‘Isle of Slingers’ draws together multiple strands of Stuart Whipps’ working practice, revealing his working method and showing an archive of information researched and compiled over a period of five years. Whipps describes his practice as ‘drilling down into an object’ – unearthing a social archaeology of an object or image to explore materials, individuals and their histories.
For this exhibition, Whipps has researched three types of stone and three related individuals whose link might seem initially tenuous. His geological subjects of choice are Portland stone, slate and shale, while his human ones comprise arts patron and poet Edward James, architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis and the artist John Latham. Three landscape photographs anchor the exhibition to the locations where each stone was extracted, connecting the now dislocated material to the physical space of its origin.
The three stones are interrogated through association with the individuals highlighted. Sir Clough Williams Ellis was the visionary architect for Portmeirion (a tourist village in North Wales built in the style of an Italianate village) who argued that the town lacked significant natural beauty to elevate it from the towns surrounding National Park, whereas the West Lothian Bings were declared national monuments after the intervention of John Latham. These stories blend through Whipps work and the images and objects in the show trace these narratives. The work is fixed yet ambiguous, leading Whipps to weave in other contexts - from concrete structures in the Mexican jungle to Birmingham’s public library that is currently being demolished.
Presented at the start of the exhibition are a series of books reclaimed from the Birmingham library and given ornate marbled covers and stone bookends. This unites Whipps’ interest in leftovers and remnants, and connects them with Edward James. James set up a publishing house entitled ‘Faustian Press’ that would publish his own poetry and that of those he admired in ornate ultra-luxurious editions. Often James’ texts would go unfinished but he would publish them anyway, as a way to fix and monumentalize his work.
Trained as a photographer, the process and history of photography provides the model for much of Whipps’ thinking. The notion of fixing an image and preventing further change to its state is used as a concept by Whipps to explore the formation of ideas and how things come into being.
An important idea explored through ‘The Isle of Slingers’, is how these stones become manipulated and the labour entailed to take from the ground. Its impact is apparent in the landscape photographs - for example, one image displays an artificial stack left on Pulpit rock in Portland as a quarrying relic. Labour is also metaphorically explored through the focus on hands that runs throughout the exhibition. From the inclusion of Tilly Losch’s short video ‘Dance of the Hands’, to the clenched fist logo of Faustian Press, to Christopher Wren’s sign language displayed on light boxes.
A video projection at the centre of the space reveals a dancer placing stones to be projected upon. This piece brings together all of Whipps’ research, highlighting back-stories and context for the works presented. Each segment is preceded by sign language of Christopher Wren, in which all letters of the alphabet are presented on the five digits and palm of a hand. In a nod to Tilly Losch’s video, a dancer mirrors the forms presented. The film deftly interweaves Whipps’ wide-reaching research, bringing it all together in a single register to draw out connections between the seemingly isolated trajectories.
‘Isle of Slingers’ presents disparate narratives into a cohesive exhibition. Bringing together this vast body of research, Whipps’ often ambiguous images and objects highlight incidental details or digresses into a material’s back-story that undermine’s its somewhat simplistic appearance, pointing to something altogether more slippery and, with that, more human.