CRAFTING THE UNKNOWN, written by Skye Sherwin, in response to BREADROCK Kestle Barton 2018
Captured in flickering black and white 16mm film, images unspool across a triptych of screens. At times, what we see in the artist-duo Fourthland and artist-filmmaker Rosalind Fowler’s I Carry You In My Eyes, includes what might be sacred objects and fragments of rituals, recalling this early film stock’s use by anthropologists. Yet what it amounts to is a long way from documentary. Instead, it seems less an account, than a series of visions. There is nature: running water and snaking roots; scored rocks and tangled undergrowth. Which is which? Are we regarding a barnacled fist or a sprouting bone? At the bottom of a ceremonial path to the sea, a dark figure makes slow, purposeful gestures. Hands encircle air, as if caressing a head. Feet dance and bodies move in procession. Magically, in colour, a superimposed wand of swan’s feathers strokes the land. At various stages, the 16mm celluloid turns golden, as if transformed by alchemy.
Circles abound: bowls harnessing sunlight; the annual rings of a felled tree. In a repeating image, a disc has been cut in a thick fabric, across which water races. This doubles over two screens, making a pair of eyes. It’s a symbol with female overtones, a portal like the birth canal, which we have passed through, to a new, other world. But what is this place that we now find ourselves in? All is strange, and yet, there is something about those signs and gestures that we almost know, hovering on the tip of the tongue. Amid the sculptures and objects that surround this three-screen installation in the gallery, are two textile works, one blue, one red. Hanging, raggedy and wild, they resemble apparitions. Hand-stitched and naturally dyed, entwined with loofa and kelp, they might be the ceremonial robes of coastal shamans or priestesses passed through the ages. Small wonder that their creators describe them as “skins for dreaming”. Harnessed in the films, we are invited to enter an in-between space, the fluid, uncertain world of dreams.
With these artists though, what we experience in the gallery is but a small part of their practice. Their exhibition Breadrock might be thought of as an echo or vibration, as they have put it, from a much longer process involving many voices and encounters. At Kestle Barton those they have worked with include the families of Syrian refugees housed in various locations around Cornwall, as well as Cornish locals, craftspeople and gallery visitors. Through a huge variety of workshops and performative actions, they have co-created stories and symbols that offer an alternative to the foundational myths that govern societies. As much attuned to individual experience as group customs, these new mythologies are alive to the needs of the present moment, with its challenges of cultural displacement and collision in a globalised world.
Before exploring this further, it’s worth noting how the seeds of Fourthland’s particular approach to socially engaged art practice, embedded in Jungian theory and anthropology, were laid: far away from Kestle Barton’s rural art outpost, when they began working with the residents of Wenlock Barn, a housing estate in London’s multicultural East End, 10 years ago. Their exhibition in Cornwall has progressed from an earlier version of Breadrock at the Hoxton gallery, PEER, showcasing the fruits of their time at Wenlock Barn. This included I Feel Like Doing This (2018), the first film that Fourthland and Fowler made together. On show in Kestle Barton’s artist’s studio, it confirms a continuity of vision while hinting at how they have adapted their methods to a rural locale and the new people they have met. Through staged tableaux it offers up unique encounters with people embedded in a community and in touch with their background: be it a Bangladeshi woman dressed in her wedding finery burying a symbolic stand-in for her young son’s umbilical cord, or a hoola-hooping boy whose gym class skill comes across like an equally mesmerising mystic rite. As the artists have pointed out, these portraits could only have come from a shared understanding, built over the long-term.
When they began work in Cornwall this Spring, they knew that they were facing a very different situation, starting with the shift from an urban to a rural context. Furthermore, where they had previously encouraged participants to reap memories and significance from their domestic worlds, working with recently arrived refugees, meant a group of people bereft of the objects in which culture and memories might be ingrained. Meanwhile, the artists and the Syrian families were not only alien to one another, but the place they found themselves in. On both sides, the experience would likely prove awkward and raw, without even the everyday pleasantries of a common language to fall back on. How could the artists begin to create the space of open sharing their therapeutic exploration of self and culture needed, what they describe as “a space of holding”?
One thing that becomes apparent watching the amorphous imagery of I Carry You In My Eyes, is its embrace of the unknown: we are never quite sure what we are looking at. What is equally clear is a fresh focus on countryside as much as people. Within the Cornish woods and shoreline, the new myths they have drawn from their time here, have evolved through chance encounters, intuition and thought association: a kind of foraging for signs. After an early meeting with Syrian families at a place called Lady of the Portal for instance, the artists were struck by the significance of the name for the refugees embarking on a new life. They then fashioned a portal from felt, which they ritualistically washed in Frenchman’s Creek, the famed site near Kestle Barton. In a striking moment of serendipity, the seven swans who visited this twilight scene provided a potent symbol: within the iconography the artists were developing (or perhaps tuning in to), they became synonymous with seven Syrian women they had met that day and with shades of the shapeshifting swan women of Celtic folklore. Glimpsed in the film, this felt portal was then taken to each workshop, where its various uses included being worn as a cloak by the participants in a blessing and used as a cloth for food. An uncompromisingly odd object, the felt was nonetheless soon accepted as an essential element of the gatherings, which might also be thought of like a portal, a transitional space where those attending can potentially connect to the land. It says much about the way stories, places and things can accrue significance, within a person’s life, a social group, or a special environment, be it a gallery, temple or, as was the case at Kestle Barton, a circular clearing beyond the wild flower garden and fields.
This meeting place has been dubbed the Whaleswan, a hybrid creature with a huge whale’s heart, big enough, as the artists put it, to create “a space of welcoming and kindness between cultures”. It is currently marked out by traces of what has taken place there, including a wooden structure topped by a circle, recalling church windows, a mosque or the smaller head and ample bodies found in countless representations of ancient fertility goddesses. Its skeletal open frame meanwhile, creates another set of potential doorways to pass through. All summer, a deep blue fabric dyed with natural indigo has waved in the breeze, bearing the Arabic phrase: I carry you in my eyes. For Syrians, it’s an everyday expression meaning thank you. To an outsider however the phrase is arresting in its rich acknowledgement of human presence, with eyes as a portal through which we might enter another’s psyche. It became a guiding mantra of the Breadrock project, inspiring performances, sculptural objects and directing much of the imagery of the film to which it lends a title. Alongside craft’s therapeutic dimension, it’s these ephemeral traces of culture, notably something that can survive the transient refugee experience, which the artists have particularly drawn out in their work. The song of a Cornish shaman has fed into the sounds one can hear in the gallery, while a folk dance spontaneously performed by Syrian men and boys on the Whaleswan, dictate its rhythms.
Many of the workshops meanwhile, have focused on traditional crafts and knowledge, from using herbs to natural plant dyes. This is more than some nostalgic return to our roots, however. The experiences the artists fashion in this way are markedly different from 21st century daily lives, whether that be the seclusion brought about by screentime or the particular isolation experienced by refugees, who often find themselves purposefully housed apart from other families and friends, to avoid causing unrest in the established local community. How the communally hand-worked can create something meaningful is essential to the artists’ method.
To imagine our way inside the cultures we live alongside, to share a space of dreaming and craft new cohesive myths, in tune with the globalised reality, is one of our most urgent and challenging tasks. What’s striking about Fourthland and Fowler’s work at Kestle Barton are the ways in which they have embraced the awkwardness of first encounters and not knowing. The odd, beguiling images, sounds and objects shared between people who so recently were strangers to each other and the land, underline how uncertainty in cultural encounters might be a boon: that fertile state of mind where things are as yet unsettled, uncomfortable perhaps, but full of potential.