Bob Gelsthorpe shows us how Cardiff-based multidisciplinary artist AJ Stockwell brings a sensorially well-rounded research project to fruition, commissioned by Jerwood Arts for their Jerwood Staging Series.
Entering at the cusp of dusk, the first gallery of the South London art space hangs a single rock surface paper collage, cut-out with a curved, dashed line introducing the idea of malleable rock. The cut-out line mimics the three curved lines of glass tumblers in gallery two and these tumblers end with a pair of smooth stoneware gourds, topped with two hands shaped in the way you would make if dropping a pebble from one hand to another with only a couple of inches in between, fingers almost straight, but relaxed around the joints of the fingers. These gourds rest on a small rock, and they all rest on the cold black brick of Jerwood Arts floor. The artist enters, picks up the gourds, and ceremonially pours water from them, water transported from North Uist, into the lines of small glass tumblers. Body echoes material, her hands over ceramic hands. The distance the water has travelled does not reflect the intimacy to material at this moment.
The artist, AJ Stockwell, hands each glass to a member of the audience. Some sniff the water, some stare, some sip, others gulp. Again, including water as material, intimacy becomes absorption. The swallowed water enters the bodies of willing audiences, feeling like a geo-specific ritual for the communal, deep listening to come.
After a little coercion, people move from crowding round the tumblers and gourds towards the entrance to gallery three. Glasses are collected by the artist and we enter into a blacked out, carpeted room, dulling all other distractions to home in on the sounds, which start out slow. Murmurings of pebbles dropped into deep ponds and tides gently brushing across a shore bookend a Scottish voice, that delivers a scripted relationship between bodies, stone and landscape.
“Here lies the Isles of Strangers”, the sound of a solitary Scottish voice lulls out, referring to the outer Hebrides or western isles, at the most north-western point in Scotland. Uisge (pronounced ooshka) is repeated across the script, as a chapter marker throughout the narrative monologue. The Scottish Gaelic word for ‘Water’, when sounded, makes the lips move in the same way you would make to take a sip of water; sound the first syllable and imagine a sip of water from North Uist; connect or reconnect with the land and consider the cultural weight of doing so.The word is repeated, and it lolls around the mouth, having migrated from the ears. Gaelic is a common tongue in the Outer Hebrides, both the land and the artist has deep ties to it.
The script used a translation of Michel Serres ‘The Five Senses A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies’ (1985) as a starting point, and in clear nods, the script feels in all ways: “to see and see again, to touch and touch again, to taste and taste again, to smell and smell again, to hear, and hear again”. This holistic relationship with Uist is at risk, with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Outer Hebrides County Council) voting in July to build a Spaceport in the north west of the island, risking everything tonight we have come to experience. AJ Stockwell’s research, combined with our bodies form a temporary membrane with the sights, sounds, and tastes of North Uist. A porous experience, some 600 miles apart.
Jerwood Staging Series is a curatorial project designed to provide a London platform for event-based presentations of work, including film screenings, performances, readings and discussion and was launched in 2016. More info:
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Bob Gelsthorpe is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.