| Featured Artists
with an essay by Deborah Southerland
That has been.
The word ‘history’ is etymologically1
related to the Greek ‘idein’ to see, and ‘eidenai’
to know, and this linguistic root is particularly pertinent in the
context of Nicola Donovan’s work ‘Cryptocephalus’,
meaning to conceal or to hide the head.
Donovan has worked before with objects that depict or directly reference
covering the head, that mask or allude to a blindness of sorts and
in the context of this new work this lack of vision or ‘Cryptocephalus’
refers to Donovan’s sense of history, and her perception of
the way in which the past is (de) valued in contemporary society.
She asks ‘How can you map the future without
looking to the past?…to disregard the past, to bury one’s
head, is to try to build a house without a foundation or base -
it will be an insecure and infirm structure, a structure without
Using Bletchley Park and the activities that took
place there during the Second World War as a departure point, Donovan
has used her sense of history and the responsibility she feels towards
it as the fuel for this new body of work. Approaching the park,
or ‘Station X ’ii
as a memorial of sorts, Donovan knew she wasn’t interested
in timelines or dates, it was detail that she was looking for, pieces
and fragments of stories that could offer her an insight into the
lives of the men and women who worked there. The work is the result
of substantial research, but typically she hasn’t approached
her subjects textually as a historian might, but visually and physically
through sight and touch: as a maker, collector and translator. She
has used this work to try and reposition herself within the past,
to try and understand what she considers the un-understandable.
Equipped with an empathetic drive and a finely tuned haptic2
instinct Donovan’s work is driven by the materiality of the
objects she works with. Through the exploration and often quiet
subversion of her carefully selected materials she engages in processes
of practical, tactile remembrance. Objects in her hands are loved
just as much for their aesthetic, as for being windows through which
the past might be viewed, and on visiting her studio, observing
the exquisite debris of earlier work, I was reminded of the way
in which Walter Benjamin used expressions of touch and tactility
to discuss ideas of experience and knowledge.
touch the world is to know the world’ iii
When the hand handles, it feels, and therefore it possesses a kind
of authentic experience that can be deciphered and understood. Through
touch one can gain a level of understanding about an object, its
surface, material and form, an understanding that might begin to
make explicit the object’s origin, the nature of its production
or its intended purpose. In addition to this stereognosis3,
Donovan’s imagination touches and is touched by the objects
too, enabling her to begin her tender fabrication of narrative.
This work is the result of a complex process of collecting, touching
and thinking, and she has tended to her objects as if they were
newly formed characters, gently coaxing them, deciphering their
physical and emotive characteristics before summoning their quiet
messages within the theatre of her practice. In a similar manner
Benjamin relished Baudelaire’siv
description of the poet as a rag picker, cataloguing the refuse
of the city, he sorted, judiciously selecting and collecting refuse
like a miser guarding treasure, treasure which in time and ‘between
the jaws of the Goddess of industry’v
would soon assume the shape of something useful.
He applied the same image to his own method as a cultural historian,
as a ‘connoisseur of ephemera,’ and it is an image that
can be applied equally to Donovan’s methodology in whose hands
these found and hoarded objects become narrative emblems that promise
memory and knowledge, they become the vehicles through which she
begins to guard against historical myosisvi.
Each of her objects is individually codified, taking on meaning
and reference as they are bought into (her) play. The reference
to code is useful here as Bletchley Park was the location of the
United Kingdom's main secret code breaking team, whose task was
to crack the Enigma code and to simulate the machine with which
Germany transmitted its secret messages. For Donovan this notion
of code, this idea that something is not what it at first appears,
provided an exciting aperture into new work. This is the Artist,
who as a child used to sit beneath her stairs, working by torchlight,
authoring her own secret codes: ciphers and symbols carefully drawn
on to roll after roll of wallpaper. And though I have not seen these
musings, I imagine them to be elaborate dialects, constructed through
laboriously repetitive processes of writing and rubbing, writing
and rubbing, inscription and erasure, emerging finally as palimpsests4,
in the same way that the panels we see here have.
That Donovan has chosen lace as her primary material not only references
the Buckinghamshire lace traditions of the region; it also evidences
her ability to exploit the double-edged connotations of a material.
Culturally, lace speaks of Victorian uprightedness and local craft,
but it can refer to slutty ostentation, the boudoir and transgression
too, and Donovan enjoys its deeply ornamental yet unsettling double
entendre. Structurally, it’s patterns are codified through
symbolic motifs that speak of place, time and tradition, making
the salvaged lace pieces that Donovan has used here loaded texts
through which personal and local (his)stories have been encapsulated.
These fragmentary pieces, indeed the panels themselves, are memorials
of sorts. Mnemonic5 devices
that shift in colour almost photographically, from black and white
through to sepia, back to black and white again. Like the photograph,
these panels do not restore the past, rather they summon it, attesting
to it’s existence, and urging us to decipher what we see in
the bruised lace displays. Lace is both ‘network’ and
‘web,’ a knotted twisted woven textvii
of finely spun yarn, and textile processes such
as this become perfect allegories for memory, alluding to the potentially
infinite connections, criss-crossings and intersections that memory
Drawing on the arachnid reference of ‘web’ it is useful
to note that a ‘spider’ in lace making is the stitch
commonly used to fill in the gaps between motifs, creating he ‘cobwebs’
that hold the ‘stories’ together. A ‘spider’
in computer terms is the programme that feeds search engines web
pages, ‘crawling’ over the web indexing, sorting, cataloguing
and archiving material. In this context Donovan assumes the role
of arachnid, locating, collecting and indexing (pieces of) history
and memory through her tactile and textile material language. Pinning
and splaying her objects, (her subjects?) almost entomologically,
Donovan uses this process to make her marks. She laboriously pins,
and pins and pins, pinning and securing, as if this very process
of piercing and fixing and securing could act as prevention against
the blind myosis of forgetting. As if it could caution us to look,
to lift our heads from the sand and touch these stories one last
time before they slip fugitively across the border from here to
And here on the borders of forgetting alongside sable feathers and
pinions of steel we find gas masks, salvaged masks that once covered
the head, to conceal the face and safely seal the respiratory system.
They offered physical protection from local particle aggression
whilst enabling masquerade, performance of the Other and a type
of internal escapism. Mandatory accessories from 1939 onwards these
utilitarian rubber moulded objects are date stamped pieces of history.
And unlike the lace Donovan found herself unable to unpick the masks,
finding them too precious, too human, but like the lace the mask
is delightfully loaded with overt and covert meanings, for coterminous
with notions of safety, conformity and protection, are implications
of blindness, punishment and shame; multiple translations of a deep
internal text. The masks in Donovan’s work are themselves
masked, doubling the concealment. Through lacy masquerade she pulls
them away from their World War II roots, and drenches them in the
decorative visual language of Victoriana, with flagrantly brazen
lace crawling across their surfaces, insect like, theatrical, this
shameless ornament soon becomes camouflage. And to complete this
circular reference we note the linguistic relation between the word
‘camouflage’, coming from the French word ‘camofler’,
meaning to mask or disguise, and ‘camofler’ probably
being related to ‘camoflet’ which is a type of snubbing
- or a blowing of smoke in someone’s face, thereby hiding
it, concealing it and limiting their vision.
And so we return again to the root of the word ‘history’
and it’s etymological relation to the Greek ‘idein’
to see, and ‘eidenai’ to know, and the idea that seeing
and looking are intrinsically related to knowing and understanding.
The struggle against forgetting is often the deepest motive of the
person who collectsviii and
Donovan has mobilized this ‘struggle’ not only honoring
the objects in her collection, but honoring the past too. She has
tenderly empathized with her subjects through processes of tactile
enquiry and remembrance, and has used touch to help her see and
understand. It has been a process of translation: the tender transmission
of meaning from one (material) language to another, and a deciphering
of that which has been seen and touched into knowledge and understanding.
Artist and Senior lecturer in Design: Process, Material, Context
at UWE, Bristol.
i In conversation
with the Artist.
Park was referred to as Station ‘X’ during the war.
Esther. Obscure Objects of Desire : Reviewing Craft in the 20th
Century. Conference papers from UEA conference. 1997. P22.
iv Charles Baudelaire
was an influential C19th Parisian poet and critic.
v Benjamin, Walter
in Walter Benjamin’s Archive : Images Texts Signs, Edited
by Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Micael
Schwarz, Erdmut Wizisla. Verso, London. 2007. P1.
from the Greek muein,
to close the eyes + -osis.
vii The latin word
for text: textum, translates as ‘something woven’.
Walter. Arcades Project, Edited: Rolf Tiedemann, Cambridge. Belknap
Press of Harvard. 1999. p.211
1 Etymology : the
term used to describe the origin or history of a word.
2 Haptic : relating
to the sense of touch, tactile.
: the ability to ‘read’ an object through physical engagement
: A manuscript or text that has been written on more than once,
with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible.
5 Mnemonic :
from the Greek mnemonikós
of or relating to memory.
Previous Featured Artists:
Anna Farthing & Paul Gough