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.


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.


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.


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).

5stampsStamp 5/50