The exhibition Babel by PAPER Gallery represented artist Tracey Eastham is one which speaks to our cultural moment of turmoil and anxiety, placed within the context of a wider and more enduring sense of these concerns as a quality of Modernity. Eastham’s cut gold paper works express this mood through symbols of place and idealised depictions of the English landscape, in doing so challenging the mythologies that build into national identity.
In the small space of the gallery bell jars and framed pieces are disrupted by the piling up of sculptural versions of the same forms emerging from a heap in the corner. There is a movement here in the use of paper as a material that interrogates the subject through variations on the practice. Intricate paper cuts on the walls, bell jars containing the gold paper pinned in a state of collapse; folded sculptural forms evolved further, yet displayed as though discarded.
Each of the framed pieces features an intricate depiction which at first seems abstract yet on further viewing reveals glimpses of symbols and the topography of the land they depict. Myths of nationhood emerge in a ruined abbey, vistas of the Northern countryside, also moving beyond Britain with one piece including the American Eagle and a fractured US flag. These are all enmeshed within borders which are shifting and uncertain, speaking to landscape as a space which we imprint upon. Geographer Doreen Massey described the rocks of the Lake District as immigrants, themselves in a state of perpetual motion, albeit one on a temporality we cannot conceive of or observe. Here too we see these human traces as layered but passing, in a state of deterioration.
Gold is used throughout the exhibition as an enduring visual motif – one which speaks of value, commerce and perceived prestige. The cut paper pieces pinned within bell jars additionally gain status through this manner of display, yet their material is a ‘fake’ gold. Pivoted on a single pin the contents are held in stasis, highlighting both their fragility and impossibility. The tension within these pieces begins to articulate the experience of attempting to exist within, or maintain a fixed mythology of, the places examined. Folk values of glamour might be examined here as a system of old knowledge particular to the rural landscapes which feature within many of the works.
Throughout the exhibition what seems to be present is far from certain and liable to be perceived as something more sinister or fleeting by the viewer at any moment. Alongside the cut out works is an artist’s book which narrates an alternative approach to place. The pages are semi-translucent and feature delicate drawings in pencil with gilded highlights that echo the visual qualities of the other displayed works. However, in this case the authorship of nationhood is one which builds as individual moments are inscribed on pages to create an ongoing understanding of the landscape. It is here perhaps that Eastham’s view is given voice – one of place as palimpsest that is by nature complex, re-enacting and evolving within the confines of the given area.
Babel, PAPER Gallery, Manchester, 25 February – 1 April.
Hannah Allan is an artist and writer based in Lancashire.