Saturday, 26 January 2013



Gemma Coyle says she is “fascinated by the perturbing, complex, breathtaking, curious, wondrous and absurd world around us, as well as the variety of living forms on it”. The Peter Potter Gallery commissioned Coyle to create an evolving installation exploring the absurdities of the world represented in the rich and compelling context of the early museum archive. The work on display brings together fascinating – and often macabre – museum catalogue entries from 1695 with the rather prim and apparently innocent art of quilling.
This creates an interesting tension in the work, given the collision of the delicate and time-consuming process with the dark and disturbing objects the text describes. Coyle’s work recalls the heyday of feminist art of the 1970s, in which the kinds of arts associated with womanhood such as sewing, baking or decorating ceramics were reclaimed to create a vivid and often violent commentary on gender inequalities. Artists such as Judy Chicago and Louise Bourgeois created a practice in which these traditional crafts were subverted and controlled to question ideas of femininity, womanhood and social structure. In The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, Rozsika Parker reflected that:
“Changes in ideas about femininity that can be seen reflected in the history of embroidery are striking confirmation that femininity is a social and psychosocial product.”
In the same text, Parker quotes an 18th century source as follows:        
"Sir, she's an Artist with her needle....Could anything be more laughable than a woman claiming artistic status for her sewing?"
This offers an interesting insight into the historical view on women’s crafts, but more importantly, women’s abilities. While Coyle’s work is not overtly feminist in ethos, there is a subtle and spiky humour about the interplay of the floral patterns, decorative colours and effects, traditionally feminine techniques in contrast with the sheer savagery of the language she has borrowed. The violence of these catalogue entries relates to both genders, but taken out of context - 'A Mans Gutts' for example - they often create a sense of violent or troubled relationships.
Quilling, like embroidery, was a craft which in the 18th century was considered a suitable occupation for women of breeding. The craft was practiced during the Renaissance (14th century) by monks and nuns in Italy and France, who would decorate their religious objects with ornate patterns. They used golden-edged strips that were left over from bookmaking to wind around a quill, forming tight coils of paper which could then be glued in patterns to create decorative motifs. This was cheaper than using proper gold filigree and had a decorative and ornate result. It translated well to the creation of feminine pictures of flora and fauna  and thus it was a suitable and relatively easy craft for upper class women of the 18thand 19th centuries to take up as part of the ongoing enforcement of  the link between womanhood and decoration. 
Paper itself is a sculptural material with limitless potential - it can be cut, moulded, mashed, ripped, torn, shredded, compressed, carved, layered, dyed, painted, drawn on, varnished, folded or glued. It can be used to create sculpture that is enduring and solid, or the most delicate and vulnerable tissue-thin works, intended only to survive the length of an exhibition. It is also worth noting that paper has been vital to the preservation and reconstruction of history, in the form of documents, drawings, prints and photographs. In its virgin form it is pure potential; blank, empty, silent. As soon as make a mark or a fold, we intervene. We begin to create history. As noted, the document used for this exhibition dates to 1695, and it has endured to fascinate and inspire us today. 

A Catalogue of Wonder and Grotesquery

We make our histories from remains: aside from oral histories, historical narrative relies on surviving objects and paper ephemera such as documents, drawings and photographs. While there are many reasons to collect - nostalgia, fascination, greed, education, salvage – through doing so, we preserve history. This exhibition takes as its starting point the peculiarities of one historical document by Frans Schuyl, dated to 1695, which listed the content of an early museum:
“A Catalogue of all of the Cheifest Rarities in the Publick Anatomie-Hall, of the University of Leyden”
This astonishing text lists the manifold objects within the collection, which encompassed human remains, natural history and manmade objects from all over the world. The stark descriptive style of Schuyl's museum archive list belies the curious and often grotesque and sinister nature of the artefacts it describes. Many are connected with macabre stories, imbued with the mystique of foreign climes or are fantastical to the point of fiction. The catalogue lists the items in their order of display, so the exhibits of each room or cabinet are listed consecutively rather than ordered by theme as so:
53 The Skin of a Man dreffed like Parchement
54 A Sea Dog
55 An arm,legg, & the fkull of a Thief that was hang'd
56 The Effigis of a Prufian Pefan, who Swallow'd a Knife ten inches Long, which was cut out of his stomack, & he lived Eight Years afterwards
57 A great Unicorn
One can imagine these objects and relics displayed side by side on wooden shelves. In this period museum practice was not concerned with drawing together exhibits by historical or critical theme in the way it is today. Instead, the museum was the site of wonder; of spectacle and magic, of the ecstatic mysteries of the unknown world. In the 17th century, the world held mysteries and fascinations beyond anything we can imagine in our age of instant information and communication.
As well as wonder, there is horror too. The manipulation of objects – particularly human remains – was undertaken in the spirit of the macabre, as was the collection of artefacts pertaining to the darkest and bloodiest sins. The following selections from the catalogue illustrate the bloodthirsty side to the collection:
1 A French Noble-man who ravish’d his fifter, an afterwards murthered her, and was beheaded at Paris, and given to the Anatomie, by de Bils
7 The Sceleton of an Affe upon which fit’s a Woman that killed her Daughters Child.
42 A Modell of a Murthering-Knife found in Engeland. Whereon was written Kill the dogs burn the bitches, and roast the whelps.  
It is important to note that the only available bodies for dissection and study were those of executed criminals, in part explaining why these crimes were listed along with the objects. It is also clear though, that the Anatomists working on these remains had a slightly macabre and humorous take on their display. The terrifying description of a ‘murdering-knife’ above is an apt example of the kind of narrative pull an object can have. Even in description this tells a story and is suggestive of a raw violence and malicious intent that would have given viewers a shudder of unease just as it does for us today when we contemplate the printed record of this museum of curiousities. 
This is an exhibition of text, but as you view it you will experience both the subtly feminine aesthetic of Coyle's work and strong and often disturbing imagery. This is the result of the vivid interplay between word, object and the vital capacity of the mind to imagine history.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Archaeology 2013

The Monument Project

Riverside Archaeology 2013

After the successful completion of a number of archaeological digs, walks and events in 2011-2 the Peter Potter Gallery is gearing up to offer the community some exciting new opportunities this year. 

As a contemporary art gallery, we are unique in our commissioning of original archaeological research, something we have achieved through partnership working with local archaeologist David Connolly. Also, by involving artists and other art-form specialists – along with the wider community – in the experience of local archaeology, we intend to open up new discussions and stimulate new interpretations of our history. As part of the Monument Project, the Peter Potter Gallery is running a series of archaeology projects and workshops with archaeologist, David Connolly.
There will be exciting digs with the community that will produce original data, helping to further our understanding of this historic East Lothian town. The sites are located along the river near the gallery, ranging in date from the 16th century to the 19th century, with a particular focus on the Siege of Haddington. The workshops and events are fun opportunities that give firsthand experience of an excavation site with archaeologists, as well as taking surveys to record historical data.
If you want to get involved in the project then get in touch with the gallery to join our mailing list for education and events info. Read more about the projects below, and prepare to learn more about Haddington’s rich history in 2013!  

CSI Haddington: The siege 

This bloodthirsty project will involve surveying and recording the traces left from the Siege of Haddington! Several centuries of rivalry and dispute between Scotland and England led to this siege (1548-49), which involved a number of bloody invasions. The siege was partly the result of King Henry VIII wanting Mary, Queen of Scots to marry his son Edward, otherwise known as the ‘Rough Wooing’. However, while the English, Scots and French fought long and hard, eventually the English abandoned the town due to disease and starvation and leaving utter devastation behind. It is thought that the only remaining evidence Haddington has of the siege is St Mary’s Church, part of which had to be rebuilt following canon fire. However, there are various marks that represent musket fire, which are still visible on the walls today. 
The project, CSI Haddington will involve members of the community, expert Dr Tom Dawson and archaeology students to create a catalogue of the church’s signs of the siege. Also, the shot trajectories and its features will be investigated to assess the direction of fire, in order to develop a better understanding of the battle. This can be used to work out the possible attacking strategies and positions of the Scottish and French troops that were trying to invade the town. This could perhaps assist with establishing the boundaries of Haddington’s large earth rampart built by the English, who occupied the town. In addition,  this will create further information about the size of the town in the 1540’s and offer an interesting contrast to the 21st century Haddington we know.

Excavation at The Sands: The Washhouse/ Bathhouse 

Nearby the Peter Potter Gallery there used to stand an Old Washhouse from the 19th century. It was located by the Nungate Bridge. The building’s exact history is unknown, although there are various maps from 1818 to 1893. They illustrate that a building was present in 1818, which then vanishes in 1953, being replaced by another building that has been labelled as a Public Bath and Wash House (1893). The intriguing history of this building will be investigated further in a week-long excavation open to the public, which may shed light on the past activities and society of Haddington’s residents. There are opportunities for school children and the community to get involved with the dig and surveys in the Nunbridge area, learning more about the local history through these various interactions.
Excavation at Hardgate: Bothwell’s Castle

Our final excavation links to some of the most sensational figures of the sixteenth century. This now ruined town house dates to the late 16th/early 17th century. Its original name is thought to be Sandybed House and it is likely to have been owned by the Cockburn family. There is, however, some debate about this issue - a story that is associated with the property  which has led some to consider The 4th Earl of Bothwell, third husband of Mary Queen of Scots, to be the owner. In both the oral history tradition and in 19th century written histories of the region, the house is long recounted as the property of Bothwell. There are some delicious stories about Bothwell’s adventures which we will be both putting to the test and sharing with you this year!
Whilst the house was demolished in the 1950s, what remains below ground provides an interesting comparison to the Siege of Haddington and the life and times of the Queen of Scots. Hopefully, with extensive digging and the help of the community, we can develop upon the little evidence we have about the site and in doing so gain a more informative picture of its history. 

Whether or not you have previous experience of archaeology, you are welcome to join us for our exciting workshops which are bound to be very revealing!

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