The Poetics of Space

Curatorial response essay commissioned for Back From the Front, Ed. Dr Hazel Brown. Published in conjunction with the exhibition programme Back From the Front  at the RWA, 2014, which included the exhibitions Shock and Awe, Brothers in Art: John and Paul Nash, Re-membering I and Re-membering II. A link to the E-book is available here pages 187-191.

‘The Poetics of Space’ – A reflection on Art and Memory in Back From The Front

What is a space for remembering? Should it be filled with objects that hint and tease, coaxing us with a series of incremental clues? Or should it confront us with its immediacy, a bolt of emotion that courses through us like an unwelcome visitor?

There is always a period of quiet transformation when the gallery is in transition, the empty white cube awaiting its next adventure caught between two worlds. In July 2014 this change was marked by the departure of The Power of the Sea – which focused on nature’s power – to Back From The Front – concentrating on the influence of mankind – engaging the galleries in an act of commemoration.

Back From The Front at the RWA encompassed a number of exhibitions staged under one roof creating a temporary memorial inscribed with the names of numerous conflicts. Upstairs in the main galleries two very different spaces emerged. One seemingly muted, poetic, memories layered beneath painted shadows and reflections in the landscape, and the other stark, often confrontational, shocking. Their installation was simultaneous: two exhibitions, over twenty artists, some long dead, the majority alive, and many on-site physically creating, placing and adjusting their own private memorial within which individual and collective memories could reside.

Brothers in Art asked us ‘how is landscape remembered’ and ‘how do we remember through art’ whereas Shock and Awe had to create its own landscape, its own ‘space’ for remembering. As a visual spectacle Brothers in Art emerged slowly. It was linear, two-dimensional, driven by a necessary chronological narrative to create a panoramic vision of the English countryside, both imagined and real. In contrast the sheer scale and physicality emerging next door achieved a sense of transformation almost immediately with the arrival on-site of Tim Shaw’s 17feet high sculpture Casting A Dark Democracy. The cavernous shell of its torso fabricated in steel, barbed wire and taut black polythene was lifted using an engineered pulley system where it hung headless, suspended before inching into place. The attachment of the outstretched arms introduced a new sense of theatre, but it was the final careful positioning of the cloaked head that ushered in a corporeal response inspiring both shock and awe. To borrow De Certeau’s notion of space as a practiced place, the gallery had spoken.

This sense of creating new ‘spaces’ continued throughout the installation. For Katie Davies’ film The Separation Line a blacked-out screening box was built to specific dimensions, creating a space in which the distance between viewer and screen replicates the exact width of the road at Royal Wootton Bassett where it was filmed. Davies was keen to create a “space for contemplation” that places the viewer in direct eye line with the mourners on screen. By building the screen at floor level viewers feet were also compelled into position, mimicking the posture of those onscreen. Just as the towering enormity of Shaw’s sculpture instils an underlying awareness of one’s own body, here Davies achieves a similar sensory reaction with the stifling claustrophobia of the black box which forces the viewer to stand uncomfortably in the space , separate and apart yet together.

These physical interventions and decisions were made throughout the planning and installation process. A freestanding white wall was positioned directly within the galleries main doors blocking the visitors’ initial view of the space and thus creating a defined moment of confrontation on entering, inviting both shock and awe. The opposing side of the wall was transformed with the aid of a carefully measured step establishing a pedestal upon which Paul Laidler’s digitally printed wreath was placed to create a new ‘monument’. The painted shadow behind the acrylic sheet introduced a new element to the work. Depending on the viewer’s position it was now both transparent and opaque, visible and invisible.

The physical relationship of viewer to work also took on a strange life in the production of a series of display plinths within which to show work by a number of the enamellists, makers and jewellers that curator (and exhibiting artist) Elizabeth Turrell RWA had commissioned. These eight grey plinths with sunken shelves and clear perspex lids were originally envisaged to stand in two uniform rows but were later moved to sit in smaller uneven groups. Before this, in their sullen uniformity, they were suggestive of a macabre line of coffins – a consequence of an exhibition and subject matter that so strongly reminds us of our own mortality. Similarly the use of anatomical language seemed to infiltrate the descriptions of the work with Rolf Lindner’s found enamel sheet riddled with bullet holes described as “broken skin”.

It was this very physicality, and more importantly the materiality, of both Shock and Awe and Re-membering I and Re-membering II that seemed to encourage the act of remembering. From the industrial barbarism of Shaw’s centrepiece to the domestic nature of Hanne Rysgaard’s ceramics in Under An English Heaven, the diverse use of medium and materials took on greater significance in terms of the relationship between art and memory, underscoring each work with an additional layer of meaning. Perhaps most prevalent has been the use of photography. As a medium it is inherently linked to the notion of absence, presenting ghostly traces of the past. It is always the ‘that has been’ . Yet materiality is not just linked to the ephemerality of photography. It is also seen in Michael Brennand-Wood’s monotone metal medals in which toy plastic soldiers are embalmed in the thick gloop of colourful paint, struggling to escape like soldiers caught in the mud and mire of the trenches. Or Stephen Hurst’s bronze sculptures cast from found objects, rough, textured and unpolished as if they too have been dragged from the ground, leaden with history. Jill Gibbon’s ‘posters’ pinned to the wall point at their own reproducibility, drawing attention to the glitzy marketing attached to the events which she is documenting, whereas Xavier Pick’s exquisitely printed pages from well-travelled sketchbooks are given a greater significance, each page poignantly containing its own metanarrative, each fragment given a new autonomy and thus importance.

From the material nature of each work to the architectural staging of the exhibition materiality was present throughout. The space created was (like a memory theatre) embedded with prompts and clues, and each medium was inscribed with its own notion of memory and remembering: visibility v invisibility, opacity v transparency, ephemerality v permanence, reality v illusion. The immense physicality of war and conflict seemed to demand this response, insisting on its own ‘pedestal’. It has often been suggested that war heightens our relationship to the physical objects and materials that surround us and Back From The Front in all its incarnations seems to physically impress this upon us. What is a space for remembering? Here, in Back From The Front it is one guided by the objects that sit within it, some that confront, some that speak with quiet authority and others that gently whisper: lest we forget.

Image Credit: Installation of Casting a Dark Democracy, Tim Shaw. Photograph © Gemma Brace.

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