Sunday, 30 September 2012

BEHIND THE LINES: Maggs Beneath the Covers #7


The Private View for 'Maggs Beneath the Covers' held at Maggs Antiquarian Bookshop 50 Berkeley Square, Mayfair to coincide with the Lapada Art and Antiques Fair was definitely an upper crust affair - even down to the hand-raised, traditional crusty meat pies with lashings of English mustard served alongside the champagne.  There was cake too - quite a spread.  These days it's rare to see so much as a peanut at the average private view.  Curator Penny Green had done us proud and not just with the finger food.

Works by the twelve artists who'd been commissioned to respond in 'extreme and conceptual ways' to Maggs' collections of rare books and manuscripts are beautifully displayed over all four floors of the Georgian town house close to the books that inspired them.  Some are in hallways and others in the garden - including 'books of remembrance' by ceramist Robert Cooper .

Penny Green's own work installed on the first floor landing - two seated figures representing the poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning - looks as if it had been there forever.  Look carefully and you can just spot Robert Browning sitting in the sunlight by an orange tree.
In curating the exhibition Penny had decided not to have any labels or statements close to any of the work.  A small brochure guides visitors to the general location of each piece and they are left to discover them, or not! depending on their powers of observation.  Some of the interventions are so subtle as to be easily missed.  But that's the fun of this kind of exhibition - it invites curiosity, exploration and active engagement with the site. 
Some of those who came got so into the spirit of discovery that they were found wandering 'off piste' in the dusky underground storerooms and passage-ways trying to decide whether the various piles and accumulations were art-works or just dead stock.  Brave of them I thought, as darkness was falling and the place is notoriously haunted by a broken-hearted 'Mr Havisham' - cruelly jilted on his wedding day.
My piece 'Between the  Lines' is sited on the second floor in the Continental and Illuminations Department close to where I'd been standing when I'd first glimpsed 'my' book in Paul Quarrie's hand on the site visit.  I was expecting a special visitor to the private view, Cat Lucas, English Pen's Writers at Risk campaigns manager, and had arranged to meet her there.  Cat had asked me to write a guest post for their website and in yet another example of happenstance the posting and the exhibition opening  co-incided with the release of Salman Rushdie's latest book 'Joseph Anton'.  Censorship, free speech and freedom of artistic expression were hot topics.  
Between the Lines by Stella Harding
Although ultimately the work will have to speak for itself and tell its own story, being there in the room alongside it gave me an opportunity to find out what it has to say to others and to answer questions about it.  A member of Magg's staff had seen the piece prior to the private view, and, knowing little about it, told me it reminded her of a brazier - in which banned books might have been burned. In the sixteenth century when Francesco Ghesi, the book's owner, was writing his defence to charges of heresy it was more than books that were being burned - convicted heretics could face death at the stake.  In recent years we've seen the burning of books and effigies of writers by religious fundamentalists and only a few weeks ago on July 30th, Dang Thi Kim Lieng, the mother of imprisoned Vietnamese blogger Tai Phong Tan, died in a defiant act of self immolation.  She was protesting the detention of her daughter - a former policewoman who'd built up followers around the world with her blogs about police abuses in Vietnam.
Most people wanted to see the book that had inspired my piece.  Impossible in this case as it had been sold before I'd had the chance to really see it myself.  But imagination is a wondrous thing and as I explained that the small area of 24 carat gold leaf represents the 'footprint' of the book - people began to make connections with other imprints, shadows and memories of lost objects from their own experience.
When Cat Lucas arrived we were able to connect the small size of the book to the size of Francesco Ghesi's handwriting as he'd written in the spaces between the printed text.  Many prisoners of conscience write under extreme conditions - some write in infinitesimally small script on tiny scraps of paper or rag which can be smuggled out by friends or sympathetic guards.  Handwriting can say so much about a person too and small changes over time often alert human rights observers monitoring a prisoner to changes in their circumstances.
I'd enjoyed handwriting a letter to Busra Ersanli, something I haven't done for years, and had been touched to receive her letter in return - hand written after her release pending retrial.  In a sense this project has been as much about the history of human communication as about one book.  The laborious work of stamping individual letters onto the lead strips was juxtaposed by the immediacy of tweeting an update to this blog - telescoping the centuries from Roman times to 21st century social media.  My internet searches, emails to English Pen, blog posts and various digital interconnections are as much a part of the creative process of this project as the final woven lead container.  What connects us as humans isn't the means by which we communicate but the desire to do so.  The desire for freedom of speech and artistic expression will find a way.
I'm writing this post now as Busra Ersanli and nearly two hundred others face another  trial in Turkey tomorrow October 1st.  In her letter to me Busra wrote of her friend, the translator and women's rights activist Ayse Berktay and whether anything could be done to bring her to attention.  Ayse's name is one of several imprinted on the lead - a small gesture of solidarity.
Monday October 1st also sees the hearing in Russia of an appeal by the three members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhada Tolokononikova, Maria Alyokhina and Ekaterina Samutsevich, imprisoned for two years after their peaceful performance protest against Vladimir Putin and leaders of the Orthodox Church who support his repressive measures.  Artist David Shrigley has added his support by designing a T-shirt for Amnesty International and English Pen are holding a Poems for Pussy Riot poetry protest at 11.00am on Monday October 1st at the Champion pub Wellington Terrace, London W2 4LW. They are asking those who can't attend to write about the event and the ebook of poems on their websites, blogs and Twitter.   
Even the smallest gesture can make a difference to a prisoner of conscience. Sending a book, a letter or postcard of solidarity lets them and their captors know that they are not lost to the eyes of the world. A quick tweet or an email to a government or regime acting in contravention of human rights costs nothing, takes only a few moments and is surprisingly simple to do with modern communications technology.  See English Pen's Rapid Action Network for how to do it.
If you get the chance please do visit 'Maggs Beneath the Covers'.  Don't be put off by the imposing location and the entry buzzer.  You'll find a warm welcome inside 50 Berkeley Square and the freedom to explore and discover for yourself all the inspiration you could desire.
'Maggs Beneath the Covers' is on until 21st December 2012.  9.30- 5.00pm Monday-Friday, closed Saturday and Sunday. Please see for more information.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

END OF THE LINE: Maggs Beneath the Covers #6 the weave

It's only a few days before the exhibition 'Maggs Beneath the Covers' opens - 12 artists responding in extreme and conceptual ways to Maggs collections of rare books and manuscripts.  I haven't seen my finished piece since it was delivered to Maggs over two months ago and now feel as if I'm writing backwards - reflecting on and un-weaving the making process. 

When I delivered my piece I got chatting to another maker who was testing the installation of her work.  I asked how she'd come across the book that inspired her.  I was fascinated to hear she'd gone exploring Maggs on-line catalogue for an appropriate volume!  She'd conceived of what she wanted to make, determined by the nature of her practise and her current interests, and had then gone looking for a book that would fit the concept.  Retro engineering! Well, why not?  Why trust to happenstance and chocolate rabbits as I had done?  My more process-led approach was to work with whatever called out to me and to follow its desire line - wherever that might lead.  This might have some relation to the way basket makers often make use of whatever seasonal materials they happen to come across in their locale.

Exactly why a book owned by an imprisoned writer (my raw material) should have struck a chord with me at this juncture is something I'll reflect on later.  Perhaps it had something to do with having recently had a book published myself for which I'd written the, albeit uncontroversial, text.  Suddenly I was not simply a co-author who'd worked on the overall construction of a book but the writer who'd selected, manipulated and crafted the words, sentences and paragraphs.  This subtle distinction was an important one for me, my creative labour not to be appropriated through elision.

Stella Harding GREEN JEWEL 2010 Photo: Sylvain Deleu
A item of basketry, as with any crafted object, is a fusion of four variables: material, technique, form and function, each of which interacts with a more nebulous fifth - location or context.  I more typically make abstract, sculptural forms, exploring combinations of materials, techniques and forms to create re-natured assemblages that function as objects for the contemplation of the ontological uncertainty of human/nature. 

                               Stella Harding KEPLER'S JEWEL 2011 Photo Trevor Springett

Plaited vintage printed steel tape measure bangle
At other times they might be worn as a measure of certainty, but they rarely look like conventional baskets. 

For the Maggs piece  I'd allowed my researches into the unfolding storyline to dictate which material I'd use - lead, the imprinted lead then to dictate an appropriate technique - an open weave that would distribute the leaden weight economically, and the combination of material/technique to dictate the form - which I was beginning to realise was going to have to be ... a fairly conventional looking basket! 

I recalled the first site visit when Robert Harding (no relation), one of Magg's directors, had spoken of the book as the 'perfect object'.  In other words, from the time the first bound volume was made the book hasn't changed its form or the way we interact with it.  Even an e-book mimics the way we open and hold a book and turn its pages.  Baskets come in many forms depending on their function but archaeological finds tell us that the basic forms for specific  functions haven't changed in millenia.  So, just as the unremarkable appearance of Ghesi's small book belied its extraordinary story, I would reflect this by making a fairly unremarkable basketry form - to function as a kind of 'stealth craft' - an innocent looking decorative container which would belie its content.  Not as a container for an imprisoned writer - as I'd originally proposed, but as an expression of the transformative power of books to free the imagination.

And so at last the weave began, with a six-pointed star - or a hexagon surrounded by six triangles, depending on how you look at it.  These are the  first set of connections in open hexagonal plaiting - a multi-directional (3-way) weave more commonly used for making lightweight, ephemeral containers for transporting small livestock to market. With a bit of practice it's a quick, economical weave that's used a lot in the Far East with indigenous plant material such as bamboo or rattan which can easily be split or cut into flat strips.
It's also one of my favourite weaves and gave me a personal connection to the story.  I've used it a lot with strips of paper or plastic tape, chair cane and cardboard.  Lead though is not a typically 'appropriate' material to use with this technique.  It has too much 'memory' and little energy or will of its own.  It's extreme malleability verges on passive resistance! But I enjoyed these qualities - it forced me to think about every move I made with this delicate and yielding material whose subtle beauty belies its reputation as a base, toxic metal.  And the  starry weave is fitting for a different reason; for lead, like all the heavy metals, was  forged in the white heat of an exploding super nova billions of years ago. What came from the stars was woven into stars.

Even before I'd begun weaving the base I knew I'd be unable to add extra horizontal elements to form the sides.  I didn't want any lumpen overlapping joins so I used a bias weave even though it disrupted the pattern of stars and hexagons.
In fact the sides were a combination of a bias lattice plait with hexagonal 'intervals'.  The weave was  uneven at first despite my best efforts, but a few hours spent with a lump hammer coaxing it into shape over a mould sorted that out. 
Throughout the making I'd been pondering how to represent the book itself.  One idea had been to make a porcelain slab the same dimensions as the book and to decorate it with gold lustre thus recreating my 'lost object' in tangible form. In the end there were frustrating technical issues to do with lustre-firing that couldn't be resolved in the time remaining.  My compromise solution was to gold leaf a section of the weave  the size of the book. 
What seemed like an expedient compromise turned out for the best. Now, this alchemical symbol of Francesco Ghesi's book has become one with the weave - highlighting the parallels  with Busra Ersanli as his word 'justice' intersects with her word 'solidarity'.  That gold foil covered chocolate bunny has a lot to answer for!

                Viewed from certain angles the golden rectangle sheds precious light in a dark place and illuminates the text as in a medieval manuscript. 

Whilst from another perspective the ecclesiastical overtones of the interior spaces are undeniable.
My final decisions were about how to finish off the basket -  how to end the story. I'd dispensed with issues of joining by choosing a bias plaiting technique that didn't require extra elements.
There was something compelling about not resorting to a neat resolution.  Looking askance from a different perspective showed there was no tidy closure to this story.  Though she was freed from prison after the first hearing Professor Ersanli and her co-defendants face another trial on the first of October.  Just the other day I received a reply to the letter I'd sent whilst she was in prison.  I was touched that she'd taken the time to write back to me and moved to tears by her bravery, dignity and selfless concern for her cell-mate, the translator and women's rights activist, Ayse Berktay.   Many loose ends, many more human connections, one strand at a time.
The end of the line has yet to be woven ...