These are the curatorial notes I made to accompany the Drawing Breath exhibition at St John on Bethnal Green. It is still on until 16th May, so do get down to see it if you can.
There are two pathways to think about this exhibition. I would like to say that they compete, much like the starting point of the project: ‘There is no one truth, only competing stories’. Except that these stories don’t compete against one another exactly. Depending on how you look at the works, you might find any number of stories, threading in and out of one another. Nonetheless, here are two paths to guide passage through Drawing Breath…
A path of generosity: elemental dialogues and embodied interpretations
Anna Cady and I have been collaborating for over five years. We were brought together because of the ways that she practices forms of creative collaboration, particularly relating to bodies: the bodies of vulnerable people, the bodies of dancers, of refugees, of children. My research on embodiment and phenomenology in film and art brings me to think about how we experience our bodies in front of creative work, but also what creative practice does to and with our bodies. Elemental Dialogues, of which the film AIR, centrally installed here, forms the third part, is partly a story about ways of linking the interweaving stories of film, poetry, sound, composition, dance and drawing.
Installation booklets, including the essay on this blog
Some of the artists in this exhibition have sought to understand what it is to interpret ‘from the body’. Some have produced interpretations that stay close to the skilled and ingrained forms of bodily practice that are most familiar to them. One of our participants – Sara Maitland – found the whole process so befuddling that she wrote the gentlest and most thoughtful of refusals to us, writing, “I surrender!”
Anna and I have talked at length about the precarity of making a creative interpretation: how vulnerable a position it is for an artist to let go of a piece of work, and to give it freely to someone else for their interpretation. This is what has happened with AIR: the film was given generously to other artists, who have generously given back to produce the diverse work exhibited here.
The film itself is inspired by the concept of air as an element – in the old sense – as a fundamental component of life. Inspiration – a taking in of different elements – is also what Pauline and Anna’s film works have done, drawing on writing from Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, Lucy Boston, Gaston Bachelard and TS Eliot. However, in opposition to the conventions of film narrative, AIR does not begin with words – it begins with images and sensations. The stories, as Anna tells it, flow out from there.
Installation view of some of the AIR film-fragments
The process of embodied interpretation is not about inspiration, however. Part of the thought-work of the project has been to come to terms with what embodied interpretation means, and how the instruction to produce an ‘interpretation’ differs from a response, or an inspiration. What we were seeking, as curators of this project, were not works inspired by – breathing in – the film AIR, but works that exhaled, articulated, an interpretation, through the body of the artist.
So many of these interpretations speak of breath: Tami Haaland’s short poem uncovers the paradox of breathing – how air knows, ‘sees’ our insides in a way that we never can. Briony Bennett’s poem speaks of the things that are given and taken away in a breath. Sebastiane Hegarty’s composition sits on the cusp of the audible, decomposing and recomposing the sounds of a match, struck and flaring. Jan Henrickse’s sound piece shifts echoes, reverberations and rhythms across glass-like textures that exceed the opening and closing moments of the film’s frames. Time is pliable in each interpretation: some stick closely to the time of the film, accompanying it through each fade and billow. Others follow these ebbs and flows with humorous curiosity – like a.rawlings and Sachiko Murakami’s sound poem. Gabriel Galvez’s butoh-inspired movements flex sensuously with his breath; more than this: the breath he takes in, his interior sense of his body’s air, interprets (organically, primally) the film AIR, and the sites in which it is projected: in this case, the softly illumined staircases, arches and galleries of St John.
Gabriel’s shadow dance with one of the AIR films, projected in the gallery of St John. I think the twilight makes Melanie’s drawings look like written scrolls
The curation of these works had to compete with another layer of interpretation: the weighty, light-filled spaces of St John on Bethnal Green. Light is not a friend to moving image projection. Unlike the dark, companionable domestic spaces of Drawing Breath’s first exhibition at Green Knowe in Hemingford Grey, the heft and texture of church walls, pews, ceilings, staircases insist upon curation that works with, rather than against the early summer light in a church on a busy East London junction.
Church installation of one of the AIR films: central in front of the altar. The cruciform shape is hard to miss in this context.
A path of mortality… AIR
There is another pathway in this exhibition. A quieter, more hidden one, away from the witty bustle of a.rawlings and Sachiko Murakami’s sound poem, or Gabriel Galvez’s intimate dance movements and Melanie Rose’s tacit drawing. This is a pathway that requires delicacy and gentleness, and is as ephemeral, and as enduring, as the installation itself.
AIR is a collaborative film, co-created between Anna Cady and Pauline Thomas. Their work is mutual, so much so that neither Anna nor Pauline can see where one artist’s work begins and the other’s ends. In this sense, their creative stories are inextricably intertwined. But in a way, they are also quite separate. This exhibition is about breath, just as the previous exhibition at Hemingford Grey this March was too. In particular, it is about limited breath, liminal breath, dying breath. Pauline, whose touching work is gentle, ephemeral, has always been interested in the fleeting moments between life and death, light and dark. And Pauline is dying – or rather, as she puts it herself; she is living with terminal illness.
Pauline has graciously, generously given me permission to write about this. I’m grateful to her for letting me make public such an intimate and personal state of life. The reason I am doing so is because of this second pathway towards Drawing Breath, a pathway of mortality and intimacy. So many of the artists, poets, and composers involved in this project reflected on AIR from the position of breath. And for Anna, the film and the project are entirely about Pauline’s breath: her breathing, fragile, mortal body, but also her gentleness, her inspiration, her fascination for the smallest of gestures (a spider’s web glistening with water droplets, a flame struck endlessly inside a tiny matchbox).
Installation view of Anna and Pauline’s films, playing via digital picture frames placed on music stands in the entrance to the church
We did not share this information with the participants when they were working on their interpretations. This was both in order to respect Pauline’s privacy, but also because mortality is a life element that so thoroughly colours our experience, it might have prevented our artist participants from making work about the film from any other perspective.
Last year, while I was recovering from illness (such a vague word for so many things) I spent a great deal of time walking around cemeteries in South East London – for no other reason than their proximity to my home. I remember being touched by quite how colourful these graveyards are: filled with flower tributes and balloons, plastic vases and photographs. They always struck me as the most joyful places of the living, filled with memories and kindness. There is a flagstone as I enter Camberwell Old Cemetery that I think about often. About tracing a memory through darkness and light. On it is engraved:
“While the light remains I will remember, and in the darkness I shall not forget.”
Inevitably, there is something elegiac about Drawing Breath. But this is both about Pauline and not about her at one and the same time. It is also about breath as a moment on the precipice between living and not-living, as an invisible trace, as a moth trapped in the lamplight, as a temporary enchantment, as astral dust motes, as smoke unfurling between two towers that coruscate into the dark. As darkness on a bright May evening, as the life of a day lily.
Installation view of a moment from AIR, installed in the Belfry at St John
All these are pathways through Drawing Breath. Now seek yours.