‘Ease and Passage’ by Tessa Whitehead
Tessa Whitehead presents the culmination of work made during a 3-month residency awarded by Chisenhale Art Place.
The exhibition titled ‘Ease and Passage’ featured large and delicate concrete and plywood sculptures. The work is a response to the feeling of ease that one gets when looking at a new and unfamiliar landscape, and its continuous coming into being.
Read an adapted version of the artist’s talk that accompanied her final presentation below, which first appeared on the Chisenhale Art Place website on June 6, 2014:
The bulk of my research comes from literature. I am particularly interested in adventure literature and descriptions or passages about land, landscape and wild places.
I find, that a really successful description of a landscape, can assume the form of a sculpture or a painting. This is partly because I am so used to the physical format of literary writing, it is so uniform, that I can ignore it, and fully concentrate on imagining or bringing to life the space which is being described. An artwork has to somehow deal with allegory of medium; how it was made, and with what. And every medium or material that we encounter in an artwork has its own, different, complex history.
I am innately more confident in literature than in artwork. We probably all are, or at least have been taught to be. Because for the most part, the education system is set up on the principal that understanding things is important, and that in order to understand something we need to be conclusive. An artwork – a sculpture for example- is not conclusive on its own. Isolated, it might be interpretive or suggestive. But, a conclusion or understanding about the sculpture would probably be established separately in writing or a verbal exchange. And there are labels and titles and descriptions of the work confirming that justlooking at it is not enough. When I read a book, however, I trust that all of the information has been presented and that the intention is in the form. It is perhaps because of this that I think that sometimes, a written description of space has the ability to create a more clear and elementary form than an artwork. That it can deal with or create space rather than referencing it.
I am interested in this idea.
I read descriptions of landscape or land to understand how we look at these spaces and how this varies depending on point of view, or whether the geography is familiar or unfamiliar.
One of my favourite descriptions of landscape, and one that is very sculptural, is from the memoir ‘Going Solo’ by Roald Dahl. In the passage, Dahl describes arriving by boat into the harbour of Dar es Salaam for the first time. The landscape is unfamiliar to him and he is looking at it from a fixed point of view, through the porthole of the boat.
“When I woke up the next morning the ship’s engines had stopped. I jumped out of my bunk and peered through the porthole. This was my first glimpse of Dar es Salaam and I have never forgotten it. We were anchored out in the middle of a vast rippling blue-black lagoon and all around the rim of the lagoon there were pale- yellow sandy beaches, almost white, and breakers were running up on to the sand, and coconut palms with their little green leafy hats were immensely tall and breathtakingly beautiful with their delicate grey-green foliage. And then behind the casuarinas was what seemed to me like a jungle, a great tangle of tremendous dark- green trees that were full of shadows and almost certainly teeming, so I told myself, with rhinos and lions and all manner of vicious beasts. Over to one side lay the tiny town of Dar es Salaam, the houses were white and yellow and pink, and among the houses I could see a narrow church steeple and a domed mosque and along the waterfront there were a line of acacia trees splashed with scarlet flowers…The whole of that amazing tropical scene through the porthole has been photographed on my mind ever since.”
Dahl pans over the entire view, illuminating its entirety without intensity or focal point. It washes over us, as it does for Dahl. There is passivity in the way that he looks. From this vantage point, he cannot make out a lot of detail in the landscape and he has no memory of the place to fill in the gaps.
This description embodies the sense of ease that you get when looking at a new and unfamiliar landscape, and its continuous coming into being. This is quite often the impetus behind an adventure story: a desire to be on the move, to find new places, to see from different perspectives (from a mountain, from a tall building, from the ocean, etc.). The act of continuously moving and being in new landscapes can offer a sense of relief from day to day life. This is partly because of the way that travelling effects how we look at things. The faster that we move, the less detail that we can focus on in our surroundings. The pace and intensity with which we look at things has to adjust and become more passive. We disengage slightly and instead, allow the landscape to pass through our line of sight. You might have experienced this when travelling by train or by car on the motorway; moving at a consistent speed, with continual abstracted landscape passing through your line of sight can have an almost hypnotic effect.
I think of these works as portraits of landscape, of spaces that I know and don’t know but have read about. A portrait, however, suggests that I have tried to personify the landscape, which makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, because it suggests I think that there is a mutual familiarity between landscape and myself. Which of course there is not.
My experience of what is familiar and unfamiliar, took on a new meaning recently, when I returned back to the home I grew up in, for a longer stretch of time. When I lived there full time, over 14 years ago now, my two older sisters and I looked after a farm of animals in our backyard. The different aspects of looking after a troupe of animals, like feeding and exercising them, cleaning and reconfiguring their pens, early mornings, dirty feet, tetnus shots, worrying about weather and mud and cold and heat- all contributed to a feeling of companionship with the land when I was growing up. The loss of which was not dissimilar to losing a friend. But of course, it had no notion of me.
These works respond to this experience of returning to a space that had, at one time been very familiar. They are shamelessly delicate and useless. And are sort of failures in their nature, because they can’t quite be what they are describing.
About the artist:
Tessa Whitehead (b.1985, The Bahamas) lives and works between Nassau, The Bahamas and London, UK. She received a BA Fine Arts from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London and MFA from The Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, London. Recent exhibitions include Drawing a Round Square Takes Practice, POPOPstudios ICVA, Nassau (2014), 40 Years of Bahamian Art, on loan to the permanent collection, National Art Gallery of the Bahamas (2013), and A Wall is a Surface, LeandaKateLouise, Redchurch St., London (2012). Tessa was awarded Chisenhale Studio4 Residency (2014), her work was shortlisted for Wells Art Contemporary, Well’s Museum, UK (2013), for the Threadneedle Prize, Mall Galleries, London (2012) and she was awarded the William Coldstream Memorial Prize for which her work acquired by the University College London collection (2009). Tessa is currently Adjunct Professor of Painting at Richmond University, London and curator of Liquid Courage Gallery in Nassau, The Bahamas.
Source: ARC Magazine