Work made for BOAT (for Peter) and installation views now online.
In this post:
News about my ‘work in progress’ micro-exhibition in Sheffield – with installation images;
the four themes emerging from the work for BOAT (for Peter);
and the launch of a booklet of alternative ‘Listening Notes’ exploring ideas in Peter Grimes and my work.
[This is the third post in a series. See two earlier posts (below) about the background to the project, and images from my studio during the making.]
S E A S C R I P T (Access Space, Sheffield - open 11am-5pm, Wed-Fri until May 31st)
I was given the opportunity to exhibit work related to BOAT (for Peter) this month.
S E A S C R I P T runs Wed-Fri, 11am-5pm, until May 31st at Access Space, Sheffield. The exhibition explores a single aspect of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes: the representation of the sea, and the role of scripts and scores in music production. Hugely inspired by Frank Bridge’s The Sea, Britten gives the changing character of the sea a role of its own in his opera. Agnes Martin’s 1963 work The Wave suggests the sea using minimalist graphic notation. As well as two new works on paper, both 'scores' for the sea, and a film work on loop, I displayed three paper pianola music rolls. Acting as score, and somehow also as a recording, for player pianos, these are fed into the pianola manually. The machine reads the perforations to make the prescribed sound. Despite the physical programming of the paper roll, the pianola (human) 'player' can effect real variation in speed and volume. The rolls, like waves, represent variation possible within repetition and proscription.
The exhibition is silent – there is no sound on the video loop, and my painted and perforated ‘scores’ (as well as the pianola music rolls) hang inertly against the walls. Sound is suggested and scripted in the exhibition, but not performed or heard.
THEMES within the work made for BOAT (for Peter)
As studio time for BOAT (for Peter) comes to an end, I’ve begun grouping pieces of work into themes. I’ll use these ideas to organise the work in the exhibitions in Snape Maltings and Sheffield.
PLANS If Peter were to be rescued from drowning at sea, would he need a boat? What form would such a boat take? Plans would need to be drawn up and transferred to watertight materials. Materials would need to be selected and then carefully divided and apportioned into necessary and unnecessary, needed and offcut.
SCORES How could a character be ‘rescued’ from an opera that has already been composed, performed and recorded? An intervention would need to be made into Britten’s score – I’d have to hack the libretto. I’ve drawn on the format of paper music rolls for pianolas and music boxes, in which perforations represent both score and recording.
STARS “Who can decipher / in storm or starlight / the written character / of a friendly fate [?]” Peter asks as the storm rages in Act 1, Scene 2. The ghostly lines of constellations presented here suggest an alternative fate is written for Peter and his apprentices.
(SEA) FLOOR There will be a site-specific installation at floor level in each gallery. The installation will explore the process of using templates, or patterns, to make something, and will stand in for Peter and his apprentice John, the two characters presumed to have come to rest on the sea floor at the end of Britten’s Peter Grimes.
Produced in collaboration with music researcher and presenter Dr Katy Hamilton, this 44-page A5 booklet of alternative ‘Listening Notes’ explores themes in the opera and my work for BOAT (for Peter). It was designed by Mark Devereux Projects and was printed on 100% recycled paper by RAP Spiderweb.
The booklet is available at both exhibitions or by emailing me – helen [dot] stokes [at] cantab [dot] net (£7 inc. P&P).
BOAT (for Peter)
Pond Gallery, Snape Maltings, IP17 1SP / Thursday 8th – Wednesday 14th June / 11am-7pm
Meet Katy Hamilton in the gallery, Monday 12th June, 2.30-4.30pm
APG Works, Sheffield, S1 4RH / Wednesday 21st June – Saturday 1st July (closed Sundays) / 11am-5pm
Evening Opening, Friday 23rd June, 6-9pm
In conversation with Katy Hamilton, Access Space (opposite APG Works), Saturday 1st July, 2pm (free)
This post documents some of the experimental work that's come from making a boat for Peter Grimes. The images offer a sneak preview into my studio practice, although these works might not all make it into the exhibition...
Plans are full of potential. Plans are made but not always followed. In Britten's opera, the characters sing about their plans and dreams against a backdrop of harsh working conditions and the small-minded meanness of their community. I toyed with the plans my grandfather used to build a boat, admiring the precision of the hand-drawn lines. I have re-created versions of these lines on a wooden panel with a scalpel, as if marking-out future cuts, and on paper, where lines are divisions before they are cuts.
What size and shape of boat could rescue Peter from his ending? This paper boat was my size - its cocoon-like sides offered privacy and protection, but it was never going to float, let alone hold me above water. I dismantled the boat, marking in chalk where the sides had joined the trunk, as if making notes for a later version, or a dress-maker's pattern. The sections of paper boat that remain have a relation to plans, without following them, and it's unlikely the pieces could be put back together to make the boat a second time.
What materials would a boat to rescue a character in an opera be made from? A survey of the materials mentioned in the libretto brought up a hundred possibilities. Peter and Ellen Orford (Peter's best ally in the Borough) sing of the lives they hope to build for themselves and Peter's young apprentice, John. Ellen sings of the "silk and satin lives" she dreamt about in her childhood. I made these silk plans physical, toying with the formal properties of plans for boats. The final results (in silk) began to look like the sea...
At the end of the opera, Peter is told to sail his boat beyond sight of land and sink it. The presumed fate of the fisherman (though we never see it in the opera) is on the seafloor, boat scuttled and man drowned. I compared boatbuilders' plans to archaeological plans of shipwrecks and found they share lots of similar visual qualities. Some of the markings on plans recur in other types of document, with different symbolism...this brought up ideas about readability: text and context. Here, a roll of pianola music (perforated paper that is played - read - by a mechanical piano) seems to mimic the symbol for (rusting) metal bolts on an archaeological plan of a shipwreck. What would Peter Grimes sound like if played on a pianola? What would the music look like on paper? Could a pianola be made to read the archaeological plan of a shipwreck if its graphic marks were translated into the equivalent perforations..?
Work will be on show at the Pond Gallery, Snape Maltings during the first week of the Aldeburgh Festival, 8th-14th June, 11am-7pm, and then again in Sheffield at APG Works, 21st June to 1st July, 11am-5pm, closed Sundays.
Introduction to the project
This is the first of five posts documenting the production of a body of new work called BOAT (for Peter). The project grew out of a 2015 proposal for a commission. I continued to work on the idea and was supported by Mark Devereux Projects to apply for Arts Council England funding. In November 2016 my application got the green light and the project was up and running. This first blog post comes approximately at the end of the first 6 weeks of studio time.
Point of departure
The work responds to the ending of Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera Peter Grimes. Having art work respond to something is perhaps an overused phrase in contemporary art writing, but in this case I think 'response' is the right term. At the end of the opera (spoiler alert), the anti-hero Peter is sent to sink his fishing boat out at sea, in other words to die, after he is physically rejected by and ostracised from his community. My work is a response to that ultimate rejection: I’m more than just ‘inspired by’ the opera’s ending – I want to answer it somehow… and for my work to invite responses and provoke reactions from others. The idea of responding visually to Grimes has been percolating almost since I heard the opera for the first time.
My opera credentials (!)
I first heard the opera Peter Grimes about 4 or 5 years ago, and have since listened to it hundreds of times. It was the orchestral interludes and the arias which first struck me as being so beautiful, and I'd skip through the recitative (talky-singy parts). But gradually I began to love the work as a whole. My introduction to opera in general came a few years before, whilst I was studying Italian at university. There was a trip to see an ENO production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito - but I don’t remember it making a big impression. I later moved to Rome and began working as a PA to Andrea Andermann, known for his (BAFTA and Emmy award winning) live opera productions – such as Tosca with Placido Domingo and Catherine Malfitano in the lead roles – which was aired live on TV in 1992. The production was filmed with Steadicams in the actual locations the opera is set, at more or less the times of day of the action, and with the same time-intervals between the acts. I later wrote about Tosca, and more generally about opera in the time of the London riots, during my Masters at the now sadly closed London Consortium. The Britten centenary in 2013 completely passed me by and I didn’t really think much more about opera until my partner suggested I might like Peter Grimes. Maybe I can’t call myself an opera fan just yet, having seen so few live productions and listened to so few recordings – but Britten's Peter Grimes grabbed me and hasn’t yet let me go.
One of the best things to come out of the project so far has been the opportunity in January this year to chat about the opera with Dr Katy Hamilton - music researcher, presenter, academic and fully-fledged Grimes fan. After years of listening to Grimes on my iPod, it was incredible to spend an afternoon talking about the opera with someone who can quote the libretto back to front. We’re working on a booklet exploring themes in Grimes, to accompany my work for the exhibitions, and we'll give a talk to contextualise the opera and examine some of the themes as explored in my work.
Initially I planned to build a structure to 'rescue' Peter from his fate at sea (and had originally titled the project 'Rescue Boat'. I saw an opportunity, a 'way-in', in the many cycles in Grimes (for example, the rhythms of the tides, the passage of days into nights). The possibility of renewal within a cycle seems to be implicit in the music and the libretto. I became interested in the idea of making (or drawing) a structure that was both Peter's watery grave, his ‘boat-coffin’ on the sea-bed, and a vessel that could somehow rescue him, replacing the support of his boat. I started thinking about the relationship between archaeological plans of shipwrecks (big thanks to Sheffield University PhD student Sam Garwood for talking me through some wrecks in the Adriatic!) and boat builders' plans (for new boats). Plans for potential new boats; plans of boats destroyed, lines and shapes overlapping and tentatively pointing outside of a linear time-sequence.
Inspiring from the start was my grandfather’s dedication to building a (floating, functioning) boat from plans bought on the internet. I think there is something almost magical about plans; plans are visual instructions, recorded recipes to eke potential out of some raw or inert material. Looking at copies of the plans my grandfather built from, spending time tracing the technical drawing and re-forming the prescribed shapes in paper, has felt like a means of communication across time with someone who, like Peter, has now sadly been lost to sight. Whilst my activity has a sense of coming after (making things from plans that have always already been followed; listening to an opera that has always already been completed, performed and recorded) – I hope the work I'm making will offer a momentary, imaginative return to a time before: a non-linear, cyclical time, in which potentials for alternative outcomes exist and overlap.
Where I’m at
Since the initial concept of a ‘rescue boat’, following experiments in my studio and interesting discussions with other artists, I’ve moved away from an obviously boat-y, nautical formal response.
I made a boat from paper, large enough to contain me on my studio floor, but not suitable for water-borne ventures! Now dissected, the work I'm making looks a bit like dress-makers' patterns for a boat, odd shapes of paper with functional ‘join’ markings on. Paper has been joined in my studio by some interesting materials I’ve not worked with before – satin and embroidery thread, as well as sheets of hardwood ply and a synthetic paper-like fabric called Tyvek... In my next blog post around mid-April I will document the making stages in more detail.
The completed work will be exhibited at the Pond Gallery, Snape Maltings from 8th -14th June 2017, coinciding with the first week of the Aldeburgh Festival. The show will then move to APG Works in Sheffield, from 21st June to 3rd July, with a free talk event on 1st July with Dr Katy Hamilton and myself in conversation. Timings and further details tbc.