Twelve contemporary artists explore ritual in today’s world
The Crypt Gallery’s labyrinthine passageways are the setting for a multi-media experimental contemporary art exhibition investigating ritual today.
Encompassing sound, light, word via dust, wood, thread and more the show reveals ritual to be an expression of human life that is undergoing a process of constant reinvention. The Crypt’s atmospheric brick vaulted corridors will take the viewer on a journey through healing, wishing, weaving, walking, cleaning, carving, folding, painting. A giant gold chain fashioned from bread snakes across the floor of a dark vault, two spectral life-sized figures made of dust hang from the ceiling, a ghostly woman conjures magpies from nowhere. In one chamber metal boxes emit birdsong reminding us of the passage of daily life, and in another hundreds of wishes are beamed out into the darkness.
Communal ritual is explored in the performative walks of textile and performance artist Elspeth Penfold and axe on wood work sculptor James S. Bond whose work aims to reconnect with a time ‘when all humans were present to the life of trees. Zara Carpenter takes Polaroid of her body are a form of ritualistic behaviour arising from a diagnosis of OCD. For painter Jane Walker and multi-media artist Sally Tyrie making work is itself a ritualistic activity, while Hannah Stageman and Blandine Martin transform everyday rituals into art.
The show is curated by artists Caro Williams and Deborah Burnstone.
Rosalind Barker, James S Bond, Deborah Burnstone, Zara Carpenter, Blandine Martin, Elspeth (Billie) Penfold, Zoe Simons-Walker, Hannah Stageman, Sally Tyrie, Nneka Uzoigwe, Jane Walker and Caro Williams
Crypt Gallery, St Pancras Church, Euston Rd, London NW1 2BA
16th-21th May 2019
Open daily 10am-6pm
Public Opening Party: 16 May 2019 6-9pm the artists will be present, all welcome
The exhibition is free to view
Catalogue and publicity design Bob Mytton
CONTEMPORARY ART + RITUAL by Matt Bray
May 24, 2019
Somewhere in St Pancras is an old church with four powerful goddesses supporting the roof. A stairway leads down to the crypt beneath, where I found this contemporary art exhibition featuring the work of 12 artists exploring the theme of Art and Ritual.
The curators did a great job keeping the work from becoming overwhelmed by the gravitas of the space, and the show is both visually exciting and thought-provoking. The maze-like structure of the crypt caused a few artworks to catch me by surprise: thinking that I had seen everything, I suddenly found another two artists’ work. The breadth of work shown in response to the exhibition’s theme is wonderful, and a further credit to the curators that they made the show feel coherent but diverse at the same time.
The first work you encounter upon entering the crypt consists of a series of knotted rope poles or Varas by Elspeth Penfold, which are actually archives of performative walks. The Varas were made as part of an exploration of the relationship between walking, weaving and storytelling over the past five years. They feel like something you might imagine a witch doctor using to conduct a healing ceremony, and the connection is apt as the artist uses her walks in the same vein; expanding our normal small window on the world to allow in something of the divine.
Walking is also used as a ritual by Hannah Stageman, whose work ‘Lunchtime Walk’ is a delicate fold-out book showing drawings, photography, collage and found objects. Created during on-foot explorations of landscapes, the work is tender and personal, and incorporates the history and memories of place associated with the visited site, allowing the viewer a chance to see the natural world as something everyday but not prosaic.
The everyday and the shamanic find themselves intertwined in Blandine Martin’s installation of common materials titled ‘Objets sans importance’. Bringing to mind the fetishistic displays of sacred tribal objects found in museum collections, items of domestic ritual have had their context stripped away and become instead, objects imbued with some otherworldly power beyond purpose. The central character of the scene is a funnel oozing some kind of miasmic protoplasm frozen in time, and was the perfect combination of enchanting and gross.
Nearby, Zoe Simons-Walker also transformed an everyday object, this time bread, which she has fashioned into an enormous rope chain and handbag. A wry comment (or rye maybe? sorry) on the desperate middle class ritual of status seeking through conspicuous consumption, the work is funny and playful but also to be taken seriously.
Exploring nature’s own daily rituals was Caro Williams’ installation called ‘The Blue Hour’ which immerses you in blue light and the sound of birds singing their morning chorus. Laser cut sound waves of brass and steel, presumably of the birdsong itself, are suspended in the space on chains in vertical configurations, giving a visual signifier of the aural landscape. The sensory effect is particularly entrancing in the silence and isolation of the crypt – a magical and transporting experience and very well rounded piece of work.
In the corridor leading to the installation was a selection of intimate paintings on board by Jane Walker, collectively titled ‘Monument’. Made using oil paint with plenty of oil, once dried they have the beautiful wrinkled surface which as a painter I enjoy very much. The paintings have then been punctured and crisscrossed with threads that represent journeys through their abstracted landscapes. Reminiscent of Auerbach’s building site paintings but with a female sensibility, these diminutive paintings were memorable and impacting in spite of, or perhaps because of their subtlety.
A personal highlight of the show was a pair of Victorian styled paintings by Nneka Uzoigwe: ‘Portrait of a Woman summoning Magpies’ and ‘Poppy Face’. Oil paintings on linen, made with a technical prowess and emotional maturity that belies the artist’s youthful years. The accompanying wall text suggests that they are the result of daydreams, but they have a convincing reality to them, suggesting the power of the artist’s mind to conjure any rogue thought into existence (which as a rogue thought itself reminds me of Mr Stay Puft).
From daydreams to wishes, we move on to Deborah Burnstone’s ‘Make a Wish’, a two-part installation featuring a projection within a dark alcove of handwritten wishes by myriad unknown persons. The hopeful messages are of intimate, personal, and quirky desires, making me reflect upon my own wishes at this time. Fortunately the second part of the installation featured the chance for me to do just that, as the artist invited you to write down your wish and deposit it for future exhibitions – here’s hoping mine comes true :)
‘Polaroid 15’ by Zara Carpenter is a meticulously arranged grid of Polaroid photographs taken as a compulsive act by the artist and then ritualistically attacked during the development of the image leaving the photograph’s emulsion layer bruised and broken. The violence of the ritual is balanced by the ethereal quality of its results and the clever colour-coded display of the resulting images, which leaves the viewer confronted with a powerful yin yang of pleasure and pain. This work holds up particularly well in the space, as the brightly lit grid floats six inches from the floor, contrasting powerfully against the grimy gloom.
Opposite is a very different installation, this time working for the opposite reason in that it actually feels part of the crypt, almost as if it could have been born from the grime itself. Rosalind Barker’s work is a pair of figures made from dust and ash titled ‘us’, floating in space as the light casts shadowy drawings of the figures onto the wall behind. The work brings to mind the phrase intoned buring burial services: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” and causes us to reflect on our own mortality. One can’t help but feel the work was always destined to be shown here, in this church crypt.
Lastly, sculptor James S Bond’s enigmatic slices of tree sit in the back of the crypt alongside Sally Tyrie’s small acetate drawings, displayed beautifully in little tobacco tins as makeshift light boxes, this final area successfully continuing the sense of ritualistic space. The wooden tablets are titled ‘If I do not know the kind of person you are and you do not know the kind of person I am’ and seem to harken back to a time when working a tree into usable materials with our own hands was a universal experience. And Sally’s light boxes reference time as the inescapable master of entropy eroding the Essex East Coast, collected in the tobacco tins as an act of remembrance. Both artists’ works are quiet and cerebral, and offer the time and space to get lost in one’s own thoughts.
Indeed the show as a whole is a surprising pit stop for reflection, amongst the busy bustle of St Pancras. Below the modern shine of the city lies this dusty and unexpected space for absorbing contemplation, and I will make a point to visit whenever I am in the area. Congratulations to the artists involved and the curators for doing a great job with such a challenging but wonderful venue.
by Matt Bray artist, writer, curator and co-founder of The Medway Print Festival