Martha Whittington’s constructed environments speak to the tenderness and innocence of the human spirit as it faces the harshness and treachery of life and labor. By recreating the history of significant objects and ideas such as manual tools, antique devices, and life experiences of laborers, she builds an immersive experience. This new view of life and labor asks the audience to re-examine concepts, archetypal associations and connotations.
Whittington is a Southern Constellations fellow at Elsewhere, where she spent 5 weeks working on the installation, The Flannery Bunker.
Below is our conversation about the piece and its influences.
Q: The work on The Flannery Bunker builds off of a previous artists work surrounding army surplus goods. Can you describe your process and work a little bit?
A: When I first started working on the room I claimed it as my own piece and reorganized the stacks of army surplus goods. At Elsewhere it is encouraged that you build onto someone else’s installation over time so each installation like the museum itself is a living piece, it is meant to grow in other directions. So the former military surplus room, now The Flannery Bunker, is the oldest installation at Elsewhere. It had not had any care in 10 or 15 years. People had pilfered from it for other installations. I contacted the artist that originally installed it, Joseph, and he sent me pictures of its first incarnation. I recreated his floor plan, his walls he had built out of military surplus and stayed true to that because I thought it was an architectural element much like the building itself. So that part was more a restorative process, like restoring a building or kitchen. As I was working on it, the task became more about bringing to life individuals with this sameness. So the installation’s set up now is more like you’re going into a military history museum. The first room feels like this is Flannery’s living space. There is a man’s toiletry bag set up there, with some personal items. Everything is very particularly displayed, with tabletop-scapes. As you move through the space I created, one wall shows just the mess kit lids, so that is a little more museum like. As you move deeper through the instillation you walk past foot lockers with the lids propped open and lit from the inside. I was trying to create conversations through the interaction of objects that told a story of Flannery. Eventually you come into a really darkened room that has a reflective tent that I made out of material that I found here. Most of the material in the space that is stacked are tent halves folded up to make walls. The reason I made the reflective tent comes from when I was polishing the mess kits. You started to see yourself in it (the reflective surface) and you became part of it, and it also reflected its own environment.The reflective quality disappears but it also takes you in. The tent is in the back because it represents shelter and a sanctuary.
Q: Why was the decision made to set the installation up that way?
A: It originally had decaying evidence that there was a tent in there. I also was thinking about that space being protective, very isolated, very much about one person in the space, and thinking about if I stayed in this space where would I feel most comfortable. I think the tactics of someone who is a soldier plays into it as well. If they are going to rest, its going to be somewhere that’s very discreet.
Q: In some of your other pieces you focus on workers and the downfalls of industrialized labor. Did you stick to this theme in your work at Elsewhere?
A: In a sense I did because I feel that I was paying tribute to these anonymous soldiers, these workers. As I was working on the piece and going through all the army surplus from another installation I discovered the mess kits had been personalized by WWI and WWII soldiers. As I found out it is a whole genre of art called trench art so while these soldiers were in the trenches of war in between bombing and shelling they would write their names on them, they would draw pin up girls…they would record all the places they had been. For me in that thinking about the anonymous workers (soldiers) and thinking about how its not about the individual soldier (workers) in the platoon, its about the whole. So they are not really individual soldiers they are working in units like the industrial worker. So I feel like there was this tenderness and loving bringing back to life some of these aluminum mess tins by polishing them like they were fine silver. Right now I am building a display box that is almost like if your family heirloom of silver plate comes in a beautiful mahogany box that is velvet lined. I’m making a small foot locker but out of more museum like material, plexiglass specifically. The artifacts from The Flannery Bunker will be displayed inside. I am calling it The Flannery Bunker now because one of the mess kits just had the name “Flannery” on it. This is the strange thing, when I was working on the mess kits I started developing relationships with them and it’s like wondering what this person looked like, what he was thinking, and at times I would be polishing one and I would look over at another favorite of mine, his name was Rosie believe it or not, and I’d go “Rosie, I’m going to work on you soon! I’m bringing you back.” So that was kind of interesting.
Martha is also presenting on her work at Elsewhere on Saturday August 16 at 8:30 PM.
Fionn Duffy is currently an artist in residence at Elsewhere. She was born in Glasgow, Scotland and currently lives and works between Brighton, London and Glasgow. She is an interdisciplinary artist whose practice involves the curation of exhibitions and events, often choosing to work collaboratively with other artists, musicians, dancers and composers. She is especially concerned with the point where the transient nature of performance and the materiality of sculpture meet, questioning the duality of “here and there,” “now and then,” “you and me” and exploring the possibilities of these elements existing simultaneously as a whole. With an interest in improvisation and participation, each piece of work initiates a dialogue between the artist, performer and viewer, at times allowing roles to fluctuate and overlap. Her current project at Elsewhere involves the creation of whistles and the playful interrogation of them as instruments and as way to interact with the surrounding environment.
Elsewhere: So your whistles are basically a form of place based creative inquiry, allowing people to interact with the environment around them…can you tell me a little more about that?
Fionn: When I first got to Elsewhere I was really overwhelmed with the amount of stuff and how it built up over time. I have also never lived near a railroad before. The sounds of the trains coming past felt really present in this space…I kind of felt like the museum was its own type of transport. I started to see this museum, this building as transporting you to another place. Also the fact that nothing leaves or comes into this collection means its almost like a freight train traveling through time rather than space while meanwhile those trains, the sound of them, comes into the space.
So I started by trying to find out their schedules because I was really interested in how they interrupted life here. It is so loud you have to stop talking, you kind of wait for the noise to pass. I started recording the sounds of the trains going past and I found that they were really beautiful. I found them like musical cords and so I started listening back to the recordings I made and making them into chords so I’ve got a score of the chords. And then from that I was interested again in the individual people and things in this space and how I could kind of see them as individuals but also as a group and so I started off wanting to record everyone singing individually and have those playing throughout the museum.
I was really excited by all the pieces of wood in the wood library because they are collection as well, they’re seen as special objects, but in any other workshop they would be seen as junk and so I liked the idea again of the museum singing and of lots of different people being able to interact with them. So I got to the point where I was making whistles and yea, now I’m just kind of experimenting with how people enjoy playing them, playing them together and they work on lots of different levels…they play chromatic scales so you can make up something but you could also just enjoy the different shapes and different sounds they make.
Elsewhere: So where do you think you’re going to go next with this project? How do you hope to continue?
Fionn: Well I’m very influenced by music, classical music. I was classically trained when I was young and decided to pursue art after that so I would really like to make a score, a piece of music that is maybe in 3 movements so its like a sonata or that kind of thing. So I want to have a document that looks like a normal musical score and have maybe the first movement being a response to the trains every time you hear them and the second movement being replaying that first weeks cords on the same days and that’s kind of an interesting kind of synchronicity between the sounds in real life and the sounds I heard back then and then replaying them and listening to the trains at the same time. I was really interested in the fact that Elizabeth Cotton’s song Freight Train, is from North Carolina.
Also I want to explore the actual music making part of these whistles because they are instruments even though they are art objects or whatever you want to call them. So I’m planning on getting a group of people together to stage a performance of that using the whistles and singing. So that would be the third movement and I feel like that’s a good way to round everything up and bring it together but still leave it open and stilling having the whistles here for people to play with them if they want.
Fionn Duffy will wrap up her project in the next two weeks but the whistles will remain at Elsewhere. The public is always invited to come play with them.