Excess Baggage is a record of Chris Lewis-Jones and Esther O’Kelly’s conversations about mythology, folklore, culture and identity.
During the course of their collaboration the artists became attuned to the mythology/ies that shape our views of the world and our places within it. Acting within an ecology in which apparently opposing difference produces entropic transformation, the artists became excited by the ways in which each creative interaction generated a new context. From the start, virtuosic drawing underpinned their collaboration. Undertaken in Ether’s studio and via correspondence, their approach to mark making was visceral and spontaneous, drawing on the unconscious as both source and inspiration.
The act of collaborative making, in which each thing leads rapidly to the next, through a process of intuitive iteration, resulted in what Esther called ‘imagery riffing’. Thus, riffing on both the familiar and the unfamiliar, drawing on the mythic narratives prevalent in both cultures, the artists were reminded of the trauma bond that exists between Britain and Ireland, the long and troubled history of colonisation and its associated grand narrative/s, which has generated baggage that we have yet to deal with (hence the title of the collaboration/exhibition). This troubled history permeates the work, as does the poetic presence of the literary and the mythological. Excess Baggage is a response to the context/s in which it is placed: the gallery, Belfast and the ESP collaboration. Bound up with notions of personal and collective memory, the need to survive, to rebuild and to defend, in these precarious post-war pre-Brexit times, the exhibition invites us to unpack (at least some of our) our baggage.
Chris Lewis-Jones and Esther O’ Kelly share an interest in exploring the specificity of geographical context/s. Each week (since their initial meeting at Primary) one of the artists has sent the other a series of artworks to which s/he has responded, in kind. Initially these works tended to be expressionistic paintings and drawings of cultural archetypes, thus, a visual conversation has been taking place between the two artists and the socio-geographical contexts in which they are each located. However, since working together in Belfast(1) they have found themselves exploring notions of cultural identity using masks. ‘What masks are we wearing?’ is a question they have been asking themselves (several times a day)! This represents a departure for both artists as neither has explored the mask before. Their exploration is influenced by Lyotard’s theory of ‘mythic discourse’(2) and by the murals that surround Vault studios in East Belfast, many of which feature masked combatants.
In addition to this painterly/expressive body of work, they have also been exploring the notion of ‘cultural baggage’ using words and assemblage. These approaches are quite different and the artists are not sure how, or even if, they will bring them together to complete their collaboration. In the meantime, they are very much enjoying travelling hopefully together (which is what collaboration should be about)!
Note: (1) Including a day in Esther’s studio in East Belfast when they were surrounded by preparations for an impromptu Orange march (2) The concept of national identity, as it has been passed down to us, is an example of what Lyotard calls the ‘narrative discourse’ (The Post Modern Condition, 1974); the story of a (social or ethnic) group which, simply by its telling, reinforces/legitimises the dominant values of itself. The group, which legitimises itself through ‘the chanting of a myth,’ becomes ‘bonded’. The myth requires no authorisation or legitimisation, other than itself. ‘This is who we are’, says the group, ‘this is where we came from…this is what we do’, and ‘this is how it is’.
The Expanded Studio Project is a 6 month collaborative initiative between Belfast based artists and artists based @weareprimary Nottingham. The aim of the project is to develop external relationships, exchange ideas and explore different modes of collaboration.
Opening August 22nd 6pm @pssquaredbelfast