Frances Young, Nadia Hebson, Lucy Harrison, Michael Day, Dave Cushley,
Toby Huddlestone, Bryan and Laura Davies
Curated by Anthony Shapland
It could have all been different. The past drives the present forward toward everything that may be. The sinking of the Mary Rose, a g-plan chair, the shipping forecast for 22 April 1997, this biscuit I'm holding and the heat of this tea. They all now belong to the past – my subjective idea of the past and part of a collective past. Passed and now past.
We instinctively think of the past stretching out behind us in a long line punctuated by events – the most recent still near us, last week just behind us, and historical time stretching out somewhere un-seeable on the horizon. If we abandon this idea and think of everything past as simply gone – retrievable by a backward glance, but equally gone – we can stop seeing things in a linear timeline, in fact, in any timeline. The past can be viewed as a series of fleeting points of 'now' and rather than each one delivering me to the present, they all exist under one label: 'past'.
In a rambling sort of way this links the artists that follow, in varying degrees. I hope links aren't tenuous or stretched and I hope I haven't misrepresented anyone – so easy to do when you view one work out of context. I haven't tried to put like with like, but have tried to reference a particular aspect of each artist that may in some way link with a sense of existing in the present while sneaking a backward glance at the past.
Nostalgia is a hybrid word, made up of the Greek nostos, meaning homecoming, and algos, meaning pain, grief or distress. It had its roots alongside -algias as a disease on a par with consumption.1 Originally it was used to describe the malaise of Swiss soldiers posted in France, a longing for their hometown and a desire to return,2 it was an illness that could result in fever or death. Its most pernicious effect was to make the nostalgic cherish in secret the very symptoms that destroyed them as the bittersweet memories of home held them in a kind of quasi-ecstasy. Nostalgia was seen as a kind of homesickness and the only cure was a return.
Like boredom and déjà vu, the word nostalgia as we might understand it – a sort of wistful longing – gained currency at the dawn of the industrial age. It arrived in the language with the mechanisation of the world, with displacement, repetitious toil and urbanisation. It was slowly recognised that nostalgia may not be a physical but a psychological malaise, it was the desire to re-find the object, the place; more specifically the desire to re-visit a time.
In Frances Young's film 'Song of Farewell' (2007) a flock of starlings rise and land on a roller coaster. It is dusk and the birds are circling and gathering before roosting, their movements above and through the silent loops of the roller coaster are eloquent and unpredictable. They finally come to rest on the tracks as daylight fades and the lights of the pier come on. Starlings are always found in the UK: when summer starlings prepare to head south for the winter to warmer climes, the starlings in Nordic countries also begin this pre-migration dance and prepare to head south for the UK- in a long chain of migration that extends to the tip of Africa. They stand in for a sort of restlessness, an eagerness to get gone, to go home, and as one flock leaves another arrives in the twilight autumn days.
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Song of Farewell, 2007
Song of Farewell, 2007
Song of Farewell, 2007
Nadia Hebson's work shares this desire to leave, to strike out for home wherever that may lead. In her painting 'Wreck' (2005) she presents the bones of a ship, tilting and desolate. Hebson's delicate works take as their referent a number of ambiguous sources that add to their sense of displacement. They are ambiguous on two counts, their place of origin as well as their time of origin. In an unmistakably contemporary hand we are presented with scenes and portraits that seem to be from another century, resonant of old masters, Dutch marine views and Jacobean still lives, they are difficult to categorise and this is their strength; they hold us momentarily between worlds. There is a Portuguese word, Saudade, which refers to a particular melancholic nostalgia. Saudade is the memory of things lost and the explicit hope that they might return combined with the bittersweet knowledge that they never will.
It is this duality of nostalgia that gives it currency. At its worst we steer clear of indulging in nostalgia; a cheap trick, sepia tinted and mawkish, carrying a fondness for the past that hampers a move forward toward the future. But when we recognise that the desired return point is often in youth, in simpler times or Classical antiquity we can see that they are sites of lost integrity, times of perceived authenticity. Nostalgia in modern culture can act as an imaginative or aesthetic recovery of authentic being. It's a restorative link between the past selves that brought us into the present; it protects us against a sort of discontinuity of identity.
Lucy Harrison's practice engages directly with memory, with anecdote, colloquialism and the specifics of places to map out a playful engagement with site. She fuses elements of the past with the present and re-enacts or re-invests them with a power that sustains connections between what has been lost with what is yet to come. She takes contemporary notions of psycho-geography and mapping but adds a wholly human dimension; she has a nimble sense of empathy and acts out different works with differing and disparate groups of people without behaving like an anthropologist or detached observer. A recent work, 'Norwich Haunts' (2008), succinctly combines a personal journey, the decline of an industry and its re-presentation as an industrial museum, a human longing for the past and local ghost stories. These moments become part of a collective perception of the present, more specifically with a present that is informed by the past.
Lucy Harrison, Norwich Haunts, 2008
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Part of Harrison's investigation touches on the decline of the print industry, the loss of oily ink and large presses. Technological progress has developed a modernist nostalgia that gives expression to the new experience of time, and elegises the past as definitively and tragically lost. Reproduction and the distribution and proliferation of images, all held an illusion of the present as they slipped into the past and referring to them maintained a sort of temporal collapse, allowing the passage of time to be viewed spatially and upsetting ideas of linear time. The digital age allows us to scatter images across the ether, to have a million different voices blogging at once, the plurality of differing practises and a diverse and wide cultural net to trawl it all. There is something in Michael Day's work 'Analogue' (2007) that reminded me of this loss of collective viewing, of the first voice transmitted to the first listener across the airwaves. Marconi surely didn't anticipate the Babel that followed in his wake. Day's elegy to the quickly disappearing Long Wave signal is a reminder that we are moving toward an age where everything is expressed in the binary plus and minus of 01010101. As long-wave and medium-wave broadcasts become rarer, it is the manual act of tuning that will disappear, the uncertainty of static replaced by the certainty of on/off.
As fast as the digital signal replaces the analogue, the very technology that heralded the dawn of the domestic computer is fast replacing itself, the grey plastic 'adding machine' aesthetic of the early PCs replaced with sleek objects of desire. Abandoned technology is sculpture fodder in Dave Cushley's 'Baby Grand' (2003) where the discarded memories of hard drives and motherboards gather together, mimicking a piano. A low-fi re-invented sculpture sags under its own weight in an elaborate recycling experiment that plays with the notions of keystrokes. This technological renewal already has a word for the outmoded and outdated detritus it produces, abandonware, referring to all of that technology, physical as well as virtual that has so quickly lost its ground.
Dave Cushley, Baby Grand, 2003
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Dave Cushley, Baby Grand, 2003 (Detail 1)
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Dave Cushley, Baby Grand, 2003 (Detail 2)
But this nostalgia is at the tail end of a process that started with the industrial revolution. Wherever nostalgia sits, its strength is in its ability to hold us momentarily between two states, and between two times – enamoured by remembering what is lost while recognising that it is lost. Nostalgia is not something you 'perceive in an object it is what you 'feel' when two different temporal moments, past and present, come together'.3
Actions in Galleries No.24: Listening to Matt Stokes at Becks Futures, CCA Glasgow 28.04.06, 2006
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Actions in Galleries No.23, Almost drawing on Cy Twomblys Thyrsis at Hamburger Bahnhof 09.02.06, 2006
What place has nostalgia in Postmodern thinking when the past has been closed off in such a way that it can no longer even be mourned? This ability to skip from one temporal point in time to another, without the weight of lineage or burden of an ideological family tree is essential. It re-invigorates the act of referring without drowning in sentimentality. It is compulsively and ecstatically resurrected in avowedly inauthentic forms, in a self-referential cultural game. Toby Huddlestone plays these games with apparent glee. His sources are close at hand as he positions himself just at the peripheries of the art world. In his 'Actions in Galleries' series we see him viewing artworks alone and proposing mischief, a de-posing of the already canonised art heroes. He engages with an immediate past with the irreverence befitting a young pretender. If these artists have delivered the present that Huddlestone currently works in, he will have a hand in re-inventing them, using both their position in the art world as well as their content to assess and understand his own practice and his relationship with the world he now inhabits.
Bryan and Laura Davies Architel, 2004 - 2006
Bryan and Laura Davies Architel, 2004 - 2006
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Nostalgia shares some qualities with its Postmodern bedfellow irony, in its double coding of objects – either of the said and unsaid or of a fleeting present and an idealised past. Bryan and Laura Davies work as a collective, their approach is that of a problem-solving agency. The nostalgia that functions in this work is for a past time; a point where dreams of a future utopia were not naïve, a time when Charles Eames' ambition was social inclusion, where good design and function were going to be available to all. 'The Davies' approach is well suited to the relativism of now, more critical complicity than removed critique'.4 They look back to a time before phrases like 'social inclusion' got mired in the spin and cynicism of late twentieth century politics, branding anyone who talks of morality or social good as a cynical spin doctor with a personal agenda. The dreams of the future that came with the post-war years were utopian and idealist. We are now living through their imagined futures, the high rise, easy space travel and affordable designed futures that haven't transpired as imagined. The metropolis we've arrived at is a twenty-first century city where high and low culture is floating free of its twentieth century definitions.
Is it possible to have nostalgia for a time in the past when others optimistically dreamed of your future? If 'creative nostalgia reveals the fantasies of the age and it is in those fantasies and potentialities that the future is born'5 perhaps we will always find nostalgia in unbuilt monuments and unrealised dreams; equally we will continue to move forward in time toward new and unknown possibilities. And another cup of tea.
Anthony Shapland, November 2008
1 In 1688 the Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer suggested several possible names for a certain type of wasting disease. 'Philopatridomania' failed to catch on, but another suggestion was more resonant; nostalgia defined the sad mood originating from the desire for the return to one's native land.
2 For Jean-Jacques Scheuchzer the exceptional susceptibility of the Swiss was a question of atmospheric pressure. When they descended from their mountains to sea level, the thicker air slowed their circulation and brought on depression.
3 Hutcheon, Linda. 'Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern', University of Toronto English Library, 1998. www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/criticism/hutchinp.html
4 Bryan and Laura Davies – Healthy Successful People by Adam Sutherland and Alistair Hudson, Grizedale Arts. www.bryanandlauradavies.com
5 Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Nostalgia theorised via Eastern European cityscapes and émigré writers; her analysis of émigré culture turns to the idea of diasporic intimacy, a kind of precarious affection that is unique to the exiled and uprooted.
Anthony Shapland (b.1971, Pontypridd, Wales) is the co-founder of g39, an artist run organisation established in 1998 in Cardiff's city centre; g39.org He is responsible for the artistic direction of the gallery; however, as is often necessary for artist run initiatives he operates in a number of different roles within the organisation working closely with artists, curators, writers and arts organisations to build up a strong network of support and advocacy for contemporary visual art. Alongside this curatorial role he continues his practice as an artist. He exhibits nationally and internationally. He is also one of the co-founders of artcardiff.com and is a member of the Wales at the Venice Biennale committee. His recent writing includes: Flourish, Moravska Galleries, Czech Republic, 2005 (ISBN 80-7027-141-8); Anima, g39/ B312, Montreal, 2005 (ISBN 0-9541810-4-2); Another Light: Simon Fenoulhet, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, 2006 (ISBN 0-903189-72-0) and for the Jennie Savage project Anecdotal City: anecdotalcity.com/web/anthony.html
Artists' CV & artwork pages
Bryan and Laura Davies