Thursday, October 30, 2008
'The Witches', Manchester
In the middle of working on a Christmas job for our favourite supermarket, I was invited to put up a show at TBWA Manchester, by art buyer Kate Collings. Of course, I said yes faster than you can say 'trick or treat', but a site visit three and a half weeks before the date revealed that we didn't have a wall space to decorate. Oh no. We had a whole church - the converted St.Paul's in Didsbury - plus the company's other premises down the road, the more modern Parklands.
Suddenly, instead of mounting a few tasty bits on black foamboard and flinging a few fresh cards around, I had to create an entire installation. In three and a half weeks. If ever there was a time to call on the darker powers of magic, this was it.
First came the poem - I'd been obsessively repeating Oliver Wendell Holmes' fabulous lines for weeks in my head. Then came the story. Of course: Lancashire's own Pendle Witches, fast forwarded to 2008.
After that, the team. Having discovered during research that the root word for Witch and Wicker was the same, and having fiddled around with ideas using effigies and dolls, I asked my friend Tom Hare to make 13 Witches - no two the same, ten female, two male. No real brief, just - "make 'em". These would be the Poppets made by each of the witches, whose personalities I would tease out with heads, hints of clothing, and personal ephemera, just as if the ugly crones had made an attempt themselves. Real hair, wax, jewellery, stitches, fabric, dolls, buttons, cats and dogs - it all went in. My job would also be to illustrate their confessions, as written by Ed Garland (who also happens to make some rather tasty tunes), our friend from Sale, now based in Bristol. Confessions written, of course, in 2008 - the year they all came back.
Three weeks later Chattox, Demdike, Alice Nutter and company hang from the walkways of St Paul's by their own little nooses, with a corner dominated by a giant bobbing spider and 3 foot web, their own hand-drawn confessions (not a touch of Photoshop in sight) next to them and the most handsome trio of pumpkins nature ever saw. Ed's words are simultaneously blistering, ugly, cynical and charming ("Tension became feud. I think I won") and provided the thrust behind the frantic productivity of the show.
Tom's Poppets are primitive but clever, a triumph of improvised assemblage, and startlingly full of character, twig legs kneeling, faces denying, hands accusing. You'll be surprised at the personalities nature creates by herself - the least detailed are terrifying in their unmolested simplicity, thanks to Tom's quiet understanding of natural forms and materials, but still each one required its own careful, pondered but spontaneous treatment.
Inappropriately enough the show was erected on a Sunday with home-baked orange cakes and bread with pine nut pasta and organic teas for sustenance;, a culinary propriety which, like the one remaining village maiden, was utterly undone by a visit to the Sixways chip shop on the way home. Steaming chips were eaten the van - the only way, of course, in celebration of a most satisfying collaboration.