Wednesday 15 August 2012

A Wedding and a Funeral: two pots in my forthcoming show at Francis Kyle Gallery


Images from top:
1. St. Mark of the Farm (left) and Wedding Procession (right)
2. St. Mark of the Farm
3. St. Mark of the Farm 
4. Wedding Procession
5. Wedding Procession
6. Wedding Procession, (detail)


Two pots, both based on classical storage jar shapes and painted around the circumference as a frieze, depict verdant landscapes, dominated by tall trees against blue-grey, English skies. Both feature teams of white, plumed horses, swanky cars and quantities of bling. They appear similar at first glance but the events taking place within the landscapes could hardly be more different. ‘Wedding Procession,’ commemorates the marriage of Prince William to Catherine Middleton in April 2011. The event and the way it was mediated affirmed the continuity of monarchy and the power of the state. ‘St. Mark of the Farm,’ is a record of the funeral of Mark Duggan, who was shot by police on August 4th 2011, precipitating four nights of rioting. Duggan’s story is still extensively mythologised. He is, at once, the Hero: ‘people looked up to him;’ Villain: ‘Starrish Mark, leader of the notorious Star gang;’ Saint: ‘he was a lovely guy, everyone knew him, he wouldn’t hurt a fly;’ and Martyr: ‘a fallen soldier.’ His funeral, all in white, with white lilies on the casket like the virgin bride, was in September, six months after the wedding. The similarities in appearance were beguiling but they served only to emphasise the vast social difference. It was a spectacle of inequality, a mis-matched pair that bookended the summer and seemed to define the troubled social politics of the time.

Wedding Procession

The Royal Wedding was a brilliantly choreographed spectacle and a thoroughly crafted conceit, where sharp contrasts and rigorously controlled separation together defined the illusion of a shared national drama.

The pot form provides a stage where the separation and contrasts become visible. We cannot see the bride in her carriage because she is obscured by trees. At the event itself, the public were separated from royalty by both the physical barriers and the carefully mediated story, a richly embroidered fairy tale. The public are ‘below stairs’ on the pot - below the outermost curve. The separation is emphasised by the receding perspectives above and below the curve. The wedding procession itself takes place on the upper section among the trees, reaching up towards the skies.

This was the first of the English royal weddings to encounter and be captured by popular mass communication. The public are depicted photographing the event, a forest of outstretched arms pointing their camera phones towards the glimpses of procession visible through the trees. Of the images uploaded to the internet, the most photographed part of the wedding was the runaway horse whose journey was captured at every stage. The official ‘central’ figures were marginal by comparison.

To make the pot, I looked at an endless stream of flickering, moving, transitory and, often, ephemeral images and painted and fired a selection of them into a material that lasts for thousands of years – icing on the fictional cake perhaps.

St. Mark of the Farm

Set in and around Tottenham and the Broadwater Farm estate, St. Mark of the Farm shares many visual and narrative elements with Wedding Procession. The trees, the procession and the white, plumed horses suggest a wedding, but this is a funeral. It is a deeply personal, family event where sorrow and loss mix with pageantry, spectacle and a suppressed public interest. Duggan’s story is also highly fictionalised, the romance of the ‘villain’ who dies a saint. The landscape, which embraces this drama is, par excellence, a romantic urban construction, simultaneously historic and contemporary. It is the landscape through which I walk daily to work, from my house in Tottenham, right by ‘the Farm,’ as the estate is known locally, to my studio in Wood Green.

Standing in Broadwater Farm, which wears its inner city notoriety like a badge of honour, is a confusing experience, particularly at dawn or dusk in winter when it feels mysteriously rural. At these times, this large estate often falls silent. The Moselle river, which was once reduced to a foul, concrete lined ditch in the 1960s, is now being retrieved with help from a lottery grant, and snakes along the bottom of the willow-tree lined valley with Alexandra Palace glittering in the distance. The last of the day light glows pink in the damp, starting-to-flood, valley floor and the moon appears above the roof tops to the south. At these times you can almost hear the cows mooing – it was a dairy farm until well into the mid-twentieth century and was then converted to allotments. Because of the flooding, there were no buildings until the estate was built in 1965 and the Moselle was forced, reluctantly, underground. Like all rivers it refuses to stay there and reappears every winter in the form of floods which, in turn fill with geese, gulls and migrating birds, adding the extraordinary rural illusion. Mark Duggan grew up on this estate. His family are still there.

The pot uses all the elements of the landscape and exaggerates and idealises them to enhance the narrative. The idealised Mark, the saint, the ‘family man,’ is suggested by the evening landscape with the river, which is borrowed from the background landscapes of pre-renaissance, religious paintings. The three distinct scenes are those of the birth and early life, the death, and the funeral. The death landscape is Tottenham Hale, a low horizon line, bleak, empty and soulless, a reality of the place itself and an inescapable metaphor. The Farm is, co-incidentally, the lowest point in the landscape for some miles around, so the only way out of the estate is up hill.  The blocks of flats were built on giant concrete stilts, with aerial walkways instead of streets because of the flooding and these too have become part of its notoriety and mythology. The cemetery at Wood Green, where Duggan is buried, is, by contrast, on the brow of a hill, commanding a fine view across north London. It is here, at the funeral in white, that Duggan completes his transformation from villain to hero to martyr and finally to saint.

The Role of Landscape

I made the pots to remember and to witness the events they depict. I chose to emphasise the image of the landscape in which they occurred as a metaphor for the construction of social myths. What constitutes an urban or rural landscape cannot be taken for granted. Urban landscapes can be much more verdant than their rural counterparts and are often, wealthier, less industrialised and more nurtured. The rural ‘idyll’ is more apparent in the wealthier parts of London, with its carefully selected native English trees and artfully tended ‘wild’ areas, than in small-town England, where industrial farming is in a state of decline and rural poverty results in neglect. The Royal Wedding took place in central London, the centre of power and wealth and the seat of government and monarchy. In this setting, it also resembled a magnificent mythic hunting scene from a Renaissance tapestry – a resemblance I sought to repeat on the pot by introducing exotic birds in the trees and flattening the perspective.

Mark Duggan’s funeral took place in one of the poorest parts of London. One might have expected a landscape of bleak estates, broken windows and impressive graffiti. But this kind of grit-chic is another romantic urban construction, generated in the studio for music videos. There is certainly nothing like it in Tottenham in late summer. On the contrary, the traces of its rural and prosperous past are splendidly visible at this time, in both parks and streets, where the vast mature Willows, Oaks and Ash dominate the landscape. Wood Green also carries the memory of a prosperous suburban history. ‘Arcadia Gardens’ is not a fiction – or not on the pot anyway. That really is the name of the road.

Landscape does, however, become a part of the political analysis of spectacular inequality if we compare the image of the Royal couple in the Aston Martin in the Mall with the remarkably similar image of Tottenham Hale, where Duggan was shot. The low horizon lines are similar and both images are framed with abundantly leafy trees. While the Aston Martin and balloons are the decorative feature of the royal landscape, the road at Tottenham Hale appears to go nowhere and the only decoration is the cascade of synthetic flowers adorning the railings, a shrine to the ‘fallen soldier,’ or rehabilitated ‘saint.’