Vanilla Beer artist

Censored at Hall Place, Bexley Heath, 2001

I was invited by the young arts officer of Hall Place to become artist in residence. At the time there was a government scheme that we could bend to pay me a small wage and the powers-that-be made no objection. They gave me a studio. I began work Jan 16th, 2001 for three months.

Hall Place is a Tudor mansion shaken by the traffic that surrounds it, A2 and A223, dampened by the little River Cray. I already knew it quite well but now had access to places that were not at that time open to the public. My studio wasn't ready - indeed never materialised - so I hung around drawing and taking notes. Old damp coursing material made of waxed paper, tar and horsehair was being removed behind the scenes and I grabbed rolls of it to work on, doing the actual work in my studio in nearby Woolwich.

On examining the pargeting(1) in a large dinning room, I discovered figures carved out of what looked like icing sugar; shiny white heads and busts of women and men with Caribbean features, fish tails and curlicues, pineapples on their heads. -Of course many of the great houses built their fortunes on slavery. But here there was so much casual evidence, so confidently laid out, so unassailable that it was shocking. Hall Place is open to the public and much enjoyed by the bourgeoisie as a lunching venue. How had this history been overlooked? That, the persistent stories of ghosts, the heavy tristesse from the time when Hall Place was a school - plus the collection that was stored by the museum department in the Thamesmead store - these things shaped my response to the residency.

With the education department we proposed some workshops, applied for funding, got it.

Working very hard indeed - starting early, getting back to my studio and working late - in three months I'd a nice show ready to go. Three months after start, on 18th April, in conjunction with the arts team, up it went.

It was displayed in the minstrels gallery in the main hall, large enough to take students before taking them through to where the workshops were conducted. Hanging over it is a large metal light fitting and to this I'd affixed a collection of porcelain dolls hanging arm in arm. They looked quite pretty, dressed in tartan frocks and mob caps, until closer examination showed they all had disfigured faces - missing eyes, noses, something wrong.(2) (This was a rather obvious reference to the dolour of a childrens' boarding school.)

On the main wall hung sheets of the green waxed bituminous paper on which I'd painted white oil copies of the pargeted figures, strung together with painted chains which in turn hung from the slave collars that they wore. Still looked decorative - but made the point, I felt.

There was a large display case in which I imprisoned an angel ? a reference to all that had occurred to me about the Hall ? consisting of a plastic torso, shop model-type, with latex wings armatured with toothbrushes. She was strung in the case with wires that were made from Walkman earplugs and aeroplane video-watching ear plugs, both current in those times. In front was another display cabinet with more latex wings. The references were clear but the beauty (and the refection?s, the interaction between the two cases) was unexpected; it really worked.

There were other pieces - paintings and drawings - plus a video that I'd made with George Flatters, a student (I was also teaching at Greenwich University at the time) We'd borrowed a laser from Edwina Orr at Richmond Holographics and did some experiments around vibrations in the cellars testing for what ghost-hunters call 'hot-spots'. We interviewed staff about their 'ghost' stories - or not - and George put it all together with a spooky sound track, most successfully.

The team were pleased, I was pleased, the Arts Council rep took us out to lunch.

When we got back, preparing to photograph the show, two of the key pieces had disappeared. The Angel and the chandelier of dolls. The Arts Officer went off to talk with staff, was gone a long time, came back very pale, very subdued. The Director had said that the pieces were too strong for the building. That the art wasn't at fault; he thought it wasn't appropriate. He further said that if I made a fuss, the whole arts team would go, just go. Arts were not his priority.

After talking it over with the very distressed team, I agreed to do the workshops but to NOT do the exhibition we'd planed for the end of the year.

I wrote to the Director asking politely for an explanation. When I bumped into him he said he'd be replying. He hasn't. Yet.




(1) Figures carved or cast into wet plaster.
(2) I'd bought them at 50p each in Woolwich market as damaged goods.

  Next