Jill Townsley 'Stones' - Thought Positions in Sculpture, Huddersfield Art Gallery
(The title of Bernd and Hiller Becher’s first publication 1970)
Three days before the opening of the exhibition Thought Positions in Sculpture Hiller Becher died. The responsibility of making work as a response to the Becher’s practice weighed heavy enough; responding to their lifetime of extraordinary work was intense. But to hear about Hiller’s death made the contextualisation of my own work, within the wealth of perception that the Becher’s expressed in their practice, somewhat disrespectful.
As my uneasy feelings identify, I am unsure about the ethos of making direct contextual reference to past artists’ work. Though of course this is what the exhibition is all about, and in many complicated ways, it’s how art gets made; on the shoulders of those who go before us.
Through their astonishing collaboration, Bernd and Hiller Becher became one of the founders of conceptualism, all within a minimalist construct. A construct that is historically and contingently inaccessible to an artist practising today. I was aware, and as I worked became increasingly more aware, that their photography, was much more than an icon. Their work is not a singular act, not a sound-bite to conceptualism or minimalism, not even was it a simple task repeated. It is defined, and since Hiller’s death even more so, by a ‘lifetime’s’ dedication to a stable and consistent process that documented social, political and cultural change.
Change? You may ask. When all the images are so scrupulously presented within the frame of the singular - industrial architecture, placed against the black and white, sunless fog, of a neutral background: repeated. How is that representing change?
The really cynical observer may even report that the Becher’s ‘fell on a good thing’, a product, and sold it, over and over again. Ironically (given the subjects of the photos) that thought, born from a corruption for financial gain, offers no understanding of the impermanence of the structures and the cultural flux that their work captures. Neither does it consider the dedication to process that the longevity of their practice embodies.
The western world’s journey from the industrial community (rural or urban) towards the elevation of the individual is hauntingly historicised in the Becher’s images. The practically functional forms they photographed are isolated and captured for history in the moment. Those familiar, utilitarian buildings (that some believe are monumental eyesores against our ‘natural’ world), are now largely demolished and gone, along with the social cultures they helped form.
The straightforward representation of the beauty in industrial architecture, as presented in the Becher’s photography, offers foresight towards the appreciation of the everyday, the human grindstone of industry on which wealth is made, and materials and objects forged. The portraiture of the industrial fabric, on which our society was once built, is no small act.
So, something I need to do in this thought position is to address the work I have made for this show, and I request that you read it within itself, not within the preeminent context of the Bechers’ work; though understandably I make many references to them.
Three and an half years ago I moved out of central London (where I had lived for 20 years) to a large Pennine village in West Yorkshire called Marsden. It’s surrounded on three sides by moorland, one of those sides brushes the northern most tip of the Peek District national park. It’s a wild, harsh and beautiful landscape, and at the heart of the village there remains the powerful evidence of the industrial revolution.
The giant textile mills that sit within the depth and breadth of the village, lay empty and benign, but they still dominate. They shape the topography of the place, looming over it, like giant stone monoliths. Quiet and in places broken, they still oversee the community, watching over the lives of the people who live so close to them. The mills have also tamed the moorland for miles around; helped forge the reservoirs, hail the canal, beckon the railway, and develop the road network.
Bernd and Hiller Becher would have loved them. Nineteenth century houses for mechanised industry, influential all around the world. Built to produce the perfect cloth, developed with pride but essentially, as a ‘product’, to be sold over and over again; repeat.
For me, the relationship between my life in London and my life in Marsden has represented a culture shock. I had swapped the landscape of neon lit nail-bars on West Norwood high street - the epitome of the multi-cultural service industry of inner city life today - for Marsden, its derelict mills, its moorland and its robust culture.
This vast unpopulated landscape now replaced the overpopulated cityscape. The natural replaced the synthetic. The ordnance survey map, replaced my A-Z. The rarely trod, replaced the well trod. In many ways the simulation and the simulacra of city life became the real, the original, Marsden. The binary oppositions between the two places are stark and each one presented gains and losses.
In great contrast to London, there is nowhere to hide in this more physically encountered environment. I see a solitary Lowry type figure on the moor walking miles away, a stick figure, in waterproofed primary colours and a speck of a dog up on a moorland ridge. If I’ve seen them, they are bound to have seen me. The community is strong, you meet the same people regularly, you know them – they know you. Whenever people know you, to wear a different kind of outfit, to talk another talk, to walk another walk, to simulate another self, is noticeable, questionable.
This is quite different to life in London where the sheer proliferation of bodies makes it so easy to hide, to blend. The modes of presentation, trends and community move so fast, you can, and people do, pretend, simulate, define through difference and affect; yet everyone blends into the same. It is with this in mind that this work ‘Stones’ began, with the concerns and questions about: singularity, difference, community, archive and place.
Stones are so unique.
People get bored by being unable to find two the same,
and anyway the differences are superficial,
Though the stones don't think so.
Ivor Cutler, (1983) ‘People Run to the Edge’ excerpt from poem recorded on the ‘Privilege’ album. Rough Trade Records, produced by David Toop and Steve Beresford
In the wake of Ivor Cutler, I make no apology for anthropomorphising stones during the remainder of this text.
I collected 100 stones from the River Colne near its source by March Haigh reservoir, it runs through Marsden Moor and under the Eastergate Bridge, part of the historic packhorse way from Huddersfield to Rochdale.
Image of places stones were gathered from
The stones were plucked randomly by hand from the freezing cold, beer coloured riverbed. They were numbered, in order of presentation, and then bagged, like fossils, or forensic finds.
I took them back to the studio and studied them. As Ivor Cutler said, ‘People get bored by being unable to find two the same’. Perhaps this is why I stopped at 100.
The number 100 is a quantifiable measurement, descriptive of a quantity; it’s also an interesting concept. The number 100 is a human construct, proof that we collectively believe in the reality of the abstract. Nothing could be more physically disembodied than a number. A number has no form, no mass, no shape or structure; it’s definitely not like a stone.
The artist Mel Bochner identified that, measurement ‘is a purely mental act… “an assumption”.’ (Bochner 2001)
Measurement is one of our means of believing that the world can be reduced to a function of human understanding. Yet, when forced to surrender its transparency, measurement reveals an essential nothing-ness. The yardstick does not say that the thing we are measuring is one yard long. Something must be added to the yardstick in order to assert anything about the length of the object. This something is a purely mental act ... “an assumption”. (Bochner, cited in Rorimer, 2001, pp.184-5)
Not only are we all involved in this giant universal ‘assumption’, we also give numbers a character. 100 is thought to be a stable number, it completes a cycle, it defines a century, it begins triple figured numbers and now it describes the number of stones I gathered from the bottom of a river.
By numbering the individual stones, all different, all singular, I noticed they become a collective, present within the construct of the definitive number 100. At this point they lose their individuality and may be described as a collection, an archive. The construct becomes the dominant force, the stones become part of the whole, and the archive defines the object.
There is a clinical process to this too, an ‘all things remaining equal’ world of scientific discovery. To gather together singular objects in collections such as this, allows us to compare the physical evidence, and identify the nature of the differences. Through difference, the details become a tool for identifying more categories - subsets within the archive.
The subsets can be organised in infinite ways, through size, form, colour, material, density, age, etc. The stones remain the same, but the assumption, the construct, changes the identity of each stone. It also changes the hierarchy by which each stone may be valued: the heaviest stone, the largest stone, the brightest stone. The object is once again defined by the context we apply to it. A stone may be highly valued within one context, while becoming valueless in the next. By observing the differences between each singular object, presented collectively within an archive or context, a superficial value system can be defined. Or as Ivor Cutler put it – ‘The differences are superficial, though the stones don’t think so.’
Image of stones
I decided to photograph the stones individually. They are photographed directly, forensically, in natural light and each image includes a yellow metal tape measure, presented in the same place, to the same scale. The tape offers both imperial and metric rulers and the stones stand against the tape presenting their difference, their singularity. However, archiving them in such a way, next to a tape measure, directs our understanding of them; we are literally sizing them up. We are relating to them through the archival construct (or assumption) of size.
Each of the 100 photographs is also named and numbered, from ‘River Bottom 0001’ through the number system up to ‘River Bottom 0100’. Reflecting the order each stone was captured from the water. The four figure numbers invest an idea of continuum, showing intent towards, amassing a much larger collection – one day.
By organising the stones in this way, I am standing on the shoulders of the Bechers’ photographic tradition and also Mel Bochner’s ‘Measurement Room’.
In ‘Measurement Room’ Bochner visually interrogates his statement that:
‘when forced to surrender its transparency, measurement reveals an essential nothing-ness’ (Bochner). Through applying his own non-universal measurements to the scale of a room, he questions our relationship to measurement. He simulates the communication system of measurement but essentially he is presenting the non-substance, the abstract, the emptiness of measurement. We may conclude form this that measurement doesn’t have enough substance to be a stone.
And yet despite the ‘essential nothingness’ of measurement compared to the something-ness of a stone ‘Archive 1’ has two dominant empirical constructs.
These two forms of measurement govern our perception of the stones. Stones could be considered, singular, nonhuman, physical objects. In Archive 1 they are presented within two logical, yet abstract, human constructs. Through measurement we claim knowledge of the object through a learned collective or ‘assumption’ (Bochner). The stone is held outside of itself, it is located and categorised in relationship to our own understanding. Like every object we encounter, the stone is now defined by our relationship to it.
Image: Polished Stones
The next archive presents a reconditioned archive for stones. The stones have all been painted with coloured nail varnish. Specifically, a rainbow of colours from 25 bottles of nail-varnish, bought from a local shop in Marsden. The bottles were organised chromatically from deep red ‘Exotica 061’ through a chromatic range of colours to deep purple ‘Purple Glamour 43’. Each bottle really does have a name and a number! I imagined a group of marketers arguing over the evocative cultural significance each title conjured.
The stones were painted in order, starting at ‘River Bottom 0001’ and finishing at ‘River Bottom 0100’. The nail-varnish bottles were organised chromatically, when the line of bottles/colours ran out, I went back to the beginning. This meant that each colour would paint 4 stones. Here is the formula:
100 stones painted sequentially with the colours from 25 nail-varnish bottles (repeated) = 25 groups of 4 stones
100 -: 25 = 4
I then re-archived the painted stones by photographing a group of 4 stones, defined by the colour of the nail varnish.
In this way the colour of the stones now dictate a new archive. The original patina of each stone is obliterated, over-painted, and reconfigured. The stones are now characterised by their colour, organised into families of 4 through colour identity. They form new tribes, with titles borrowed from the sexy market name of the nail varnish colour. Their cultural references are altered; visually and contextually the stones are ‘talking another talk’.
Each stone has now traded:
The stone is newly defined by its place and the community is associated with, the context. This context may be transient and easily altered; but for the stone, context is everything.
The final archive offers a partial return. The stones are scattered randomly inside a Perspex topped plinth, hovering only centimetres off the floor. They simulate a return to the ground, to the river bottom. But this is only a simulation; their exterior, their image is permanently altered. No longer would they blend with the river bottom community. Their city like shine, their synthetic coats betray the process they have experienced. The material content of each stone has been altered, by a coating of nail varnish; process is now embodied within the object of the stone.
As I travel from the Capital city to a village on the Pennines, I am changed. Changed by my relationship to others, changed by the context I am located in and the journey (or process) I have been through.
The stones have travelled in the opposite direction, from rural river bottom to Gallery plinth; they too are changed. Changed by the journey they have been on the processes they now embody. Through the three archives, they present different stories depending the changing contexts they are presented in. And ultimately they change depending on the viewer’s relationship to them.
In this way stones are a bit like people,
Except they think more,
and say less,
and don't complain.
God bless stones,
and that includes pebbles and sand.
Ivor Cutler, (1983) ‘People Run to the Edge’ excerpt from poem recorded on the ‘Privilege’ album. Rough Trade Records, produced by David Toop and Steve Beresford
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