Textured painting onto velvet canvas redolent of the migrant sea

This is a long read.... 

In January of 2020, before Lockdown was an everyday word, I went on a research trip to the Tate Margate to see the Turner Prize winners. I was inspired to go because of the collegiate nature of the finalists–declaring they would share the prize, debunking the idea of superlatives and bests whilst still acknowledging that praise, reward and acclaim are fun. There was also a link to the theme of Happy City which Spare Tyre was and is pursuing.  More than a year later, i'm catching up today with Jo Paul on how our designs are going. So I'm sharing this to remind me and you of where we'd go to... 

In 1990 I was living in Australia, and I had the opportunity to go diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I’d been a great student of diving in the pool but when it came to launching myself off the boat with all the gear on (and a migraine looming), dropping feet first into the surprisingly inky blackness, I hesitated. Someone gave me a shove. I hit the water losing mask and mouthpiece. After I recovered these, I never looked back, curious and ready to see everything.  

30 years on, starting a creative process can still involve that beat of doubt. One of the ways I overcome it is to immerse myself in a different environment, somewhere I can float free for a while. I have to go away to come back with fresh eyes, to let all the clutter float away and focus in on what it is that’s important, why we need to do this here, now, with and for these people, in this way. This might be a walk, or reading a book, seeing a film. It doesn’t have to be big or expensive but this time I was lucky to be able to go to Margate.  

A lot of my wonderful new job at Spare Tyre involves dealing with the business side (shared with John the Exec Director) and it can be difficult to focus on the creative inventive side. So it was an enormous pleasure to head to Margate, Tate and the Turner Contemporary art prize exhibition to lose myself in the installation works by world-class artists. I’m a seaside girl but I’d never been to Margate: it’s the kind of place that picks you up and tells you you’ve arrived, a place that the word “bracing” was invented for. I marched across the sands – teeth gritted against the cold, delighted…Once in the Tate Modern, it’s hard not to spend all day hypnotised by the sea view. 

This time last week I was listening more than watching Helen Cammock perform The Long Note a short piece made to form a conversation with her 90 minute film which excavates and highlights the stories of the women involved in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a powerful film that led me into a world at the edge of memory. My world back then (bearing in mind I was looking at everything through the filter of happy city (link) research) was my primary school, an Irish Catholic convent in which I was one of a handful of non-Catholic children.  

As children we tried to unmuddle “the Troubles”, conscious that if we’d been in Ireland ours would have been impossible friendships. The film reframes the uncelebrated story of the many women who held up more than half the sky in the unfamous but massive struggles to get decent housing and tackle other civil rights issues that most of us on the mainland had never heard about. There are children in the film, they’d be my age now, they sing sectarian songs in pure trebles. I wonder who they are, what opinions they now hold. … Guessing that some are still influenced by their upbringing, I remember I want to make a happy city but it’ll never be a perfect one. Cammock uses a collage style, a layering, interviews and archives, to stick it all together. I think of all the material that I have accumulated and how it will unpack into a stratified world that I have already discussed with Jo Paul, the designer. 

Across the corridor, Tai Shani’s installation is a multi-form multi-layered exploration of a city that she too has been working on for a number of years.  I was a bit worried when I first heard about it – but of course, it’s a zeitgeist thing. The way in which our work will speak to people springs from a different energy. I’m intrigued by Shani’s approach to the layering, her sources and excited by her determination to create a space where gender constructs break down and inclusion is a priority.  I sat in this city a long time listening to a densely woven text becoming (and this is a good thing) increasingly impatient to start the work on our Spare Tyre city.  Shani grew up in a commune and is largely self-taught and although this isn’t my favourite of the works, (despite it being the one I most wanted to experience) I admire the total lack of self-censorship “I don’t see art as separate from wider society” …  “ I don’t have the burden of doubting the values of being an artist which I think people struggle with.”  When I’m tired, or lost, I shall channel the absoluteness of her approach.  

Tai Shani's mythical feminist city

Oscar Murillo’s life-size effigies of everyday citizens, possible migrants sat on wooden pews against a wrap-around of tactile canvases (two partially obscuring the aforementioned views of the North Sea) took me straight to the exit and entry points, in particular the departure hall at Tilbury Docks where I said goodbye to my newly widowed octogenarian father, bound for a farewell trip to see his nonagenarian brother.  I thought I’d never see him again and then I thought how my mother would smile ruefully to see my departures which so wrenched her heart played back to me in this one of his. Ports of entry/exit which hold such power of farewell and welcome. Such mythologies. What can we make possible for the entrants into our brave new world? 

Returning to the effigies, brought with great care by volunteers from London on the train and not in a packing crate, I was moved by this installation that left gaps on the seats – a place for the observer to imagine themselves into, joining these transient people trapped in the machine of capitalism.  

The story of migration that the room encapsulates is centred on Lochaber No More (John Watson Nicol 1883). The mass migration during the clearances depicted here is in my family’s history, as migration is in many families in the UK -  but they don’t know it. The painting is both incongruous and makes you look for a long time at the formalised rendering of pride, dignity and pain.  

Murillo has also made a fantastic participatory project, attaching 1500 canvases to desks in schools in Kent to be there for 6 months for the children to make any mark they wish through the time. For the joy or fury of speaking in canvas. I’ve started mine on a canvas bought by chance in Deptford in September 2019 with one brush and two colours I happened to like.  

Murillo layers and layers his canvases, lays them on the floor and walks over them. He’s my kind of artist. Some of the canvases are hung “wrong side out.”  So British, I allowed myself to touch them, waiting to be arrested  - but I couldn’t quite persuade myself to do what the child in me was asking for – to sneak inside and wrap into them like with curtains. (where are the secret hidey places in a happy city….) Murillo’s canvases wear their history and the randomness of their creation as well as the purposeful elements. I feel a kinship with that process as my style is as much beach-combing as it is careful curation of the ideas that the co-creators offer. It takes an acutely tuned-in form of listening to pick up on signals and invitations from some of our collaborators to keep the work authentic. 

Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s sound installation with film left me needing the solace of the sea. It still haunts. Describing himself as a private-ear and an earwitness, Abu Hamdan has worked with Amnesty International in documenting cruelty through earwitness testimony and some of this he shares. It is an extraordinary experience of the type Bryony Kimmings (link) would put in the “I didn’t want to know that, but I’m glad you’ve shown me” category. Perhaps the least physically accessible of the works (although Cammock’s lack of subtitles is a barrier) this installation requires good hearing and ability to read English at speed, this piece plunges us into the world of sensory deprivation as torture. It is an unforgettable gateway into the mindset of the “world leaders” in prison torture centre design, the East German Stasi who consulted on a prison that few outsiders have seen, currently in use in Syria. Abu Hamdan filmed his account by 6 six released prisoners of their experiences from the former East German radio station in Berlin. We see the link between art, control and torture. (Berlin is also a city I have lived in, in a flat stacked with radio equipment salvaged after the fall of the wall from that very radio building. The division of an iconic city was something of an obsession for me as a child too and I think possibly my interest in how we live in cities and what unites and divides us starts there). Through this film, beautifully made, projected onto a glass screen redolent of windows in a recording studio, the link between, the art and science of torture is bitterly made. The creativity involved in both the verbal descriptions of what a sound is like and then in recreating it in other materials is both compulsively creatively observed and forensic. The power of an auditory experience in particular was enough to prevent a released inmate living in a certain flat because the resonance of a door slam was too similar. When another described the sound of a bag of bread dropped to a floor the equivalent recreation was so impossibly loud, the artist realised he was not recreating the sound as per the laws of physics but how the sound is to a person who is hungry – he was making the sound of starvation. And we all heard it too. The least we can do is bear earwitness to the fact that these horrors exist by design, and that we are connected by history and geopolitics both to the tortured and to the torturers.  

Murillo's migrants wait patiently on wooden pew like benches just like the ones at Tilbury docks. Framed by black velvet curtains that let the blue margate sky leak through

Finally, and actually the first thing I encountered and enjoyed as much as the official prize winners is the foyer exhibit Place, Space and Who – more than life size charcoal and chalk drawings. Women of colour, drawn by a woman of colour, Barbara Walker with sound tracks of their lives in Margate. The women stare down at us, the artist knowing  - I think  - that most of the people gazing up will be white, mostly middle class, many women, some will listen to the commentary, many don’t see them at all, struck by the view of the sea that the portraits frame. For others the view is framed and reclaimed by these portraits. 

When I leave it’s dark and low tide. I can just make out the figure of a man gazing eternally out to sea. Dreamland is illuminated but the micro pub is closer. I’m a woman in a pub on her own on a Friday. And it’s ok–for me. That’s what I call a happy city.  

Barbara Walkers' charcoal drawings of larger than life size Margate women of colour frame the view of the sea