The traces of industry bear heavy on many an ex-industrial municipality, but Macclesfield’s former status as the world’s biggest producer of finished silk is hard to imagine in this humble Cheshire town. Macclesfield Barnaby Festival has invited artists to respond to the theme of ‘Roots/Routes’ in a bid to engage modern audiences with the rich heritage that has shaped the place we now visit today. The 2018 Festival draws visitors into hidden spaces, such as MADS Theatre, and artist-led spaces. It’s small-scale but hosts two particularly poignant projects by artists Zarah Hussain and Simon Woolham which reflect upon notions of time, industry and journeys.
Sat on the top floor of the Silk Museum is Hussain’s LED light installation, Invisible Threads. It exists in joyful contrast to its archival counterparts and injects a sense of movement, transition and modernity into a location that is somewhat forgotten. Upon entering the Silk Museum, we are directed upstairs, past romanticised illustrations, paintings and drawings of industry, and into a closed-off room. A dazzlingly display of carefully positioned diamonds light up in-front of us; their luminosity flows through sequenced hues to produce an ever-changing montage of geometric patterns. Through the rhythmic repetition of squares and circles – a process often seen in Islamic design – the viewer becomes privy to an intricate vista of hexagons, diamonds and stars.
Similar to the effects of a kaleidoscope, Invisible Threads is near-hypnotic. As humans, we’re drawn to light and colour, a trait that is made evermore present by our habitual contact with image-based media. Hussain’s piece governs a mid-point between modern technology and tradition: there is a recognition of the digital age, but also a nostalgia for textile design. Entwined within the digitally animated LEDs is a design heritage that reaches far beyond Macclesfield’s silk histories and towards the Kashmiri men and women who worked in the town’s mills. Though the Kashmiri influence is challenging to pin-down, both the piece’s title and accompanying soundscape of effervescent chimes and echoing machinery amplify the notion of hidden narratives.
As we sit, in a meditative state, we contemplate the importance of the LED panels and, more so, the spaces between them: there are elements at work behind the undulating – near-beating – shades of blue, green, yellow and red. The ‘stars’ that we see are the LEDs’ counterparts; forged by the disregarded gaps in between. Perhaps these are allegories for the unspoken lives of the Kasmiri people. Regrettably, without Hussain’s commentary, these notions are buried in the piece’s aesthetic and abstracted allure. Though highly immersive, Invisible Threads also forgoes a potentially enriching dialogue with its site: the work is isolated from the museum’s collection and architecture, appearing in a nondescript white-cube space.
In MADS Theatre, Simon Woolham is found, dressed in a graphite-covered overall, adding the final touches to his collaborative drawing. Hidden upstairs, this time in a rehearsal studio, the installation spans the breadth of the back-wall and is surrounded by black drapes. The white paper stands stark against its sombre background; a factor that encourages our focus to remain with the work. Titled Walking Routes: Mapping Excavating and Performing Histories, this large-scale piece encompasses a multitude of activities – from walking to drawing, conversation to participation and performance. Similar to Hussain, Woolham draws on Macclesfield’s industrial significance – but here, he chooses to forge his own account by enveloping himself within a story of the canal.
In order to produce this personal affinity, Woolham walked the length of the Macclesfield Canal (27km) in early June. Walking Routes at MADS Theatre is quite literally an assemblage of the rubbings taken along the way: the textures from flora, woodwork, ironwork and stonework all appear in Woolham’s culminative, abstract landscape. Refreshingly, the final vista is not predetermined and yet it is pictorial enough to garner a sense of place. Repetition, here, is key as the intricate lines and shapes found in man-made and natural surfaces generate contextual anchor-points – suggestions of bridge-arches, barriers, walkways, water and a weir set the perimeters for an ensuing narrative.
Woolham sings and plays the guitar to emulate his upcoming performance with Helen Walford and Heidi Jamila to be held on Friday 22 June. In listening to ‘Edgeland,’ our eyes are encouraged to dance along the pathways of the drawing before us. Though forcibly placing descriptions such as “Black echoes surface” “vaulted grey skies,” and “Rising morphic vale” into our subconscious, the performance provides the project with an extra dimension: an abstract form of storytelling. While Woolham’s somewhat post-punk vocals suggest the lamenting of a lost, forlorn land, it is ultimately left to the viewer to decipher specific themes and to add their own external knowledge and experiences to the piece. Walking Routes‘s positioning within a theatre is a thoughtful touch, as it further embeds the work’s connection with narrative, performance and the ‘stage-set.’
Multi-layered in their approaches, both artists consider the passage of time and the connections that flow between Macclesfield’s past and present. For Hussain, it is her family history – her roots, the migratory route taken by her ancestry and the Kashmiri role in the trade – that have led her to relate to the silk industry: it is her zeal for technology that has enabled her to execute this rapport in a manner apt to the present day. Woolham, too, reflects upon past industries – he exposes the labour-some textures forged by the stonemason’s hand – while also bringing his experience closer to himself and his audience by walking, drawing and performing. Though their focus is on the modern audience, both practitioners ultimately provide homages to their respective subjects: Hussain to the silk trade’s forgotten artisans and Woolham to the disused waterway. These responses are playful and experimental, packed with nostalgia and tinged with aspiration for the recognition of alternative histories.
Macclesfield Barnaby Festival 2018 ran 15 – 24 June