By Mara Minculescu
Yellow ribbon. This was the thread that provided a link between two exceptionally different installations in Dilston Grove – the all-concrete former Clare College Mission church in Southwark Park. The building itself is an out-of-the-ordinary space; bare and raw, empty of any decoration, cold and eerie – a remnant from a distant era, secluded from the hubbub and the accelerated rhythm of life in the city, left in silence to ruminate nostalgically over its memories of past events. A seemingly forlorn space that awaits you and invites you to take it over, communicate with it and bring it to life.
Anne Bean, co-curator of the project Wake/Archipelago, was the first artist to take hold of this space. She began the series of six week-long residencies with a work that involved rolling out yellow ribbon. A hundred kilometres of it. A flash of bright colour in a monochromatic room.
This was endowed with a symbolic function – to represent the equal distance between Earth’s surface and the threshold to other realms: the outer-space and the asthenosphere respectively (the region below the surface where rock starts to become viscous). Thinking of this enormous mass of ribbon as being stretched out and upwards into the atmosphere like a giant extendable antenna, the distance to a radically different environment seems very long and difficult to grasp. But put together in a compact form of two fluffy piles, the 100km of yellow ribbon made you think that we are actually living an incredibly short way away from the unfamiliar and unfriendly. It was the clever choice of material and the way Bean manipulated it that allowed her to play with this idea of distance and create a simple and minimalistic, but very effective, thought-provoking work.
One week on and a change of artist, the quiet and almost serene space of Dilston Grove is transformed beyond recognition by William Cobbing, who used a combination of projections, light (or better said the absence of it) and the hitherto cheerful, innocent ribbon to create a dark, cavernous, unsettling atmosphere. The two piles of ribbon had been spread all over the place which now resembles a nightly landscape of brownish sand dunes. Only the video projectors, placed in a zigzagging pattern along the narrow interior, struggling to keep afloat and to cast their powerful beam of light onto the grey, concrete walls, reveal the true nature and colour of these dunes and faintly remind us of Anne Bean and her installation. By the looks of it, Cobbing had carefully arranged the ribbon in such a way that a distinct pathway emerged, guiding you to reach certain spots which allowed a full view of the videos.
A brief look at the short, pre-recorded films, which seem disjointed, and I realise the theme of sand or clay are a recurrent motif in Cobbing’s works. The first in the three-piece series shows a head made out of clay, meticulously executed with very close attention to detail, being continuously filled with sand which then pours out of its mouth, ears and nose. Moving on to the second video by diligently following the alley marked by the artist, I find myself gazing at two people costumed in cardboard boxes, their heads covered, their arms being the sole instrument of orientation and exploration. Like a pair of headless tortoises, they move across the room in a hectic, random manner, as if trying to find each other. When eventually this happens, they desperately and hopelessly attempt to communicate, to embrace each other, reaching as far out as they can with their hands, touching each other’s carapace-body which physically keeps them away from one another and hinders the bond or the connection they are both craving for. Their failed act of connectedness looks like hard, but void labour and possibly echoes the intensive effort put into a relationship by two incompatible people, two incompatible characters who refuse to see and accept this incompatibility. On my third stop on this journey in a land of ideas that I still cannot make sense of, I discover footage of a man (who I find out later to be Cobbing himself) sitting on the edge of the room’s proscenium, covered in wet clay which he keeps on transferring from one part of the body to another with swift, abrupt, unexpected movements. At times, he seems to be trying to mould the clay into a more contoured shape, thus attempting to create something out of the very matter that he is made of.
Finally, as I approach the proscenium at the end of the room, I can see that the last video re-enacts the sand theme with the same head sculpture presented in the first film, this time placed upside down in a sea of sand, left in solitude to witness the implacable, unstoppable flow of sand coming out slowly from its nostrils and ears. Looking back from this point into the room, to where I started, disconcerted and seeking meanings to attach to what I had just seen, I am wondering – is it all abstract, or is it a subtle work that refuses you the privilege of an easy to comprehend, clear message so as to drive you to engage with it and construct the meanings through dialogue?
As I begin to sense an underlying unitary idea running through these films, I am tempted to go with the second variant and to believe that the installation is an expression of an inner torment stemming from unanswered or unanswerable questions. It appears to tackle such topics as the need to assume specific identities or masks to blend in on the social scene, the subsequent need of finding or returning to your natural, true self, social incompatibilities and clashes, all with a potential draining, tiring psychological effect.
So much for a breezy, light summer Sunday.
Next up, David Cotterrell. Any more yellow ribbon?