This is an exhibition about how to live out of the centre, outside a framework of mutual endeavour and shared values.
On one day, the day of the referendum over whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union everything changed overnight.
The following is a personal statement that puts my own work and curatorship of this exhibition in context. I don’t want to, nor am I speaking on behalf of anyone else.
Resistance (is futile)
I wrote a proposal for M100 back in April 2017. It is a wonderful optimistic piece of writing about utopian communities trying to make things better for themselves and those around them. And then in June 2017 it was revealed that my neighbours, even some of my friends did not share what I hope are values of tolerance and openness, values I took to be self-evidently for the good. For me this caused a profound and drawn out soul searching. I didn’t want to make art, or put on events for these people.
I spent the winter disconsolately picking up litter from the verges of the roads surrounding our farm. At least I could make the little piece of land near me better. Each day a new crop of MacDonald’s packaging, high strength cider and high caffeine drinks cans would appear. I had to work out a way to live with this.
I found a receipt in a MacDonald’s paper sack. The local council can use this to track the person who dropped the litter and prosecute them. I was faced with a dilemma. Should I hand in the receipt, an action with unknown and potentially catastrophic consequences for the individual involved? I just put the whole package in the recycling bin. Who am I, from my super quinoa privileged, white middle kale aged home owning male over-educated well-travelled CO2 producing position, to stand in judgement on this person? I stopped picking litter.
Ethically I feel unable to say that a world with MacDonald’s litter, jet skis, high powered motorbikes, giant Porsches, and fountains of prosecco, is a worse world. To live here in Essex, I have to let go of my indignation over these things and submit to other people’s right to determine their own way of living. I will not validate actions I despise by pushing back against them. My only resistance is making art which I make for myself.
Landscape and the countryside has become a central theme of my curatorial and artistic interests because the land is politicised more than ever. It is the chemical and biological battleground between the EU and the US.
A folksy view of the English countryside was an element of the EU debate. The countryside is the locus of much of English identity, close-knit village life, country pubs, winding lanes, thatched cottages, baking cakes, jam making and cricket. Our identity may be embedded in the rural, but it is the urban, by which I mean London, that dominates. For the most part the countryside voted to leave the EU, and cities voted to remain. Amongst many other ironies of the vote, it is UK farms that most heavily rely on the free movement of people, attracting farm-skilled workers, no longer available in the UK, from the Balkans and Baltic.
The view of landscape from the city is very different from living in it. Being here in Essex there is not all that much romance. Here in this landscape it is mainly by turns muddy or dusty. It is dark. I become overwhelmed by colours. The birds are staggeringly loud. There is never quiet. A strimmer or chainsaw is always struggling to carve a clear space. This land is resistant. It bites and stings, catches at your clothes, and obstructs you at every turn.
Having said that, every day there are many moments of treasured touching intense beauty.
All four artists in this exhibition work with stuff, actual physical things produced with skill and craft.
I very much like physical material because it is uncompromisingly visual. I am naturally distrustful of text and words, of theory. I like action. The protests about our leaving the EU, against President Trump, and in support of the #metoo campaign have neatly combined text and action into potent and joyful slogans. I feel we can channel some of that imagery of resistance to mitigate against the political neutering effected by the political right in the UK. We can use words as material and image to at least raise a fist in solidarity and a middle finger to power. Swearing does make you feel better.
Ben studied History of Art and Sculpture at the Universities of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art graduating in 1988 and then at the University of East London. He started curating exhibitions in Essex and London, setting up studio and workshop facilities for artists culminating in the Blackwater Polytechnic established with his wife Freddie Robins.
In 1992 the year of the Maastricht Treaty Ben curated the exhibition ‘Human)(Nature’ at non gallery sites in and around Colchester, Essex with twelve artists from the European Economic Community as it was then called.
Since then he has been curating, collaborating, completing giant public art projects as well as exhibiting his more intimate drawings and paintings in New York, Germany and the UK. This year he won the prestigious David Gluck Memorial Award for Watercolour.
Freddie studied knitted textiles at Middlesex University and the Royal College of Art where she is now a Senior Tutor and Reader in Textiles, leading the Knitted Textiles specialism. She worked as a commercial designer before turning more towards the art end of textiles. She has exhibited her work all over the world from Korea to Kilkenny, Norway to New York. She is recognised as one of the foremost exponents of knitting as an art form. Her work deals with the distance between expectations and reality,
Justin studied graphics at Central St. Martin’s College of Art where he ended up specialising in typography and movable letterpress type which became his passion. On leaving college he began to collect letterpress type and machines whilst working as a commercial graphic designer. He has one of the largest collections of letterpress equipment outside a museum. Alongside his commercial practice, he makes type based posters within a network of letterpress enthusiasts. Fiercely individualistic even this group would acknowledge Justin’s role in popularising and revitalising letterpress of which Justin remains a foremost exponent.
Fiona studied Philosophy at the University of Manchester and then textiles at Manchester Metropolitan University. She received her doctorate from the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London. She is Senior Tutor in Textiles at the Royal College of Art, leading the Mixed Media specialism. Her own work is definitely ‘Mixed Media’ ranging from giant public installations to small acrylic paintings. Her work discusses the interstices between landscape, ecology and technology. She explores notions of landscape space and landscape time, once measured through the impact of natural cycles and planetary shifts, now equally measured through digital time and the migratory patterns of trans-national capital and invisible algorithms.