Six driftwood sculptures rest on plinths in Cooke’s Studios, Barrow-in-Furness, a grand Victorian building near the railway station that once housed a department store. Their mottled shapes have been formed by wind and water. One large piece, smooth on one side, is slit almost as neatly as a gutted fish to reveal a pattern of embedded fake nails in a gradient of pink, yellow and orange. Fingernails appear to grow out of each sculpture like gills or scales, in various colours and arrangements. Their acrylic sheen contrasts with the wood’s matte crocodile-skin, glittering crystals inside unassuming lumps of rock.
Artist Jack Brown was inspired to make ‘Fake Nails and Driftwood’ (2023) by the nail bars around Barrow’s town centre. Gathered from the beach on Walney Island, the driftwood brings to mind the sea’s endless movements, while the nails evoke more ephemeral human rituals of adornment. Yet, however delicate these petal-like plastics look, they will take much longer to decompose than their attached hunks of organic matter. These otherworldly sculptures encapsulate the key themes of TIDAL, Signal film and media’s exhibition programme examining Barrow’s coastal environment and the climate crisis: an environmentalist awareness, strong appreciation for locality and a sense of playfulness.
The rest of Brown’s exhibited works, collectively titled ‘You and Me, Outside’ (2023), are on display in the airy downstairs gallery, which is stripped back to wooden floorboards and exposed brick. They were created in collaboration with a group of schoolchildren from nearby Chetwynde School, described as having ‘influenced, steered, co-authored or maybe team-built’ the artworks. Salford-based Brown previously created art in Barrow with ‘Trinkets’ (2019), good luck charms hung on necklaces from the streets’ drain covers as ‘offerings’ to the town. Brown suggests that his latest Barrovian project is more hopeful, bringing young people into art spaces, allowing them to investigate their relationships to nature and their local area, exploring both physical and metaphorical boundaries alongside their own identities and aspirations.
Visits to the surrounding environs of Roanhead, South Walney Nature Reserve and Ormsgill Slag Banks (a survival of Barrow’s lost Iron and Steel Works) enabled the group to play and experiment in places they did not often get a chance to visit. Brown was keen to use non-traditional methods of artmaking to free the schoolchildren from anxiety or constraint, offering them alternative modes of creativity. Instead of collecting and sketching seashells, they pressed them into Phenolic foam boxes, usually for orthopaedic purposes, along with gathered fragments of ‘man-made geologies’ from the slag banks and their own handprints. These are displayed together on shelves, portable cardboard tablets propped open like paired photo-frames.
Brown describes the project as fluid and responsive, ebbing and flowing like the tides he had to make careful note of each session, keeping what resonated with the group and discarding what did not. When a couple of the young participants arrive with friends and family on the first day of the show, he is gratified that they introduce exhibits with the words ‘we did this’ rather than ‘Jack told us to’.
The coast is brought into the gallery space through multiple senses. I sip ‘sea tea’, a savoury brew of ingredients including lemongrass, rosemary and seaweed, and listen to recorded audio of soundpipes that meld voices and wind together. A karaoke machine is set up at the back with a TIDAL version of Carley Rae Jepson’s ‘Call Me Maybe’. Although no one sings while I’m there, a glimpse of the lyrics onscreen instantly plays the sugary tune through my mind, a bouncy inner soundtrack.
Other works combine the past with future possibility or seek to overcome practical limitations. With ‘Stepping out of the ordinary’ (2023), Brown uses pigment from the distinctive red haematite that once defined Barrow’s industrial heft to create pictures that represent each young person’s dreams for their ideal self, including dungarees, a cat, a guitar and an Indian Moon Moth. Some members of the group did not have a parent or guardian’s permission to be photographed as part of the project. The film ‘Hiding’ (2023) finds another way to record everyone together by submerging them in an apparently empty landscape, a mischievous rendering of absent presence.
Upstairs, two rooms showcase the work of Ellie Hoskins and David Haley, both micro commissions from Signal’s Artist Development Lab. Hoskins’ multimedia installation ‘Fly on the Wall’ (2023), shown in a room still nicotine-stained from department-store customers tasting their cigars, consists of an animation beside a wire and paper sculpture, a cloud-like formation of pictures of disgruntled flies drawn in economical spidery lines. In Hoskins’ story, a recluse’s depressive episode takes a surreal turn when the fly on her wall grows teeth to berate her. Eventually, she takes a walk to the coast, wistfully recalling the ‘simple fascination’ of her childhood connection to nature. The deadpan delivery of Hoskins’ voiceover underlines the stark beauty of many lines, such as: ‘It’s not that we never laugh, it’s that we cover our mouths whenever we do. Embarrassed to be alive, I guess. Embarrassed to have teeth.’ Bubble writing and the simple monochrome animation style highlight the deftness of Hoskin’s narrative, its darkly humorous and poignant details of contemporary deprivation and existential malaise, noting black mould, boarded-up streets, Amazon packages and affirmational podcasts recommending cold-water swims.
Next door is Haley’s ‘Equinox: A Day with an Ocean’s Edge’ (2023), two large opposing screens showing one twelve-hour tidal cycle at Tummer Hill Marsh and Biggar Sands, filmed from both north and south. As the light changes, the water gradually pools in the terrain’s pins and tucks, soon to overflow and then recede, and a hypnotic dialogue is exchanged between the Sea, sung by Cumbrian contralto Jess Dandy, and the Saltmarsh, spoken by Haley. Their words celebrate the Sea’s movements and this Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) where ‘life’s creative energy/ [is] held in the moment’. The Sea urges ‘generous drifting/ let’s have a conversation/ a fluid culture/tide rises and falls/ renewing relationships/ seeking difference’. Tidal rhythms convey a primordial sense of timelessness even amongst the timeliness of climate crisis. Concurrently, the specificity of Haley’s setting is demonstrated by a list of the flora and fauna that flourish there, species’ names like ‘flax flowered sea lavender’ and ‘long-bracted sedge’ making their own poetry, and mention of a nuclear submarine from BAE Systems’ shipyard, a major source of local employment.
Appropriately for a programme named TIDAL, the varied works on display at Cooke’s Studios conjure many feelings, probing and shifting, accumulating layers of associations. By ‘wandering the edge of Barrow’, as ‘You and Me, Outside’ terms it, the exhibition underscores the importance of exploring the edges, be it the physical coastline, climate tipping points, the isolating extremes of sadness, the self-expression of adolescents at a formative age, or an industrial centre on the margin of a county too often defined by the mass tourism of the Lake District National Park. TIDAL locates optimism, openness and vitality amongst the struggles of modern life, the urgency of ecological loss and the elemental embrace of those restless tides.
TIDAL: Jack Brown + local young people, Ellie Hoskins + David Haley continues at Cooke’s Studios, 102 Abbey Road, Barrow, until 29 April 2023.
Iona Glen is a writer and researcher currently based in Edinburgh. Her mother’s family has lived in West Cumbria since the 1970s.
This review is supported by Signal Film & Media.