Margate based artist Emma Gibson and London based artist Conrad Armstrong have come together with a joint exhibition at the Resort Studios Gallery in Cliftonville, parallelling their individual practices through the gallery's large two rooms.
With installation at the heart of their personal exploration, Shadows looks at the shadow’s role in psychology, genetic memory and the landscapes of Cliftonville, Margate and the World.
Armstrong’s Shadow Progress presents an ever-shifting installation of sand and sculpture, as well as wall based steel drawings. Many pieces are abstract while some pieces are more immediately identifiable, with one piece consisting of rats and birds sculpted from brick reinforcing mesh.
Gibson’s Partial Breaks explores ideas of hidden messages and our drive to discover secrets using sound and cryptography. Emma's space includes mod rock sculptural forms presenting us with the optical illusion knowns as the Hollow Face. There is also a reconstruction of the artist's desk, as if transported straight from the studio to the gallery, which shows Emma's process of trying to work out the code and collaboration.
Both artists included performance on the opening evening on June 9th with Emma collaborating with composer Ciara Haidar, culminating in a moving piano based musical score. The music was written using Emma's late Grandad's secret coding documents, only discovered once her Grandad had passed away.
Conrad delivered a couple of his poems inspired by seaside lyrics, TS Eliot's The Wasteland and Cliftonville's fallen grandeur. He performed the poetry whilst standing on a large landscape installation made from sand which stretches across through the gallery space.
Wanting to know more about their works and the experience of working alongside each other, I asked both Emma and Conrad a few questions about the exhibition. Both: What drew you to work together on this exhibition?
Conrad: I had an exhibition called Into The Forest in London in June 2015 which I think made Emma see that I was actually pretty serious about my work, its difficult sometimes when you just meet people over drinks and its all talk, people talk a lot and there isn't always anything wrong with that but sometimes its good to see people in action to believe in them (and their chat) and be inspired to work together. I saw Emma's work during my first visit to Plinth in Margate and loved it. We also love each others partners very much so have a unconscious connection that even we haven't quite fathomed.
Emma: We then met up in July with not much more than an idea to do something together, and in Margate where I'd been for a year at the time and had just launched Shelling Out at Crate locally.
Conrad: Then when Resort came along as an option with its great 2 rooms, connected but separated by a smashed doorway and the launch of its new curatorial programme it seemed like the perfect place for our collaboration. Emma: We’ve known each other for many years, through lots of houses, towns, places, experiences and have always overlapped ideas and beers – what connects us most is drive, inquisitiveness and progressing ideas.
Conrad: A smashed doorway. Emma: What has it been like working with material belonging to your late Grandad?
I have a lot of questions about the artists position in their work – I think ideas around that position are in flux at the moment and as I’m intrinsically linked to this material genetically, it’s a challenge I can’t avoid addressing. I think it’s led me to make the exhibition interactive and participatory as a result, which means it’s more about what the viewer brings to the work and what their interpretations are despite mine. The more collaborative ‘breaks’ I work through, the further I may get from the final outcomes which is exciting and strange. Where did the idea come from to turn your grandad's secret codes in to a musical score?
Partial Breaks is a term borrowed from Cryptanalysis meaning solutions that come close to breaking the original cryptosystem, enough to understand it but not enough to fully crack it. I like the idea that rather than heading straight off to a code-breaker who works with one narrow set of ciphers for an explanation, I’ll work with a cacophony of other creative mediums (that could work with numbers) to see what message they may find instead. By pure chance ‘the pink folder’ happened to be picked out by a musical expert as being able to be read as numerical notation – which I had never seen in it before.
What was it like to work as an artist / composer collaborative with Ciara Haidar?
People who work in music seem to work in a much more conversational way that me. Everything is a discussion, a tiny pause, and emotive ‘blue note’ and whether it should sustain a beat or not, and how that would feel. It’s a continual two-way discussion with a joint goal that is the final composition - which is seen as almost separate to us both as artists, I really liked that. To work with any expert is always a joy and it will be tough to top her as I’ve learnt so much from the process and had such a good time. Conrad: You have works in the show directly inspired by TS Eliot's The Wasteland, part of which was written here in Margate. Was this a direct response to having an exhibition in Margate, or were you already making works responding to this piece of writing?
Poetry is always at the heart of my work. My own poetry runs through the anatomy of my practise, working in synergy with my own observed truths, material obsessions and emotional responses. On my journey researching for the exhibition the lines from the Wasteland 'On Margate sands./ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing.) kept coming up. Even in government reports (Turning the Tide) on the decline of British seaside towns. In accordance with the main theme of my work at moment looking at the idea of progress in the city, I started to discover some of the dark and uncomfortable truths about the 'social cleansing' of London Boroughs by the councils and government, to get rent prices up in their areas by removing some of the poorest people in the districts and relocating them in almost Dickensian conditions in places like Margate, in Private houses where there aren't the same controls in housing conditions and building maintenance which they have to maintain in purpose built social housing. These people become the shadows of society swept under the carpet and kept away from the light. The more I looked into the area of Cliftonvile and the knowledge of it being amongst the most impoverished areas in the UK, the closer the Wasteland seemed to come to my work, quite organically. I then became very interested in the clifftop shelters in which Eliot is reported to have written a lot of the Wasteland, and the idea of a sheltered space in which to contemplate the landscape both physically and metaphysically, also the obvious decline of said shelters in Margate, with broken benches, empty heroin needles, waste and decay. How did you curate the pieces you have chosen to show in Margate and was any of the work in direct response to the space at Resort? The new piece that I made specially for Resort and the exhibition is the large Meditation Pod or Tension Structure. This is a new piece which has come to being through my need, inspired by the Wasteland and Eliot to create a place in which one can contemplate the infinities (or nothingess). This structure is intended to then come back to the city with further developments/evolutions to become a constantly moving sculpture, something which can be reassembled on rooftops and on wasteland to be a site specific structure for the activity of contemplation, deep thought and meditation. The large sand landscape installation which is an ever evolving and shifting work for the duration of the exhibition is also a site specific work for Resort, and Margate, but has its roots in ideas of Zen and other themes which are very important within my work so will be a continuing thing. I want my work to be able to constantly exist, evolve and live, I strive to not allow the work to die after an exhibition finishes. The sand piece is meant to represent the unavoidable affect on our landscape both physically and socially we have on it by our presence. Every footstep alters the landscape as all things have an intrinsic transience and impermenance. This social responsibility to the landscape is obviously an important theme in Margate with the huge changes the town is currently going through with the rapid influx of new people.
How have you found exhibiting in Margate?
I have got a lot from the challenge of trying to apply my practise and the themes of my work to a new place away from my comfort zone. In the long term I want to be able to work and engage with people around the world and find a universal language in which to communicate the things that are so alive and so pressing. The visual arts are so important in doing this. We are being made to feel that the world is fragmenting at the moment but in truth the world is closer than it ever has been in history. The need for artists to travel and engage with the global community is close to my heart and something I want to push in the coming years. Although Margate is not so removed, there are issues in Margate which are a microcosm for the same issues around the whole world. I have also loved working with the guys at Resort and feel as though the project there has great intentions, potential and hopefully a very bright future with the great people involved in it. Shadows is on at the Resort Studios Gallery until June 18th. Resort Pettman Building 50 Athelstan Road Cliftonville, Margate Kent, CT9 2BH For more information go to www.resortstudios.co.uk Photography by Gabrielle Hall. Thank you for reading
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