Despite securing a renewal of its Arts Council funding, The Customs House in South Shields is bringing its curated gallery programme to a close. Thus ends one of the most significant sources of visual arts provision in the North East, inventively led for a decade by curator Esen Kaya.
‘Drawing’, in a broad range of senses, has been a theme of The Customs House collaborations with universities and community groups in recent years, so it is fitting that Kaya’s final exhibition should showcase another uniquely expanded view of what the subject can encompass.
Sabina Sallis is an artist, researcher and curator working in multiple media, and across disciplines, to weave together science and mythology in her ‘aesthetics of sensitivity to life’. This exhibition mixes together new and reconfigured previous work; including video, backlit photo collages and a large kinetic installation, as well as prolific drawings on varied surfaces and three imposing tondos.
The drawings all suggest the elements of a singular imagined world that could be sub-cellular, sub-oceanic or sub-conscious. Among the vaguely organic and geological forms are some that readily evoke sea-creatures, vegetation or cross-sections of bodily organs, and other more fantastical inventions that elude recognition. There is both the sweep of a visionary creative flair and the meticulous application of styles borrowed from graphic design and medical illustration.
The most striking aspect of this immersive, meditative experience is how the totality seems to have a functional plausibility to it, as though this fictional ecosystem obeys its own sophisticated internal logic. All the forms appear to have selected themselves according to strict evolutionary rules, and everything pulses with the same organised life force. And yet how, or why, remains a mystery.
Cue the Voynich Manuscript, the equally mysterious inspiration for Sallis’ imagery here. The Manuscript is a 15th century codex that apparently illustrates aspects of herbalism and astrology, but whose text has famously eluded all expert attempts to decipher it. The slowly geared-together wheels of Sallis’ perpetual motion machine in the centre of this exhibition nicely evoke both the levers of WWII code-breaking machines and the eternal gravitational orbits of spheres in the cosmos.
A codex for our own age might be a treatise on sustainability and the principles of permaculture. We certainly need creative systems-thinking in this area, in just the way that Sallis has addressed in her research. Unpicking a legacy of patterned hegemonies, colonialism and unsustainable attitudes to the environment motivates many political reformers, but doing so from a starting-point of aesthetics puts Sallis honourably in the tradition of ‘social sculpture’ as espoused by Joseph Beuys.
A thirst for instant ‘knowability’ may be one weakness of the ‘information age’. This exhibition reminds us that it might sometimes be more respectful of reality (and more adaptively useful) to acknowledge the vastness of all that we do not know, and to become more skilled at working with mystery. Such an outlook may even allow some optimism about The Customs House returning to eminence in visual arts programming at some point in future.
Drawing Close – Voynich Series, Port of Tyne Gallery, The Customs House, South Shields.
18 November 2017 – 30 March 2018.
This show forms part of DRAWING, a programme of exhibitions and events across the North East exploring the role of drawing in art, culture and the everyday. DRAWING runs from November 2017 to January 2018. For further information, visit the DRAWING website.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.