These four films were first exhibited in spring of 2005 as part of Phantom Power— a solo show of new digital video and sound works made during a residency at Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland and a Fellowship awarded by English Heritage and Arts Council England. English Heritage is England’s governmental agency for the preservation and restoration of the nation’s historic buildings and sites. All of its sites are open to the public.
The Berwick Gymnasium Art Fellowships were established in 1993, and are awarded to professional artists who have demonstrated a commitment to innovative practice. The Fellowships are renowned in the British art world for promoting the work of promising new artists. Fellowship artists live and work in Berwick over the winter months when the gymnasium of a former army barracks functions as a working studio. Artists are able to produce a new body of work in response to this extraordinary English/Scottish border location. Previous Fellows have gone on to become Turner Prize nominees, including Mike Nelson and Jane Louise Wilson.
Berwick-upon-Tweed is a small town on England’s beautiful Northeast coast. Exactly halfway between the two cities of Edinburgh and Newcastle, Berwick was fought over for centuries by Scotland and England. Until the unification of Britain, the town frequently passed between the warring nations. In Elizabethan times it was a centre for espionage and English spies operating in mainland Europe; its fortifications, based upon what were then the most advanced Italian military theories, date from this era. The Gymnasium is part of the Berwick Barracks complex and was built in 1901 as a gym for soldiers stationed in the town. Some of the original paintwork and equipment is still in place. Work began on the Barracks in 1717, based on designs by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. Berwick Barracks were placed under the guardianship of English Heritage in 1981. Every summer the Gymnasium changes from artists’ studios into a contemporary art gallery, showing work made by the Fellows over the previous six months.
The Berwick Gymnasium Fellowships: An Archival Record is published by Art Editions North and English Heritage, and features an interview with me and critical text on my films, along with images from them. The book documents the work of all the Berwick Fellows from the beginning of the scheme in the 90s, including great, innovative artists like Mike Nelson, Semiconductor, Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva, and many others. It’s an interesting read. You can get it from your usual art book shop (if you have such a thing) or from the almighty Amazon.
Disruptive Pattern I: Camouflage & Disruptive Pattern II: Nensha
Disruptive Pattern I: Camouflage uses historic military uniforms to create a constantly shifting digital camouflage material made from a patchwork of fabric and insignia of the past three centuries. Simultaneously, an electronic Ouija board spells out equally fragmented messages about life, death and war. This famous board game has occasionally been regarded as a serious spiritualist device for communication with the dead; others see it as a product of wishful thinking and self-delusion. Superstition and genuine communication may also exist simultaneously. The second part of this two screen installation, Disruptive Pattern II: Nensha (above, right), is a video of the same military images stencilled and burned onto thermal paper, inspired by the candle and playing-card images made by 18th century soldiers on the walls and ceilings of Berwick barracks; these are still visible today.
His Majesty is a nocturnal play for spirits. Night-time walks around Berwick’s labyrinthine network of stairs, military relics, passages and alleyways were a major influence during the making of the film. This mixture of performances and animation is a dark portrait of Berwick which also draws on the Romano-Celtic culture of pre-Christian Britain and the worship of Mithras. His lion symbol appears on many of the town’s façades. The twin lion statues that appear in the work were originally imported from Venice in the 17th century by an anonymous person for reasons now unknown; they currently sit in front of a landmark building overlooking the North Sea, a house built circa 1800. The lions and the so-called “Lions House” they now belong to (or rather, vice versa) were an obsession of the painter L.S. Lowry, who spent some of his later career living and working in Berwick. Moving through the town’s gothic environments are the ghostly forms of genii cucullati, or hooded spirits, based upon carvings found at Hadrian’s Wall and elsewhere in Northern England. These inscrutable apparitions— sometimes associated with fertility, often depicted carrying mysterious spheres or egg shapes— here enact their ritual nocturnal procession of birth, sacrifice, death and rebirth for the first time in 2,000 years.
His Majesty was also shown in the ‘New Forest Pavilion’ at Venice Art Biennale (La Biennale di Venezia), 2005.
‘Metastasis’ is a contemporary approach to the ideas explored in the other two videos: life, hardship, painful triumph and the things we leave behind when we die. Some cancers effectively switch off the natural dying process of the body’s cells, leaving them both immortal and prone to metastasis, a change of state resulting in colonisation of other sites in the body. The video depicts the relentless advance of these cancerous cells, visualising them as an invasion of malevolent crustaceans— the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates named malignant tumourous masses cancer (crab) due to their shared habit of creeping sideways.