Post by Elisa Adami
On display from 15 June to 29 September at the Vestry House Museum, the exhibition ‘A Tourist in Other People’s Reality’ draws on the building history as a workhouse to unveil a forgotten tragedy of confinement, control and repression. Curated by Olga Ovenden, the show features works by Cecilia Bonilla (Uruguay/Sweden), Slawa Harasymowicz (Poland) and Joanna Rajkowska (Poland). The exhibition has been generously supported by the Polish Cultural Institute.
Using the archives of the Vestry House Museum as a point of departure, the artists Cecilia Bonilla, Sława Harasymowicz and Joanna Rajkowska reflected on and experimented with the possibility of unearthing the invisible, the missing and the fragmented from within the narrative of the location. The forgotten history that they tried to disclose was that of the Vestry House as a former workhouse. Workhouses, supposedly refuges and places of material relief for those unable to support themselves, hid in fact a reality of segregation, inhuman order and disciplinary violence. They were Foucauldian institutions of surveillance and punishment. By entering a workhouse paupers turned into nameless shadows, their bodies entombed in a parallel reality. Clothing and personal possessions were taken from them and stored, to be returned on their discharge. They were given a coarse uniform with an obligatory “WP” badge (Walthamstow Pauper) on the right sleeve and a number on the inside. While dispossessed of their few belongings, these people were stripped of their very identity, pushed into a forced anonymity. The workhouse previous inhabitants were those who, in first place, deserved to be redeemed from their invisibility.
Digging into the archives, the artists couldn’t find any trace left to testify the paupers’ lives. The only remnant was a pair of clogs. Lying within the exhibition space in front of the fireplace, they look like a humble memorial to a forgotten stranger. The expectation and desire for the material trace of a human being was set against the spectral and discouraging emptiness of what is left. The artists bumped into a crowded and loaded void that asked to be interrogated, questioned and partially shaped or filled. How can you make visible the invisible? How can you make absences perceivable? In response, the artists put in place a dynamic caught between frustration and coercion, resignation in front of the lack of evidence and conscious fabrication of false recollections, artificial memories, deferred acts of rebellion.
Looking back from the walls and the cabinet in the gallery space, Slawa Harasymowicz’s drawings are imaginary faces for faceless shadows, scraps of individuals filling an oppressive and mute void. From the archives, Harasymowicz unearthed fragments of private stories, personal memorabilia, and administrative papers. Her series Idle, Abusive, Unruly is a collection of heterogeneous and not-related archival materials, some arranged in a cabinet, others displayed on the walls, interspersed with artist’s drawings and prints. The documents in display put in place a dialectic between a depersonalizing bureaucratic power and the fragments of individuals caught up inside it. On one side there are disciplinary devices and bureaucratic forms: blank certificates of insanity, enlarged and re-made as wall announcements on Bible paper, hang on the wall; a framed copy of Victorian architectural plans for a panopticon ‘rural workhouse’ sits awkwardly on the mantelpiece, ironically alluding to a ‘family home’ display. On the other side, the remaining fragments attest the existence of individuals. There are drawings of faces, a letter reporting of an extreme case of child abuse, a ‘photo’ on a page of the Victorian scrapbook where a normal (or normative) family is re-created within the workhouse, a place where familial ties were suspended or abolished. Although this dialectic between discipline and resistance, depersonalization and residual individuality shines through the series, Harasymowicz does by no means close in on a single reading of the archive. She doesn’t force a common meaning upon the disparate documents; rather she invests in indefinite openness and encourages permanent clash. Photographs, letters, drawings and certificates work across different layers to reveal possible links, hidden clues, narrative fragments. Their openness leaves room for new associations that take place in the present, that have to be made by us in the here-and-now. The visitor is invited to fill the gaps in the archival information projecting her/his own fictional narratives.
Like Harasymowicz’s drawings, Bonilla’s collages of faces look like another attempt to challenge and win the invisibility and the absence of the workhouse inhabitants. It is as if using random cutouts from a newspaper, Bonilla was trying to project an image onto anonymous and forgotten shadows, to ‘give them a face’ and provide them with an identity. The piece, entitled METRO, Wednesday May 29th, is composed with cutouts from a recent edition of Metro Newspaper. Even though the work mainly refers to the shocking news of a baby, found wedged in a toilet pipe beneath a shared bathroom in a residential building in China, this direct reference is made indefinite through the combination with random images of other ‘characters’ found in the same newspaper. Bonilla sees in the ‘sewage baby’ article a kind of relation to the history of the Vestry workhouse: the ‘sewage baby’ is somehow reminiscent of the Vestry House inhabitants who were metaphorically ‘buried alive’. The blurred and layered portaits become thus substitutes for the Vestry’s past inhabitants. Yet, their ambiguity – which makes them unrecognisable – seems a warning, a mere acknowledgement that we will never be able to recover them.
While Harasimowicz’s drawings and Bonilla’s collages visualize invisible ghosts, Joanna Rajkowska’s attitude tends to be more tactile and acoustic. Rather than in representing absences, she is more interested in making them materially and physically perceivable. In her piece, Architecture of Labour, she considers this absence/presence spatially. In a set of glass slides, the artist deals with the problem of overcrowding and lack of space in the workhouse: up to 80 individuals resided in the limited space of a two-storey building. The artist examines the mutual relationship of the paupers, and their relation with the spaces of life and labour: the way in which they were squeezed and squashed inside the building. This effort at making tangible the intangible is also evident in the work Clogs. Here Rajkowska wants to manifest the invisible inhuman order to which the paupers of the Vestry House were subjected. Re-enacting the march from the workhouse to the church that the women had to perform every Sunday, this audio installation gives a phenomenal, to be precise sonic, manifestation to the workhouse strict discipline.
The use of sound generated from a hidden source summons up the idea of a phantasm, or a series of phantasms haunting the place. This ‘phantasmagorical effect’ is resumed and even intensified in the performance Song from the Workhouse. The piece was performed by the Polish artist Aleksandra Kozioł using the so-called ‘white voice’ technique, typical of Central and Eastern Europe. This archaic “scream-singing” (śpiewokrzyk) is basically a technique of screaming which produces a strong, raw and “dirty” sound, an excruciating and lacerating song. During the performance Kozioł was not visible – her voice came from behind a wall partition, giving the sensation of resonating walls, of a speaking house. The obscuring of the performer refers to the status of invisibility of the inmates, the fact that they were segregated from society. The immobility of the body, its impossibility to escape is contrasted by the movement of the sonic wave, by the ability of the performer’s voice to traverse physical barriers and enclosures. This voice surpasses not only physical but also temporal barriers, and eventually reach us in the present, in the moment of the performance. Re-enacting, or better enacting, the revolt of the paupers in the here-and-now, Song from the Workhouse suggests the possibility for a belated transfer between the victims of the past and the artists who work in the present.
Each in her own different way, the three artists revolt for and in place of those who were not allowed to do it; they literally give a face or a voice to those who were hidden and silenced. Bearing testimony to a forgotten and neglected past, they perform a retrospective and anachronistic action of reparation, while creating a platform for dialogue and reflection into the present.