88 THESE MAY BE SEEN IN
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.