Begun two years ago as Akkyduck (old boating dialogue for aqueduct), Undercurrent is a joint Arts Council/Art House funded project; an installation of textiles, sculpture, sound, text and film that narrates the tales of the Aire and Calder Navigation that runs through Wakefield. The Navigation (two rivers made traversable by small sections of navigation) has a long and complex history. The accompanying poems speak of profits from the slave trade, which were invested in the Navigation’s networks, and its Victorian chapter saw it become a powerful and dangerous industrial conduit. It currently serves as a location for local boaters and plays a crucial part in the local authority’s heritage narrative; all of which ensures that it resonates with a loud cultural, aesthetic and socio-political clamour.
Yoke are Annie Nelson and Chris Woodward, long time collaborators who have used their desire to make research real and relevant, to gather stories of local people who use the Navigation and/or whose histories are tied up in its tales. In the exhibition space are buoys and salvaged footballs, painted with salient reminders of the ever-present threats of loss and submersion. A flag in hi vis colours is printed with the terrible tale of the young lad who jumped off a bridge into the Navigation, hit a dead cow and whose legs were “buggered like” after that. The perpetual sound of the inflatables filling with air via a pump takes on a life of its own, like the hum of water going through lock gates. A net bag of bricks brings to mind both rescued detritus and the fate of unwanted cats.
Stanley Ferry marina provided a site for Yoke to gather their histories. Mooring their own boat there, they used workshops, walks, lock tours and poetry readings to hear local voices. Venturing onto the Navigation themselves introduced the artists to the precarity of boat life. Yoke are interested in the place of the artist and how artists exist in society. Reflecting their commitment to making art with a public voice and a physical depth and complexity, Undercurrent invites participation, engagement and continuing dialogue. A Facebook group set up to speak with local people continues to be active. Poetry readings are also planned.
There are tensions aplenty in this work; contradictions and dread. The pieces together evoke uncertain responses; the two featured poems ask us “who’s to bless and who’s to blame?” The inflatable is playful, exciting, its enormous bulk contrasting with its carefully stitched motifs. Hand-stitched lock gates represent quality craftspersonship but also barriers. Buoys, lifebelts and half drowned footballs may prevent accidents or point to unavoidable tragedy. Colourful and pretty flags, stitching and enormous inflatables point to both the attraction and the fear of water. The agential life of the Navigation reminds us of the impossibility of permanently taming the elements, and of the very real contradictions of living in the present while always surrounded by undercurrents of both an uncomfortable past and an uncertain future.
Yoke: Undercurrent is on at The Art House, Wakefield, 31 January 2019 – 16 March 2019
Karen Tobias-Green is a lecturer, researcher and writer at Leeds Arts University.