Tanks and Tablecloths is a long-standing research collaboration between artists Lizzie Ridout and Elizabeth Masterton. Their research examines the parallels between military and domestic spheres. In particular, the artists suggest that the regimentation and control so fundamental to life in the forces is echoed in the work of the home-maker; characterised as it is by regularity and repetition in its efforts to keep the domestic machine running.
For me these ideas inevitably raise questions about gender and perhaps about futility and necessity, but this exhibition steers clear of these more predictable themes. And while the parallels between military and domestic are not an entirely new subject, Tanks and Tablecloths offers a series of original and surprising dialogues between the two worlds.Ridout and Masterton explored the extensive archives of Devonport Naval Heritage Centre (DNHC), gaining special permission to integrate historic artefacts alongside their own new works at Plymouth Arts Centre. The contact with the centre’s volunteers and original objects has given Tanks and Tablecloths with a warmth and humanity that complements the pared-down presentation, hovering appealingly somewhere between community history and the white cube.
Underpinning the exhibition is the idea of ‘measurement’, prompted by the artists’ observation that many of the artefacts in the naval archives were concerned with establishing consistency and determining quantity: from mess utensils regulating portion size to systems of recording damage to both personnel and ships. These artefacts form part of the exhibition dialogue.
Ridout and Masterton use the analogy of the mythical Three Fates to explore the way that a person’s life is divided, measured and determined by time: The three deities spinning, measuring and in the end cutting, the thread of life (perhaps like some kind of reverse umbilical clamp). These three fates shape the exhibition. So, in Clotho (The Spinnner) the wool from a standard issue navy pullover is disassembled and spun into rope, while a ball of wool from another naval jumper is wound alongside 940cm of 35mm orthographic film, the content of which (if any) is, for now, unknown.
In Lachesis (The Allotter) the arbitrary (outside the individual’s control) and fragile nature of life is evoked. The section is anchored by a splendid typewritten label, found with the historic artefact Fig F: Scales: a short piece of old-fashioned museum labelling that reverberates with almost Shakespearean import in this context: ‘This balance is an accurate and expensive instrument. It must be treated with great care’.
A particularly powerful piece in the Lachesis section is Fig c The Measure of a Man III [Worth his Salt/Test His Mettle] (pictured), which comprises the exact quantity of salt in an average man (350g) placed upon a brass plate. Crystallised by the artist directly from Plymouth Sound’s naval waters, the work analyses and reduces life to a quintessence of dust.
Moving into Atropos (The Unturning), the mood becomes more menacing. From the naval collection, huge, brutal cutters for some unimaginable task are immediately jarring and openly suggestive. A ghostly film loop, Quercus Regius: 00:58-01:29 for which the artists blindly (like the Fates) unravelled, measured and cut thread onto light sensitive film, evokes a transmission signal lost; a terminal failure of communication.
From the title of Quercus Regius: 00:58-01:29 we know that the precise measurement of time is as significant here as it is elsewhere in the exhibition: The animated duration of the piece corresponds to that of the sinking of HMS Royal Oak, a warship built in Plymouth’s Devonport docks.
But we don’t know this particular symbolism unless we read the exhibition leaflet. Ridout and Masterton are interested in how you tell a story, or give information, without words. Ridout explains: “We didn’t want captions. We didn’t want people to spend more time reading captions than looking at the art”. It’s the perennial problem for anyone involved in presenting contemporary art.
Belli Dura Despicio (Broadside) (pictured) is a case in point. This piece comprises a 150 broadside sheets, digitally printed with continuous black lines on 55gsm newsprint. So accustomed are we to a literal and linear way of thinking, that it seems at first a subtle, quiet work; a strangely mute newspaper.
The exhibition leaflet explains that, in its complete edition of 150, Belli Dura Despicio (Broadside) depicts the 29.7km broadside range of HMS Warspite. This is information and not to be confused with meaning. But having it deepened my experience of the work and then liberated me from it by giving me permission to make the leap, like an artist, into a different way of thinking.
Tanks & Tablecloths: Chapter Two, in collaboration with Devonport Naval Heritage Centre, is at Plymouth Arts Centre until 13 June 2015.
Lizzie Ridout is one of nine artists and a filmmaker making new work as part of Bideford Black: The Next Generation: an exploration of the rare north Devon pigment, Bideford Black: Bideford Black Blog
Bideford Black: The Next Generation opens at Burton Art Gallery, Bideford, Devon on 3 October 2015.