Portland stone has been exported from the Isle of Portland in Dorset since Roman times. Cool and authoritative, it is used to give monuments and civic, royal and ecclesiastical buildings a sense of grandeur and a solemn presence. It has become a marker of absence and of the passage of time, used across London from the Palace of Westminster and Buckingham Palace to the Bank of England and Tower of London. For centuries, the stone has been dug from Portland’s quarries and shipped to London, leaving an inverse of the city behind. In his exhibition at SPACE Josh Bilton takes Portland stone as his focus, looking at its displacement from Portland to London and the duality of these two locations.
The exhibition begins with a video and sound installation in the Mare Street gallery. The three-screen video work comprises footage of the Portland peninsula, intermixed with shots of the workshop where the stone is cut. Bilton is shown performing in the limestone quarries, a small figure in a landscape scarred by excavation. We see him again in an anonymous studio, interacting with cut pieces of Portland stone, his face hidden behind a mask. In his performances, Bilton assumes the role of various ‘characters’ – placing a layer of fiction between himself and his environment. This exercise draws on his interest in the interface between society and the self and our subjective experience of the physical world. The sound piece accompanying the video is a composite of field recordings from the cutting workshop, finger clicks, claps and hums of human voice. For Bilton, these sounds form the ‘undersong’ of the stones from which the show takes its title.
The exhibition’s second component leads visitors outside the gallery on a self-guided walking tour of the local area. Before embarking on the tour, you are invited to take a piece of Portland stone from the ‘cairn’ in the foyer of SPACE. Carrying this, you are directed through Hackney to a series of monuments built in Portland stone – a warehouse, a pavilion, a town hall, a church and burial tombs. At the last stop, you leave your stone in a pile under the bell tower of St John-at-Hackney Church, contributing to a new ‘cairn’ that grows as the one at SPACE depletes. Each stopping point along the tour has a corresponding sound piece and poem, the latter written by Holly Corfield Carr, Bilton’s collaborator on the project.
In one poem, to be read in front of two tombs in St Thomas’ Burial Ground, Corfield Carr writes, ‘as audience to your own body, you happen twice’. This idea – of happening twice – characterises Bilton’s exhibition at SPACE. It is marked by a sense of things existing in duplicate – Portland in London, London in Portland, presence and absence, and a show both inside the gallery and out.