On Saturday, my family and I travelled to see artist Katie Taylor’s end of degree exhibition ‘Latent’. The setting was the atmospheric Crypt Gallery on the Euston Road. Being almost at entry point to my studies with OCA it was of significant interest to me to see Katie’s work at the very end point.
Katie has been exploring ‘our place in the world, the fragility of life and death and the precariousness of our existence.’ She supports this investigation with a grounding in historical research and the references add an under-surface impact to her 3-d forms. In this exhibition Katie had chosen 6 pieces that exemplified the range and detail of her enquiry – heavily evidencing both materially and conceptually. I have some knowledge of Katie’s earlier work from her previous learning logs and I was intrigued to see what strands of these still echoed both in thought and process. Her more recent work I have followed on Instagram – so to see the real dimensions and to be able to walk around both the individual pieces and the whole, was important to me to get a better sense of their scale and placement.
Initially, one has to escape the busy-ness of the Euston Road and find your way round the back of the impressive St. Pancras Church to the Crypt Gallery entrance. Immediately, there is a lull in the traffic and an otherness to the experience. Entering through hefty ornate red (iron?) doors one descends down steps to the crypt, the gallery. On the day we went we left a bitingly cold outside and descended into a warm and intimate space, lighting hinting at exhibits and corners, shadows between spaces giving one the time to carry the exhibit scene in the mind, on to where it is modified by the addition of a new exhibit. The temperature is ambient, the air still and calm, but there is a real sense of ‘something’ – it is not unpleasant, not ghostly as one might suspect of a crypt, but more of a hidden sanctuary, a safe place, a waiting place – giving further weight to my understanding of the term ‘latent’: ‘existing but not yet developed or manifest; hidden or concealed’ which made the setting of Katie’s work feel, as another visitor commented, almost ‘a site specific installation.’
We were lucky in our timing in that Katie was just finishing a tour and was able to take us around describing and confidently engaging us with details about her process and allowing us to explore and read our own narrative as well as offering suggestions of her own starting points. Katie’s thread of ‘latent’ is clarified in her supporting exhibit booklet, ‘A visual exploration of residual memory, using impressions left as a metaphor for loss’. Katie’s work in the flesh as it were (literally in the case of ‘Momentary’ and ‘Sum’ and figuratively for the other 4 pieces) for me read like a complex piece of poetry – there are clues in, then twists and turns, just when one question is suggested another rises up behind it creating a multiplicity of reading at one sitting. Moving through the crypt the pieces clash and intertwine in my imagination creating then collapsing narratives, but never losing me as though her signature voice is the thread through the minotaur’s maze.
‘Marked’ is the first piece which dribbles out of a circular orifice in the crypt brickwork pooling on the floor- the sheen of red ribbon adding a further suggestion of the bloodiness of its subject ‘the endlessness of atrocities of war.’ The red-dyed name-tape length is scripted with Icelandic terms for ‘massacre’, ‘genocide’ and ‘Ethnic cleansing.’ Iceland had been chosen as it is ‘a country with some of the least conflict in modern history’ – it was poignant that the Icelandic words for the above terms are not loan words, they are Icelandic – even a country that has minimal experience of these horrors has to have a term to name them. The labelling, the repeating to me spoke of the need to get a hold of these incomprehensible experiences of man’s inhumanity to man – as if naming them can contain them, reduce the reality of them to a noun that can be uttered in the media, over a dinner table, in front of the children! I remember as a very young child having a poetry book when I was in the top class of infant school, that had pictures of mass graves from the holocaust and that picture of the child in Vietnam fleeing down the road stripped bare and crying. These pictures were set adjacent to war poetry. ‘Marked’ was like revisiting that experience – I knew the pictures were horrific – especially the holocaust picture, but I also knew that these crimes had to be shown, had to be seen, made real so people couldn’t deny their existence and pretend they didn’t happen. The Icelandic language has to have these words for global responsibility and awareness. ‘Marked’ in its tangle of twisted labels also made me consider the awfulness of our times living with what seems indiscriminate terrorism – who is marked? Whose life is going to be marked by these atrocities? Is it already written on the thread of our lives? The terms are woven through the tape – war impacts all surfaces of our lives – it becomes woven through the very fabric of our being.
‘Sum’ impacted my children and partner the most. The beef casing on the cast skulls added a further reality to this piece. The fabric imprints on the ceramic hinting at the identifying nature of textiles – and its use in helping identify the victims in more recently excavated mass graves. I wanted to pick up the skulls, they felt child-like in their scale and needed to be touched, they cried out to me for someone to tenderly examine and notice them. They spoke of a need to be known, a need to be seen and tended and their stories told. This piece bore heavy witness to a perpetual cycle – the surrounding optic fibre encircling these skulls to me spoke of a need to shine a light on these people who had become faceless and voiceless, whose individuality had been stolen by the singularity of language that wants to name ‘a mass grave’ but not speak of the plurality of truth.
With these two pieces lingering in my mind, and the weight of all the voices that clamoured to be heard we turned the corner to the powerfully placed ‘Evaporate’. Tiny yet wholly absorbing on its own platform ‘Evaporate’ allowed for a pause and recollection of emotion. The fact it is an upturned vessel amplified that feeling of collection and focus for me. Katie talked us through the processes and sampling she had undertaken to settle with the chosen combination of alum salt and food colouring. Interestingly the piece is now changing colour – taken in the context of grief and mourning, sometimes this small place of darkness inside can be transformed with moments of sparkle as time passes, oftentimes the dark lonely space of mourning overshadows and changes the colour of the surroundings. I am reminded of my friend’s mother who says that when she is in the worst place of her Depression it is as if she sees the world in grey – all the colour has gone. The supporting text made me consider that it is not the matter of us that is the essence of us, it is the energy. Evaporation is a process of transformation powered by, in nature, the heat of the sun – the sun’s energy. It is only by being exposed to light can the dark places in us have any chance of being transformed. Likewise, the darkness in the world will not go away for being hidden, it has to be brought to light. This piece speaks to me in pure poetry, I could keep coming back to it again and again. For me, in my stage of learning, it has helped me comprehend that a work need be suggestive without being too dictatorial. Perhaps what my tutor was getting to with my wounded clothing pieces was that they were too directive in their meaning – there was not enough for the intelligent audience to puzzle through or discover. Seeing Katie’s work I realise that I love the mental play of discovering what the pieces may mean to her, but discovering what they say to me and how that varies from moment to moment, how different connections pop up and fade as other more enriching link are created. It is this I need to recognise in the making of my work – to leave some of the work for the audience.
Both ‘Momentary’ and ‘Lay Waste’ showed Katie experimenting with contrasting processes and pushing the boundaries with materials: the former being bone ash on casing. For me these pieces arrested me technically and I enjoyed the concepts they presented and found them a fresh and unique way of delivering both ‘textile’ and their subject. These pieces created further dialogue and transition in the exhibition which became very much whole, circular – you could enter the exhibition at any piece and find the narrative continuous and contiguous. These pieces have made me consider how pieces can be presented, how the audience’s view can be directed and how chronology does not have to lead – when there is a clear vision then any work is a window into and onto this.
This exhibition has also emphasised to me the importance of selection and precision. There is a point at which too much work will water down the message and too little will fail to move your audience. I understand that Katie had had her moments of self-doubt too concerning this, but from my vantage point the exhibition felt balanced and professional, a clear stage set – the Crypt- on which we as audience collaborated, the lighting creating nuances and subtly directing our flow and perspective, each piece being a character on the stage – now I type this I am recalled of the Guildsman’s ‘Miracle’ or ‘Mystery Plays’ of the Medieval era which were performed in cycles – sometimes lasting days. This perhaps brought to the front of my mind by the church setting. I shall consider this further – reconsidering the text that supports ‘Evaporate’, ‘the soul leaving the body and rising’. How much of a step would it be to consider this exhibition further in the light of a religious and secular overlay? Thoughts to think on.
I want to finish with ‘Weight’ although on our tour this piece was half way round. There is the fascination with the materials and their textural contrast – the shine, light-reflection and impression in the pewter, the hidden trace of the lace from which it took its impression against the light absorbing quality of the lumpy coarse, rigid concrete engineering block – each material carrying its own poetry and metaphor; all this heavily restraining the cotton length – in this setting reminiscent of a winding sheet – which now makes me consider the cloths left behind in the empty grave in the Christian story of the Resurrection of Jesus. The movement in the cloth held so much story – as it was tugging the weight along it pulled tight and thin and possibly threatened to break – at this bottleneck one could be forgiven for thinking, if one was going through this, that the weight was just about to shift as the tension would be at its fullest. Yet the cloth gathers in drapes and ripples where the resistance has broken and the cloth has gathered back into its own natural shaping, after this a stretch of fabric smoothed out – making me consider how we try to smooth things over when we can’t pull them into the shape we want, and then there is the edge – the piece is left behind, the weight is left, and with it the small moment of precious pewter. How much concrete are we carrying in our psyches for the sake of a small perceived moment of treasure which is in fact an impression of the now gone beauty?
Meeting Katie and hearing her words and voice to add commentary to the exhibition both grounded and enlightened me. Creating an exhibition is achievable, there are technicalities and logistics to organise and overcome (not least of all the funding). Yet with all these profane concerns, the how’s and when’s and where’s and whatnot’s, it is the vision that elevates the work into a sacred experience – through the work we find another place in ourselves and look at the familiar yet newly strange place of ourselves in the World again. Like Orpheus or Eurydice we climbed the steps back to the busy ground level of London, resurfacing visibly unchanged, yet inwardly transformed.
Thank you Katie.
(All supporting images are available on the artist’s website – link below!)