Martin Clark // Museum fur Gegenwartskunst 2012
The British Countryside in Pictures
What ben makes track for what wil be. Words in the air pirnt foot steps on the groun for us to put our feet in to.
Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban, 1980
Russell Hoban’s novel, Riddley Walker, was published in 1980, when the Cold War was at its height and the threat of a global nuclear apocalypse was very real and very present. The story is set some 2000 years after just such an event has occurred, the ‘1 Big 1’. Civilization has been wiped out, replaced with a primitive agrarian society, slowly developing from the ruins of the scorched and decimated earth. The novel’s eponymous protagonist is a ‘connexions man’. Living in a small social group, more like a tribe, he occupies a position somewhere between soothsayer, fortune-teller and scribe. Memories of our own civilisation’s technology, politics and religion - distorted by time and the trauma of a cataclysmic nuclear war - survive now as obscure and muddled traces in the fractured language and mythology of the ‘new’ society. Walker attempts to make ‘connexions’ with these, to draw meaning and knowledge from the patterns he discerns in everyday events, and the fragments and echoes he finds around him of a lost and distant past.
This extraordinary book provides a useful frame with which to approach the work of Abigail Reynolds. Not least because it is one of the sources she has cited as in some ways informing her current practice (others include Nicolas Roeg’s 1972 film Glastonbury Fayre, Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Year of the Flood, and Paul Nash’s 1951 book of photographs, Fertile Image). Many of the themes and ideas that emerge through the book are present in Reynolds recent work, notably: the land as a restless palimpsest and site of various histories at once social, political, architectural and cultural; the twentieth century’s morbid and pervasive fear of an apocalyptic future; the radical politics of the recent past, and in particular the various utopian ideologies often associated with the English ‘countryside’, advanced and embodied by groups as diverse as the New Forest Shakers, the new age hippies, or the ‘90s ‘ravers’; and the idea of a kind of cultural memory - one that is scattered, or dispersed, but that can be read somehow onto and out of the land. But Riddley Walker also provides an analogue for Reynolds working practice, in which she too attempts to make connections: searching for patterns, rhythms, meaning and knowledge in the cultural debris and detritus of her own society and its recent past.
Reynolds, like the neo-romantic artists before her such as Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Paul Nash, uses the British countryside as a site for her exploration of past, present and future. Like them, she is interested in the collapsing of histories onto place. Much of Reynolds work draws on books, and in particular photographs and plates that she finds, and often removes from them. She collects voraciously, amassing an unorthodox but inclusive library which is used as both the site of her research and the primary material in her work. Recent sources have included The British Countryside in Pictures, 1948, Britain: An Official Handbook, a government publication produced annually by HMSO, Tomorrow’s People a photographic record of the Glastonbury Festival from 1974 (written by Jeremy Sandford), and England, a photographic guide published in 1959.
Books are, of course, receptacles or holders of human knowledge, history, culture and ideas, but Reynolds treats them less as discrete and specific bodies of knowledge and more as fertile, abundant sites through which she can scavenge. She is enormously sensitive to their materiality and the particularities of their design, print and construction, as well as the time and context in which they were produced. But Reynolds work owes as much to sculpture as it does to photography or collage, and they are equally as important for her as objects - as props and structures with which to produce her sculptural assemblages and makeshift constructions. The pages and images she excavates, now dislocated from their original context, become more like artifacts or archeological remnants - more visible, more enigmatic, more mutable, and open to more complex meaning and association.
The Maidens 2011 operates somewhere between display solution, architectural model, 3 dimensional collage and formal sculpture. The work brings together a series of images, objects and materials into a rudimentary but potent conjunction. A page featuring a black and white photographic plate, carefully cut from an unknown volume, is placed against a perforated screen, supported by the sturdy right angle of an open book. The photograph overlaps and aligns with another, printed on a page of the open book.
The first image is of a line of women, circling the perimeter of a barbed wire fence. The photograph was taken at Greenham Common in the early 1980s. It shows a blockade outside the RAF airbase by women from a nearby peace camp, protesting against US Cruise Missiles being held there. Where the image of the woman at Greenham meets the black and white plate on the open page of the book, the chain of people appears, almost magically, to continue - to cross from one photograph to the next, a rupture in time and space but a single, constant file, perfectly matched, perfectly spliced, an elegant, if abrupt, jump cut. But these aren’t the Greenham women in this new frame, despite the line’s seamless transition from one plate to the next, they have transformed into a group of Morris dancers, and the place has shifted too, from the barbed wire perimeter fence outside the Berkshire airbase, to a quiet village road outside a country pub.
The edge or rupture Reynolds creates through her ‘connection’, is flattened or framed behind a piece of coloured glass. The effect is almost alchemical, tinting the black and white images, and producing a veil or screen through which to view the image, amplifying the juxtaposition. It’s a simple but transformative gesture performed by a humble piece of debris, a bit of broken glass, afforded privileged status, made precious and potent through its rarefied deployment. In these smaller works, often presented on bespoke stands, we see the model for the larger, more architectural pieces, with their free standing screens and panels, often of coloured or patterned glass. Again these armatures usually operate as a support structure or framework for her found images and book pages, but in these scaled up assemblages the viewer is implicated more directly through the works sculptural presence, the various screens reflecting, obscuring or distorting the body as it moves around the structure.
Reynolds often uses glass in her work, sometimes the evocatively named ‘reeded glass’ (already drawing a nice association with English folk: with reeds and flutes and the ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ – a reference as appropriate here to both Pink Floyd and The Wind in the Willows), which distorts or blurs the image behind it; sometimes coloured, opaque or marbled glass. Glass seems to operate for her as a way of simply but effectively disrupting the visual field, of literally (and legally) altering our perception. There are various productive associations here, from the rose coloured spectacles of the hippy’s ‘shades’, to the lens of a movie camera; from the ‘trippy’ optical distortions of a simple filter, to the dark prophetic glass of an obsidian mirror.
Reynolds was a child of the 1970s, growing up through the eighties and nineties in Thatcher’s Britain. Just as in Riddley Walker, the traces, detritus and reverberations of now distant cultural memories become distorted, corrupted, idealised and mytholgised in her work. As in the novel, there is a constant search to reconnect and make sense of the broken elements of a fractured world. From the image of the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster (pipers again), that is juxtaposed with a huge, leaning rock formation in Collapse 2011, to the various circular motifs of Countryside Unit 2011, where crop circles, record decks, the debris of the 1987 hurricane, and new age architectures, reiterate the same, simple form - cultural histories, political histories, ancestral histories, geological histories as well as future histories (expressed in the progressive music and drugs of the Castlemorton rave or the nuclear apocalypse of the Greenham protesters) are brought together through the increasingly antique medium of printed book plates. Patterns emerge, connections are made, meaning proliferates; and in her enigmatic installations and assemblages, the black and white photographs of those power stations and rock concerts look as ancient, as remote, as desolate, and as futuristic as the stone circles, the cliffs and the earthworks.