Monday, 23 July 2012

In Review: Dark Corners of the Land Exhibition - Dukes

Pendle Hill  'Through the Pinhole'  by Darren Andrews

The Dark Corners of the Land exhibition at the Dukes Gallery runs from 15 July - 13 August 2012.

Photographs by Darren Andrews,
Sound Installation by Victor Noir (collaboration)
Reviewed for Virtual Lancaster by Ella July.

Dark Corners of the Land is an interesting alternative take on the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch trials, much publicised in recent arts events around Lancaster.  Darren Andrews' dark, brooding photos were taken by home-made pin-hole camera, a 'deliberately slow' photographic process which presents a slightly warped and restricted view of a series of north Lancashire landscapes: meant to mirror the experiences of the accused on the journey from Pendle Hill to their deaths at Lancaster.

However, this is not abstract art (thankfully for your unsophisticated reviewer!).  The effect is not to distort the subject of each photo out of recognition.  But there is a feeling of time slowing down and of slight removal from one's surroundings: as though (like the victims of the trials) the viewer were experiencing some trauma or lack of control.  Images of death (a slayed rabbit by the roadside) and enclosure (barbed wire) intrude, disturbing the more familiar, picturesque view of the Lancashire countryside.
There is a dark beauty in some of the images as well though, while others are simply, perhaps deliberately, mundane.  This is not sensationalist art, and it takes a lot of thought (and some background knowledge) to understand and appreciate what the artists are trying to do.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, however.

Victor Noir's accompanying sound installation complements the experience with recordings made at each point in the journey, which, like the photographs, are then slightly distorted.  The sounds emit from a black box positioned underneath each picture.  The effect is subtle, eerie and atmospheric.  According to an essay written to accompany the exhibition, the intention is to 'denaturalise and unfix what it is we imagine we know about the witches and their journey'.

But does it succeed?  My feeling is that the exhibition is best viewed (as the artists recommend) alone and in silence, so perhaps judgement is best reserved until I've done this.  At the busy 'Private View', much of the intended effect was sadly lost in the ensuing jolly chatter.  I could not hear the sound installation very well.  However, I got what they were trying to do, even though visually it was perhaps a bit too subtle for me.

As a writer, I found the accompanying essay, 'The Lie of the Land' (available to pick up for free at the exhibition or to download as a pdf here) much more compelling.  The writers Ivy Duck and Victor Noir draw parallels between the witch hunts of the past with the hounding of Travellers and other minority communities today.  They also argue that 'witch-hunting persists wherever capitalism plunders land and people', especially in these dark times of 'austerity' cut backs and increased privatisation.  This is a connection, they argue, which is missed when we think of witch hunts as something which only happened in the past, or in distant places today. (A comparison with modern day 'witch trials' in Nigeria is currently explored in the Global Link exhibition 'Witch Hunts – Then and Now', at the Ashton Memorial).

Dark Corners of the Land therefore presents a much needed and thought provoking intervention into what has become a familiar trope of the Lancashire tourist industry.  I have often thought that 'witch tourism' trivialises and obscures a violently misogynistic chapter in British history (rather like the way we celebrate our maritime heritage while downplaying the role of the slave trade).  But this exhibition made me consider the issue in more depth and make links I hadn't made before.

However, some of the links did seem a little tenuous and under-explored.  I couldn't help wishing that some of the themes raised by the essay had been explored more explicitly in the art work.  But it is also laudable that the artists resist sensationalism or hysteria: an all too easy response given the subject matter.  I'm also aware that people respond differently to different media.  Taken individually, the different facets of this exhibition (sound, text and vision) would perhaps not say much, but together the effect is evocative and compelling.  Definitely worth a visit.

The Dukes Gallery is at The Dukes, Moor Lane, Lancaster, LA1 1QE
The Dukes Gallery is generally open Monday - Saturday 10am to 10pm but please call the Dukes on 01524 598505 to check if you are travelling specifically as the room is sometime in other use. Free

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