How I learned to stop worrying and love the throngs

I simply don’t have the strength for central London in full holiday swing. Rammed with people moving at alarming speeds in cars and buses, on bikes and foot, I become quickly disoriented and lose all sense of purpose – why did I come here? where am I going? where can I find an independent cafe? – before giving up and settling for a Starbucks. I order a filter coffee and feel defiant, before being relegated to the same queue as the usual suspects. There’s no winning this game without a solidly researched plan of approach. I have one card up my sleeve, which has led me to Regent St in the height of Christmas shopping in the first place, and it had better pay off. Walking up the high-end historic strip, punctuated by the Night at the Museum lights so sardonically slated by Stewart Lee, I was jostled, cut off and tsked by shoppers much more determined and skilled in the ways of consumerism (I, like so many others, have retreated to the safety and security of online shopping, Amazon-free this year).

I’m with Lee here – someone has sucked the spirit out of Christmas, and while I hesitate to pin this on Ben Stiller and the remaining members of Take That (though they may rightly deserve it), I fear there’s a much more menacing monster that’s holding our festive souls hostage. It’s loud, corporate, exploitive and it reeks of department store perfume. I sip my Starbucks filter coffee with contempt and judge those around me. Their bulging bags of shopping, their chestnut praline lattes, their smug, glazed faces staring down at smart phones, fingers swiping and tapping away. They’ve bought it (literally), hook, line and sinker. We are lost.

Night at the Museum lights, Regent Street, London

Night at the Museum lights, Regent Street, London

Despairing and misanthropic I make a move for my destination, an installation by Pipilotti Rist at Hauser & Wirth. It’s on Savile Row, a street known for its traditional bespoke tailoring shops and commercial galleries. The exhibition has been celebrated by critics and events guides alike and promises something different, even pleasureful for the contemporary art-goer. Entering the gallery I take my shoes off as required and slip behind a giant denim curtain which runs the length and height of the space. Inside I am greeted by a sight that is instantly calming. A carpeted floor scattered with thick duvets and pillows. They look like cocoons, and as my eyes adjust I see visitors (participants?) sunk within them like babes in swaddling. Significantly, I notice all this before the art itself – a video work projected colossally across two full walls of the generous space.

I find a free duvet, drop my bag, and set about making myself a nest. I’m going to stay for a while, I decide, regardless of the art. But as I lie there, limbs akimbo, my back thanking me for this much needed respite, I am lulled gently into the work. Worry Will Vanish Horizon (2014) is a feast for the senses, combining visual and audio elements (Rist collaborated with musician Anders Guggisberg), its slippage between beautifully rendered layers of translucent membranes, spiderwebs, veins, leaves and liquids (from water to blood) is utterly transfixing. Based on a 3D animation of the interior of a human body, Rist takes us on a journey that mirrors our own organicism, through an eyelid, along the inner tubes of fingers, the throat, the belly; softly lit corridors all magically emptied of bones and muscle to make way for us. Sound strange or disgusting? It isn’t. It’s beautiful. Celestial scenes are glimpsed through delicate orifices and figures unfurl across fleshy vibrant skeins. It’s like being inside a foetus, looking out onto the world through a prismatic beam of coloured light.

Pipilotti Rist, Installation view 'Worry Will Vanish Horizon' (2014), Hauser & Wirth London, 2014. © Pipilotti Rist

Pipilotti Rist, Installation view ‘Worry Will Vanish Horizon’ (2014), Hauser & Wirth, London © Pipilotti Rist

I watch it 3 times before I fall asleep. I wake and look around drowsily to see if I’ve been caught. Others are doing the same, drifting in and out of consciousness. I am experiencing the opposite problem that I normally have with video based artworks (confession): rather than checking my watch to gauge how long I need to stay in order to ‘get it’ (worrying that I’ll miss something and feeling unsure about when it begins or ends, if that’s even important), here I am worried about staying too long and start wondering if the gallery staff have a policy in place for politely ejecting loiterers. A few minutes pass and I sink back into my cozy bed, assured and relieved that I can stay as long as I like. In fact, it is clear from our collective lethargy that we all need this. Rist’s work is excellent, its bold tactility and visceral pleasure creating an environment in which we feel safe, calm, and increasingly carefree. Unsurprisingly, her work uses principles of Autogenic Training, a relaxation technique developed by a German psychiatrist in 1932 to reduce stress. The frenetic pace of London’s streets, the pressures of work, and the growing anxieties that are part and parcel (pun intended) of contemporary life, are taking their toll. If Christmas shopping has become a war zone, in this private gallery Rist has managed to create a safe haven.

Night falls as I emerge from the gallery and make my way back to Oxford Circus. I opt out of the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the RA, finding I can’t face its dark, complex windows into history after such a simple, and dare I say easy experience. I find myself wondering (worrying) if art is currently most effective as a form of escapism, designating precious little pockets for doing nothing together; spaces for reflecting, ruminating and reminding ourselves that as humans we share certain physical, mental and spiritual needs. Some of my most memorable encounters with contemporary art have been immersive and communal: Lee Bull’s Live Forever, a room full of karaoke pods that lull the ensconced participants into a state of expressive extroversion, without the aid of alcohol. I left the gallery flushed and breathless after belting Radiohead’s ‘Don’t Leave Me High’ as I never thought I could, looking around at others to see similar levels of euphoria.

More recently, I experienced Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Pulse Room on the floor of Montreal’s Museum of Contemporary Art, sat amidst a large group of participants. Friends and strangers looked at each other aghast, watching our heartbeats collectively flash across the grids of lightbulbs above us, and hearing them pound in our ears and through the floor, amplified through a sound system. These are the artworks that stick in my memory, that stay with me, that fill me with wonder and hope. I think they offer far more than simple distraction or escape: they also have the power to bring people together in a way that seems singular, special, somehow authentic (if one turns a blind eye to art institutional agendas, of course); the kind of communal experience that is increasingly out of reach in public life.

I begin an aimless search for a quirky little deli to buy a gift for my gracious London hosts, who I am en route to see, but all I can find is a Tesco Metro. I don’t own a smart phone, or an app, to tell me where to go so I let out a deep sigh, steel myself, and enter. Desperately scanning the shelves for something meaningful, something real to give my friends, my mind returns to my snug little nest, among a sea of nests, all our restful faces basking in the lush colours and gentle light of Rist’s videoscapes. If only I could wrap that feeling up, it would make the perfect gift.

Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, ‘Pulse Room’, Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, 2014 (author’s pulse included)

breaking earth*

Histories are trapped in the bog lands of County Offaly. As turf is cut and peeled back, remnants of the past are exposed, released into our present. The partial body of Oldcroghan Man, discovered in 2003, now lies behind museum glass in the National Museum of Ireland. Pickled in peat for over two thousand years, the skin on his long arms is remarkably well preserved, retaining something eerily specific, personal. Stabbed, decapitated and cut in half below the torso, he was found near Croghan Hill, an extinct volcano and the site of kingship ceremonies in the Iron Age. His manicured fingernails and plaited armband are indications of high status, and the contents of his stomach (a last meal of wheat and buttermilk) suggest he was sacrificed, possibly after a run of bad harvests. Such narratives, presented in museum captions alongside bog bodies and artefacts, tell of rulers, travellers and thieves that were murdered, punished for their crimes or otherwise betrayed by their kinsmen. Depositing victims in bog pools might have been a further punitive measure, condemning them to a purgatory where high acidity and lack of oxygen prevented their decomposition. A return to earth, but of another, darker kind.

View of peat bogs from Craghan Hill, Co. Offaly, Ireland

View of peat bogs from Craghan Hill, Co. Offaly, Ireland

More recent human casualties have been recovered from the bogs, too close to living memory to be displayed in museums. Objects are also found: barrels of butter, shoes, tools, weapons and ornaments dating from various periods and contexts. Their unearthing, facilitated by industrial mining, produces new histories. Museum curators decide which examples are appropriate, educational or of particular significance; anthropologists and archaeologists come up with theories and explanations to give them meaning. Yet a different logic of preservation runs through and across the layers of peat: an arbitrary historical record that evolves separately from our oral, visual and written narratives. Human histories are filled with hope and tragedy, remorse and redemption, causality and consequence. Bog history is a hall of echoes. Partial and diffused, its objects refuse a cohesive overview of events unfolding, of beginnings, middles and ends.

The Good Hatchery is an experimental initiative that hosts artists, curators and writers in a converted eighteenth-century farmstead near Croghan Hill. Its directors, Ruth E. Lyons and Carl Giffney, with the help of friends and fellow artists, have transformed a former stable and hayloft into an open plan live-work space and lower workshop. It looks onto a central courtyard where hens and cats amble through the detritus of past projects – a stage fashioned from a trailer, a mirrored shed and an enormous canoe carved from the trunk of a nearby fallen tree (Bravo Serotonin, curated by Giffney, 2012) – while a trampoline and Canadian cedar sauna sit like playful invitations. The part-ruined, part-renovated stead once belonged to a much larger estate, its stone borders extending for acres. We begin with a walk through a forest of hazelnut trees and arrive at a peat field, its rows of turf turned and stacked like so many tiny primitive structures.


live-work space, the Good Hatchery

live-work space, the Good Hatchery

We eat, and Ruth tells us about the nearby town of Daingain where a prison barracks-turned-reformatory now houses oversized items from the local museum, which sit like dusty relics hidden from public view: a symptom of the failure of local councils to deal with the atrocities of recent memory. History feels close here, time is heavy. I am one of three volunteers on the Follies of Youth project, a collaborative initiative by Leeds-based arts organisation Pavilion, who have travelled to the Good Hatchery to work with Lyons on a project called Pilot Light. Over five days, and with the generous help of a number of collaborators, we will teach ourselves how to make quicklime, which will be used in an installation on the site of a former Capability Brown landscape in Byram, North Yorkshire, in the coming months. This initial stage is also a conversation with history. We will be performing an anachronism, extracting and refining natural resources as a way of engaging with technologies of the industrial past.

On our second day we collect limestone rocks, testing their veracity with vinegar, lemon juice and hydrochloric acid. If they contain limestone, they should fizz. The acid works best. Next we break them, smashing them into smaller pieces with hammers and drills, opening up their insides. Fossils show themselves in smooth grooves and calculated patterns. Limestone is rich with crystalline calcite, partly comprised of fossilised sea life. Cockles. Shells. Coral. Little puffs of captured time escape into our present moment. Later on we watch films in the bunkroom, a programme vaguely linked to rocks and mining. The earth seems to pull; a dilated moon hangs low in the night sky.

Doug Bowen and Miriam Thorpe (Pavilion) breaking limestone

Doug Bowen and Miriam Thorpe (Pavilion) breaking limestone

Day three sees us build our first kiln with cement blocks. Our efforts are rudimentary; we watch YouTube videos and look at diagrams, guestimate and make adjustments as we go along. We build the kiln collectively, the blocks laid speculatively and then with more certainty. We add a metal flue and christen it Gertie. It is tall and narrow; smoke billows out of its cracks as wood, coal and rock burn for twelve consecutive hours. We take turns stoking the fire and keep vigil with food, music and stories. Ideas collect, hold, disperse.

We learn about the history of the farmstead from its owner, Eileen Hanlon, who lives in the converted coach house. The Magan family, hailing from Galway, built its foundations in the early 1700s on the grounds of a castle. The walled neoclassical manor suffered a fire in 1846, the gutted structure later dismantled by the monks of Roscrea Abbey. Scandal hangs about the Magans: William Henry ‘the Bad’, who continued to live in the gate lodge after the fire, is rumoured to have dressed the resident butcher as a priest and set him alight as a party trick, and to have married his mistress before strangling her to death. A recent visitor to the farmstead reported the sensation of cold hands closing around her neck while she was ascending a staircase. William Henry’s sister Augusta is thought to be the inspiration for Dickens’ Miss Haversham, a wealthy woman who fled her Dublin residence after being jilted on her wedding day. When the Loreto Nuns purchased the property almost fifty years later they found the breakfast room still set for the wedding, and Augusta’s bridal dress draped over a chair.

Hanlon is descendant from the family of caretakers who took over the property in 1908. She is also the gatekeeper of its tales and oral histories. Responding to an online advert by Lyons and her co-founders in 2007, graduates looking for a contemporary workspace and residency venue, she opened a door onto a new era of the property’s history. Artists use the Good Hatchery as a space for converging, talking, eating, thinking and making. It is a safe haven, an incubation chamber and a platform for ideas, located a manageable distance from the bustle of Dublin. Its interior walls have recently been painted with white lime render and a number of its furnishings recycled from the black wooden planks of Lyons’ 2012 architectural installation, The Forgotten Works at Project Arts Centre, Dublin. The bunkroom is black on white and smells of woodstove. Everywhere I am reminded of the soil and rock beneath us.

Rows of footed turf in the raised bog lands of Co. Offaly

Rows of footed turf in the raised bog lands of Co. Offaly

I meditate on materials. How they come together and fall apart. Their power to preserve, transform and destroy. Lime, peat, rock, soil, matter. The systems of making and unmaking that churn below the earth. How do our interventions interrupt, augment, enhance these movements and cycles, and mark our presence as natural or unnatural? What is modern industry but yet another process? We have entered the age of the Anthropocene, geologists warn, a new stage in which the human impact on the natural environment is indelible and irreversible. Our technologies now rival the earth’s destructive potential, but lack its healing powers. I read on the news that oil mining in the Middle East has exposed the earth’s mantle. The headline evokes a vision of open wounds, of big claw marks tracking across vast territories, of hot bubbling crevasses.

Our first kiln produces only a few chalk-like bits of lime. We decide to try again, following a visit to the ruins of a nineteenth-century limekiln at Ballindoolin estate in County Kildare. Built into the side of a hill, with only a small opening, its design leaves me with more questions than answers, but my collaborators are determined. Back at the Good Hatchery we build a shorter, squatter model and call her Bertha. Our second vigil feels less focused, thoughts and lines of inquiry fragmented and dispersed. The sauna beckons. I ponder, after Lucy Lippard, over the ‘reconstructive potential of an art that raises consciousness on the land, about land use, history and local culture and place’. [i] Are contemporary earthworks as provocative as the colossal land art of the 60s and 70s? Is it enough to simply raise awareness about the fragile state of our planet when our energy demands far exceed its resources? We are on borrowed time. Lippard reminds us that

‘If we fail to heal what Marx called “our metabolic rift with nature”, it will just go on without us. New species will arise to replace the ones we have killed off. We need nature. Nature doesn’t need us. It will simply be a different world.’ [ii]

'Bertha', lime kiln attempt no. 2, The Good Hatchery

‘Bertha’, lime kiln attempt no. 2, The Good Hatchery

What that different world might look and feel like is the stuff of science-fiction: toxic gases hanging over deserted cities and suburbs, parched or flooded landscapes, the charred or drowned ruins of civilisation left to rot. In many post-apocalyptic narratives nature emerges victorious, shrugging us off with a disaster and returning to pick up the pieces, mending itself in our wake. The image of the overgrown Romantic ruin holds a special place in our collective unconscious, for it embodies our endgame: our final, inevitable return to earth. For all the recent buzz around ecomaterialism and thing-theory, models that call for a deepened understanding of the human in relation to other ‘things’, both natural and artificial, we may be too late to negotiate a working relationship with the complex ecosystems that make our existence possible.

Downtrodden, broken up, emptied out – our time here will one day be recorded through the ceaseless pressures and flows of nature. Compressed and bound together, fragments of our bodies and material cultures will form constellations under the earth. Perhaps one day they will be discovered by some other civilisation, reordered and given meaning according to categories similar to or perhaps altogether different from deep time, prehistoric time, historical time, ahistorical time, etc. Our stories will be lost, but new narratives and interpretations will spring up in their place, based loosely on the remnants of our anatomies, physiologies, buildings, furnishings, tools, languages and artforms. Evidence will be gathered to explain and shed light on our extinction, the circumstances of our final days and hours. Lessons will be learned.

Bertha yields a generous crop. We watch transfixed as Lyons pours water into a bucket filled with chalky stones. Instantly corrosive, they begin to steam, soften, expand, and almost breathe, exceeding the limits of the container. The volume of the powdery quicklime nearly doubles. It makes me think of sinkholes caused by naturally dissolving pockets of limestone, of fossilised sea life being released after millennia, their delicate lines and textures merging, receding and sinking back into the soil. It is extraordinary and terrifying how nature pulls together temporary worlds; snatches things from our continuum, holds onto them a while, and lets them go. It is not interested in permanence or legacy, and never hesitates to kill its darlings.


*Thanks to Ruth E. Lyons, Eileen Hanlon, Miriam Thorpe, Doug Bowen, Carl Giffney, Emma Houligan, Kathryn McGuire and Barra Dinan for their participation on Pilot Light, and to the directors at Pavilion for their support. 

[i] Lucy Lippard, Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (The New Press, 2014), pp. 8-9.

[ii] Lippard, Undermining, p. 179.

Why the medieval past has presence

Lara Eggleton and David Steans in conversation

Lara Eggleton: Neomedievalism is anything but new. The reuse of medieval themes, narratives and motifs is a tradition within the arts that stretches back to the Gothic revival and neo-paganism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An interest in folklore, which goes hand in hand with revivalism, echoes within the visual and aural practices of many if not all cultures. As an art historian I’m interested in exploring the motivations behind the appropriation of the medieval past at various points in history. As an artist who borrows and incorporates medieval elements into your work, I’m wondering what for you is the basis of their symbolic and/or aesthetic appeal?

Army of Darkness promotional poster

Army of Darkness promotional poster

David Steans: I don’t know as much as I’d like to about medieval history, so I understand the medieval as the synthesis of these ongoing visitations of it. The Middle Ages are like an enduringly popular time-travel destination. If I talk of ‘the medieval’ I’m talking largely of my own subjective, aesthetic, perhaps quite mainstream understanding of it – more Army of Darkness [1] than Decameron. So with that disclaimer in mind…

I think the symbolic currency of the medieval – or what a contemporary reuse of a medieval past might symbolize – has something to do with the intellectual and spiritual ardour of medieval people. In them we see a wealth of ingenuity and imagination, and great endeavour. They fervently seek the world around and beyond them. They are beset on all sides by mysterious and often inimical forces, yet they systematise knowledge and pursue the irrational – which we imagine governs them completely – with a dogged methodical rationality. We’re also interested in the quotidian lives of medieval people, and are as fascinated by the medieval toilet as by the medieval church. For me it is this spectrum of the sacred and the profane, so vividly rendered in our medieval imaginary, that is its aesthetic currency. The medieval world is full of shit and piss and venereal diseases, at the same time as it is totally fantastic. When we think of the Black Death, we share the medieval plague-sufferer’s horror, both at God’s mighty wrath and the inadequate sanitation, both the imminent apocalypse and the failure of medicine.

In talking of how I imagine ‘we’ imagine the medieval, I suppose I’m trying to underline what I understand by the neo-medieval. For me the neo-medieval is like a prosthetic, a strange proxy tool for using history.

LE: I can completely relate to your selective engagement with the medieval – I consider myself more of a ‘medievalismist’ than a bonafide scholar of the period. The other problem with studying monuments and artefacts that date from an age vaguely classified as ‘dark’ is that many scholars are focused on unearthing the ‘truth’ or filling in the missing pieces of its history. This can lead to a dangerous practice of speculation that is motivated by precisely what you’re talking about – our contemporary fascination with the experience of people who lived during this time. You’re right to point out the sacred/profane dichotomy as central to its allure, but I’m wondering about this idea of the fantastical and to what extent it is a product of a post-secular fetishisation of things like magic, ritual and superstition. Can we truly relate to the horrors of these societies, or their deeply religious experience of life, from the armchair of Western Modernity, or are we simply rummaging through history looking for things that appear fantastic to our own sensibilities? I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily a bad thing, but what can it tell us about what’s missing in our own lives?

David Steans, Shit Divination Outfit (back), Handmade woolen onesie with bumflap, embroidery, 2009/2011

David Steans, Shit Divination Outfit (back), Handmade woolen onesie with bumflap, embroidery, 2009/2011

DS: Of course, it is a fetishisation. What wouldn’t appear fantastic from your armchair?  I think it’s perhaps the more earthly aspects we relate to, or want to relate to. The quotidian medieval, as if it might accord with our own times, or the sense that modern civilisation somehow begins in the Middle Ages. This makes us feel closer to the fantastical, to the horrors, to the spiritual. The question of whether or not we can truly relate is not what’s at stake. Does ‘post-secular’ give the game away as to what’s missing (i.e., the comfort and allure of credulity, belief, rapture, passions, of feeling at the utter mercy of God, or being ignorant of the minor details of a supreme plan)?

I find the myriad forms of divination rites practised in the Middle Ages fascinating in this regard. They are elaborate, ingenious procedures engineered to elicit chance, random gestures or happenings. The engineer believes that if successfully facilitated, otherworldly forces will use these openings to communicate with him. The more elaborate, violent or obscure the method (scapulomancy, oculomancy, scatomancy or anthropomancy, for example) the more these practices can be put to service as metaphor for the human struggle to reconcile the rational with the irrational. If the metaphor is of any use, or even compels, I think it’s probably because trying to talk to God seems a more acceptable sort of scrabble for ‘immortality power’ than that of trying to acquire an inequitable personal material wealth [2].

LE: I like your reading of divination as metaphor as a way of understanding our fascination with the medieval. This idea of ‘accessing’ the divine or the magical is an interesting way of thinking about these practices, and how they appeal to a modern sensibility. Forms of engineering, or indeed, ‘form’ in general, operate at the interface of the material and the metaphysical – they give tangibility to that which is imperceptible. Early Christian icons, for example, are caught between being human constructions and being actual embodiments of holy figures, hence their venerable status. Art historian Hans Belting has subsequently argued that icons should not be considered art objects but as conduits for divinity, or as portals or windows to the sacred realm [3].

These portals can also lead to dark places, and I think it is the inheritance of paganism from Antiquity that makes Christian medieval symbolism so rich and layered. There is an internal tension between polytheism and monotheism, and between Jewish, Christian (and later Islamic) doctrine, that is inherent to imagery and other art forms of the early medieval period, especially in eighth- and ninth-century Byzantium. Iconoclasm emerges out of a fear of the power of the image, and of the sacrilege of idol worship. Do you think that returning to this age where art had such an affective and at times threatening role is a way of reinvigorating art within a secular context? Are artists today trying to recuperate some of this magic (dark or otherwise) within their own work?

Portable Mosaic Icon with the Virgin Eleousa, early 14th century Byzantine, probably Constantinople. Miniature mosaic set in wax on wood panel with gold, multicolored stones, and gilded copper tesserae; some portions restored. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

DS: Artists want to be affective. But there’s also a fear of losing the particularity and reflexivity of contemporary art practice as artists look to entertainment, history, religion, literature, anthropology, and wherever else, for affective models.

As for recuperating magical properties, I think the dynamism of magical process definitely appeals. I think artists would like their work to operate in that way, or operate that well, but with different ends in mind. For the sake of discussion let’s follow Belting, and refuse to consider images that function – as embodiments, conduits, portals, as anything – as art. Artists want to make art, predominately. If you produce an icon, you lose the modern ontological basis for it being art, and for you being an artist. It could be argued that there is no ontological basis for art. But my supposition would still hold. If art has no ontological basis then that becomes the basis for its definition. Therefore, if your art starts to be something else then it’s no longer art, and the artist ceases to be an artist.

LE: I’m glad you brought up the idea of fictions in relation to (contemporary) art making. I think this is relevant to all periods of artistic production, including those that Belting might not accept as part of art history, as least in a Western sense. The fictions and narratives that are produced and perpetuated through icon painting are highly codified, but their variation through individual interpretation arguably puts them in the realm of art, if not a very sophisticated form of craft. The medieval icon painter was expected to anonymously produce icons in a workshop, often with the aid of handbooks or templates, and absolve himself of a sense of personal achievement or authorship. But in this way the painter himself became a conduit for spiritual meaning, creating individually nuanced versions of established tropes.

Belting’s theory breaks down at the point of artifice: for the history of art is ultimately grounded in the construction of fictions (material or otherwise) that help us to make sense of, or reflect upon, the world around us. The problematic nature of man-made devotional imagery is reflected in the emergence of ‘acheiropoieta’, holy images that were purportedly produced through direct contact with holy figures, such as Turin’s Shroud or Veronica’s Veil. But is it possible to separate meaning from the production of an object, at any point in history? I think that what allows art to transcend our immediate sphere of reference is what happens through the process of making, how an object comes into being through the artist’s unique sensibility and world view, an alchemic translation of the (imagined) immaterial through the language of the material. Perhaps there’s some magic in that?

DS: I like to think of art making as akin to magic making. In the past I’ve likened artworks, art exhibitions and creative acts in general to ‘glamouries’ – a glamourie being a Celtic spell in which a lowly or mundane place or thing takes on the appearance of something far grander. I think this is a nice way of thinking about what it is we actually do as artists, or what we have the potential to do. I agree that it is alchemical. I also agree that much of what we’ve been talking about is relevant to all periods of artistic production, within and without art history. So what of the neo-medieval? What do you understand to be the meaning of this term?

David Steans, Hand with Finger Missing, 2008

David Steans, Hand with Finger Missing, 2008

LE: Yes, I suppose I am interested in how artists appropriate historical periods within their work more generally, but I think what we’ve been discussing here – the use of medieval themes and tropes – is quite specific. The schism between the sacred and profane, and the potential for material objects to have metaphysical properties, for example, seems to strongly resonate with many artists working today. As you’ve pointed out, medieval life continues to attract and hold our attention precisely because it is underpinned by such fecund dichotomies.

A final question: in your view does this reuse of the medieval past – a practice we might loosely define in terms of the post-medieval – simply entail a ‘glamorising’ of the mundane?

DS: I don’t think it’s simply about glamorising the mundane, but certainly there is, as you’ve pointed out, always a fetishistic dimension to artists’ plundering of the past (or of anything else for that matter). However I think there is a socio-political bent to our contemporary interest in the medieval. We can locate things there that enable a certain purchase on our own epoch and its predicaments. It also enables us to understand ourselves as belonging to a continuum. The neo- or post-medieval is perhaps a means of gaining perspective on that.

[1] Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness, Dir. Sam Raimi, 1992.

[2] Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (New York: Free Press, 1975).

[3] Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).


Dr Lara Eggleton is a Visiting Research Fellow and part-time Lecturer in the School of Fine Art, History of art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. Her current research focuses on Victorian encounters with Islamic art of the Medieval Mediterranean. She is also the author of Folly Matters.

David Steans is an artist currently based in Leeds. He is currently working on an anthology of original short horror stories that go on to inspire related artworks. In March 2013 Steans won the VANTAGE Art Prize, and throughout 2013 is participating in The School of the Damned, a free MA project in London. He is also, along with artists Matthew Crawley and Harry Meadley, co-founder of the Leeds Weirdo Club.

‘Temple’: a temporary ruin

Matthew Crawley, 'Temple', 2013, MDF, wood, wood glue, screws, red devil Onetime filler, emulsion paint, gold spirit paint, white vinyl. Photo: Matthew Crawley

Matthew Crawley, ‘Temple’, 2013, MDF, wood, wood glue, screws, red devil Onetime filler, emulsion paint, gold spirit paint, white vinyl. Photo: Matthew Crawley

The exhibition, ‘Headless Body found in Topless Bar’, was held in June in the shared studio of Leeds Weirdo Club, and featured a single work by each of its three members, Matthew Crawley, Harry Meadley and David Steans (curated by Meadley). It provided a window onto their respective works-in-practice, which were fittingly framed by the artists’ bookshelves, work surfaces and meticulously arranged grid of hanging tools. Crawley’s contribution was a full-scale replica of a Leeds ‘Poster Drum’, the name given to the 100+ promotional monuments that are dotted throughout the city. Standing 325 cm (10’6”) high by 138.5 cm (4’5”) wide, Temple took up most of the basement workspace at Patrick Studios (also headquarters of East Street Arts). The work dominated with its formidable scale, while its surfaces – smoothly sanded and painted a matte stone grey – seemed to absorb the atmosphere around it. Towering like a monolith or obelisk, it appeared oversized and cramped in the space, acting as a playful and strangely magnetic obstruction during the preview.

Temple is a facsimile of the 1994 version of the poster drums, which are co-managed by the company Street Sites and Leeds City Council. By way of invoking of this earlier model the work might be considered as a folly (those who have been following my blog will have noticed that my definition of ‘folly’ is very flexible!), as it represents an attempt to bring the recent past into the present. Crawley’s choice to replicate an older version of the drums is interesting, for it highlights the fact that they have a history in the city, the slight adjustments to their appearance a reflection of different stages in their evolution. It shares with its urban counterpart its light grey colour and the twin gold stripes that run along the edge of the upper octagonal rim, or turret. Upon four of these surfaces the company’s name and telephone number are printed in white. In the context of the artist-studio-turned-exhibition-space, this information serves only an aesthetic or conceptual purpose. Through this, and its conspicuous lack of posters, Temple can be understood as a non-functioning object, or architectural sham.

'Poster Drum', Street Sites/ Leeds City Council (with original 1994 livery). Photo: Matthew Crawley

‘Poster Drum’, Street Sites/ Leeds City Council (with original 1994 livery). Photo: Matthew Crawley

Most Leodites will pass by a number of very similar structures every day, but the blank, monochrome surfaces of Temple delay recognition. Here is the absence of a thick accumulated skin of posters that typically cover the drums’ tall midsections, which signpost a steady flow of music gigs, concerts, operas, festivals, exhibitions and other events in and around Leeds. The omission of this advert-pastiche is key, for instead of deflecting the viewer’s attention through so many beams of promotional information, the smooth surfaces draw it inwards, towards the object, which all the time lies below these competing layers of signification. This gives the work a kind of gravitational pull that supersedes and cancels out its commercial function. Moreover, in contrast to the permanent installations in the city, Temple is temporary, its ungainly dimensions requiring it to be rebuilt each time it is shown. Crawley sees this as an essential part the work, explaining that following de-installation the piece is ‘destroyed and less than a ruin’. It is also site-specific, as different exhibition spaces require adjustments and changes to the design: in this case its pyramid roof was clipped to fit the height of the studio ceiling.

Another distinguishing feature of Temple is that it is painstakingly constructed by hand using wood, an inversion of the pre-fab, steel drums found on the streets of Leeds. While its measurements are reproduced with careful precision and its edges seamlessly finished, there is something about the work that gives away its handcrafted origins; it possesses a certain quality that manufactured objects lack. The flat, even coating of paint further works to unify its volumes and surfaces, emancipating the drum from its commercial fetters and elevating it to the status of art (and/or architectural) object.

Matthew Crawley, 'Temple' (detail), 2013. Photo: Matthew Crawley

Matthew Crawley, ‘Temple’ (detail), 2013. Photo: Matthew Crawley

I am always struck by the artist’s ability to lift ordinary and ubiquitous objects to a realm of contemplation, and to encourage an appreciation, or even admiration, of form. Rather ironically, it is the absence of the loud and busy imagery of promotional materials that make the shape and volume of Crawley’s drum so eye-catching.

Temple is a quotidian object captured and transformed, which seems to almost hum with its own resonance. Its clean, unadorned faces soothe our over-saturated senses, offering a reprieve from the countless adverts and flyers that we encounter on our day-to-day journeys. And yet Crawley’s work doesn’t let us forget the template and inspiration for Temple. The multisided structure was designed to project messages on behalf of paying venues and companies; it is a monument to civic marketing, and nothing more. The power of Crawley’s Temple, I think, is that it urges us to take notice of these urban monuments; to encounter them with a new set of references and an apprehension of their form.