object used in ‘Corrosion: Study with beads 1’ (2013) as a hub cap, which he thought to be from a Morris manufactured between 1938 and 1950. Another, suggested ‘In Transition’ (2015-17) is derived from the inner lining of a funnel from a Steam Ship, built sometime between the 1890s and 1930s. As an artist, I am drawn to these objects in their delicate transitory state, somewhere between the functional, historical and organic, artefact and debris. I tap into a process of continued material change through subtle interventions, my needle and thread echoing the repetitive and circular action of the waves as I mimic the slow accumulation of rust and organic matter by sewing together tiny beads.
The exhibition was accompanied by a series of free events. The Researcher’s Discussion Group invited academics at the University of Greenwich to join in an inter-disciplinary conversation in response to the works exhibited. This gave a thought provoking insight into different ways the work could be interpreted and its contribution to understanding the liminality of the coast-line. For Dr. Vanessa Taylor (Lecturer in Environmental History / Research Fellow) ‘In Transition’ (2015-17) prompted thought around the passage of time, death and decay and the drive to recover what is dead. Coming from an Ecology background, Dr. Adriana Ford (Research Fellow in Environmental Social Sciences) was drawn to the beaded interventions, interpreting them as the colonisation of an inanimate object by something living. Dr. Tim Acott (Principal Lecturer, Environmental Geography) saw the work as a challenge to the notion of Ecosystem, by beginning to break down the ‘human-nature’ dualism.
[Speaking about ‘In Transition’ (2015-17)]
TA: So presumably in its original function at that point it was allowing or enabling that ship to operate… and then it’s ended up on the beach and has become a vehicle for wildlife, for barnacles and things to grow in. It has started to become colonised, and so that distance to the human… is starting to get greater.
LC: But also, the history that comes before this starts to become apparent as well, before it was just matter that was in the ground that looks very much like what is now accumulating around the bottom I can imagine.
TA: Absolutely, yes, and take it one stage further than that, and how was that iron produced and how was it smelted, then this object is created and had a certain function, that was dissipated. And of course, the processes around that dissipation would be really interesting. What happened? How was the ship wrecked? What were the stories around that etc. and then it ends up on the beach. Is it part of the ecosystem, from when the barnacles started growing etc.? Who knows? Then you found it, you came along, and you took it out of that system and you started to put beads on it, you started photographing it and getting it into galleries, so it’s now an object of circulation, an object of aesthetic enjoyment etc. And it’s been sold to someone who lives in Suffolk… so if you were to write a life history of that object, its having an effect.
AF: Absolutely … and I was just thinking that object you found on the beach, how many people came across it before you, and did other people walk past it and what was their reaction to it? Did they think that is just horrible piece of pollution or did a child play in it?…
The varying nature and role of academic research also became apparent. Whereas Historians may often primarily focus on documents held in archives to evidence answers to predefined questions, the role of the artist, is perhaps, to stimulate questions and destabilise established ideas? In relation to the exhibited works, I feel the materiality of the objects leads this dialogue. Or in the words of Dr. Vanessa Taylor ‘You’ve got this object and it just kind of splurges all these things up and you can actually do with them what you want’. With reference to Jane Bennett’s book ‘Vibrant Matter’ and Bruno Latour’s ‘Actor Network Theory’, Dr. Tim Acott drew attention to the benefits of looking at objects as a process rather than a static given entity, as ‘actually having an effect … acting out as an entity that is causing something to happen’. These ideas resonate with me, as my process based interactions with the objects are a way of investigating and embracing an ontological fluidity that allows for an understanding of materiality as a reciprocal and generative relationship between humans and environment.
Discussion ensued around the purpose and justification for academic research and art practice, and more specifically, around the impact that the exhibition may have going forward. As an artist, I do not set out with a politicised agenda but hope to invite dialogue. It would be interesting if the discussion initiated by a work such as ‘In Transition’ (2015-17) were to continue in another medium or on another platform, contributing to an ongoing discourse.
This event was held in association with Greenwich Maritime Centre, University of Greenwich, was kindly supported by Arts Council England National Lottery funding, and was part of Totally Thames 2017 that runs from 1-30 September