Saturday, 25 February 2012

'But First Maintain the Wall': Paul Nash's Dymchurch

"Serve God Honour the Queen
But First Maintain the Wall"
Romney Marsh motto

A frontier land facing the English channel, the coast of Romney Marsh has long been the last line of defence against foreign invaders. Strong fortifications — the round, brick masses of Martello towers, a redoubt fort atop a grassy mound at Dymchurch and, closer inland, a military canal — still stand, centuries after they were built to withstand the advances of Napoleon, an enemy who never came. It was this lonely, windswept stretch of coast, on the edge of the country and on the way to nowhere, where the painter Paul Nash chose to recuperate after witnessing first-hand the brutalities and destruction of the first world war, first in the trenches at Ypres and then as an official war artist.
When peacetime came, Nash took a small house, Rose Cottage, in the sleepy seaside village of Dymchurch, Kent. In the 1920s, he produced a series of paintings of the sea wall which stretches around the bay, built to defend the Marsh from the ongoing and ever-present threat of the sea. In front of the wall, at low tide, the sands stretch out into the horizon, a thin surface of water creating a reflective sheet that catches the changing colours of the Marsh sky. The sea’s ripples etch themselves into the sand and small streams spread as if stretching out networks of roots. At high tide, waves churn against the rocks shoring up the wall and submerge the steps that take walkers down onto the beach. The other side of the wall lies Dymchurch, at the edge of the vast, flat Marsh, scattered with sheep, occasional settlements and winding country roads.

It's thought that the sea wall which dominates this stretch of coast dates back to Roman times. In the fifteenth century, a ‘scot tax’ was demanded of all local landowners. If they lived above sea level they were let off — scot free. Later, in the eighteenth century, the wall was repaired with earth and branches from the Marsh. At the start of the nineteenth century, a three mile-long section was constructed using Kent rag stone and concrete. Today, you can see where the wall has been added to and extended in the different shades of concrete, which is flecked brown with the same shingle that collects at the edge of the beach below. The wall curves inwards around the coast, mimicking the rolling of the waves beneath and acting as both a shelter/windbreak for holidaymakers underneath it (from sand, from rain) and a barrier to contain the waves, scooping them up and sending them back out to sea.

On the bleakest of days, the grey of the sea wall reinforces the grey of the sea beneath and the sky above. Nash’s seascapes are often empty and stark, their colours hyperreal (see the dark greens, mustard yellow and forceful black of ‘Sea by Night, Dymchuch/Night Tide' or ‘Wall Against the Sea’, which casts the bay in the type of ominous, sickly glow that only occurs preceding a storm). Forms are simplified and suggested; the manmade and the natural merge into one. In ‘The End of the Steps’, a quiet scene dominated by the bulk of an impenetrable-looking concrete defence, the sharply angled sky looks as much of a construction as the manmade object. In ‘Winter Sea’, a fragmented sea sets out in massive slabs, shaded grey, black and white, towards a faint moon, like the regular descent of stone steps. When figures appear, as in ‘Promenade’, they turn their backs to the viewer, just as the wall turns its back on the village. In ‘Night Tide, Dymchurch’, the solid back of the solitary night time walker appears as just another line in the defence. It's this sparseness that makes Nash's seascapes the most powerful of his paintings: the emptiness of the sands amplifies feelings of solitude and loneliness, emphasising how small the human is in relation to the vast natural world, and brings to mind the strange semi-silence in the air, found only by the seaside, that multiplies the lone walker's thoughts, doubts and preoccupations into a background roar as inescapable as that of the sea.
Nash was of a generation that fought and suffered for the right to make a modern world, to sweep away the old and, out of chaos, build stability. In Romney Marsh, it’s as if time stood still. The view around the coast has changed little, save from the odd holiday park, new residential development and the sizeable bulk of Dungeness power stations in the distance. Nash left Dymchurch after a few years, moving a few miles across the border to East Sussex. The next decade, the world was at war again and Nash painted propaganda, before dying young after suffering years of ill health. The Romney Marsh coast once again played a part in the war effort: the Martello towers and the redoubt fort which, with each decade, grow closer to crumbling into the sea, were requisitioned as lookout points and stationed with anti-aircraft guns.

The war was won but the fight against the sea goes on. In the past decade, the sea wall has undergone extensive renovation, using precast and poured concrete and steel reinforcement, and was reopened in 2011. It’s a battle that will never finish: the metal has already started to rust and bleed into the wall, and the concrete is taking on the sea’s bright green, mossy sheen and dappled black and yellow bloom.

Related but unrelated:

Some Pathe newsreels of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, a miniature railway between Hythe and Dungeness in Kent (via Dymchurch), which was put to use during the second world war:



Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Daniel Fogarty's Totem: Work, leisure and the art of being useful

In March 2011, during the Merz Man festival that celebrated all things Kurt Schwitters and related, dance professor Valerie Preston-Dunlop led a walk down Manchester's Oxford Road reminiscing about running away from home to study under Rudolf Laban, who developed a new form of dance notation called Labanotation, which she described as being like a 'grammar' for dance1. She recounted how Laban helped factories apply his theories of movement to mass production – an example of how the arts can overlap with and be useful to industry. By teaching workers how to co-ordinate themselves in the most effective ways, and making the most of their repeated movements, he could help maximise production in the factories and enable the workers to be productive for longer, at the same time as humanising their labour. She said that workers could also be taught to move in a certain way to do things they might not be used to doing – for example, women could unload heavy goods from containers on the ship canal.

The artwork of Daniel Fogarty is preoccupied with repetition and prolonging production. He applies multiple processes in the creation of one work, carrying on adding layers and corrupting the original until what started as one thing becomes something else and takes on an entirely new medium and existence. Among the works on show at Totem, Fogarty's first solo show in Manchester at Bureau gallery, is 'Cottage industry', a photographic print of an unfocused computer screen displaying a digital drawing. Another, 'and... and... and...', is a print of a photograph of a set of pinned up photocopies of a blow up digital drawing. 'Stammer' is a series inspired by digestive systems which started as sculptures made of unfired clay, which have been photographed and then painted over. Any one of the digestive systems series could be viewed as three works in one – each has elements of sculpture, but also photography and painting. More work is created for the artist, who keeps producing after what could have been taken as a finished product has been created – and, just like the constant, efficient churning of the digestive system, this reworking could keep on going indefinitely. However many times you repeat something, there are endless variations.
However, repetition has not bred perfection. All, rather than achieving a smooth, sleek finish, are roughly done and imprecise. Sometimes, roughness or a lack of precision is seen as a mark of a product being underfinished or carelessly made. In Fogarty's work, it's the opposite: it's the result of a work of being overfinished, or laboured over beyond the call of duty. Several of the works in Totem are made of concrete, including 'Plant Plant Plant Plant', a series of sculptures made by pouring concrete into moulds created using bricks, which were inspired by the patterns of suburban lawn edging and borders. Concrete, which is commonly associated with building work undertaken on an industrial scale, is generally a material that is valued more for its usefulness – its ability to be hardwearing outdoors in public places – than its decorative properties or suitability for craftmanship on a small scale. A concrete plant pot that was produced during Fogarty's residency at Bureau in summer 2011, part of the 'Helmet/shelter' series, is an object that is both beautiful and useful and has a function within and outside the gallery.

Laban tried to standardise ways of moving, or find a way to teach a common way of performing certain movements, despite movements being highly individual and differing naturally from person to person. One of Fogarty's interests is the imposition of standardisation through subtle graphical languages, especially motorway planting and the language of motorways. For example, before standardisation was imposed through road signage, silver birch trees were planted near junctions as a psychological reminder to the car driver that they were approaching a turning point in the road. We're surrounded by these hidden markers and symbols.

Even though Fogarty's works are created using moulds, or repetition of movements, actions and labour – methods typically used for mass production – he has corrupted any standardisation that might be expected to result from these processes and the marks of the artist have slipped through, visible in the finish of the artworks (just as the stammer is a highly individual movement, an involuntary utterance that slips into controlled movements of speech and language). Whatever material is used, whether paint, concrete or clay, there's always some kind of human presence visible, from the artist's brushstrokes to the pinching of clay. Unlike mass production, in which the efforts of the individual are subservient to the whole and are not visible in the final outcome seen by the consumer, the gestures and actions which have led up to Fogarty's artworks are a part of the finished product.

The theme of work (explicitly referred to in the title of the set 'Cottage Industry, Leisure Industry, Modern Industry'), and utility and usefulness, recurs throughout Totem, along with the tension between work and leisure (in cottage industries, this is the fact that production in cottage industries took place in people's homes, thereby blurring the distinction between leisure/living spaces and places of work and labour). In the set of gardening-inspired concrete sculptures 'Plant Plant Plant Plant', similarly, there's a clear crossover between work/utility and leisure (as well as an overlap between the decorative and the useful).

Typically, gardening is an activity associated those who spend a lot of time at home, for example retired people, as they have the time to devote to what can be quite a labour-intensive hobby, or weekend gardeners keeping busy on their days off. At what point does a gardener's labour cross over the fine line between work and leisure and start to become pleasure rather than toil? Production such as gardening is only defined as 'work' or 'leisure' depending on its context. The term 'gardening leave' is used to refer to a time of not-quite employment (it usually means an employee has left their employment but is still being paid by the previous employers for a period to prohibit the former employee taking up new employment), implying that gardening is the next most productive way of keeping busy to employment. Perhaps this is also why gardening appeals to retired people – it must be hard going from being productive eight hours a day, five days a week, for most of your working life, to not being expected to be useful for the best part of the day and not being watched over to ensure a certain level of production is maintained. As with Laban's factory workers, whose movements were made to conform to patterns and certain ways of doing things, work is a form of control and conditioning through repetition and routine.

If the meaning of 'totem' is taken as an emblem or symbol upheld as epitomising the values of a society, work could be seen as a totem of our society. Whatever right-wing scaremongers say about 'benefit scroungers', we are still a society built around the cult of work: a person's social worth, status, and often self-hood, is defined in terms of their employment, productive output and salary, rather than their hobbies, interests or leisure activities (think about how often you're asked what you 'do', and how you go about answering). Indeed, leisure and spare has become an industry in itself, including exercise. Whereas people would once have gone for a walk or a cycle ride (or been engaged in physical work throughout the day), we are now sold gym membership and personal trainers, an example of how work and 'doing something useful' is encroaching into our increasingly regimented leisure hours (going to the gym is commonly a chore or a duty rather than a pleasure).

For many young artists, art is something they are forced to fit into their spare time. Young people often find it difficult to make a career out of being an artist and artistic production has to be squeezed around the pattern of day jobs. In the context of the current economic and political climate, and cuts to the arts, it's time to look again at the value of artists and the arts. It's interesting to look at programmes such as the Federal Art Project, a depression era government scheme in the United States. Artists were employed as part of the New Deal to work painting murals in public buildings such as schools and post offices. The project, part of a wider scheme called the Works Progress Administration, provided accessible, inexpensive entertainment. It also acknowledged the value of artists, recognising professions such as 'artist' (along with 'playwright', 'musician' and 'writer', pursuits supported by parallel projects) as viable career paths, and the potential uses for art and culture to boost morale and be a force for public good.

Totem previews at Bureau, 60 Port Street, Manchester, on Friday February 10 from 6pm-8pm. The exhibition continues from February 11-March 17, opening Wednesdays to Fridays from 12pm-6pm and Saturdays from 12pm-5pm.

For more information visit 

This text was written concurrently with an exhibition text comprising an exchange between the writer and the artist that took place in January 2012. This exchange will be available at the exhibition and online.

1Laban and Schwitters were both refugees from the Nazis and, in the 1940s, discussed collaborating on a Modern Dance Opera.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The Shrieking Violet issue 17

The Shrieking Violet issue 17 accidentally turned out to be an architecture fanzine (or at least, if there's a theme it would be buildings and the built environment), possibly a subconscious influence from visiting the Archizines exhibition in London in November. Pavilions run through the issue (and I have written about my favourite pavilions in architecture and art).

South Manchester-based illustrator Andy Carter was inspired by pavilions to create the cover. He says: “The inspiration for it came from when you said you were writing about pavilions, although I may have mistook that to mean 'bandstands'. So I just thought about what happens on bandstands like brass bands, street performers and chavs/tramps hanging around.” Andy is equally inspired by everyday life and more subjective narratives. His work is heavily reliant on line, shape and texture. He enjoys screen-printing and margaritas. I've wanted to ask Andy to do a cover ever since he illustrated a double page spread on Channel swimmer Sunny Lowry for the Victoria Baths Fanzine Convention Souvenir programme.

Stuart Wheeler has kindly allowed me to reproduce a selection from a set of photos he took of Victor Pasmore's Apollo pavilion in Peterlee (currently top of my wish list for daytrip destinations), which has recently been listed. Stuart is an Architectural Assistant at 3DReid in Manchester and graduated from [Re_Map] unit at the Manchester School of Architecture. He tweets @stuwheeler.

Following the excitement of last year's Festival of Britain 60th anniversary year, Joe Austin has written about the spin-off Live Architecture exhibition that took place in Poplar in 1951. Joe is a qualified Architect, originally from the Midlands but a naturalised Londoner for the last 22 years or so (he lives just up the road from the site of the Live Architecture exhibition). Joe's interests are wide (his blog best illustrates his scattergun mind), but generally revolve around writing, design, architecture, art, culture and history. He likes nothing better than learning new aspects of things he thought he knew about. Joe is a fellow William Mitchell fan, and lover of twentieth century art and design, which is how I discovered his wonderful blog.

Kenn Taylor has contributed an article about the 'boom and bust' of social housing, with specific reference to the Woodchurch Estate in Birkenhead. Kenn is a writer and journalist based in Liverpool with a particular interest in the relationship between culture and the urban environment.

Liz Buckley has reviewed Lost is Found, an exhibition currently showing in gallery 1 at the Cornerhouse. Liz is a final year Art History student from Salford. She studies at Manchester University and is going to start an MA in Gallery Studies in September. She loves post-war art and is an aspiring curator and art critic in her spare time.

Jessica Mautner has written up a recipe for 'Liverpool Corpse Cakes' – biscuits inspired by both the local Chinese community and Victorian funeral rituals which were handed out to passers-by in Liverpool city centre in November. Jessica is a multidisciplinary artist based in Manchester. She makes temporary, site-specific encounters which are a political response to place, space, history and community. Her materials-based, experimental practice explores sensoria, particularly through texture and taste, and she is interested in the negotiation and subversion of built and planned environments by flexible organic forms. In the past few years, she has taken part in exhibitions, residencies and festivals across Europe and the UK; in January she made a new piece in Newcastle commissioned by Situation Rhubarb, and her short film Phi is showing at Bangkok Experimental Film Festival.

Richard Howe has written about Alfred Hitchock's classic film Spellbound. Richard is a Manchester-based filmmaker, caterer and musician (google,, Look out for Dream Bubble, Realitease Feature and Frankenmovie projects. Hear his music here.

Steph Fletcher has drawn inspiration from Escher to illustrate Richard's article. Steph recently started an MA in art at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, and helps run the North West-based zine Twigs and Apples. She enjoys drawing, writing, cycling and vegan cooking.

Nick Mitchell has contributed two short stories. He was born in Bradford in 1975 and has lived in Manchester since 1999, working as a musician, writer and record label owner (Golden Lab Records). His musical projects have included Summum Bonum, I Had An Inkling, Beach Fuzz, A Wake, The Gamecock, Float Riverer and Chalaque. His stories and poems have been published in both the UK and the USA.

Read the Shrieking Violet online here:

Download and print your own copy of the Shrieking Violet here.

Very badly photocopied copies will can currently be found at Islington Mill, Salford and Cornerhouse, Manchester and will left around various places around Manchester city centre next week, including Piccadilly Records, Good Grief! shop (in the Soup Kitchen), Koffee Pot, Oklahoma and Nexus Art Cafe.

To request a copy in the post (free) or to contribute to future editions email or join the Shrieking Violet Facebook group.

Also recommended

Your City Is A Public Orchard is a new guide to foraging in the city made by Hotspur House-based Textbook Studio. It's a book with a handcrafted feel and plenty of pictures, which folds out into a page full of recipes for nettles, rosehips and much more! Best of all, it's free and can be picked up from various locations around the city.