I went to the opening of OCA tutor Maggy Milner’s new show at the Victorian workhouse in Southwell last week (previously posted about here). The installations were delicately beautiful, and deeply sensitive and thoughtful evocations of the possible feelings of the workhouse inhabitants. What was most striking about the event was how engaged people were with each of the six installations. In fact one visitor told me that she wasn’t really into art and that this was the first time she had ever seen installations that she had understood and been able to appreciate in terms of the context in which they were displayed. A National Trust representative at the event told me that the show was the most successful (aesthetically) contemporary art show the National Trust had ever had in its estate, enhancing and expanding viewers’ experience of the Workhouse and its complex history. Praise indeed. Though sparse, cold and echoing, Maggy seemed to have populated the place with feelings: in the cold, slightly dank basement, sitting on shelves, in each of the basement rooms, were sealed glass jars, imprisoning ‘Perishable Goods’: mouldering fruit, grouped to signify the seven categories given to paupers on their arrival to the Workhouse, slowly deteriorating at different rates. Over the span of the exhibition these silent weeping objects seem to plead to be released.
All the installations are objects chosen for their ambiguity and are labelled and placed in regimented rows to denote classification, segregation and supervision. Backlit by the atmospheric light, the work has a luminous transparency suggesting the fragility and precariousness of life. Outside, plaster casts of hands lie in the courtyard, almost flickering with movement since the shape and posture of each cast varies. This installation, Hard Labour, refers to the arduous and sometimes futile work regime devised for inmates in the 1830s. Women and girls over 15 were made to pick apart oakum (heavily tarred rope) with their bare hands, whilst men had to smash rocks to fine grit for road building.
One of the most beautiful installations is the one entitled ‘More’. This consists of one room entirely occupied by a regimented line of delicately crafted bowls, made of tissue, each weighed down with coins.
Finally, perhaps the most visually delightful of the exhibits, because of the way the light bounces across it and through it is the installation entitled Deflation. The title alludes to the lack of privacy, the constant control over the inmates’ lives and the diminishing effects of the poverty trap. Clear cylinders in neat orderly rows, categorised with metal tags, support but entrap clear balloons, which slowly expire. Maggy Milner’s show continues until 5th September. The Workhouse and gardens are a delight to visit in themselves, and I strongly recommend a diversion off the A1 to see this treasure of a show. Any OCA student wishing to go and wanting to be shown round by Maggy should contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org since she may be available to guide you around. There is also a Facebook account with further details on the show.