York Curiouser presents momentary, site-specific artworks dotted across the city. The project beckons us to explore hidden and less-travelled areas of York, sparking our engagement with its medieval aspects. We look at York with a new perspective as a result, analysing and re-thinking the past through contemporary interventions. The experience of walking the city streets in search of facets of contemporary artworks is intriguing, while the range of talks and workshops offer a grounding for further exploration and contemplation.
“York’s secret history lies in its snickets, passageways, courts and yards –
all of those in-between, out of the way routes: walk them and you inhabit history.” (1)
On Sunday we took part in a Walking Tour, led by Curiouser curators Lara Goodband and Hazel Colquhoun. We met at King’s Manor courtyard and the turnout was even larger than anticipated. Around seventy people walked with Lara and Hazel, hoping to discover the mysteries dotted across the city — the group had to be split in two, attesting to the project’s success at captivating the imagination. We first passed several poems by John Wedgwood Clarke. These were spray-painted in vibrant purples and oranges or handwritten in white chalk, adding to a sense of impulse and impermanence, causing the viewer to strive to take the words in, in that moment.
“I’m between you, walking through you […]
Crouch with me in the city’s inner ear…” (2)
The poet encourages us to envisage the lives that once passed through the spaces his writing currently inhabits. Within a poem chalked onto a wall on ‘Mad Alice Lane’, John engages with the notion of York’s past inhabitants, long forgotten, considering, ‘Do I even exist?‘. With these words we begin to comprehend the transitory nature of the city; its rich but often lost past, and its relation to the present moment. John’s words become embedded within a new history — they will fade and be removed. As we walk, there is a sense of history in the making: photographs and memories will carry these works on, past Curiouser’s established display time.
The use of social media has enlivened this project; walkers and workshop attendees have enjoyed documenting their experiences. Hazel and Lara ensure that these photographs and words are shared every day on the Curiouser Twitter and Facebook accounts, tracking the project’s success with the public. As we wandered through St Anthony’s Gardens, past the New School House Gallery, many walkers documented the effervescent yellow and purple flowers, before reaching Sally Greaves-Lord‘s intensely colourful textile banners, which hang under city wall arches. Sally is very much inspired by Medieval Guilds in her banners, considering the history of St Anthony’s Hall. This aspect of the walk gestured towards the presence of York’s Quilt Museum, echoing the history of tapestry, while drawing it into the present day.
Walking through the grounds of the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall we came across Susanne Davies‘ luminous thread pieces, which sit within stone mullions, separate from the building itself. Davies is said to be heavily influenced by a family history in tailoring; as a child, she was surrounded by threads. Today she is intrigued by the notion of repetitive labour and the feminine domestic space — the site perfectly suits her interests — cloths were once traded here. Lara took care in gesturing towards the way in which Susanne’s work changes strikingly when viewed at different hours of the day, adding to their allure. A walker at this point enquired whether these works were staying where they were — the notion of impermanence that surrounds many art objects, often in motion from place to place, causes us to cling to them in the present moment. This certainly provokes us to take more photographs, and has made the process of writing this article feel all the more important. Everything in life is fleeting — Curiouser highlights this concept, at once asking us to pay attention now, while considering what existed back then in a new light.
At this point the group was split into two: the group we were in headed to Fishergate Postern Tower. Here, aspects of a project called ‘The Workshop of Historical Correction’ by Janet Hodgson and York St John University Fine Art students lay across several desks. The students were given a single object to contemplate, constructing a wider narrative around it, leading to the creation of a series of interesting, and often delicate, story-telling fragments.
Situated on the floor above this, Janet Hodgson’s film, entitled ‘The Postern’, draws on her research into the building’s past. Janet found evidence that the tower may once have been host to Georgian dancers. Hodgson proceeded to construct a narrative dance film around this concept; she juxtaposed Georgian dance with Dada choreography instructed by Mary Wigman (3). Janet’s work, part fiction, part potential truth, makes us stop to consider the use of the tower in the past, while bringing the structure into the present and giving it new life. The project inspires alternative audiences to climb the spiral staircase to the top floor; to stand in darkness, watching as two apparent moments in time cross paths, and a new history is formed. ‘The Postern’ can be viewed on Vimeo, here.
The artworks within York Curiouser were commissioned especially for the selected sites. This is apparent — the works are suited to and enhanced by their carefully chosen environments. I love that a wanderer could feel as if they had stumbled upon a work by chance, but a walker on a tour would think of and discuss the underlying intention behind the situation of the works and their place within the project’s entirety. Curiouser thus at once enlivens and encourages exploration of the less-travelled aspects of York, provoking both searching and chance-stumbling.
En route we found a ceramic sandwich created by Crescent Arts’ studio artist Karen Thompson. Walkers seemed to especially seek these, so easily missed, purposefully subtly placed — in this instance on the ground along the medieval walls. The presence of these small ceramic works caused walkers to remain alert as they travelled across the city, with increasingly searching gazes. They were a certain favourite on Twitter due to their tactile nature and whimsical appearance. Karen has lately been intrigued by notions of curiosity, multiples, the surreal and the humorous.
“Rest a while, here and there, consume, devour, the convenient and cheap
transformed into something of prestige. Ancient associations
coming together with a contemporary twist.” (4)
We then reached the Red Tower, which Lara explained had not been opened for twenty five years until York Curiouser approached Archaeologist John Oxley. Here, we were encouraged to individually peer beneath a black cloth to see a solar-powered installation that explored aspects of the tower’s surroundings that are no longer immediately apparent. Heinrich & Palmer worked towards the projection of marshland or lakes, using mirrors, light, planting, and water (5). The red, slanted tower doorway was especially commissioned for the project. Here, Curiouser invited the artists to look at the city as it is, to form something that explores York in a new way.
York’s National Centre for Early Music is situated within a medieval church. Lara explained that the curators visited many sites before selecting appropriate spaces for each artist. This site appeared to suit Jacques Nimki‘s work, with its poignant atmosphere and natural grounds.
“Plants like people, looked at but not seen, forgotten in the backdrops of the every day,
inhabiting places that are usually neglected or unexplored.” (6)
Nimki plays with notions of memory and narrative to articulate the way in which we perceive others and our environments. Jacques collected York residents’ handbags and asked their owners to write personal notes, which are presented attached to the bags, along with plants and descriptions of plant properties. The project is given further resonance by the presence of gravestones dispersed around the church grounds, increasing a nostalgic tone. This relatable series was a perfect end to the walk; it offered a peaceful moment to reflect, to quietly read and contemplate the nature of re-looking, memory, history, and of perceived permanence and impermanence.
For our full collection of Curiouser photographs from Sunday’s walk, see Yorkshire Art Journal’s Facebook Page.
1. Hazel & Lara at the beginning of the Walking Tour, close to the Minster and Mad Alice Lane. Photograph by Benjamin Selby.
2. Walkers proceed down a lane to read a poem. Photograph by Benjamin Selby.
3. John Wedgwood Clarke, In Between extract (‘Mad Alice Lane’). Photograph courtesy of York Curiouser’s Flickr site.
4. St Anthony’s Gardens and the textile banners beyond. Photograph by Benjamin Selby.
5. Susanne Davies’ thread works, Merchant Adventurer’s Hall. Photograph by Benjamin Selby.
6. Fishergate Postern Tower. Photograph courtesy of yorkmix.com.
7. A still from Janet Hodgson’s The Postern at Fishergate Postern Tower. Photograph by Benjamin Selby.
8. A ceramic sandwich by Karen Thompson rests against a calf’s leg within King’s Manor courtyard. Photograph by Carolyn Twomey.
9. One of Jacques Nimki’s handbags, National Centre for Early Music. Photograph by Katherine A. Caddy.
10. The beginning of the Walking Tour, heading towards the Minster. Photograph by Benjamin Selby.
Katherine April Caddy, 25th June 2014.