Susan Stenger, Sound Strata of Coastal Northumberland, photo by Colin Davison
18.03.2014

Time and Tide - AV Festival Blogger Zara Worth on Susan Stenger and Jessica Warboys

This year, as part of AV Festival, The Laing hosts two sensitive and elegiac shows; Susan Stenger’s Sound Strata of Coastal Northumberland, and Jessica Warboys’ composition of film, performance, object and canvas.

You may have caught Warboys’ fantastic collaborative performance with Morten Norbye Halvorsen, as part of the AV Festival 14: Extraction opening weekend. Despite not referring to herself as a ‘performance artist’, however, it is clear from the work on display at the Laing, that performance intersects all aspects of Warboys’ practice. Bringing apparently disparate components together, Warboys creates something that augments and extends their capacity as individual artworks.

In Warboys’ film Ab Ovo (2013), the performative element of her practice is clear, although a film in its own right, Warboys’ ‘performance’ for the camera is intuitive, barely planned, her use of props is tentative and careful. These props or objects, again, connect Warboys’ to performance; as she animates them she tells a wordless story about time, landscape and beginnings.

The title of the film, Ab Ovo, translates to ‘From the Egg’, and hints at Warboys’ interests in time and origins. In relation to the wider concerns of this year’s AV Festival, it is really the history of the landscape itself, and how we and objects operate within it, that concerns Warboys.

 Jessica Warboys, <em>Ab Ovo</em>, 2013, 16mm film transfer to digital. © the artist

The titles of her on-going series of ‘sea paintings’ commemorate their ‘birthdays’; referencing the time, date and place that they were made. Warboys’ doesn’t believe herself to be doing anything ‘original’ as such, as much as presenting through her artwork what already exists; time, landscape, history. Her works give an abbreviated narrative to stories outside of herself, around subjects accepted as ‘being’ in the present tense, without regard for the expanse of their histories.

In the vast ‘sea paintings’, Warboys has almost gifted the final brushstrokes to the sea itself; presenting it with canvas and pigment she has merely initiated the work. The pigments are dispersed by the waves as the canvas is submerged in the water, at the mercy of tides and salt. It is then pulled out of the sea, loosely folded and then dragged away across the sand. The process itself recalls again a sense of performance - it is almost ritualistic. And, it is clear to see how Warboys distances herself from the idea of the creation of an ‘original’ artwork; recognising that she is harnessing an existing creative/destructive force.

Often Warboys’ films are set in coastal landscapes: beaches or amongst standing stones, before which she carries out her uncanny animations of familiar, inanimate objects. Rather than providing a backdrop, in Susan Stenger’s Sound Strata of Coastal Northumberland, the landscape provides the structure of Stenger’s musical composition.

The form of Stenger’s musical score is based around cross-sectional diagrams of the coast stretching from Tyneside to the Tweed. These drawings were made by the local mining engineer Nicholas Wood in the 1830’s; a founding member of the North of England Mining Institute and mechanical engineers, of which he was president from its establishment until his death in 1865. Fittingly, The Mining Institute is also hosting exhibitions for AV Festival this year.

Nicolas Wood, <em>From the River Tyne to the Porphyritic Rocks North of the Tweed</em>, 1838 (detail). Courtesy the Natural History Society of Northumbria

Stenger exhibited at AV Festival 12: As Slow As Possible, with her piece The Structures of Everyday Life: Full Circle, at the Newcastle Civic Centre, another audio piece, as well as doing a live performance with Attila Csihar. Stenger has an interesting background, having originally trained as a classical flautist, it was after joining Petr Kotik’s SEM Ensemble in New York, that she devoted herself to the performance of new and experimental music. Later Stenger would compose as an artist and musician in her own right, and has played in many bands including Band of Susans, as well as continuing to perform the works of experimental artists and composers including John Cage, Phil Niblock and Christian Wolff.

The many layered composition incorporates the fiddle, Northumbrian small-pipe, brass instruments, voice and, Border and Highland pipes. Each instrument follows its own geological or historical line as Stenger intertwines historical and cultural reference points and actual place names in her musical mapping of the landscape.

These two exhibitions demonstrate new and exciting approaches to continuing discourse around landscape painting in its most abstract sense.

Zara Worth @ZaraWorth