Wednesday, 27 January 2016

From The Archives

In 2011 I researched agricultural farming tools with Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton as part of Somerset Art Weeks. What transpired was a most wonderful, resourceful experience as I had the opportunity to see ‘behind the scenes’ of the Heritage Centre’s storage facility and access some of the artefacts kept there from public sight. Warehouse rooms filled with wall-lined tools, boxes of treasures, taxidermy, clothing, a carriage and bull’s head all amongst the things to discover and be inspired by in addition to the knowledge and story-telling from the generously knowledgeable local curators of the collection.

Tools at The Somerset Heritage Centre (2011)
The work I made as a result was much more concerned with the museum itself, and museum modes of presentation & archiving than that of the actual objects themselves. I still speculate whether this was a missed opportunity on my part (not to have focused on the objects). However there was something fascinating about the processes and decisions used in order to protect, restore and catalogue these items which felt a more intriguing line of enquiry to pursue at the time.

 As you might imagine therefore I had a particularly vested interest in seeing the new exhibition of local artist’s responses to this same collection currently on show at the Museum of Somerset...

Natalie Parsley (Detail) Kaye's Tool Kaleidoscope, 2011
Featuring the work of Jenny Graham (who also brought the exhibiting artists together), Richard Tomlinson, Chris Dunseath, Jacy Wall, Laura Aish and Ralph Hoyte; the exhibition is pleasingly curated so as to look and utilise the experience of ‘the storage’ facility of Somerset Heritage. From the coded letters to signify different storage rooms on the walls, metal shelving and racking to place artefacts on, brown storage cardboard boxes; to clip-boarded ‘title’ lists printed on graph paper. There is a lot of ‘stuff’ in this exhibition and it is fortunate enough to have many of the artefacts the artists ‘used’ or took inspiration from on display alongside the work. The overall ‘feel’ of the exhibition is a good one, busy but not cluttered and does well at recreating that sense of discovery, wonder and unashamed nosiness that I certainly took away from my time at Somerset Heritage.
Richard Tomlinson’s work particularly does this brilliantly; to the right of the room stacked cardboard boxes with viewing holes which reveal hidden photographic anaglyphs inside. The images taken from safe’s, cogs and gears from mechanised objects found in storage. Peaking-in on them in this way recreates that same sense of curiosity and child-like delight from opening presents. Similarly Chris Dunseath’s vessels made from bronze and papier-mâché have hidden constellations and universes inside their shadowy interiors, again work that beckons one to look closer and discover more. These objects also directly relate to Bronze Age axe heads and more of Chris’ sculptures found in the cabinet behind. The objects patina mimicking the corroded ancient greens found on bronze/copper artefacts. Chris is one of the few artists who blurs the line between the museum piece and the art object so that sometimes one isn’t quite sure which is which.
Richard Tomlinson in 'New Dimensions'

A revolving postcard display unit featuring hundreds of curated postcards from Somerset and ‘days of old’ make some entertaining reading and act as inspiration for a sound piece featuring the poems by declamatory poet Ralph Hoyte. It’s good to see a more word-based practice in the show and makes great, often amusing discussion points for many conversations and questions into the origins and people behind the postcards.  

The flaw in this exhibition is that the museum objects tend to outshine most of the artwork. There is an amazing case of butterflies, pressed flowers, a safe, a film camera, tins, old sowing paraphernalia and a split Ash tree as part of some ancient cure for a hernia...! Very often the artefacts are almost intimidating in their effortless intrigue and charm that it feels somewhat futile as an artist to even contemplate competing with it! This is certainly how I felt and perhaps now think I was fortunate not to have the artefacts displayed alongside the work –it then became purely about my interpretation of them. I appreciate how challenging it is to both; select an object, from a source of thousands of things and then find a concept or response to that object which is both relevant and communicates with its source without being too close to it! I also criticise my own work of having conveyed some of the pleasures of depicting and ‘capturing the artefacts I selected but not really having as much dialogue into their unique histories and factors that made them individual.
Chris Dunseath (foreground) in 'New Dimensions'
Hence with the New Dimensions exhibition, there are a few similar opportunities where the work feels unresolved or unimaginative. Jacy Wall’s touchy feely cases of material and hands holding ribbons and thread feel a little lost and contrived compared to her skilfully executed prints (I think they're about challenging the inability of touching the artefacts in museums, but it still feels a little unresolved or too obvious) and Jenny Graham’s commercial butterfly prints similarly leave little to the imagination. Jenny's Victorian style Wunderkammers are better and feature well collated and wonderful objects, but being a big fan of Cabinets of Curiosities I have to be honest and say I've seen other artists (Duncan Cameron) do, in my opinion, better versions that also offer something 'new' rather than just being a collection of objects. I think my expectations were high but the work could have said more or something different in my view.

What is important overall from this exhibition is the commitment to what is hopefully an ongoing dialogue between the Museum of Somerset and artists. New Dimensions has achieved in revealing new aspects of the Heritage Centre’s collection that go relatively unseen and presented them in a visual way rather than purely historical or ‘museum’ way. I believe this opens up the collection and allows for new discovery that curators within Museums should note; sometimes a well chronicled, researched and informed museum exhibition doesn’t appeal to all audiences in the same way as the excitement of a bustling, disorganised antiques or flea market (I honestly think I have learnt more about history from these types of places). The latter is more visual and more inquisitive, promoting independent dialogue based on a genuine curiosity and interaction with objects that I think traditional museum curatorial practices should experiment more with. The testament from this exhibition is a simple but highly important one; let more artists work with museum collections!  

The Exhibition is FREE and I urge you all to go see it whilst you can. It is on until April 16th 2016.
All text and photos copyright Natalie Parsley

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