Objects with words

Yesterday, I went back to Pontesbury to photograph objects for the History Makers project. I am thoroughly enjoying this element of the project partly for the cups of coffee and the lovely people I am meeting. However, I am enjoying it mostly for the stories and the emotional impact these objects are having on me as I hear about the stories associated with them, many of them personal to the current owner of the object.

The first person I visited yesterday had lots of documents and letters belonging to his father who had fought in the First World War. Out of all of his memorabilia, there was one particular letter that effected me the most. The letter had been very well persevered and didn’t appear to be 100 years old to me. It was only slightly browned and the paper was remarkably intact. The writing was clear, and the words in it read almost ‘loud’ in my head. It was a letter to ‘Clive’.

The letter reads: ‘…the last six days we have had to take our time in the trenches Clive it is like hell upon earth please excuse my expression but it is the only fit one I think, and yet one goes through it alright for after a while you get used to all the things that seem so strange to you at first; the shells bursting around you, the rifle shot passing over your head, the machine guns rattling…’

The first page of the letter

The letter

It goes on ‘…every so often when perhaps they see something to fire at and other things such as bombs that are thrown from trench mortars. Well I am still alright and in the pink, also billy is too. How are you all going on down home.’

More of the letter

More of the letter

So in this case, the words as well as the object and the story of the object effected me deeply. It was as if without the words the object itself wouldn’t have been enough.

I am very interested in the power of words to create an image (which was the rationale behind the work of last year’s winner of the Jerwood Drawing Prize, Alison Carlier). Here, she has created an audio ‘drawing’ based on description. It is a ‘drawing’ of an old Roman pot, created through sound. This is a kind of synaesthesia.

Words can be used to ‘describe’ an object or an experience just as well as lines and colour. This might be an interesting area I can explore with this project.

The spaces that objects occupy

I’ve been thinking quite a lot recently, while working on this project, about the importance of space to objects – the spaces they occupy and the spaces around them.

Objects from our past fill space. The space they occupied in the past, has now gone, replaced by the present spaces they occupy. So the objects from the past have left an absence by their former presence. They are present today and they carry with them that sense of absence. They move in time (and space).

The Christmas tin that takes up space

The Christmas tin that takes up space

What appeals to me about recreating physical objects from the First World War in clay is the idea of creating something physical to try to compensate for that sense of absence left behind. The objects from the First World War that we have today occupy a space but that space is beyond reach as the artefacts are mostly in people’s homes (often hidden from view) or in a museum. Making the objects creates a new, modern presence for them.

I’ve been researching other artists who looks at the idea of the space occupied by ordinary objects (or the spaces around / underneath / left behind). One such artist is Rachel Whiteread, who’s House has always fascinated me, as have her casts of staircase spaces. Perhaps this is because I am interested in the spaces inside people’s houses and I’m especially fascinated with staircases – what they mean, where they lead, why we give them secondary importance as a space in our house (when really they see much more occupancy than the average room).

There's something about this that upsets me

The space of the object

Another artist I’ve been looking at is Antony Gormley who engineered a ‘field’ of figures in Field (1989–2003). I love his idea here because the artwork was created by lots of people (and in multiple settings) and it says something about authorship of art. It also says something about the dichotomy between ready-made / mass produced and unique. Individually the clay figures encourage one type of response (cuteness, intrigue), and collectively another (fear, awe, sublime). There is something so eerie about them en masse.

I can almost hear them squeeking

I can almost hear them squeaking

My aim with the First World War project is to consider where the First World War ‘objects’ I am examining collide in the present time in terms of past vs present, absence vs presence, surface value (ascetics) vs historic value (memory) and temporary presence (the clay versions) vs permanent presence (the real objects in the museum). How weighty is their space?

The names of the First World War

Today I went back to Pontesbury to visit a retired milkman who lives in a bungalow with a red phone box in the garden. I only had one visit to make today.

Pontesbury’s ex-milkman had a few interesting items that relate to the First World War to show me including photographs and various pamphlets. However, the most interesting item he had was not directly from the First World War at all, it was a photocopy of a list of names of the men of Pontesbury who saw active service in the First World War. I found these three A4 sheets really poignant. While my coffee was being made, I perused these three sheets and thought about the names on the list. The list included brothers, sons, fathers and friends, all now long gone and perhaps mostly forgotten. What interested me the most was the repetitiveness of many of the names: William, Ernest, Henry, Leonard, Albert and Alfred. What happened to them all? How did they end up on three 21st-century A4 sheets of paper?

A list of names

A list of names

 

More encounters with interesting objects

Today, I travelled to Pontesbury to visit four different people who own World War I objects (all of which who had been interviewed for the History Makers project). Today, I have seen a huge variety of things from victory medals to hand-written artefacts (including an autograph book from a convalescence home) and from flare guns (made of solid brass) to ornamental shell cases. I have been touched by the objects.

A cartoon drawn by a convalescing soilder

A cartoon drawn by a convalescing soldier

The second person I visited had a really impressive collection of objects which he’d amassed himself via purchases over the Internet. His collection was fascinating and I enjoyed the chance to touch and handle these objects, the sorts of things only normally found in a museum and behind glass. The objects he has include: a periscope, a telescope, a leather wallet for keeping horse shoes in, an air dart, a bullet pencil, a flare gun, a metal post for tangling barbed wire, a huge German shell case, a German belt buckle and a number of bayonets.

The chalk from the Somme is still on this barbed wire entanglement post

The chalk from the earth of the Somme is still on this barbed wire entanglement post

When I left his house, I was very conscious of how my hands smelt: very acrid, of metal and leather. The smell was very strong. By handling these objects I had picked up the smells of the First World War and a century since. How could those objects still have such a strong smell after so much time? Where has that smell gone now? I guess it dissipated into the air after I left his house.

The cutlery of an ordinary soldier

The cutlery of an ordinary soldier

A periscope

A periscope

Shell cases turned into ornamental vases

Shell cases turned into ornamental vases

These objects hadn’t been handed down, the owner had acquired them more recently. So I wonder who owned them originally? Why were they sold / given away? Nobody will ever now know who first owned them. The stories of these objects are now lost.

One of the other people I visited today showed me, in addition to a lump of rock from the bottom of the Hawthorn crater, his Tower of London poppy, which I couldn’t resist photographing. It is a thing of beauty, and peace.

The symbol of the First World War

The symbol of the First World War

 

My first encounter with a collection of interesting objects

Last week I had the opportunity to visit an interviewee who had already taken part in the History Makers project to photograph his objects from the First World War. The aim was for me to have some good-quality photographs to use as material for the History Makers animation and their exhibition. However, I also wanted to use this opportunity to find out more about the sorts of objects people might have and the sorts of stories they might be able to tell in association with these objects.

I had such a pleasant morning talking to this interviewee hearing about his family and his connections, through the objects, with the First World War. Between him and his wife, he has nine close relatives who had lived (and died) during and after the First World War. His relatives included nurses, doctors, curates, and army and navy personnel. The objects he owned varied from a piece of a medieval church, the top of a German shell, the case of a German shell (currently being used to store coal fire tongs), medals and curates’ cloths. The level of detail he could relay to me about these objects was impressive. He was able to bring the stories to life (and he had photographs of the people who owned these objects which added a level of connection for me).

The most interesting object to me was the piece of the medieval church, yet that was the object he knew the least about. It is made of a very solid wood and it has a heaviness to it that seems to speak of the importance of its history and its durability to the present day. I was also very taken with the casing of a German shell, made of brass, which looked so harmless and mundane, yet it had a beauty to it as well.

Part of a medieval church

Part of a medieval church

A German shell case, now put to practical use

A German shell case, now put to practical use

The head of a German shell

The head of a German shell

The stories associated with these objects to me were fascinating. I was reminded of my own childhood and hearing the stories of my grandparents. Talking to this interviewee it struck me how narrow our focus tends to be on the legacy of the First World War. We remember less the nurses, the doctors, and those that may not necessarily have been fighting but were involved in a very crucial way.

 

What colour is the First World War?

I’m fascinated with colour (having synaesthesia colour is very important to me, and I’m especially interested in associations of words and ideas with colour). Recently, I asked friends to name  a colour or colours that they associate with the First World War and the results are perhaps not unexpected but interesting nonetheless.

Red 11
Brown 11
Khaki 5
Purple 3
Black 4
Grey 4
Green 2
Blue 1

I don’t associate red at all with the First World War. My colour is ‘brown’ or actually a mix of yellows and browns. I think I see mostly the colour of mud (the words ‘First World War’ are also quite brown and grey to me).

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Manchester Art Gallery to see an exhibition of artworks inspired by the First World War and other conflicts since then called ‘The Sensory War 1914-2014′.  I found the exhibition extremely moving and thought-provoking. I came away feeling quite cross yet saddened. The sadness and despair of the artists came across very powerfully. There was also a sense of madness as well. It was almost as if many of the artists, especially those of the First World War, had tipped into the realm of outside art. I sensed that they were saying ‘I used to be an artist but now I paint to deal with the pain’.

The overall colour impression I had from the exhibits on display was brown. Most of the contemporary paintings from the First World War and shortly after had been painted (or drawn) in blacks, browns, greys, greens and dirty reds.

One of my favourite pieces was A Howitzer Gun in Elevation by CRW Nevinson. It’s dark, it’s sinister, it’s peaceful yet potentially violent. It’s mostly black, but also grey.

This painting makes me feel uneasy

This painting makes me feel uneasy

Here is a typical ‘green / brown’ painting of the era: Paul Nash We Are Making a New World.

The colours of war

The colours of war

Objects in clay

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to make something out of clay. This was the first time I’d modelled out of clay since I was eighteen so I was quite nervous about it. I’m comfortable with pens, pencils and paint, but not clay. I couldn’t think of an interesting subject to make so I chose a nearby empty crisp packet (which I actually think is very interesting).

The clay crisp packet

The clay crisp packet

I enjoyed making the crisp packet (I found the process quite therapeutic) and this led me to wonder whether I could use clay in some way for the World War I project. It occurred to me that perhaps I could make replicas of the objects I come across out of clay.

I like the idea of making something that people can touch since they can’t touch the original objects (most of the objects have too much historic or personal value to touch). When I went to look at the World War I objects at the Shropshire Regimental Museum recently, which has a fantastic collection of objects, I decided that I wanted to find a way to engage people with such objects without using direct touch. When I see interesting objects all I want to do is touch them with my hands. This of course isn’t always possible. Previously with the Powis Castle project I’d tried to create this sense of engagement between people and things through drawings and video, i.e. using the senses of vision and hearing. Now I want to find out: is there scope to use the sense of touch,  without actually touching the objects themselves, as well?

I also like the idea of making something out of ‘mud’ – a substance that many people associate with World War I. There’s something about the colour and texture of clay that to me resonates very strongly with my own images of World War I. I like the feel and smell of clay. It is an earthy substance and World War I was a very earthy conflict. There was something very primal about it. When I asked people recently what colour they associate with World War I, most replied ‘brown’.

There’s also something new and interesting for me about recreating objects out of clay. It is a way for me to feel an attachment to the objects and to add my own ‘trace’ on their history.

Over Christmas, I decided to experiment with clay I ‘borrowed’ from college. So far I’ve made a tin hat.

A tin hat from the First World War

A tin hat from the First World War, on display in the Shropshire Regimental Museum

My tin hat

My tin hat

And I’ve made a leather bag.

A leather bag from the Shropshire Regimental Museum

A leather bag in the Shropshire Regimental Museum

My clay bag

My clay bag

I don’t know what needs to happen to clay once it’s dried. I also don’t know whether I need to paint them or not. Perhaps they are best left in their original, rather earthy state.

I have also been painting the objects, experimenting with only using primal colours to blend different tones and shades.

My painting of the hat

My painting of the hat

My painting of the bag

My painting of the bag

I love this experimental stage of a project. I could go in any one of many directions.