An image of one of the works by Charlotte Dawson being discussed in the article

Charlotte Dawson:

Untitled sculptures, part of the exhibition 'Charlotte Dawson: Here/There' at Abingdon Studio. Image Credit: Matt J Wilkinson

Sometime in the mid-nineties, my mum packed my brother and I into the back of our Nissan Micra and made the journey to Blackpool where a confounding expanse of lights awaited our arrival. Not only lights but garish neons, arcades pumping out pop anthems, roller coasters that swirled above us like hardened chemtrails and the lingering smell of chip fryers. The experience was sensory overload for two small children accustomed to the static red brick of Merseyside. One combined tantrum later, she packed us back up, teary, snot-nosed, exhausted. My first encounter with Blackpool had not been a great success but my second was. Days spent strolling along the beach, stomping ferociously on a dance mat to Video killed the radio star, breaking our teeth on dummies of rock and hopping between gay bars where sticky red carpets staged evenings fuelled by a kitsch combo of alcopops and Kylie. Leisure and excess define the Blackpool I’ve experienced but Charlotte Dawson’s exhibition at Abingdon Studios invites me to consider another side. 

Here/There is part of the ‘Work/Leisure’ residency programme and stretches the leisure/labour divide across two locations. Embodying the residency’s thematic split, Dawson’s research was conducted in Blackpool in the guise of the tourist for whom work is always elsewhere. For Dawson, the ‘elsewhere’ is Sheffield, where she processed her findings and produced the sculptures that make up the show. ‘You visit, walk around, take photos and buy a few souvenirs, then you leave, it’s the way most people approach the town,’ she explains. The exhibition utilises the humble plate as a symbol that is at once quotidian and ornamental, industrial and commemorative, politically pertinent and sometimes just outright gimmicky. It’s a symbol that is particularly relevant in this contradictory corner of the country; Blackpool is a town where the split between leisure and labour is so keenly pronounced. ‘In my practice, I look for objects that have multiple meanings outside of their intended purpose,’ Charlotte tells me and it’s easy to understand how plates, much like Blackpool itself, are versatile and complex carriers of such multitudes. 

An image of one of the works by Charlotte Dawson being discussed in the article
Untitled jigsaw image, part of the exhibition ‘Charlotte Dawson: Here/There’ at Abingdon Studio. Image Credit: Matt J Wilkinson

Dawson’s installation in Abingdon Studio’s exhibition space is a cross between a school lunch hall and your nan’s living room. Dishwasher trolleys stacked with colourful crates are surrounded by shelves where decorative plates line the walls. If your experience of youth in comprehensive schools and Lladró-packed living rooms was anything like mine, these associations carry a welcome immediacy. They are familiar in a way you’d half-forgotten, like a smell or a song. On the floor, piles of brown plates are topped with what looks like artificial cheese. It’s easy to draw comparisons with Martin Parr’s glossy flash-on photos; glistening beans and stout sausages, packaged trifles that border on fluorescent. These plates with their bright yellow slabs are similarly jarring. ‘I spent three days in Blackpool collecting references; sugar rock plates, souvenirs, tea towels,’ she explains. Dawson’s work occupies its own black market economy: fakes of fakes of fakes. It’s not ‘real’ cheese or artificial, though it could be, at a glance. But what is real food, anyway? Real anything for that matter? ‘ I also went into the markets and took photos of the food made in the cafes that had been photographed and put outside on the menus.’ At the entrance of the exhibition hangs one such image. ‘Special offers’ it announces in arresting red and yellow capitals, foregrounding a still life of sprouts, peas and carrots. Though the sign reads like an advertisement, it’s actually a jigsaw puzzle with dozens of tiny pieces lovingly put together. It’s this remove that lies at the core of her work: objects in tension with their functionality—imperfect tools, flawed instruments.

I don’t mean this pejoratively. There is a charming tactility in Charlotte’s work that adds to its flavour. I count eleven types of plates in the room, ten of which are multiples. They are not ceramics but jesmonite and this gives the works a rounded texture that enhances their off-kilter appearance. The plates are bound by their material. These objects can never fulfil their ontological purpose; you cannot eat from them and a stint in the dishwasher or the oven would likely see them crumble. Still, they pose as functional, mimicking the actual labour inherent in the making of them. Each version is cast in the same silicone mould, transforming their contents into a standard texture that alludes to mass production. They are replicas of each other, yes, but also of assembly line confectionery sold as souvenirs down by the pier, variations on the classic stick of rock. They incorporate hearty seaside dinners; tea time cakes, all day breakfast, fish fingers, chips and peas. Slotted in dishwasher racks, they gesture to the labour cycle of hospitality and care, which are two of Blackpool’s principle professions and some of the lowest paid. 

Though it hasn’t always been this way. In the early 1800s, the town was established as a destination á la mode for rich Victorians looking to cure their various ailments through sea bathing. By 1846, the introduction of the railway opened the town up to working-class weekenders from Manchester. Over the following century, tourism continued to flourish; the pier, the tower, the pleasure beach. Accordingly, Blackpool’s labour economy evolved symbiotically with its leisure pursuits. Jobs here, largely in hospitality, depend on an influx of overnight guests but with the dawn of the package holiday and later budget air travel, many Brits began to shun the seaside resort in favour of more exotic climes. By 1990, the land of a thousand dreams had been demoted to a stag and hen hotspot. It’s not yet noon and I’ve already witnessed a life-size Borat cut-out and an inflatable penis. 

In spring 2022, the Conservative Party is due to bring their conference to the resort for the first time in fifteen years. Dawson’s plates are particularly loaded symbols in this context. ‘Whilst I was making the work, people were protesting with empty plates around the school dinners,’ Charlotte told me, ‘in Blackpool, everyone was struggling.’ It’s worth remembering the Conservatives initially voted down Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals in October 2021, claiming that families were adequately supported by the benefit system, a statement vastly at odds with Blackpool’s statistics and many other towns like it. After conversations with Abingdon’s co-director Garth Gratrix, Dawson set up a Crowdfunder Artists Say No To Empty Plates to sell a series of limited edition prints and raise funds for Blackpool Food Bank and the Grange Community Centre. Dawson’s all day breakfasts may be fake but they’ve produced tangible results, helping to provide free meals for young people in some of the poorest wards in the country.

An image of one of the works by Charlotte Dawson being discussed in the article
Untitled sculptures, part of the exhibition ‘Charlotte Dawson: Here/There’ at Abingdon Studio. Image Credit: Matt J Wilkinson

Blackpool’s biggest problem is its confused identity, it wants to be everything to everyone, the exhibition’s invigilator tells me. I look up at Charlotte’s plates to see sentiment and need rubbing up against one another. ‘They want to attract families but because the council won’t touch the strip clubs and gambling centres, you end up with kids attractions surrounded by this seedy underbelly.’ His insights are echoed in Sarah O’Connor’s 2017 article for the Financial Times, Left behind: can anyone save the towns the UK economy forgot? ‘Blackpool is stuck in its own strange dynamic,’ she writes, adding, curiously, ‘the more the economy rots, the more some people come.’ My conversation with the invigilator continues in front of another drying rack, this time it holds cabbage plates that could just as easily be found on the shelves of Arket, or any other over-priced Scandi store. The kitchenware is so decorative, so textured, that it surpasses usefulness completely. People move to Blackpool and bring their problems with them, he explains. They don’t understand what the town is really like, a place that chews people up to spit them back out. He reels off a list of jobs he’s worked in the last two years alone, hospitality and retail, mostly. All seasonal, all zero-hours. There is no certainty and no guarantees. Next year he’ll have to re-apply. Many of his friends have left to find opportunities elsewhere. It’s a migration that’s echoed by the show itself, which will move to Bloc Projects in Sheffield later this year. 

On the way out, I spot one of Dawon’s tea towels in the display window. On it an intricate cross stitch of an illumination, a giant panda hoisted up in front of the town’s iconic tower. It’s a reminder that here, labour and reward are cut from two sides of the same cloth.

Stephanie Gavan is a writer based between Liverpool and London

Charlotte Dawson: Here/There continues at Abingdon Studios, Blackpool until 5 March 2022, before moving to Bloc Projects, Sheffield from 24 March 2022.

Published 24.02.2022 by Roy Claire Potter in Review

1,541 words