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.