Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Breathing in the Borough Road Archive

Abigail Ashford finds herself in the company of a chihuahua whilst following Walter Benjamin’s suggestion that the aura of a painting can be physically inhaled into the body at an installation by Accounts & Records.

'Stroke the cat. It doesn’t matter if it turns into a dog'. So reads a line from Edwina Attlee’s poem Bourges, which accompanied the recent installation Breathing in the Borough Road Archive at The Borough Road Gallery. Enjoy the kind of pleasant sensation you get from an action like stroking a small furry animal. It doesn’t matter if it mutates and changes form dramatically. The tactile pleasure is still there, so make the most of it. At least that’s what I took away from both the poem and the installation. Exhibitions that deal with archives can often enshrine the original artefact and beg us to consider its value in poor lighting behind a glass case, the surrounding walls crowded with textual evidence of its legitimacy. A work such as Breathing in offers an alternative to this genre and mode of display, focusing instead on personal, physiological encounters with objects, using the paintings and drawings of The Borough Road Group, led by artist David Bomberg in the mid-20th century, as a starting point. 

The Borough Road Gallery is an unassuming space, tucked away in a campus building of London South Bank University. Here, at the old Borough Polytechnic, David Bomberg held his discursive life-drawing classes, encouraging students and fellow artists such as Dorothy Mead, Edna Mann, Cliff Holden and Dennis Creffield to move away from the stifling academic traditions of British art schools. Small holes pepper the plaster walls of the gallery’s single room, left by overzealous photography students erecting degree shows. The space sits empty for extended periods, the collection it was built to display sitting in storage, while the university concentrates its resources elsewhere. 

At the opening, I stroke a chihuahua called Wolfgang as he determinedly tries to sit on a circular carpet in the centre of the space, woven to emulate the prints covering the walls. The pockmarked walls have been covered in a myriad of blue and white sheets, which I recognise as the result of water printing, a staple in many a child’s primary education. The simple palette, grace and scale of the work is much more calmly orchestrated than your average kid in art class, though I’m still drawn to stare into the swirling patterns, mesmerised and soothed. The clouds of ink mutate from marble, to water, to a brain scan in a sort of oddly relaxing Rorschach test. Oblong gaps cut out of the paper evoke the paintings conspicuously missing from the walls. Paintings from the archive are instead leant against another wall dressed in fresh pink packing and bubble wrap cocoons, held together with tape declaring them FRAGILE. Which works these are and by which artists is not disclosed. The composition visualises the problems of funding and visibility the collection faces, but literally repackages the artworks in the quirky spatial language of installation art for a contemporary art viewing public. 

Explaining the difficulties of caring for an often-invisible body of work the collection’s curator Theresa Kneppers tells me that although most collections deal with the issue of work being in storage in light of space and conservation parameters, this is a somewhat unique case for her. Unable to display the paintings at all, she has embraced this as an opportunity to invite artists to respond to the hibernating collection, encouraging them to redress and represent ideas surrounding the material and conceptual archive. Another recent show titled And I Paused saw artist e.t. life projects explore a dialogue between the arrangement of complex thoughts in the human brain and ordered archival systems, drawing on her own experience of dyspraxia and dyslexia. 

Theresa tells me that she commissioned Breathing in with the aim of 'addressing the body in the gallery as something beyond just the visual interaction with the displayed artwork.' Such thinking has shaped the collection from its outset. Sarah Rose, who donated the archive to the university, has written of her close attention to breathing when viewing paintings, passionately comparing the effect of a moving painting to an induced meditation that affects the nervous system, so that the viewer 'not only “sees” the work but also feels it'. The attempt to theorise, explain, use and influence our neural engagements with art has long been explored but has remained somewhat peripheral to the art world; think of Goethe’s speculative colour psychology, or the modern practice of art therapy by psychotherapists. 

However, in their installation, artists Braden and Angela from the Accounts & Records collective, propose a new theory. The catchily titled Insufflation Appreciation asserts that, 'with the right guidance, what Walter Benjamin describes as the “aura” of a painting can be physically inhaled into the body.' They suggest that through such inhalation, the viewer might then empathise with a work of art on a metabolic rather than purely visual level. Playing with the notion of innate essence and originality by conceptualising the 'aura' as a microscopic residue, they describe how 'from the blood, the aura particulate travels up to the brain where it triggers acute and profound synaptic responses.' An audio meditation plays in the gallery to accompany the installation, designed to stimulate this process and release the paintings from the confines of their bubble wrapped obscurity. 

Dorothy Mead, Reclining Nude, © Val Long. 

As a creative new interpretation of a little-known collection consigned to the storeroom, the piece works fantastically. By evoking many people’s naïve childhood interaction with creating (what at the time seemed a deeply personal image by pressing paper onto inked water), and viewing art, the artists have created a playful response far removed from serious and often stifling norms of aesthetic contemplation. The audio meditation provides an additional humorous reimagining of the much-scorned gallery audio-guide, and simultaneously taps into the app-based mindfulness and podcasting zeitgeist of the present day, directing us to absorb art viscerally as well as visually. And so, arguably, we can stroke the cat and the dog at the same time. In other words, Breathing in the Borough Road Archive suggests that it is important to continually celebrate the cultural category of the archive but also to broaden its scope and reach concurrently. 

Abigail Ashford 

Breathing in the Borough Road Archive
The Borough Road Gallery
London SE1

11-13 April 2019

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