Medieval helpdesk was the brainchild of Lara Eggleton and David Steans. It sat tucked under a gazebo, aptly opposite a display of medieval tools and weaponry at the University of Leeds International Medieval Congress. The exhibition aimed to consider how the medieval period functions as ‘a rich storehouse of ideas, aesthetic forms and processes that continue to inform the production of [contemporary] art and its terms of engagement’. It drew a number of parallels between medieval and contemporary attitudes to a whole plethora of subjects such as death, superstition, materiality, the human body and suffering.
Andy Abbott’s trio of filmed performances ‘Heavy Metal Bell Pits’ (2012) recast heavy metal songs and tropes in various medieval styles in the Bell Pits of Baildon Moor, near Bradford. The most effective of these was a rendition of Judas Priest’s popular 1980 single ‘Breaking the Law’, performed in plainsong by local choir group The Bradford Singers. In the other two videos Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’ is sight-read on Lute by Kate Zezulka, and the hardcore, metal and punk phenomenon of the ‘circle pit’ dance is interpreted as a medieval carol by Artfarmers.
In the accompanying literature the importance of site to the project is emphasised: ‘…an artistic enquiry into the Bell Pits of Baildon Moor, their acoustic properties and the emergent study of geomusicology. Songs from the end of the industrial era are transcribed, interpreted and performed in a style proper to the era in which the Bell Pits were created; they being the remnants of the primitive forms of iron-ore mining circa 1387.’ Presented here on an enormous flat-screen television, ‘Heavy Metal Bell Pits’ anchored the exhibition’s curatorial collapsing of time and place.
Several other works on display also evoked aural manifestations of the ‘medieval’. Joseph Lewis’s ‘portiv church’ (2011), a curious church-shaped wooden box whose crude mechanical inner workings were revealed by lifting the levered roof, howled out tuneless string music once its ‘Press Me’ foot-pedal had been activated. portiv church appeared strangely dateless despite its electrical components and conveyed the idea of an alternative historical past. Kitty Clark’s ‘Drag Me to Hell, Bring Me to Life’ (2015) turned the object/noise dichotomy of Lewis’ ‘portiv church’ on its head, as the viewer was subjected to an atmospheric audio piece intended to represent, or invoke, the experience of burning ‘witches’. The sound came from a pair of headphones attached to a piece of flesh-coloured silicone, which was hanging from the gazebo’s ceiling by a chain. These horrifically violent acts of persecution assumed a new and uncomfortably contemporary figuration in Clark’s Barbie-like plastic face, forcing the viewer to confront the commodification of historical violence, and its dissemination in popular culture.
Melissa Burn’s ‘Lectern’ (2015) was comprised of a stack of gilt-edged prints, displayed on a sumptuous blue wooden lectern. The prints were free take and depicted an array of geometric shapes that vaguely resembled medieval technical drawings. The work seemed to re-enact the propagation of liturgical information in the medieval period, which was largely communicated to the illiterate through image and spoken language. The prominence of language in Medieval helpdesk was further emphasised by the Confraternity of Neoflagellants’ performance ‘Ask the Anchorite’ (2015), which took place under the table-clothed helpdesk itself. The performer assumed the identity of an anchorite – someone who has withdrawn from secular society to lead a devotional and ascetic life in a confined space. The Anchorite sat under the table, whilst Eggleton and Steans encouraged visitors to ask it questions through a letter-box sized hole in the table cloth. The questions always remained unanswered and the work, like Burn’s, playfully referenced and reinterpreted the importance of language in the medieval world.
In different curatorial hands the exhibition could have indulged in a fetishisation or sensationalisation of the metaphysical, which is so often associated with Medievalism; the period is, after all, known as the ‘Dark Ages’. Whilst acknowledging the lure of such fixations, especially within artistic circles, Eggleton and Steans were committed to showing how, through its various mythologisations, the medieval period continues to inspire artists. Take for example Jasper John’s flattened representations of flags, letters and maps, or the illustrative style that Grayson Perry charges his narratives with. Eggleton, wary of the problems of periodisation, pointed out how the medieval era exists as a “space out of time but ever present in the cultural imaginary”.
Though having been curated on this occasion as part of a larger academic congress, Eggleton and Steans were keen to stress that the project is an ongoing concern, and is intended to develop organically through further “events, exhibitions, artworks, interventions, publications and collaborations”. Given the scope of the project, its future manifestations will doubtless be equally, if not more thought provoking, helping its viewers understand the considerable influence of the medieval period on both art making today, and on the subsequent evolution of human consciousness.
Paul Bramley is a painter and art writer based in York.
Top image. Medieval helpdesk, installation view, 2015. Image courtesy the curators. Photograph: Harry Meadley.