Since first hearing about the exhibition Unravelling Time at The Abbey in Sutton Courtenay near Oxford I made up my mind that I would visit to experience it for myself. And when this turned into an opportunity to meet in person my online friend Sonia Boué, one of the artists participating; well, there was no way I would have missed it.
The big day dawned and my excitement was bubbling over, manifesting in rubbing and flapping my hands, bouncing up and down, and standing or walking on tip-toes. There’s just something about the way this feeling wells up inside that physically lifts me so I become unable to keep my heels on the ground!
It was a beautiful sunny day for the hour’s drive from where I live to Sutton Courtenay; I parked outside the walls surrounding the grounds and walked up the driveway through the trees. At first sight the Abbey is a modest building, the east elevation providing few clues to what will be found inside. I followed the path around to the south to get a more complete feel for the place in its surroundings.
There was a strong feeling of peace about the place, a pervasive calm silence that lent itself perfectly to opening the senses and reflecting on the experience. I had wondered about being dominated by the history of the building but instead of intruding it provided an understated background warmth: it fit into the environment as if it had grown there, and was pleasantly human in its scale and proportion.
I walked back to the entrance, pausing in the archway to snap a photo of the welcome notice before entering the central courtyard, a beautiful space enhanced by symmetrical planting. On this balmy autumn day it had a Mediterranean feel emphasised by the vine and fig tree in the north-west corner.
It was through this tree that I first caught sight of Sonia, seated on a bench by her installation and deep in contemplation (deleting photos on her phone to free up space, as it turned out). I don’t know if I made some sound or if it was the movement that caught her attention as I approached; she rose to greet me with an expression of pure delight and (after checking that I accept–one of the great things about meeting other neurodiverse people is that they are often conscious of such things that may prove unwelcome) we shared a warm hug.
How apt the exhibition title, Unravelling Time, as time from that point ceased to function in the normal fashion. Instead we chatted and Sonia guided me through the exhibits in a single perfect moment. I glanced at my watch a couple of times to check that time’s flow continued because I had no conscious awareness of it.
Since our journey through the exhibition began with Sonia’s own assemblage, Refuge, that is where I will start my exploration of the works and my responses to them.
The suitcase sits on the ground under the sheltering canopy of the vine, yet the effects of the outdoor environment are visible in the peeling paper lining and the patina on the mirror. This place is only a temporary rest, a chance to recover before moving on. The gathered twigs evoke an empty nest, the home left behind. Gazing into the mirror puts the observer right inside the piece, surrounded by the trappings of an itinerant existence. A clothes hanger sits in the suitcase lid, but I must presume that what it held is being worn: possessions reduced to the clothes on your back and what you can carry.
Finally, two paintings. The smaller one next to the hanger and a larger one suspended from the vine above. The hanging of the painting echoes a domestic scene but that illusion is broken by the realisation that we are not in an enclosed space but directly beneath the skies. The larger painting shows a background of a texture and colour that puts me in mind of dense vegetation, a rich yet ominous natural world imprisoned behind the linear order of man-made structure. But that structure shows imperfections: it is scarred and blasted. What might at first appear to be a refuge is revealed on closer inspection to be a place of fear, darkness, even death. The smaller painting is a reduction of the larger one; reduced in the sense that it portrays only the clean regularity of constructed objects. This is how home is remembered; the larger painting shows what became of it and caused us to flee. It’s not in the suitcase: we don’t intentionally carry it and yet there it is. A haunting memory of trauma.
From here we moved indoors to the Great Hall with its high timbered vault of a ceiling and dark, almost black, oak panelling. In the middle of the opposite wall was a fireplace and stretching out from it, most of the way across the room towards us, was Kate Hammersley’s Time Transfigured. My first impression was of a giant ball of yarn unravelling as it was swatted across the floor by some curious cat. As we walked alongside the intricacy of the dry bracken, its zig-zag arrangement recalled lightning bolts and the crystalline tracing of ice on a window pane; ice out of fire. Approaching the fireplace the woodsmoke scent of the ashes became apparent, something that reminds me of the warmth and comfort of home and hearth.
This is a piece that contains both connections and contrasts. Fire, that living element, evoked by the red-brown fronds; flames represented by fuel, travelling out from its seat of ashes. The complex recursive detail of the bracken represented something living despite being dead and dry; the fireplace is where it belonged, destined to become a mere pile of ashes, and yet it had come out into the room, its questing tendril exploring the space.
Moving on to one of the windows, affixed to the wall at one side was Traces by Anna Morris. A set of three small curved rectangles of board, each about the size of a sheet of paper folded lengthwise, the geometry similar to a set of modern wall lamps. Contrasting their contemporary form, the surface detail presented the essence of the Abbey. Rubbings captured the textures of the ancient timber, the painted rendering of the walls, the countless impressions of its history upon the fabric of the building.
Three photographic prints by Jonathan Moss were next to receive our attention. Symmetry was a very strong element, from the perfect squares of the prints to the images themselves. Visual reflection stirring mental reflection. The first, by the side of Traces, featured the walled garden with its old brickwork and white-painted timber-framed glass house hosting rows of vibrant green crops; the upper half reflected perfectly below as if by a supernaturally still pool. Another showed the creosote-dark planks of the end wall of an outbuilding reaching up and drawing the eye skywards: a sense of grandeur transcending the humble nature of the construction.
Through the French door to the garden and Madi Acharya-Baskerville with her work, Drift-in-land. The sinuous bend of a tree trunk provided the frame over which was tented a fishing net bearing numerous items of flotsam and artefacts discarded or washed up on the shoreline: magpie decoration. The net itself caught by the tree, bearing its haul of shiny, colourful objects: trash and treasure. The tent suggesting shelter conflicted with the net as a trap, its adornments lures to draw in the unwary. But also the tent with its decoration as a shanty-town dwelling, scavenged material assembled to provide some small refuge from the elements, some personal touches of home. And that too causes reflection on the trap of poverty.
We walked on through the trees, past an extensive woodpile under a canopy: fuel for the winter fires. Opening a weathered door, we entered the walled garden. What an exquisite space! Protected by the enclosing walls, tidy rows of herbs and vegetables for the kitchen occupied beds between the narrow, neat grassy paths. The smell of rosemary: I rubbed the leaves between my fingers and inhaled the comforting scent. In the west wall was a bricked-up archway; affixed to those bricks were the two painted panels of Ellen Hausner’s Through the Wall. Blending with the brickwork at the edges, these panels opened holes through the wall, hinting at a space beyond and drawing the mind of the viewer into that space. Directing me to pierce the physical barrier of the wall with my imagination, to think beyond the apparent limits. I was reminded of the wardrobe in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories: travelling through an everyday, commonplace object to the realm of fantasy. And also Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere in which the character Door possesses the ability to open portals between the mundane surface world and the rich, hidden realm of London Below.
Following Sonia through the garden I observed how she would trail a hand, touching plants, stones, a wheelbarrow. Making with her fingertips the same sensory connection to the environment that I make visually. Where I observe the textures and imagine the sensation of feeling them, Sonia takes a direct approach: this is evident in her artistic performances as sand or other material flows through her fingers.
Completing the circuit, we re-entered the Great Hall by the same door we had left it, this time following a passageway past a laundry area to a welcoming sitting room named the Hearth. Tucked into a corner by a gothic double-arched window were Helen Ganly’s three reliquaries on the theme of the medieval Empress Matilda, granddaughter of Norman king William the Bastard and child bride of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V of Germany. The first was a square black box, its lid apparently bejeweled. Opening it (carefully) revealed a hole through which could be seen a portrait of Matilda in historical style, illuminated by some unseen artifice. Two further boxes opened to reveal scenes reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts, this impression reinforced by beautifully ornate capitals and alliterative Latin words that we were only partly successful in translating. These boxes were situated on a drop-leaf table in the fashion of an altar; despite my lack of religion I felt that I was meant to kneel before them.
Hung on the wall opposite the windows was a framed work by Les McMinn, A Study for Stained Glass, which offered such a wealth of detail upon detail–colour, shape, texture–that my eye was drawn all over, peering deeper and deeper into the individual elements and being rewarded with still more. I felt the need to step back from the piece to gain an appreciation of the form of the whole: seeing a lowercase ‘a’ emerge from the collection of amorphous shapes provided my link with the Library that inspired the work. A host of fragments, each unidentifiable yet carrying a wealth of information, were brought together into a simple letter, the basis of all our written communication.
Also in this room, on the mantlepiece, were two in a series of 11 photographs by Paul Medley entitled Hidden Histories. These photographs, distributed through the Abbey, showed a set of moments featuring a couple in the very settings where they were displayed. These frozen instants of time together suggest a narrative: we read feelings and intentions into the poses and expressions, and taking the series as a whole we feel the satisfaction of piecing together the story of these two people. But a question hangs over our interpretation: we have assumed that the sequence in which we encountered these photographs is the same as the sequence in which the events occurred. How different might the story be if we assemble them in a different order?
We made our way back across the courtyard, passing Claudia Figueiredo’s Celebration 2, an enigmatic ring of wood embellished with blue and gold under the fig tree where I had first encountered Sonia. That ring, formed by branches growing into each other, was a remnant of a tree that had stood in the Abbey grounds for over 200 years. Its complete circle mirrored the path we had taken, the passage of time and distance returning us to our origin: an endless cycle.
Again entering the building, this time via the kitchen door, we crossed the passageway into the Root Room, the site of the final installation on our tour. Water Maps – Gower Peninsula was an audio-visual collaboration between Ann Rapstoff and Vicky Vergou. A video showed the patterns of flowing water as they change along its course from spring to sea; the magical way in which the incident sunlight forms patterns as it is reflected and refracted. Meanwhile the sounds of running water and breaking waves provided a background, with occasional spoken fragments that were presumably intended to evoke associations. For me this was the least successful of the works. I found the audio to be at odds with the characteristics of the flowing water that was seen on the screen: it did not match what I expected to hear based on what I was seeing, and I found the spoken words distracting. Some of this is no doubt a consequence of the dominance of my visual thought processes.
In an afternoon filled with countless impressions that had my mind serving up image after image as it raced through associations of ideas, sifting and finding patterns, there is a stunning contrast with the calm I felt in the company of Sonia. It is unusual for me to feel so completely at ease, so entirely unselfconscious. As a result it was an afternoon of relaxation and pleasure, of exchanging thoughts and observations, of mental stimulation amidst serenity.
I don’t recall asking a single question–that’s not something which comes easily to me–but conversation didn’t stall at any point. I can’t emphasise enough how natural our interactions felt: a mutual understanding that meant we had no need to divert into distracting explanation.
I’ll finish with my impression of Sonia herself. Contact and connection are the key aspects: she is constantly in touch with the people and objects around her, observing and sampling at a very conscious, direct level (whereas I retain images in memory but rely on my subconscious to conjure forth impressions and associations). This directness was exhibited in her gaze: I found myself to be the frequent focus of her eyes from behind the lenses of her glasses. This can be something I find threatening but instead I felt trust and security. Everything she does is an extension of her self, from her artistic expression to the way she interacts with the people around her. Such honesty of purpose is beautiful to observe and receive; it inspires an openness in response that creates a strong, intimate bond of friendship.
Thank you, Sonia, for being my companion through this amazing experience.