Week 5 – Rebecca Birch – February 2-9 – Lichen Hunting on the West Coast (2015)

In the Hebrides, lichen was used for dyeing tweed. Reindeer moss, old man’s beard, grew scarlet-tipped in heathland. Yellow Candles and Coral Crust grew among the heather.  To full the cloth and remove the oil, before ammonia came to be used the tweed was soaked in piss.  To shrink the tweed, men in Nova Scotia, and women in the Hebrides, rhythmically slapped the cloth, using it as percussion while singing songs in Gaelic: three songs would shrink it, and after twelve the work would be complete.

While the choruses of the women’s work songs are pure music, the verses tell of lost love, battles, and tales some gory, shocking, sad, or moving. Over the years these were written down and cleaned up. In Greenock, Inverclyde, a lady called Frances started a singing group, to try to bring back the songs’ original rawness. Gaelic hasn’t been spoken for years, except in Uist, and none of the other women know it. But they learn a song each, to keep it safe.  They’ve written new songs, but these are pastiche. There is no improvisation. They sing, they slap the tweed, they natter.

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The group has started to perform beyond the sitting room too, at a women’s guild in Houston and in schools. While she was resident at the CCA in Glasgow, the artist Rebecca Birch was invited to make a project with the women. She went to make a film about them, the film not as the sole outcome of working with the women, but as part of an experimental and experiential journey. Now, in the ICA studio, she talks about them, making drawings to anchor the conversation, and projecting video of the women singing, and images of lichen, onto the walls and onto lichen-shaped plasterboard screens that are, over the week of the exhibition, disintegrating.

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This is an attempt to spatialize the fragments of the narrative, to reenact and remember locations and people within a new space, constantly manipulating the surfaces and the atmosphere in order to creative an immersive but strange journey into the habitat of the women, and allowing visitors to the show to return and bring in their own memories and subjectivities. Think of an apple: yours might be green, mine might be red. Or a strawberry.

The biggest strawberry variety is the Happle. They don’t taste good. The best tasting is Elsanta. Rebecca Birch used to pick strawberries outside Birmingham. The owner of the strawberry field had a plan to surround Birmingham with them so that everyone would be in reach of strawberry fields, but his business declined over eight years, and he went into toffee apples instead. This became more mechanised each year, from a simple double dipping action to a hand crank machine to a huge mechanism. While she tells us all this, she draws.

Birch employs “an anecdotal avoidance of the thing that is at the centre of the work” and explains “I kept telling them about what I’d eaten, rather than the film; digression to package a narrative that people find a bit rubbish.” There is a studied unforcedness, a deliberate neutrality, and normalcy intended to draw people in. The ontological elements of the narrative are foregrounded, to draw the story out from a flat surface into an experience. But the lights are low to introduce a meditative feeling in the audience, to ritualize the experience, invoking a performance with a performance. The audience can move between different parts and levels of images; the screens break up and reconfigure the images. This is a continuation of a theme of Week 2 (Charles Avery): surfaces that make holes in the images behind, where 3-dimensional shapes interrupt the projection of images onto two-dimension space, interrogating the image spatially. These objects are delicate, and break, but achieve the paradoxical solidity of mirrors when projected onto.

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The original choir in Greenock had disbanded because the men had gone away. The women were interested in songs about tweed, and in singing them. Their openness is remarkable, and after her week at the ICA, Rebecca Birch will return to them. Hers is Week 5 of the fig-2 series of 50 new exhibitions in 50 weeks, and shares with Week 1 (Laura Eldret) a deliberate ongoing-ness, a desire not to impose finality of form or content, but to see what happens. The week is a window on the work.  She also continues Laura Eldret’s interest in “women’s work” which Eldret documents in Mexico, and Birch in Scotland, and which will come into a more troubling focus in Week 6 (Young In Hong).

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Week 1 – Laura Eldret – January 5-11 – “3 | The Juicers”

The ICA Studio Space is found up a grimy set of concrete steps, following water and gas pipes, past an electrical trip-box and prophetic graffiti and a neon sign announcing “fig-2”. Stepping through a crack in the wall you feel you’re leaving the white cubes of WC1 and attendant bookshops, and stepping into one of those perennially doomed East London warehouses that traditionally showcase new contemporary art’s heady mixture of roots level art practice and sophisticated partying.

I mean, we learn that the ICA Studio Space “was once squatted and became the base for attacks on the ICA finance department; it housed an anarchist press, and Jean-Michel Basquiat used to get stoned there.”

As I go up those intimidating hard steps through the guts of the ICA, I’m not expecting to find myself in Warhol’s Factory, nor blinking in a smoky Berlin-in-the-eighties squat happening soundtracked by Einsturzende Neubauten… but, do you know what? Dear reader, in the interests of suspense, I’m not going to tell you just yet. Exciting!

Regarding this first of fifty weekly projects under the overall banner “fig-2”, curator Fatoş Üstek says “The first show will be an installation of ideas and the last will hopefully exhibit the finished work – although at this stage we, obviously, have no idea what that finished work will be.”

Laura Eldret is first up. Her CV says “Her practice explores social formats by looking at divergent aspects of how groups of people gather. She explores the agency of art within this broad cultural sphere, and is interested in aesthetic elements that bind people together.”

The artist spent late 2014 researching, documenting and making work in a pueblo in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, and has presented, for fig-2 wk1, some rugs and some drawings. The imagery involves basketballs and juicers. In terms of socially integrative images, the Mexican juicers are suitably exotic to my English eye, and the basketballs are recognizable, but also alien. Perhaps this is the key point about shared cultural imagery, that even between continents we can recognize (ie. name) certain elements, even if they don’t have a specific meaning or personal relation to the viewer. Basketball to me is recognizably and abidingly western, but not part of my life. This is perhaps what could make it more interesting to think about than an image I know more intimately, such as the view from the bottom of a bottle of Guinness or the back of the dole queue on a Monday morning, or even one of those cards of a dog dressed up as Santa.

I admire the curators of fig-2 for opening with a staunchly unfinished show; it shows a long view that I had hoped they would pursue. We await with interest the results of Laura Eldret’s Mexican ethnography. I wonder if the curators of fig-2 will publish updates in the mean time. At this stage, it’s deliciously unclear how the whole fig-2 50-week metaproject will pan out.

Until next week, mind your head and try not to trip over a Basquiat on your way down those cold hard steps back to your warm white London life.

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