a collage of Rave night flyers collected by the artist and presented under Perspex, illuminated from the back.

Rachel Riggs:

'Rave' (1992) Rachel Riggs

There was something appealing about imagining yourself travelling through the gaps in old wallpaper towards adventure. This was an important memory for the young Rachel Riggs, spoken about during a Q&A session at the opening night of her new exhibition Ravenous at The Carlton Club, Whalley Range, Manchester. Moving through these gaps, to distant lands as an act of emotional escapology seems appropriate for someone raised in the shadow of Blackpool and the tourist seasons on Lancashire’s coastline. Where, for so many months a year, people from elsewhere arrive to let their hair down for a day or more. Watched and catered for by local people who service all sorts of desires, working to sell souvenirs or show-time experiences of ephemeral delight. 

This is where Riggs’ collage work began. Stitching together a feminist identity and a creative career out of the discards from kiss-me-quick and fruit machine tumbling. The artist’s personal journey lead from the fairground and circus, with its colour, lights and sounds, through the risky pleasures of uprising energy in the multicultural and equitable nature of a Rave scene that promised change, to real adult adventures ‘far, far away, out of the dark of the North West’. From the beginning of Riggs’ artistic practice to her most recent work, there is a gap. As a young woman she witnessed working-class people going out dancing and being treated like enemies of the State. Harsh punishments were meted out on ravers, as with striking miners; driven from fields and abandoned buildings, and herded into police vans. It was a dark time, but nothing new for the British establishment. 150 years ago, ‘they’ might have been shipped off to populate the Colonies. 

Ravenous is a sort of retrospective, a remembering and re-examination of the scrapbook elements that powered Riggs’ creative career journey through countries and landscapes, all the way to the other side of the world. The artist has looked back and presented some of the important moments from her life that inspired the milestone statement pieces on show here. The search for equity in life and art is an important thread, as are the cultural backdrops to this pursuit. In ‘Phone Sex’ (1992) a collage of telephone box cards on Perspex, all selling various explicit varieties of sexual experiences, is overlaid with an oil painted image of a lone male figure blowing a horn. This piece explores the notion that sex still sells, but also that telephone boxes held the road maps to secret Rave nights. These are shown in the companion piece ‘Rave’ (1992), a collage of party-night flyers arranged on Perspex and illuminated like stained glass. 

An old fashioned lunch tray showing picnic foods overlaid with images of insects.
‘Out to Lunch’ (2021) Rachel Riggs

Newer pieces, including one from a series of collaged serving trays called ‘Out for Lunch’ (2021), appears to be a testament to domestic life. This tray, adorned with pictures of luscious fruits then over-collaged with devouring insects leads me to imagine presenting a plate of fish and chips to a customer on that tray. Be real, how would this change the power dynamic between server and served? The act of layering images which creates dynamism and new context, playing with alternative perspectives, mirrors the work involved in the lifelong endeavour of seeking to define an independent working-class woman’s consciousness. These collage pieces which represent Riggs’ creative focus begin with images of objects that are marketed to women – and reinforce women’s conventional social roles – but here they are exaggerated, and subverted.

Showing art in this community setting also chimes with the artist’s focus on working-class women’s experiences, who were and are witnesses to the ‘backstage’ areas of seaside life; the ingredients that go into the machines making sweets, along with the cellophane packaging and sticking tape of the seasonal work that manufactures what others see as part of English seaside magic. The social spaces of working-class women are rarely able to celebrate the art that their livelihoods helped to make. Instead, contemporary art is usually displayed in the dislocation of the white cube, or perhaps online, distorted through prejudicial algorithms. As such, The Carlton Club, a thriving arts and social space that, ironically, was built as a private members’ club about 130 years ago is a fitting site for this exhibition. Riggs seeks with her work to ‘explore the social attitudes to women, past and present’, and that she ‘has been attempting to recognise the agency and identity inherent’ in working women’s life stories, even as they have been ‘traditionally sidelined and objectified’. In this context it’s pertinent to remember that working women were the last to get the vote in Britain, and that was less than 100 years ago. 

An ornament with a silver frame and a chain to hang from which is collaged with images of flowers and bodies.
‘Like is Like a Bed of Roses’ (2021) Rachel Riggs

The pieces presented here exemplify Riggs’ fundamental approach to art making, that of handmade effort. She honours the individual’s journey, signposting important moments with acts of creativity using the ‘stuff’ left behind. Returning to her earliest works, produced during the late 1980s to early 1990s, the pieces clearly signal a time that is already lost. Paper artefacts, telephone boxes and food trays in homes are things of the past, and the online digital world is now where time poor working women scroll through ideas and articles about how they/we/women are supposed to be. Maintaining the central methodology of her practice over thirty years, Riggs’ work reminds us, through site specificity, that there is a sensual relationship to be had with objects, whether found, collected, recycled or bought. It is a relationship that involves feeling the weight of a contested reality, and using it to defiantly make one’s own instinctively new combined stories.

Ravenous continues at The Carlton Club until 3 August 2023.

Money raised in an opening night auction was donated to Manchester Women’s Aid (Pankhurst Centre)

Chantal Oakes is an artist and author based in Preston, with a focus on using a collaborative arts practice to produce text and moving image.

This is an independent commission supported by advertising, publication sales and donations.

Published 30.07.2023 by Lauren Velvick in Reviews

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