I don’t photograph biscuits, that’s not what I do. Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl at the Benjamin Stone archive

 

I visited the current small exhibition of Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl at the City Library in Birmingham, which is their response to the Sir Benjamin Stone archive; and to view both the Daniel Meadows retrospective, which is quite impressive.

This is the third work I have seen that responds to that archive, Anna Fox’s ‘Back to the Village’ was inspired by it and I went to listen to a talk by Faye Claridge last year as she spoke about her residency working on the archive . Before attending the talk by these two collaborators I went to see the work (definitely a work in progress), which is on display very near the Daniel Meadow’s work.

But back to the collaboration. As the work is displayed/mounted I could sense the ‘openess’ of the work, how by the images are placed within the mount they provoke a response to the plate as a whole. These plates all have five images, even if an image is a text and even if the image is missing, because the mount has apertures for five images (the structure of the plates are similar – one central large aperture surrounded by four further apertures in the corners of the plates). This plate structure implies a determined placement of imagery, as if there was an association between those on a similar plane, connected by a purpose.

And text. Text which provided an anchor it seems, to the plates of images; seeding/suggesting/implying a narrative direction from which to drift from or to, even if that might be sub-conscious perambulation. I wondered about the presentation and soon after the talk at BIAD later in the early evening started I could see how that came about.

Sir Benjamin Stone’s collection appear in album’s: album 46 for example is titled “types of English, French and Russian women” – and page after page are photographs of women, interestingly there is no denotation of which women came from which country, just pages of female portraits looking out at the viewer, almost as catalogue entries, and perhaps they were.

Rickett and von Zwehl had landed upon Album 31 as their entry (not an easy task it appears) into the archive. Album 31 is entitled “miscellaneous” – though no explanation as to why these images became privileged to be entered in that album, but no matter – it is there they reside. The collaborators used the visual artifacts of album 31 to work out their response and thereby answering my earlier question.

The talk was interesting from a number of perspectives: it was clearly unrehearsed and founded on a PowerPoint presentation with all of it’s traducing potency fully realized. The initial thoughts that were expressed was about their collaborative methodology, and this talk was about how that approach was echoed by the ‘collaborativeness’ of the talk – each taking the lead or withdrawing easily as if the language they spoke was one, but without disguising the ‘seperatedness’ of their travels to the starting point of this work together. It was engaging, serious, often amusing and the talk was better for this unrehearsed, almost haptic, approach.

There were distances between the two artists, most notably when discussing their personal practices, and whilst not meaning to appear pejorative in that assessment because their delivery when talking about their own work was not about the two of them, but a reflection of themselves as a working artist– the collaboration though – which had its own, completely ‘other’ character.

The other significant thought that I took away with me was about the work itself, how these artists, with a common voice, had interpreted the archive and made another piece of work. Similar to the work of Fox and Claridge, whose personal perspectives delivered equally individually voiced reactions, the work presented here gave yet another. Making more work from a base settled in late nineteenth and early twentieth century imagery might enable a freer interpretation and departure from the original photographic presentations. However this work employs very personal work, work that was both discarded but revered enough to not be jettisoned; these artists took from their own archives images that were perhaps consigned to their own miscellaneous album. Images that still had some reason not to be shredded, but without the original target left in them; their resurfacing through the editing process provided the ability to recontextualize themselves. Rickett spoke purposefully about the shifting contestability of images – losing the ‘preciousness’ of the images, how once they meant or spoke about one thing but through the mediation of time and memory they are given permission to present another element in another narrative. Images of half eaten biscuits photographed on impulse for their beauty and resonance, as they lie discarded by a daughter on the wooden floor.

These two artists met every Thursday and went through the process of curating images (text as imagery as well) until coming collaboratively to an agreement. They spoke about how that process would reveal information about themselves to themselves, how sometimes there were disagreements, sometimes evident in the work itself, how it wasn’t all sweetness and light.

I am interested in ‘Open’ works, about the free interpretation of artworks and this collaborative venture by Rickett and von Zwehl presents this viewer with a set of short episodes in a narrative of my own making, their presentation of such a scale that it needed close examination, a strategy that drew me closer to the work and helping to exclude extraneous confusions.

A quite inspiring evening.

 

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