Heather Phillipson

Heather & Simon @ GAG

Back in July there was a talk and walk by Simon Roberts at the Grundy Art Gallery, a session I fully intended to attend. Unfortunately though, when the day came I was still in a recovery period following surgery and I couldn’t make the trip over to the seaside. I have now finally managed to make in to the gallery and look at Roberts’ prints, and the video installations by Heather Phillipson too.

Whilst I was there predominantly to see Roberts’ work Pierdom, the ground floor was taken over by Phillipson, so the entrance into her exhibition beckoned and seemed to be the logical place to start. Prior to the exhibition, I knew nothing about Phillipson. I still know little, other than she can be a bit risqué and works with video installations that are more welcoming than others I have seen. Now, in the past, video has been weak for me. As the art form itself, it has not been particularly captivating, and many have been what I would consider highly pretentious or just plain dull as yesterday’s dishwater. Here though, after being rebirthed from the dark and into the light of an odd new world, there is something that I found interesting. They weren’t slow and ponderous, if anything they were quite surreal which will always pique my interest a touch. And watching a video from the back seat of an old Peugeot or a speedboat on bottles of water is not something you do everyday.
It was A is to D what E is to H that I found most compelling, viewing the video projected on to the screen of the aforementioned car. Seemingly random images flowing together, narrated by a woman (I assume this to be the artist). I really don’t know why I liked this. Yes, it was different. No, I don’t know what it means or why... Well, just why in general I think. It’s left me confused but wanting more. The delivery of the audio is still in my head.

A is to D what E is to H - excerpt from Heather Phillipson on Vimeo.

So, back into the real world and upstairs to Simon Roberts’ photographs of piers... an odd transition, but somehow also a strangely appropriate coupling - can a pier really have phallic connotations, or is that something that only comes to mind when married with Phillipson’s work? Will this be something that occurred to Roberts as he carried out his survey of Britain’s Victorian piers, recording them before they deteriorated into nothing but memory - I recall that on the day of the intended talk, Eastbourne pier was badly damaged by fire.
Physically, the 4 main prints were large and impressive. They’re packed with detail and clearly not taken with an iPhone on a family trip to the seaside - no, they’re slow, deliberate and considered. They’re also very “matter of fact”, objective; not hiding the fact that they’re deteriorating, not hiding the fact that there’s a certain unsavoury underbelly in the surroundings that may actually be lost on those that were not born in a seaside town. Maybe, as a “Blackpudlian”, I have a certain view on living in a seaside time for much of my life, a view that is not particularly favourable (can anyone look favourably on a town that was reported as heading upwards by a local councillor because a Nando’s was opening?). I see beyond the dazzle of a theme park, which I suppose I liken to put glitter on a skin cancer. But the theme park is also a subject in one of the photographs, representing an escape from reality that seaside towns can be to those that visit and leave before the gloss has had time to tarnish.

Is the theme park otherwise relevant to these images? I mention it because with it it became obvious that Roberts is not searching to show everything in the scene. Yes, the pier is there, but whilst it juts out into the sea, it’s also connected to its surroundings, and these surroundings go beyond the edge of the frame. We are allowed to explore the pier, but we are stopped from going too far from it. I guess it should be obvious that there needs to be an edge to the frame, but some might want to neatly encapsulate things - perhaps that would be the sign of a vernacular image? What I have done though is leave that frame and bring a lifetime of experience of seaside life to them, seeing beyond them. It’s a clear embodiment of Barthes’ theories that the images are different to us all because of who we are. I’ve never been to Weston-Super-Mare or Southend-on-Sea but still feel I know more through a shared experience. I may be well off the mark, but the photographs stir up feelings. I’m fairly sure these aren’t what Roberts was expecting, I suspect he would rather recall happy times, playing on the sands near the shadow of the pier or visiting the “amusements”, but there we go...
Despite what might come across as negativity for these images, I actually found them really interesting. They’re very relevant to my own approach to landscape, of how I am planning to approach my next significant project exploring what might be forgotten histories of conflict. They illustrate how a measured approach to the subject does not have to become a tightly controlled Becher-esque typology, although typology is clearly what this is.

Perhaps a “complaint” that I might raise about the exhibition is that it’s small; there are only 4 large photographs and 2 smaller ones. However, this weakness might also be considered a strength, the exhibitions USP. You see, it’s not just in Blackpool, but also in a range of other seaside towns at the same time. It’s not for people in the big cities with the fancy galleries, but it’s back with the places that it came from. It’s odd, but whilst it takes something away, I also think it’s given back something else and it’s strangely stronger for it.