The Deluge collective are currently holding two virtual exhibitions – What This Storm Is All About with Bay Arts in Cardiff and Displaced with the Mayflower 400 Southampton project. Colin Hambrook talks to three artists from the collective, Rachel Gadsden, Freddie Meyers and Jeremy Hawkes about their decision to form an artists’ group leading on to the design and curation of the Displaced exhibition, which is one of the projects commissioned to acknowledge the 400th anniversary of the migration of the pilgrims from Southampton to America.
Colin Hambrook: Rachel, before we talk about the Displaced exhibition, perhaps you could tell us something about the journey behind Deluge? When you first approached DAO with a pitch for a commission of some seed money in April last year, what did you think you might achieve?
Rachel Gadsden: I began my working life as an artist within the performing arts and so it has always been a natural process for me to work with artists from different disciplines to extend the creative process. And that has always necessitated my finding different collaborators to make broader combined arts projects happen. You create the most incredible connections with groups of artists and then the funding stops and everybody goes off to do their own different projects. And maybe you can find ways to continue making work with one or two collaborators, but it is largely dictated by whether or not we can afford to continue making work.
So it’s been important to establish that we’re committed to being a collective, and we know it won’t always just be about funding. It’s about like minds coming together and having both an intellectual and a philosophical creative engagement, which supports our own practices. When I originally put in for the DAO commission in April 2020 I knew that we were at the beginning of something – and the commission offered just really a small amount of seed funding in comparison to our ambition, but the real value of it was in allowing us to see how Deluge might grow. The proposal was really about gauging responses to the pandemic from artists across the world. I had strong connections with both Jeremy Hawkes in Brisbane, Australia and Sui Fong Yeung in Hong Kong and it felt really natural to talk with them about their experience of COVID and encourage them to produce work for the collective.
CH: Moving on to Jeremy I wanted to ask how you got involved with the Deluge collective? What has been your journey, working with Rachel?
Jeremy Hawkes: Rachel and I had many fruitful conversations about our practice and our artistic influences and where we were headed as artists long before an Australia Arts Council award gave me the opportunity to work more closely with her. I’ve collaborated with a lot of artists in the past and was also part of a collective but only for a short period. I knew this idea of a collective was something that was driving Rachel’s practice and when she introduced me to Sui-Fong and her work I was blown away. She’s just extraordinary – an intelligent, vibrant, human being, doing really amazing creative work, in both visual arts and performance. And then soon after that we started meeting on Zoom and talking through ideas and we were sharing work and it grew from there. It’s been a really exciting process that feels quite innovative and groundbreaking.
CH: And Freddie, from your perspective, what excited you about being involved in an artist collective?
Freddie Meyers: As a musician and composer, I’m very used to working with other people. Writing and making music is this constantly collaborative act, whatever you’re doing. So in a way, working with lots of artists felt very natural. And of course, there’s this medium problem, that what I’m composing is temporal; music exists across time, where art takes up space. So the interesting challenge for me was to find a way to pull those things together. You end up thinking about music in spatial terms and naturally, that led to thinking about animating the artworks and making them exist across time.
As the composer within Deluge, I’ve become a facilitator: we have several artists and I have been using the music as a kind of glue to pull sometimes very disparate artistic things together and to find a way of negotiating different strands of the output.
CH: I can see that it’s pushed your practice … so I get a sense from you of how excited you’ve been to use this as an opportunity to experiment and to use your practice in different ways.
FM: Definitely. This context demands a very different type of music. The contemporary classical music that I might write for a string quartet would simply not be appropriate. The music for Deluge has to be far more gestural, broad and impactful. That has stretched me and changed the type of music that I’ve been writing. Before I started working with Rachel, I didn’t write any electronic music at all, whereas it has become an inherent part of the process for writing songs or backing tracks often previously for performance projects and now to fit in with the work of the collective.
CH: And although Displaced contains a limited amount of work with sound, Freddie’s digital skills have been another type of glue to cement the Deluge collective, particularly where it has come to designing the online exhibition.
FM: I think virtual spaces are really strange because they have a sense of 3 dimensions in a digital space that doesn’t exist in actuality. That was the starting point for the conversations Rachel and I had about the design. The kunstmatrix program we were using had a few predefined spaces with options for others, which you could chain together. We soon decided that what we really liked was being able to have this sort of fluidity of space where we could have a few different style wall shapes that fitted the flow of the exhibition.
So, the structure and progression of the exhibition came to us fairly easily. What was more of a challenge was thinking about scale. We started off with the true sizes of the artworks and it looked terrible. There are these beautiful movies from the Southampton artists, that were actually very small. Equally, much of the work just got lost in translation. The kunstmatrix walls are the equivalent of six metres high, so they just didn’t look like anything on a six-metre wall. Also, the audience would largely be viewing on a small screen, so we decided it was okay to take liberties with the scale. A large part of the design work was about presenting each artwork at a size where it had the presence that it would have in the real world, where the audience would be so much closer to the actual artwork in a gallery space.
CH: It’s interesting to see the concept of displacement, which we usually associate negative connotations with, having more nuanced expressions within the Mayflower 400 exhibition. Rachel, can you tell us a bit firstly about how the exhibition came into being?
RG: The Director Caterina Loriggio commissioned Solent to do what was in effect a two-stage exhibition as part of the Mayflower 400 Southampton programme. So, the first exhibition with Yafa Shanneik from Birmingham University was about the displacement of refugees. Having a personal connection to Southampton through my grandfather I was very aware that as a port the communities that live there are often very transient. Way before the exhibition actually took any real form, I ran an eight-week workshop program with eight artists from the Arts with the Disabled Association in Hong Kong (ADAHK). There was huge political and social displacement of people when we were there and so I wanted to connect with the artists and bring them into a UK exhibition. At the same time, I was asked if I would be a mentor for emerging disabled artists in Southampton.
When it was being planned the intention was to produce a physical exhibition for the Solent gallery space. But of course, the pandemic happened and no one could travel, so eventually, we decided to go with a virtual exhibition. We had Jeremy’s work alongside work from the Hong Kong artists. And then we commissioned the Southampton artists to create work – our intention being for them to be as broad as possible in their interpretation of the brief. On top of everything else, there is this huge psychological displacement that in fact, the whole world has experienced because of COVID. And so that became the theme. Caterina found an old discarded painting of a galleon style ship outside a charity shop.
It was an old print with a crumbling frame of the Battle of the Nile from 1807. I rephotographed it and had giclee prints made that were given to each of the Southampton artists. And that displaced image became their starting point as a symbol of a psychological battle. Caterina wanted us to express the wider connotations of displacement, which also underpinned some of the stories about the Mayflower pilgrims who went to America.
CH: Your artwork Displaced is the title image? Can you tell us about the narrative behind that artwork?
RG: The original artwork was a big painting that was created live as part of a performance piece in Saudi. I was thinking about the journeys people made travelling across the desert with frankincense from Saudi right the way across to Venice, where it was then sold across Europe, and the journeys many current refugees and migrants are making to seek political, economic and social freedom. And so, over a period of five days, I created five performances: very high tension, and very dramatic pieces.
And of course, the artworks stayed in Saudi, because I couldn’t bring these huge paintings back with me. And when I was looking for an image that could work for the exhibition that particular image really resonated. It is largely abstract and expressionistic, but it holds a sense of migration, with boats and figures within the water. And my migration figures in the exhibition have an atmosphere about them of the endless waiting to jump onto a vehicle to get to the next place. It also reflects what we do in our heads, I mean I’ve done a lot of that lately, you know, we’ve been sort of feeling like nothing’s happening, because of the restrictions of lockdown, but then the next minute everything’s running for a bit before it has to stop again. And you lose all hope before things start again. It felt relevant because Freddie and I both knew why that picture was there when we were putting the exhibition together. He was the composer for the piece in Saudi, so it resonated with him, too.
CH: And who does the figure in the painting represent? She’s got a lot of soul.
RG: I only ever really create one artwork, which is basically about our hope to survive, and the figure in the painting is symbolic of that. I think that’s all my work is ever about; this constant struggle to survive and the joy that you live another day and breathe another day. I’ve never felt negative about whatever my disability, physical, medical situation is, it’s never been something that’s difficult. I’ve always found something exciting about the challenge of knowing you might not live very long. So there is always hope where I can still breathe. My work is always driven by a subconscious impetus. After years of creating I simply allow it to just happen. This may be why sound is so important because I’m trying to connect with something that’s out of my control.
CH: Moving on to Jeremy, I wanted to ask you about the mixed media artwork of yours titled Ossuary I. It’s very striking and the connections with Bacon seem self-evident, who I know is an artist who you refer to quite a lot. It struck me as being very different from the main body of your work that I’m familiar with. And I was particularly intrigued about how this work relates to your understanding of displacement?
JH: Yeah, it is an unusual piece for me. I trained in sculpture and it was my main practice for many years, but less so recently. It’s notoriously difficult to photograph sculpture so Freddie did a really amazing job of putting that sculpture into that virtual space.
What’s interesting about this new digital realm is that the representation that Freddie was able to create from my photographs adds another layer of displacement. He created a new artwork in effect. Thinking about this new virtual way of exhibiting art, the process is parallel to writing creative non-fiction. You have certain facts and narratives that you’re working with, but the way that you show it is in itself a different creative process. And it creates layers of displacement, and within that, layers of meaning. Displacement isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is about place, albeit one that only exists digitally.
But to go back to Ossuary I, I don’t have a dictionary definition but an ossuary is basically anything that is a receptacle for bones, and you often see them in old churches where monks were entombed. And you see those incredible sculptures that were built out of human bones. So I was really looking at that idea and a reference point was a quote from an Australian writer David Malouf who talks about the human body as the first system of architecture that we must navigate and negotiate.
It led me to think about the human body as a site of identity and inscription, and I think that for disabled people our bodies are often presented as a site of pathology, diagnosis and of intrusion. So that’s what Ossuary I is about. I thought it was really good to include it in an exhibition about displacement because it talks about that personal, political, micro and macro idea of displacement within bigger frameworks, like society or medicine. So, it was good to see the sculpture exhibited in a really different way. It made me think about the possibilities in this digital world as a place for embodiment, and a place to exist.
CH: And Jeremy, the other work of yours that really struck me was Carapace. It contains this poetic sense of the body as a landscape – an abstract map of the body as a granular of cellular ideas.
JH: I don’t know a visual artist who doesn’t have something that they keep returning to – similarly to Rachel saying she only has one artwork. We keep returning to the same themes. And Carapace definitely sums up one of my major ideas – looking at the skin. We are contained by skin. It acts as a shield and defines the space we exist in. So Carapace is an image about looking at skin cells and thinking about who we are on another level. Specifically, I was reading the work of Francis Crick who was one of the scientists who discovered DNA and who became a neurologist and an evolutionary theorist.
It comes down to the school of thought that all matter and everything in the universe is interconnected, and that basically, we all come out of stars; there’s more empty space than there are points of light and sound moves through us as a vibration. I don’t pretend to understand it hugely, but I just find it really moving and really beautiful that we are these specks of dust in these points of light. Ultimately we are not separate beings on the level at which we exist as vibrations. So I think again it goes back to variations on a theme – and an idea of ourselves within the music of the spheres and seeing the universe in a grain of sand, where displaced is maybe a natural part of the order of things.
The Deluge Collective’s exhibition ‘Displaced’ is online until 30 June 2021 as part of the Mayflower 400 programme of work.
The Deluge Collective is a diverse international collaboration of artists, musicians, and writers, exploring ways that expression moves between our individual artistic practices, to reveal deeper ideas of our shared humanity.