It is refreshing to go into a gallery space such as the Whitechapel where Mark Dion’s human response to the natural world project is currently showing. To experience what might be akin to a museum exhibit of dead animals and associated animal-hides and an ‘Out of Africa’ type film set, is certainly anything but a dusty dull detour through a dead display. This is dead with ‘knobs on’, i.e. not museum education but generous delightful interactivity where the artist offers clues and the viewer’s ideas are extended and questioned. I enjoyed the displays on the first floor where I have a vested interest in the 1999 project ‘Digging the Tate Thames – Millbank’. Confronted by my (lack of) creativity while seeking to put the ‘art’ into my own Millbank project prison cell installation, I am grappling with how not to look like a stage set for theatre. Dion’s show made me consider Dr Stephen Wilson’s ICA seminar remarks of the ‘naturalness’ of Khaled Jarrar’s Journey 110 ‘ and not forcing anything onto the work with the idea, making it more accessible to the audience’. How to achieve the same naturalness with my prison cell is my conundrum? My installation prison cell resembles something rescued from a 1980s Greenham Common protest camp but I quite like that (oh to use Dion’s team of skilled builders and wallpaperers for the day!)
The Cabinet of Curiosities is the hand selection and arrangement of the artist. I considered the objects in drawers and glass fronted cabinets to have an equal value when displayed as groups of similar size and colour. There is no hierarchy of material value. I considered the random collection of men and women criminals at Millbank Prison where neither had superior importance nor social hierarchy.
Brian had suggested the need of a context. I understand exactly, and given a second chance, I would be sure that I had succeeded in obtaining the original handwritten original 1843 ledger of women prisoners admitted to the Prison and hangs in the Morpeth Arms. Janet, Elizabeth, Mary and Mary. Each name is accompanied by prison number, name, age, date of incarceration, town from which those wenches arrived, and goals they’d transferred from, whether they were illiterate or not, their crime, sentence and out-going ship onto which they were onwardly transported (out of sight) to the Colonies. It’s unrehearsed misery. My wenches could have been so much more, powerful even and so I conclude that the life-size sculptures were not entirely successful. Creepy and dusty they were; they did not speak a language of art but mere props on display. The only clue to transportation of these vulnerable old hags was the cage. Without any catalogue or supporting literature, how much responsibility has the artist to give the viewer an understanding of the context?
Dion uses and respects the craft of taxidermy. How do I make the dead real? Similarly and onto my next project, how do I create an installation of an imagined prison cell without being too literal?
By the way, what a nice man, and so generous with his time and talk. He even inscribed my name, did a little drawing and signed the book!
Annabel Ludovici Gray