Entering Shelter from the storm feels like finding a portal into Kathryn Elkin’s head. As we walk through the door of the gallery space, we are welcomed by the artist’s voice, resounding from a speaker. Elkin is not alone, she is being interviewed, but we are not allowed to hear the questions, as if stuck inside her thoughts. Without being able to see her, we become nevertheless involved in the memories she recounts: a teacher telling her off at school, watching her mother work in a bowling alley, the two different endings of a film she once saw. We hear her reflect on maternity, hum a Bob Dylan song. As we walk on, the artist’s voice accompanies us, pervading the whole space while we walk down the roads of her creative exploration.
We encounter the distinct parts of this exhibition piece by piece, including what she defines as ‘problem words’, such as gravity and materiality. In a video, we finally meet the artist: her pregnant body shot from the neck down, naked, hoovering, real and yet performative. She mimics Freddy Mercury’s performance in the video of ‘I want to break free’, a recurring reference within the show, which we are told helped her to see her body as a drag. The video, featuring the singer dressed up as a housewife, allowed a degree of reality about Mercury’s sexuality to emerge; similarly, through her naked presence, Elkin exposes the reality of her own position as artist and woman.
Through the display on a bookshelf of a copy of Adrienne Rich’s ‘Of woman born’, Elkin also seems to reflect on the question of how, as a performer as well as a woman, she can fully preside over her own body and on how audiences perceive her. This crucial interest in the body and in role playing, as well as the complex lines between stage and backstage, are further reiterated in the three existing works also part of the exhibition: ‘Michael’s Theme’ (2014), ‘Why La Bamba’ (2015) and ‘Dame 2’ (2016).
Elkin is the recipient of the year-long 2016/17 Warwick Stafford Fellowship, and Shelter from the Storm is an interim show before the artist will present the new (single screen) work next year. The fellowship demonstrates the importance of schemes like this to allow artists time to expand research processes and explore different methodologies. This interim exhibition provides a fascinating opportunity to witness the creation of an artist’s moving image work. Far from feeling like a ‘film set’, as one may expect, on the contrary this installation proves Elkin’s neat and strong visual arts sensibility.
At the back of the gallery a text on vinyl on the wall lets us know it is the first time the artist has shown things where she is not sure about their status. This choice was a successful one: as Craig Schwartz, the protagonist of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich would say, ‘Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?’
Shelter from the Storm, Gallery North, Newcastle upon Tyne.
9 November – 9 December 2017
Elisabetta Fabrizi is a curator and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne and London.