Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Boudica: Jessica Warboys at Norwich Outpost

A flame-engulfed, roman-slaying, chariot-riding, hula-hooping, semi-mythical queen of war. Is there anything Boudica can't do? Alicia Rodriguez investigates at Norwich OUTPOST.

Romans used wax tablets to write on, the surface of which could be scraped, smoothed and used again. This practice of writing over erased words or content, replacing them with new, is where the palimpsest originates.

The palimpsest as historical artefact and narrative tool is one of the starting points for Jessica Warboys’ Boudica, a film installation and one-off performance at Norwich OUTPOST. Boudica forms part of Invisible Fabrick, a month-long project dealing with the elusive and relevant relationships that run though landscape, geography, history and text. Warboys has executed an exhibition as powerful, epic and ambiguous as the Queen of the Iceni herself. 

Throughout her practice, Jessica Warboys investigates erasure and fluidity. Often absent from the work itself – her ongoing series of Sea Paintings were produced largely by the drag of the tide – the artist retains a strong sense of narrative structure. Warboys finds that familiar place within a story that is both malleable and transitional. 

While the story of Boudica has an authority rooted in legend, its uncertainties give Warboys license to manipulate and facilitate it. The telling itself passes between ancient history and artist. Through Boudica, and through Invisible Fabrick, themes of heritage and locality are considered, mediated and revised. Landscape is crucial; what Warboys does is excavate the landscape in order to retell, scrape clean and write over.

In 60 or 61AD, Boudica and her army of warriors ruthlessly destroyed London, St. Albans and Colchester, killing thousands, in a revolt against Roman rule. Her people, the Iceni, were based in what is now Norfolk and parts of Suffolk. The story has been told again and again, revised and augmented throughout history. 

The layers of ashes and remains of buildings burnt by the Iceni rebels that have been found underneath three cities are the only physical evidence of Boudica’s revolt. Everything else we know is drawn from documents written by the Romans. This has allowed for the story to metamorphose, and for Boudica to become a figurehead of anything from war and nationalism to defiance and rebellion. Her statue, commissioned by Prince Albert during a period when Boudica’s legendary fame enjoyed a revival, stands next to Westminster Pier in the city that she devastated.

Warboys performing at OUTPOST

Boudica is a short film, looped, made up of fragments, each one documenting abstracted elements of a narrative. It was filmed on 35mm and transferred to digital. A hula hooper with red hair and painted with Celtic blue markings performs fiercely and urgently in a forest clearing. It is daylight and Morten Norbye Halvorsen’s pervasive sound design echoes a battle-march. Homemade 'props' serve as missing artefacts, false evidence shaped by their context. They take form in a patchwork of shapes and textures, resting in the trees. In another scene, we see a number of horses quietly grazing in the distance. Images of the great bronze statue at Westminster are overlaid with a violent, crackling fire.

The performer’s stare is intense, her awareness of the audience almost intimidating. Within the aggression and theatricality carried within the performance, there are mythic and ritualistic elements. Exploring the imaginary, the unpretentious rural environment is a timeless place where past events are unearthed and rewritten, re-enacted. The concept of 'retelling' is an important one and is useful to us because the past is still in the process of being understood. Warboys has considered this successfully by offering these fragmented scenes and intangible representations.

Jessica Warboys worked with students from Ecole d’Enseignement Supérieur d’Art de Bordeaux to make the unusual sculptural objects that feature in the film. Warboys suggests that the objects made outside of the film’s context are 'imagined artefacts'[1], which is an effective approach to these 'props': there is very little archaeological evidence of Boudica’s rebellion and it makes sense for something made or found by other means to form part of the storytelling. They don’t reference any time period or place, which allows us to assign meaning to them. They move and change with the sound of the film.

Informed by the landscape of the Boudica Way in South Norfolk, it is not a coincidence that the exhibition takes shape in Norwich’s almost unfailingly good OUTPOST gallery. Boudica’s presence in Norwich is subtle but consistent. What is so exquisite about Warboys’ film is indeed the focus on geography, and the location as palimpsest. She uses an iconic, if mysterious, figure not simply to articulate a study of our Celtic past or even battle, or revolt, but an exploration of ambiguity within a place. Boudica is a perfect re-imagining of historical events because it completely emanates that ambiguity.

Jessica Warboys and Invisible Fabrick might be a suggestion that narrative in contemporary art continues to develop, drawing from ritual and the imaginary. It begins with re-telling: since 60AD, Boudica has been given many names, and I think this is a good reflection of a fluid story, not yet formed.

Alicia Rodriguez

Jessica Warboys: Boudica
2 - 21 May

[1] Jessica Warboys, interview with Amy Leach

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