Thursday, 27 May 2010

The ultimate stranger: the Ferryman of Death

In Xenon I’ve been exploring notions of strangers, their associations and iconography. The theme of death as the ultimate stranger of the existential beyond emerged early on in the work. In essence, death is un-representable, but has been the source of a rich iconography varying from the skeletal form to insects, specific colours, musical instrument etc. The image of the Ferryman of Death, who transports the souls from the land of the living to the land of the dead, with a river separating the two realms, is a common one. The ancient Greek version of the boatman (Charon) who demanded a coin from the dead in order to deliver their soul to Hades (hence the coins found on mouth of the dead) transformed into the popular image of a boatman wearing a black cloak, holding a scythe. A dancing skeleton beating a snare-drum or playing the fiddle is another iconic representation of the character of Death. Whatever shape Death takes, he inhabits an in-between realm: between water and land, between darkness and light.

It is precisely my thinking of this liminal terrain and strangers that drew my research to representations of refugees, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. Often pursued by the law, they inhabit a shady realm of invisibility, underrepresentation and non-belonging. A figure that I repeatedly encountered in the south of the Mediterranean is that of illegal immigrants, often from North Africa, walking under the hot summer sun along the beech, selling their merchandise to tourists. Unable to receive job permits and licences for shops, they resort to carrying their ‘shops’: such as enormous trays of food and heavy trays of drinks. But most of all, the image that has stayed imprinted in my memory is that of emaciated men carrying heaps of multicoloured inflatable beech toys. It is the combination of the visual contrast between the enormous volume of their merchandise and lack of volume of their bodies, and the complex associations of provisional inflatable devices used by many immigrants to travel the deadly waters between Africa and Europe that make the iconography of these figures poignant.

Staging an unlikely meeting of strangers, Act 2 of the Xenon project features a death scene in which a character inspired by the iconography of death beating a drum and that of the beech-inflatable immigrant seller emerges like ghost out of the sea. Xenon Act 3 which is a video work set in a desolate disused coalmine, also features the same character who comes to haunt the site and walk across the edges of the mine in a scene inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s representation of the dance of death in the closing sequence of his film The Seventh Seal.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Singing sounds from beneath

XENON: Act 3

Strangers from underground

Upon visiting Deal and Dover, and researching the history of East Kent, I became fascinated with the mining past of the area and its relationship to the rest of the UK. In the context of the project Xenon, which explores notions of the ‘stranger’, I became interested in the different ethnic and cultural minorities in the area. Dover being so near France, is often the first point of arrival for many refugees. However, except for the ‘obvious’ strangers to this place who come from abroad, the area is marked by centuries of influx of ‘strangers’ from within the British Isles. Last century miners emigrated from different parts of the UK to the South East seeking employment; as they traveled, they brought with them their traditions, songs and culture. My understanding of many of the mining communities is that of strangers and locals working together. In addition, there is something about the hardships and subterranean work of miners that resonates almost in a mythical way in our imagination. In myth, heroes such as Orpheus for example, travel to the depths of the earth, surpassing dangers and their physical limits, in order to learn the forbidden secrets of the dark realm before returning to sing of them.

These two aspects: the gathering of strangers, and the act of descending into the dark and returning to sing, are what has inspired me to approach a miners’ choir, Snowdown Colliery Choir for a collaboration. After I attended their concert at St George’s Church in Deal Festival 2009, and more recently, attending one of their rehearsals, my ideas have developed.

Working with this choir has enabled me to explore the theme of the stranger in a multifaceted way. And several other themes have emerged and have become part of the work. The ‘strangeness’ of old age is one of them. Looking at mainstream media, it is striking to see the underrepresentation and marginalisation of old age and the frail body; old age and illness can be thought of as ‘strangers’ in a culture obsessed with health, corrective plastic surgery and youth. We tend to think of both illness and old age as something 'other' that arrives, that comes to us. Equally, in main stream music, there are very few examples of recorded older voices which display signs of age, frailty and maturity. When I visited Snowdown Colliery Choir, I met a majority of older members (some with critical health conditions) who travelled from different locations to attend the rehearsal and partake in communal music-making. The make up and dedication of the choir are a celebration of old age, community, and music-making, which are moving and inspirational.

Singing sounds from beneath

Part of my research has been a tour of Kent’s closed coal-mines. There are several, some of which are accessible, with very few original buildings standing. Some of the sites are dangerous, whereas others are relatively hazard-free. Their histories, entangled with dangerous working conditions and violence following the conservative government’s decision to close them, have left deep marks in British culture, but also, these closed mines are scars in the landscape. Unable to locate them on regular maps, I researched satellite images of East Kent, which show up barren pockets surrounded by lush vegetation. These ‘blank areas’ are the mines. Desolate and barren, they resemble lunar landscapes. Upon visiting them, signs of nature’s reclaim were visible with new vegetation. Deprived of big trees to absorb rainwater and break the wind however, these sunken sites quickly transform into hostile wind-swept flooded basins.

My fascination with these other-worldly sites goes beyond their surface however. I walked around the enormous Tilmanstone colliery. Its muteness and sterility lead me to think about what lies underground. Once operational, this mine was populated with machines, workers and the sounds of their activities – it had rich soundscapes associated with industrialisation and labour. What happened to the sounds of all that subterranean activity? How do they exist in the memories of miners? What if the mine were to operate once more just for a few minutes, as a resistance to the logic of capitalist profit and production, against the law, disregarding the need for safety, giving up everything else?

In response, I worked with Snowdown Colliery Choir to reanimate the coalmine by singing all those subterranean sounds: stem and charge exploding the earth, shovels scratching the gravel, drills piercing the coal-face, snakers and chockers pushing the conveyer, monorails grinding the tracks, water-sprays squirting water. The composition also quotes a hummed version of the Miner's Lament sung by miners during their strikes. When filming the choir there was also a realisation that their grouping together resembles their iconic picket lines.

Looking above, hearing the invisible

This work is also a collaboration with visual artist Uriel Orlow. I have created sound works for numerous video works by Uriel, and decided to invite him to work with me. We have collaborated to create a video piece which grows out of sound. We videoed last week and are currently editing a work which includes Snowdown Colliery Choir singing sounds from underground standing on top of the closed mine of Tilmanstone.