Women in Farming

This heart-warming exhibition, currently running at Exeter Phoenix , comes out of a project run by Aune Head Arts, the contemporary arts organisation based on Dartmoor.

The project involved six women artists exploring the lives and work of three women hill farmers – living and working closely together with them at significant times during the course of one year.

THE FARMERS: Mary Lou North, Sue Peach, Juliette Rich.

THE ARTISTS: Louise Evans & Jennie Hayes, Tot Foster & Maddy Pethick, Penny Klepuszewska & Anthea Nicholson.

It was an exhibition of fragments and impressions – the sort of fragments that we somehow know are important, and that we all gather and hoard for a while, or carry inside our heads as memories: photographs, drawings, notes recorded in sound, video or written form, bits of string, curious stones and bits of metal or wood picked up off the ground, old cards and messages , snatches of conversation…

Now, a few days after coming away from the exhibition, a collection of fragments is exactly what I am left with: drifting half-remembered words, sounds and pictures – of people, animals and land – which together conjure an intense experience of a particular time and place. Except that it was not my experience. I have not actually been to these Dartmoor farms, and have never met the people concerned. But I feel as though I have.

Amongst my internal collection I have: A large b/w photo of a long-haired girl feeding a lamb : “the first thing I do when arriving home from school is attend to the animals”.

Charcoal drawings of the landscape, that speak directly of its special character.

A large illustrated journal, bound in a feed sack – (Some of Anthea Nicholson’s beautiful notebook drawings and writings can be found on the Aune Head Arts website).

The Cabinet of Curiosities – a couple of Edwardian specimen cabinets or dentist’s cabinets, containing intimate personal memories – so personal, so universally significant. Open the drawers and hear the voices of the people telling the stories – of tough times, of caring for the livestock – the voices drawing attention to the objects within.

I stood mesmerised by a colour photograph of a drowned mouse, as I heard the voice in the background saying ‘ … its nose was just breaking the surface of the water, and I thought of the hours and hours it must have spent struggling before it died… every whisker was spread and enveloped in surface algae.’ Thus, inescapably, I was drawn into what in another part of the exhibition one of the artists described as ‘the knowing intimacy with life and death every day’.

At the same time, a continuing light background of birdsong reminded me that I was not actually there. I felt a strange dislocation of time and place – detached, yet profoundly moved, and I mused upon the unsentimental and apparently callous impartiality of nature.

Having myself recently experienced a year living in a remote rural area, I recognised absolutely the comments of artist Tot Foster elsewhere in the exhibition – “Farming for me has a confusing ambiguity – simultaneously caring and brutal, innocent and cruel”.

And on the sadness and cruelty of nature, she continued – “the farm has a dignity that cannot ultimately be undone by whatever stories are told, or whatever happens. The sound and flow of the stream can be threatening, but it is also redemptive, purifying and healing. It embodies the ambiguities of this place”.

WOMEN IN FARMING runs at Exeter Phoenix until April 12th, 2008. Details on www.exeterphoenix.org.uk.

To find out more about Aune Head Arts and WOMEN IN FARMING, see their website, www.auneheadarts.org.uk .

 PS – This is, of course, just my own personal take on the show. There are many other interesting aspects – but too long for a blog post. 

About throughstones

I am primarily a visual artist, living on the North Devon coast, a beautiful semi-rural area in South West England. I am interested in full engagement with 'place' and the eternal movement of life - particularly as it relates to what we call 'the natural environment'.
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3 Responses to Women in Farming

  1. Arriving at the Exeter Phoenix Gallery with my husband on the opening night of the show, I made a beeline for the bar, where I got a very nice glass of wine, then made straight for the works that attracted and intrigued me the most strongly. I followed this strategy throughout the evening, gaining a coherent and moving experience and some new insights into the world of ‘Women in Farming’. Even today, well over a fortnight later, I still have a feeling that I actually know those farmers and artists, animals and places. So the exhibition obviously worked for me.

    I don’t understand how soul communicates itself. I think you have to be open to it. It certainly is not tied to the manipulation of visual material. Indeed, I thought one of the strengths of the exhibition was the fact that much of the material was left unmanipulated – a multitude of scraps, fragments and mementos, left to speak for themselves and resonate with each other. And coupled with the complex sound tracks in those specimen chests, and the background noise, light and movement of the gallery itself – the whole effect was sophisticated and quite un-nerving. This is where the transmutation lay, I think – within our own brains.

    About ‘neat and tidy’, and its being a destroyer of soul. Maybe the distancing effect was something to do with the gallery space itself. I imagine it would have been extremely difficult to set up this type of exhibition in a casual style, without it looking like a dog’s breakfast. (Which, apparently is what you thought it looked like yourself, when first entering the room: ‘… an unordered range of objects and images…’ as though ‘… the gallery was in the process of mounting a new exhibition.’)

    I did not feel at all uncomfortable handling the work – even the large book with the tissue paper sheets. In fact I thought, as exhibitions go, it was all very touchable. I did not notice anyone else looking awkward about this either. People seemed relaxed and chatty – many, like myself wearing comfortable jeans and anorak. (Though, like myself, I am sure they all washed their hands and changed before coming out).

    Yes, certainly some of the work on show was less successful than others – this is to be expected in a group exhibition. Yes, I did sometimes find metaphors and art historical references too obvious and contrived. Regarding the sheep portraits and their cast metal awards for being good mothers – I thought this work would have been so much stronger without the feminist overtones. I felt it got in the way of my considering rather more serious issues relating to the portraits than somebody’s ‘good girl’ syndrome. This probably reflects my own personal interests. And , after all, the Opening was scheduled to coincide with International Women’s Day, and this IS an exhibition about women.

    I didn’t interpret any of this as a lack of integrity or involvement – just people struggling to communicate, like the rest of us. Strangely, when I met up with my husband again (someone with no art degree) I found he was much taken with the works I had found the most problematic.

    Conclusion? I haven’t a clue. Each to his own, that’s what I say.

    PS. I would just like to say: This is a public gallery in a semi-rural county of England, and we ARE British, not generally given to baring our souls or passions in public. And no-one with any self-respect, is going to announce how tiring and hard their life is. Yet the soul, the passion, the hardship and courage were unmistakably there. You only have to listen to the sound recordings.

    (I have put a shortened version of this response on the a-n site (a-n.co.uk) under REVIEWS UNEDITED).

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  2. thanks Nannette for posting this interesting review. I will respond soon – but meanwhile, please see the a-n website (a-n.co.uk) under REVIEWS UNEDITED.

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  3. Nannette Brown says:

    Women in Farming Exeter Phoenix

    Looking through the glass door of the main gallery at the Phoenix, Exeter I saw at first glance what appeared to be an unordered range objects and images. I was interested to see that the gallery was in the process of mounting a new exhibition. I was wrong. The exhibition was up and awaiting an audience. I walked in and looked around. There were large photographs on the far end wall. On moving closer I saw they were of sheep, facial portraits of sheep, titled “ Good Mother”. Each sheep had received an award for being a good mother. These were mounted below each portrait. I read “ My piece voices the expectations surrounding women to be good girls, to be beautiful, or loving mothers.”

    I was then distracted by shirts made from unbleached linen hung on coat hangers suspended from the ceiling. Images and writing was printed onto scraps of material and feathers were machine sewn on to the shirts. These shirts showed no sign of ever warming a body. I read that the shirts were metaphors for those who were no longer there.

    The photographs on the walls were in aluminium frames, well printed, with plenty of white space around them. Women’s work and domesticity was implied somewhere. How nice and neat everything was. Books, whose contents had been selected and printed, lay on the back of a fleece. Could this be a reference to the women, or their way of life; are they being fleeced? Dare I put my mucky little fingers on the books? You know the feeling, like when you walk into a house and you feel you should take your shoes off. I couldn’t help thinking that the women whose lives were the subject of the show, women who plucked turkeys, would have to take off more than just their muddy shoes before entering this space.

    I left the first room and moved into another part of the gallery. There I found another book, larger this time. Sitting on the stool provided, I began very carefully to turn the pages, which were sandwiched between tissue paper like a wedding album. It was in the form of a diary. Each page had reproduced pencil drawings and text, the layout of which had been carefully designed, illustrating the journey the artist had taken. Was this book art I asked myself, or was this the diary of a 21st century lady. I closed the book and moved into the final space.

    A metal kitchen unit, the sort that was found in many kitchens from the thirties to the sixties. Inside there was more writing photocopied and pasted onto the doors with pots of jam and preserves. I must admit I was losing interest and becoming annoyed. I moved towards two beautiful wooden Edwardian specimen chests. Chests, great, I thought. I wanted to be fascinated. In expectation that each object I found would be a reminder of those things collected from a journey, I opened the first drawer very gently waiting to enter a world where secrets are revealed, love lingers along with a forgotten mothball. I tried another drawer, which contained a piece of floral material.

    I realised this was supposed to be part of a story, a story of experience. Yet why did I not respond to it, why was I so disappointed? Later, I realised, that any sense of genuine involvement had been lost in a neat and tidy a process, a process that had laundered and bleached authenticity. There had been no transmutation of the collected material. It had not been reworked or mutated sufficient to reveal, unfold, inform let alone to intrigue or astonish. What I had missed was a sense of soul. Of passion, of women who worked hard who were tired most of the time who put the demands of their livelihoods before the neat and tidy for its own sake.

    Yet, there is a message in this show: the sense of continuity through generations engaged in the same activities and how it is preserved and established through memory. But I wonder how many people other than those who have an arts degree, who can reference the various approaches, will get the message. I found the visual impact of the exhibition minimal. What it lacked visually it certainly made up for in words. The web sites covering this project are far more interesting.

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