Last night saw the private view of New Art Gallery Walsall’s new exhibition: FOUND.

The exhibition featured seven artists (Paul Chiappe, Julie Cockburn, Ellen Gallagher, Ruth Claxton, John Stezaker, Vesna Pavlović and Erik Kessels), all of whom transformed and re-worked found, visual material.  It featured photographs, postcards, slides and magazines – all gleaned from the depths of the internet, flea markets, or archival collections. The overall aim was to investigate the histories and narratives of stranger’s images, dealing with the broader themes of loss, memory and mass cultural experiences.

For me, this was a fascinating theme, and provided much food for thought.  What particularly peaked my interest, was the focus on our own socially constructed hierarchies; self-production and replication in the digital age – and how this reverberates out.

The exhibitions themes all pointed towards ‘collective memory’ – how history, memory, narrative and collective experiences are presented, understood and constructed.

But what exactly is memory?  How can memory be ‘collective’? And how does this relate to history and art?

The historian and psychologist Susan Crane, has offered a worthwhile method of thinking about such distinctions.  She stated that:

‘If history is both the past(s) and the narratives that represent pasts as historical memory in relation to presents/presence, collective memory is a conceptualization that expresses a sense of the continual presence of the past.’

Within this definition, memory itself is defined in its relation to history. But how can we reconcile the fallacy, which identifies an individual, operation in the brain (memory) – with wider social and cultural phenomenon’s?

This is where the art comes in; and FOUND seems to offer the perfect riposte.

We can do this through LIVED EXPERIENCE. Individuals remember in the literal sense, but groups define what is memorable. In this way, memory itself is an inherently social construct – and in its reworking and re-presentation at NAGW, it has found its own, unique narrative.

The work of two of the artists; Ruth Claxton and Paul Chiappe, struck me as dealing directly and bravely with these complex arguments. Chiappe produced intensely meticulous pencil drawings of class photos, yearbooks and plays – important moments from stranger’s lives. His drawings, which are often mistaken for photographs (and indeed, I made that mistake on first looking at them!) blur the boundaries – quite literally – between fiction and reality, memory and history. In their essence, they form an example of mistaken identity (photograph/drawing – truth/construction), representing the paradox of the rise of our self-conscious attempts to preserve memory (photographs, memorials and anniversaries), yet also the way that spontaneous, social memory has largely ceased to function in our digital age.  Ruth Claxton presented a whole wall of postcards, where the ‘top surface’ of the image had been manipulated. For me, this was what the whole exhibition was about: the top surface of memory and presentation. It linked to broader ideas about the way we present history and memory: we can change the narrative, destroy the archives, lose all trace of past-actions – but this can only ever touch the ‘top surface’ of events. We can change the way we understand and present the world around us, how things are remembered, but not the ‘deeper surface’ of the paintings; their reality, and the ‘ideas’ themselves.

Having said this, the ‘top surface’ is often all we have to go by – and in its re-imagining, this new form of memory is brought a new life, and new lived-experience.

My only qualm about both of these works, was to what extent they constituted ‘found’ objects. This word implies a process of chance happenings and discoveries, and beautiful as the works were – their visual imagery struck me as very carefully selected and thought through.  Artists such as Vesna Pavlovic and Erik Kessels dealt with the ‘found’ brief more directly; both investigating photographs that had previously been discarded. Pavlovic displayed 400 35mm slides from a family’s travels in the 1960s and 1980s, and Kessels displayed a room full of ‘enlarged botched vernacular photographs’ where amateur photographers had concealed part of the image with their finger.

What better phrase to describe collective memories than an ‘enlarged, botched vernacular’!

The photographs moved from a small finger in the corner of the image, to entire obscurity in a field of red. As Kessels stated, he aimed to represent ‘the impulse to mark our lives and immortalise the past’ – and for me, thus further represented the idea that by consciously preserving our memories, we gradually and imperceptibly destroy them.  If an image exists in reality, what need is there to preserve it in the mind?

[For further discussions of Art and Archives, please see my posts on ‘Building the Archive’ – a symposium held at Birmingham library, which dealt with the practicalities of dealing with memory, identity, art in archives, and archives of art.]

Julie Cockburn, Ellen Gallagher and John Stezaker seemed to approach the brief from a reasonably similar standpoint; all of their work spoke explicitly to conceptions of beauty and social constructs. Stezaker presented montages of Hollywood stars, their faces forming ‘exotic artefacts of an obsolete culture.’ Cockburn likewise transformed a set of 1940s/50s studio portrait photographs, all embellished by hand, and Gallagher presented African American beauty images – which she had again painstakingly transmuted and modified. She identified the assertion of the ‘New Negro’ – a term popularized during the Harlem Renaissance, implying a more outspoken advocacy of dignity and a refusal to submit quietly to the Jim Crow laws. Through covering up faces, cutting out eyes, embellishing and adding-to the magazines (in a similar way to Claxton), Gallagher spoke to the complexity of identity construction and the painstaking process of transformation and self-assertion, that the African American community went through.

All of these artists, and all of their works reverberated against one another – their combined effect, like collective memory itself, producing a whole that was so much more than the sum of its parts. Through an active processes of representation and involvement, their work ensured that collective memories, shared experiences and the narratives of strangers were kept alive. This was not through a traditional archival process; carefully sorting and categorising, but this was memory within society; ritual, shared performances, in which the artist, subject and viewer all played their individual parts.

The exhibition runs from today (30th January, until the 3rd of May, 2015). Entrance is free.

For more information, see the New Art Gallery Walsall Website.

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