Drawing inspiration from dystopian literature, ‘Qwaypurlake’ presents the audience with a narrative proposition: to reimagine the Somerset landscape as dominated almost entirely by water, a future world in which humans have been marginalized.
In a foreword to Tom McCarthy’s The Mattering of Matter: Documents from the archive of the International Necronautical Society, Nicholas Bourriaud, when reflecting on the role of fiction within artistic practice, writes that fiction presents ‘the power […] to generate forms in a constructed space and time’. Qwaypurlake uses this power to construct an imagined future out of the works on display. The objects and images begin to resonate as fragments of an unknown world, the seeming remnants of unfamiliar human activity.
Entering the gallery we are enclosed within a darkened enclave. David Wojtowycz’s film ‘The Lake’ presents a view of a pier, the water on either side split between a repetitive tremor and a still calm. Its unnerving dichotomy becomes as a gateway for the ensuing exhibition. Squeezing past the film and a totemic sculpture by Michael Dean we cross over a threshold into the first of three galleries. The droning electronic audio of ‘The Lake’ echoes through the following space, colouring the works on display with its tremor of unease.
The ensuing galleries present a series of objects that seem to suggest remains of undefined human activity. The small, precise ceramics of Hans Coper’s ‘Cycladic’ series and an arrangement of sculptural teeth (‘T€€TH’) and cast lips (‘Mouthpiece’) by Marie Toseland invite close scrutiny akin to museum artefacts. Accompanying these fragile forms, hang photographs by Ben Rivers, Jem Southam, Aaron Schuman and James Ravilious. Rivers’ ‘Somerset Clade’ series presents three quarter portraits of hooded figures, their heads covered in sack-like masks. They are a foreboding image - participants in an undefined ritual or victims of a torture yet to be enacted. Ravilious’ photographs of overgrown woodlands and Southam’s landscapes of the South West are hung at repetitive intervals. Together they seem to ground the fictional framework of the exhibition, reframing the familiar landscape of the area to suggest an alternative reality.
Rather than an emphasis on water as is suggested by show’s fictional narrative, there is a continued suggestion of mud. Resonating as remnants of human activity the exhibited objects are akin to archaeological finds, dug out or revealed from the watery earth. Visible tread marks on Michael Dean’s sculpture ‘X (Working Title)’ signal a trodden and churned earth, while a mud-like plasticine is sporadically caked onto netting in the drape of Sebastian Jefford’s ‘Wattle and Daub’, and an ear is sat in the brown earthy liquid of a small bowl in Heather and Ivan Morison’s ‘Misery Farm: Arrangement Two’. The impression of a prevalence of mud is most likely heightened by my walk to the exhibition, taking a footpath that in recent weather has been transformed into a squelching track of soggy earth, my boots heavy with clumps of Somerset mud.
As I continue to leave my own trace in each gallery, arriving in the final room feels akin to walking into a stage set. The gallery seems ready for a ritual performance. Daphne Wright’s ‘Stallion’ lies castrate on the gallery floor, whilst Heather and Ivan Morison’s bench like constructions ‘Misery Farm: Arrangement One, Two, Three and Four’ are carefully adorned with bowls, bones and carved stones that seem to beg for interaction. Asking to be held, hit or played, the objects echo with suggestions of totems or talismans, evoking a sentiment of ceremonial action. We are invited to take our seats around the memorialized stallion, tongue lolling and tail spread. Looming black paintings of Ian McKeever and Kit Poulson serve as the backdrop for River’s hooded figures to readily re-appear, enacting the final chapter of the curatorial fiction.
If the first two rooms serve to set the scene in Quaypurlake, this last gallery is where the story reaches its finale. The uncertain drone of Wojtowycz’s film is replaced by a sparse repetitive drip of water falling onto the cast iron bench of Heather and Ivan Morison’s ‘Time Passed’. The hydrogen oxide stains the iron with an increasing patina. With each drop of water the surface colour of the iron microscopically morphs whilst we wait in increasing suspense for the animation of this ritual scene.
Walking around the final chapter of Qwaypurlake, the objects on display seem heavy with performative potential: netting draped mid-use, bowls that want to be turned, tools waiting to be used. The objects perform a role in the curatorial fiction. In setting the stage with objects that enhance and inform the show’s narrative proposition, the curator’s hand becomes palpable. Yet instead of curtailing or prescribing interpretations of the presented artists’ works, the fictional framework enables the individual pieces to resonate with new possibilities. Not only as objects of a dystopian world, but as the distortion of the familiar landscapes and routines that surround and inform our everyday. For fiction is also a way, as Bourriaud notes, ‘to make contact with the real’.