Top image: view of the installation (detail), One for Sorrow (range numbers),
a collaborative artwork by Art Gene’s Maddi Nicholson, Stuart Bastik and Charlie MacKeith, 2017
Below is an extract from One for Sorrow: Fort Walney Uncovered, by Stuart Bastik. In a personal account of the Fort Walney, Uncovered project he gives insight into the projects stages, complexity and creative processes which culminated in the artwork One for Sorrow. Read the full article here.
One for Sorrow
The final part of the Fort Walney Uncovered project was to create a lasting artwork for the site which would act as a form of interpretation – revealing something perhaps hidden or little known about its history and ecology.
This was one of the most difficult artworks we have ever had the opportunity to create – it took ages to reveal itself – there were many false starts and so much inspirational material to work through.
Art Gene, 2017
Maddi, myself and Charlie MacKeith (Architect) all began by being a little obsessed by the recently ‘lost’ rifle range mechanisms which had inspired our early interest in the site. We looked at our photos of it asking questions – how did it work?, how many were there?, what would the targets have looked like? – could we recreate one with an interesting image on the target? We searched the site for clues – measured the remaining concrete wall made scaled drawings and found a few rusty remnants chucked in a nearby pond and tried to assemble them in the studio but all the interesting bits including the cast iron winding wheels that sat on angle iron frames had gone…
Around that time Charlie went on a mission to find out how it worked and had finally found some bits of a similar mechanism in pieces at RSPB Rainham Marsh another reserve with a military past and had photographed some interesting numbers still in situ on top of the range wall. Then eventually he and Maddi went to visit a range of the same type which was still in use by the NRA in the North East and spent an afternoon being terrified by men in camouflage with powerful rifles. All of a sudden the mystery was solved – we knew how it worked and we immediately lost interest in recreating one.
Maddi had begun stitching army camouflage fabric around some ornamental ceramic birds her mother had recently given her. The birds were significant – they had been collected by her brother, a budding ornithologist, who died in a tragic accident aged 15 and Maddi was wrapping them to keep them safe – to stop them flapping their wings and hurting themselves – something they had both learned to do as children when holding chicks on the family’s Cumbrian smallholding.
They were the kind of little pottery birds that seem to turn up in Barrow charity shops after a former life on a mantle piece – often a bit chipped or missing a beak or claw – showing the signs of love and the regular flick of a duster by someones recently deceased relative – the receivable face of nature we invite into our living rooms and lives with little thought for the real thing – the cheap ones (no pun intended) most often now painted in China by someone who has no idea what a chaffinch looks like or at least it’s not the same idea that someone else sat in another factory seems to think they look like.
We gathered collections of these variants of the chaffinch, robin or wren all slightly wrong hybrids and all the more interesting for it.
They put me in mind of the cross cultural confusion those tattoos written in Chinese characters cause when folk have them inscribed on their backs in Blackpool or Magaluf. The ones which allegedly spell their name or that of a loved one – but they have never really dared to check for fear of it saying something else or worse something ridiculous or offensive.
Then one day I walked into Maddi’s studio after having seen magpies near my home on the Sandscale National Nature Reserve and said One for Sorrow!
The numbers Charlie had photographed, the work of the reserve, so often motivated by the fear of the loss of nature, Maddi’s camouflage-wrapped birds, the gun range, the sound of skylarks on high and all those intimate first world war letters & poems we had read from and to the trenches – by mothers, sons and brothers expressing loss and love and fear seemed held in that rhyme.
No glory, no heroes, no statues, bronze, monoliths or guns but something more personal, human, binding and tragic.
Maddi’s fragile wrapped birds were cast in iron, made strong – but once painted they began to look like ceramic again.
The numbers were cut from corten steel and engraved with the rhyme
But how would we present them on the site?
I had been working unsatisfactorily on ideas around sentry boxes (which played the sound of skylarks inside) and the associated rising red and white check-point barriers like the blood and bandages on a barbers’s pole as an entrance to the reserve.
That barrier became a gate – more accepting – less war-like – more heavenly yet more grounded and earthly: (we exhibited it hanging high in our gallery before it was installed on the reserve). A farm gate for the lost farm then a period-style Edwardian estate gate and a fitting entrance to a heavenly historically poignant place.
Remembering the fragility of people and nature.
And secrets which remain untold