Nature Read in Truth and Straw
by Tom Jennings
Entering the space containing Sally Madge's site specific installation (1) does not feel like any typical passage into an art gallery. The work engages the body immediately and directly, preempting judgment and disarming expectations. The latter will already have been modulated by the journey across or towards the North Pennines, under a broad sky of characteristically dramatic weather, to Melmerby. Amongst traditional Cumbrian village architecture is the Isis gallery, converted a few years ago from its original function as a barn. The art work inside speaks to this past, unsettling traditional associations of landscape and the rural idyll, questioning the potency and significance of such representations.
Powerful sensations greet the visitor. First and most memorable is the strong, sweet aroma from a wall of hay just inside the door. There is a dark, heavy atmosphere, and as the eye adjusts to very low ambient light, it seems that the haystack virtually fills the space, with narrow, cramped areas to the sides. All manner of ghostly whirrings and whisperings circulate, and once accommodated to night vision, and moving further into the room, several sources of sound and light can be discriminated. Most disconcertingly, at the rear of the gallery's upper level, the flickering ghost of a gigantic barn owl emerges from the top of the end wall (2), pouncing in extreme slow motion and majestic beauty on unseen prey. From lower down, a cadence of sibilant tones recalls the sound of wind through trees, or an upland beck; resolving into the rushing, insistent rhythm of whispering voices (3). By the foot of the stairs (blocked by a 'private' sign) sits a showcase with a lightbox base. Slung from the top, a dozen tiny hammocks cradle the corpses of voles, small birds and mice. Light escaping this display guides one to the back of the haystack, which turns out to be hollow, allowing access to its calm, secluded centre.
In the corner furthest from the ghost shines a slide projection of lines from Wordsworth onto the wall beside the haystack. The beam is interrupted by a plinth holding an empty glass dome (originally used to cage a Victorian stuffed bird), encircled at the base by a tight wreath of barbed wire. This intercepts the word 'art' from the quotation, while the plinth catches 'her' above 'worth' (4). Attached two metres up the far wall are four boxes made of lead. A warm pink light reaches the glass base of each through a nest of white downy feathers. Suspended high above, a stuffed barn owl in flight presides dolefully over these strange manifestations. By the door, leaflets parody the heritage industry's educational literature, sketching a critique of its cynical manipulation of nostalgia and the imagery and rhetoric of nature (5).
This ambitious work examines our intimate relationships with built and natural environments, along with the cultural processes that objectify and commodify our experience of them. Ambitious, but not grandiose in the manner of the 'new museology' which intimidates and dwarfs viewers with monumental architecture and, ultimately, boast its complicity in political and economic domination. Whereas this show collapses the scale of the countryside and human institutions. The juxtaposition and cross-fertility of bodily experience and symbolic associations undercut conventions of distantiation and contemplation, of white space in an ordered cube.
The topography also disputes claims by museums and heritage centres to a seamless integrity and neutral representational authority; a refusal flaunted by travestying Wordsworth's literature of sublime landscape. Gaps and inconsistencies between the exhibits open up conceptual space, but, obliged to observed from contrived, dimly-lit angles, spectators become part of the installation, obstructing each other's perception and movement. As with the artist's previous work, the functions of installation (6) are inflected with the intermingling of psychic, organic and constructed space, as in Gaston Bachelard's architectural phenomenology (7). The consolidation of identity is represented by the containment of bounded regions (8) of the self by the body, child by mother, individual by buildings, discourse by discipline, expressivity by art (9). Previous shows focused on the artist's personality meshing with and being shaped by discursive and institutional constraints (the home, medical, educational, etc.) (10), materialised biographically by emblems of the organism's experiences, forced together in tension at the site of exhibition (11).
In tackling the trajectory of personal identity and its physical and bodily articulation, the artist is influenced by a generation of contemporary women artists. But her work has on the whole been darker, more fractured and clinical than that of artists such as Louise Bourgeois or Helen Chadwick (12), avoiding explicit images or fantasies of the real body. Their visceral threat and abject sensuality would tend to flood out those more subterranean and ineffable networks of desire and domination being excavated. And rather than using direct, though distorted, self-images (as do Jo Spence and Cindy Sherman, for example (13)) hybrid traces are mobilised instead: remnants of the material, visual and social that loom, condensed and displaced, in memories and dreams, and which are also resources manipulated by systems of power to subject bodies and to (under-) write histories (14).
Closer parallells could be made with Annette Messager's work (15), whose magical collections of fetish objects and rich part-images are activated by context, guided by the manner of their framing. Sally Madge's installations crowd into and fill three dimensions, while stripping down Messager's easy profusion of objects. They also make explicit the institutional constraints operating on life and art, both in general and in (site-) specifics (16). In the present show, however, the feminist sensibility of earlier works is less evident, likewise the emphasis on biographical particulars. It would be ironic if those concerns were here generalised to a concept of abstract 'nature', given the righteous criticism that such assimilations attract. And ironies do proliferate in the Hot House - dead animals courtesy of Newcastle's Hancock Museum, and even the cowpat came from that city's Town Moor. The art's beastly content is transferred from urban to rural scene, just as the haystack is built in a time-travelling gallery-barn by a city-dweller reared in a part of rural West Cumbria that since her departure has become a world centre for radioactive waste-dumping. References escalate geometrically, inevitably overflowing the artwork.
This collection of 'found objects' is expressly not innocent, translated into the language of valorisation using showcasing devices that both invite and complicate attention (17). The slide from gallery to museum to mausoleum is trangressed in an intense, furtive, surrealistic manner. A perverse bricolage of sculptural techniques brings alive the resonances of dead art, extinct nature and agricultural produce with living processes of unconscious dynamism - the inexorable proximity, fecundity and unruliness of emotion and signification. The barn may have lost its owl (unwittingly evicted during the building's conversion), but the art resurrects meanings that education and entertainment usually scrupulously repress.
The installation does not patronise in the way that artistic treatment of the mundane can do. Drawing out the beauty of these familiar objects by rendering them bizarre, even sinister, seems more from a sense of wonder than pretensions of knowledge or perception. This idiosyncratic, humble statement contrasts with the arrogance of a 'civilisation' intent on annihilating the biological grounds for experiencing nature's wildness, while disciplining the wildness of expressivity and aesthetic response with heritage simulations - thus neutralising the cultural resources which might be used for contestation.
The exhibition was appreciated irrespective of the degree of engagement with contemporary art discourse; that familiar litany of alienation and incomprehension was only rarely voiced among a range of gut reactions gathered and overheard. Children, especially, felt at home, matching their fascination at displays of fetishised death with a robust enjoyment of the paths around the haystack and its hidden core: related to, but decisively different from, the den you burrow out for yourself in a real haystack. The latter might have worked on its own as minimal art. But that would lose its powerful resonances with the surplus meanings around nature, art, institutions and the body's biography: abstracted into the same representational oblivion that the heritage commodity consigns them to.
So the haystack is the centre of gravity for a constellation of comically foreboding part-objects busily igniting each other's symbolic and evocative potential - refusing the purity of minimalism while signalling the artist's incapacity to bring together a mythical 'unity of form'. The leaflet certainly parallells the exhibitions's failure to achieve conceptual or discursive closure - echoed by the pathos of the owl and its body, which, finally, seems the most alien object here. No longer sovereign predator signifying wisdom and death: does this make it the victim, or the incarnation, or the artist?
But conventional formal considerations seem mean-spirited here; even precisely to miss the point. Historically, the hothouse of artistic creation and its promiscuity of meanings readily degenerates into the cold storage of bourgeois taste. Perhaps this empathic, productive loss of omnipotent control over the artwork can begin to do justice to the commonplace bewildering intensities of love and suffering that contemporary art mostly concedes to other cultural forms for mediation.
Review published in Versus, No. 4, February 1995, http://www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/Nature.html
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: www.variant.org.uk