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The Old Grammar School, Redruth, August-September 2006


The old Grammar school in Redruth was built out of distinctive local stone during the last century, at a time when the town was still one of the most prosperous and influential in Cornwall, situated as it had been in the heart of the tin-mining industry. The school lay disused for several years before being reopened, with all the original fixtures tatty but intact, as artists’ studios last year. ‘eek’ was the first exhibition held at the site. It was an open submission show curated by two artists, Sovay Berriman and Jacqueline Knight, and with the support primarily of Creative Kernow and latterly Cornwall Arts Marketing, it was able to generate a good degree of publicity and interest from the outset.

In the down-at-heel, but grand entrance hall Sovay had installed two shaped plywood reliefs. Called ‘Forage’ and ‘Bounty’ they incorporated gaudy commercial images of food produce and were evocative of scaled models of the landscape. In Andrew Currie’s piece, ‘Blustery showers’, above them, two fans attached to the ceiling agitated a bin-liner. The rustling noise the bin-liner made was like the sound of falling rain.

In a darkened side room a black and white film by Mike Cooter, ‘Dead reckoning’ (above) featured deaf actors re-enacting a scene from a film made in the 30s. The scene was set in a morgue, and the actors communicated using sign language, with subtitles providing an ongoing translation. The film was carefully poised between tragedy and comedy, and seemed to comment on the difficulty of pure communication. 

In the largest space: a room that was once the school’s library, Sovay had installed ‘Pass’ (above). This was a cheerful cluster of shaped MDF boards, their crisp white surfaces broken with splashes of purple glitter. Having the do-it-yourself quality of a pantomime stage set, the sculpture was deliberately ambiguous in its depiction of a mountain range.  In the context of the school, with each board jostling for space with its neighbour, it seemed to symbolise the impossible aspirations of childhood.

More reticent, and arrayed on two walls of the same space, were immaculate miniature pencil drawings by Barry Thompson (above). These mixed idealised images of the landscape, with depictions of rock singers and guitarists, each with a few lines of 18th century poetry or song lyrics written directly onto the wall of the old school. They were like school-boy graffiti, made into perfect and pristine statements of ambition and longing.

The library also housed part of the most subtle work in the show. ‘Scattered maps’ by Stacey Righton (above), consisted of depictions of continents, made by removing layers of paint from the walls. Easily missed, but all the more poignant for the fact, these drawings provided a link from the show to the fabric of the building itself. They were complemented by smaller, more fragile images on window sills depicting island states, made from the paint scrapings that had been collected.

Jane Atkinson has, for several years, been involved with a labour-intensive project to map the county of Cornwall by measuring metals and other trace elements present in its rivers. During this time she has collected many thousand samples, and recorded the process of doing so using the analytic precision of a biochemist or ecologist. By identifying her project, ‘Trace Elements’ (above) as art, she reminds us that the distinction between art and science is arbitrary and that both equally have emotive, aesthetic and metaphorical qualities.

In a slightly gloomy link corridor Dale Berning installed an ambitious piece, ‘Va et vient (soundtrack for an empty sunlit corridor at dusk)’ (above) consisting of two complex futuristic-surreal black and white drawings animated by atonal music, that sounded like the sound-track to a kitsch sci-fi film. Nearby Jacqueline Knight showed, on a massive screen original to the site, a highly evocative video called ‘Past Tense’ above). This consisted of digitally manipulated images of the ghostly spaces in the school cut and spliced together and combined with overlaid 3D computer graphics.

In the last room Andrew Currie showed an ensemble of low-fi kinetic sculptures in which objects like ping-pong balls and sand from a local beach were animated by fans of the kind normally used to cool computer towers. (right). Sourced from the local pound shops, yet effortless and hypnotic, these objects had a compelling and magical quality that belied their lowly status. 

This summer has been a particularly interesting and eventful time in Cornwall. eek was pulled off with swagger and aplomb: certainly matching comparable artist-curated shows in London. There was little attempt by the curators to engage with local traditions of art-making, however, and this was probably a calculated risk to put some distance between the show and the artistic legacy of the county now firmly institutionalised and embodied in Tate St Ives. Instead the show has set a new precedent for Cornwall, and in making a clean break with the past, has suggested new directions for artists working in the county.



Rupert White August 2006