Sunday, 18 January 2015

Dresden Conference: 'I was looking for bog people in Copenhagen' - the work of Rosamond Purcell

All Things Strange And Beautiful
I must confess to bunking off Robert Felfe's probably excellent second session presentation on 'ordnungsraum and labyrinth' because it was in German, and I'm not sure if I even understood the English abstract. My fault, not his. So I went off with a Hochschule student to see her term's work on smoke. It was interesting, and the photos of asphalt stuck on to the bumpy wall was rather effective. Reminded me of ash...
Once I'd rejoined the group after refreshments, we entered into the artistic and poetic realm of Rosamond Purcell and the shadow of things. As we saw from the first panel discussion, the conference organisers were keen to ask contemporary artists to speak about their art, not just art historical scholars.
Rosamond's photographic artistic practice is documenting soon to be lost - or forgotten - places. And yet when I write it like that, her magical lyricism fades. Her images are not archival like the V&A curators, nor natural historical reminders of extinct beings. As she said, they serve as 'vocabularies of images', enabling us to make unthought of, and unscientific connections between seemingly random objects.
For example, she was in a collection photographing a pangolin. She'd already experienced difficulty with the curator because she wasn't a scientist - a recurring theme in her work. She was drawn to the animal and its texture, and had found a pine cone to echo its skin/armour.  She was uncomfortable with two biologists working nearby and as she left to get something, on her return she found them discussing her work and arguing over whether this animal most resembled a pinecone or an artichoke. She found this fascinating.
Her work grew out of an aversion to natural history collections - something else which was to recur - and many of the collections she visits contain exhibits she dislikes. There were some disturbing examples of terrible taxidermy. However she realised that by taking her 'irrational' work and combining it with a scientific point of view she could turn this aversion into something positive. She has long collaborated with Stephen Jay Gould on books of her work.

Her presentation can only be described as a visual poetic gallop through her work, with personal stories softly related. She has made friends with enemies of collections: Dust, rats, and woodworm, damp, fire, animals which bore holes, all produce wonderful images from an artistic viewpoint. Her work doesn't judge, it captures the life of a collection even within its death and decline.
And that is her gift. From the reflection of an empty room in Peter the Great's glass and ivory eye; the emaciated feet of the Copenhagen bog woman; the transformation of life cast lizards into bronze; inside out, wax veined life forms; she teaches the viewer to re-see, re-look and re-view with cumulative effects. The more connections she shows you, the more you find because she is challenges conceptions about putting unlikely things together. Even text and images; for instance she sees crocodiles everywhere, from the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet to them hanging on collections walls. One of her latest exhibitions was “Very Like a Whale” at the Folger Shakespeare Library, it 'showcases the lively world of the Renaissance imagination and the uniquely human ability to interpret a single object in multiple ways'.
She reconstructed the Worm's frontispiece because she saw a single piece which sat on one of the shelves in the illustration. She felt she had to reconstruct that room because the image was so real. She labelled the pieces, went to curators to identify objects, to borrow, make, and commission artefacts. Horns tusks, teeth, she started to understand 16th century problems of classification. As usual she faced issues with curators, how do you borrow a Madagascan lemur? As was mentioned at the start, you ask the Internet, that modern cabinet where anything and everything can be traded, and someone will make you a lemur from paper mâché.
From fish swallowing books, pieces of 100 year old bread, to fooling the scientists, her enthusiastic associative thinking becomes contagious. She draws attention to the importance of scientific labelling and undercuts it gently and humorous. After being rebuked for removing labels from a skull, the curator told her, 'a monkey without a label is worthless'; against this she showed a picture of missing tags. Then images of fossils which have been labelled so heavily, the beauty of the ancient fish was completely obscured.

She had to stop half way through her mesmerising talk because we were running so late, but she had made her point eloquently. With even an ounce of her insight, everyone would benefit from seeing the world in a new tangential way, something we could all aspire to do.

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