A Spot light on… Ruth Barker

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This Month we hear more from Helen Wewiora and Charlie Booth, who discuss the work of Tall Tales Commissioned artist Ruth Barker.

Ruth Barker is a Glasgow-based visual artist specialising in writing and performance. She has an interest in autobiography, feminist writing practice, and the unconscious. Her spoken word performances often involve substantial literary or poetic monologues that the artist scripts herself. She makes use of multilayered reference points including ancient myths, personal autobiography, and daily ephemera.

Ruth was first supported by wewioraprojects to undertake a Tall Tales research residency in 2014. With the addition of fantastic insights provided by the then Tavistock and Portman N_89671453_clinicHS Foundation Trust’s librarian and curator Karma Percy, Ruth spent time skilfully delving into the Tavistock library and archives, as well as navigating the centre’s little known and rather impressive art collection. Ruth soon honed in on two things, materials on Anna Freud – a pioneer in her field, but often overshadowed by her father Sigmund Freud’s story, and the very endearing idiosyncrasies of the Tavistock Centre and collection itself.

We just had to secure some time for Ruth with the Freud Museum London’s collection and Freud family experts, the museum being only five minutes walk from the Tavistock, a centre whose teaching and practice is centred around the ‘talking cure’. So, that’s exactly what we did. Ruth instantly connected with the fabulous curatorial team there, whom since have been nothing but supportive. The museum, along with the Tavistock and Swiss Cottage Gallery & Library, soon extended their work with us all; forming a three-strong cohort of partners and venues hosting the Tall Tales tour in London, which took place in March – May this year.

Following an extended period of research, including further time with the Anna Freud archive, Ruth spent 2015 and into this year developing a body of new work for Tall Tales. The result of this work has been a site specific installation in Anna Freud’s room entitled Glass, Blinded to the Room (2016) and a performance staged in the Freud family dining room called The Foot Exerts A Pressure On The Surface Of The Glass (2016).

Glass, Blinded to the Room, is a mixed media installation made for Anna Freud’s desk. Ruth took personal effects from her own studio desk and combined them with Anna Freud’s objects selected and exhibited by the Freud Museum curatorial team. Through conversations we had with Ruth it became apparent that this process of selecting personal objects is a central question posed within Blinded To The Room. The desk, although displaying authentic objects which were owned by Anna, is staged. The desk is a display case to represent the psychoanalyst – although based upon photographs of Anna’s desk the display is more representational than ‘authentic’.

Some objects that would have always be present in Anna’s study have been removed. Ruth was particularly interested in the absence of Anna’s loom. An object the psychoanalyst often used to assist her when working through complex theories and cases. We chatted about why this might have happened and what the consequences are to the hundreds of visitors who come to the Museum every week; factors such as space, conservation but also gender representation.

What do we show to the outside world to represent ourselves, and what in our absence would other people display to offer insights on us, our personality, working methods and interests?_DSC0477

For Glass, Blinded to the Room, Barker introduced to Anna Freud’s desk, an iPhone looping video material and audio that refers back to Anna’s love of, and use of her now absent loom. Around the phone, a series of typed / handwritten texts overlaid with rough photocopies of the artist’s hands, stood upright on folded, coloured, sheets of A4 paper, composed in small desktop arrangements. Elsewhere on the desk were objects from the flotsam of the artist’s personal studio desk: fluorescent yellow earrings that were a gift form her husband, and a small photograph of the artist herself as a teenager.

The work overlaid the artist’s world across the ephemera of another life. What interests us most about this work is the overlaying of the artist’s world across the ephemera of another life and what results from this process. Recollections and associations underscored the presence of Anna Freud as both subject and landmark in a personal and un-analysed creative landscape, resulting in the escalation of the every day to the epic and reclaiming hidden histories.

Ruth’s site specific performance The Foot Exerts A Pressure On The Surface Of The Glass worked with items from the Museum’s collection, including the family dining table and Anna’s necklaces. Descending the staircase and walking into the Freud family dining room Ruth wore a leotard, and the top half of a richly layered, maroon performance garment which covered her from neck to waist. Her costume is made by dress-maker and her long-standing collaborator Lesley Hepburn.

Following a brief introduction to herself and her work, Ruth called upon her audience to participate, and handed out coloured paper containing an annotated script for the relevant performance sections she asked those present to read. The papers are beautifully produced, containing photocopies of the artist’s body along with a partly typed, partly handwritten text. Her new work is written in nine parts, speaking to the nine months she will traverse as a result of her pregnancy.

Following her introduction, Ruth then climbed onto the Freud family dining table, and fastened the skirt that accompanies the upper body section of her costume, this hiding her legs. Sitting upright on the table, with the skirt dropping down towards the floor from the table top, the artist looked as though she had become part of the table. Its legs became hers, and her’s became invisible.

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The artist then speculated on the nature of memory, improvising questions and asking the audience to silently revisit their dreams. A member of the museum staff was then asked to place Anna Freud’s necklaces onto the fabric of her skirt. Ruth’s recital then began.

We were enveloped by her words, which became dreamlike and immersed us in the performance world. The atmosphere was meditative, shared, intense, and irreverent: the artist created a very contemporary take on an ancient oral tradition. Tears were shed and collective encounters shared. Ruth’s delivery, as always, was hypnotic.

Now at Touchstones Rochdale, the visual documentary footage and sound from this performance has been recontextualised. A multi-media installation, the performance has become a new work entitled The Foot Exerts More Pressure. The centrepiece of this recontextualisation is the elaborate costume worn by the artist for the live performance. IMG_1859The dress sits, apparently occupied by a headless female body on the gallery floor. Two television monitors rest either side of the skirt of the costume, each showing footage of the artist’s hands resting alongside Anna’s necklaces. The live audio recording of the original performance loops. Anna Freud becomes a figment of the artist’s wandering imagination.

This is not the end of the story though, this breathtaking and constantly evolving new work has not only been an immense pleasure and wonderful journey to produce, but has more to give. Working in collaboration with Akerman Daly, we are working with Ruth to support new readings and online audio releases which will come out over the course of the rest of the Tall Tales tour, as will some beautifully designed re-worked, text prints. We have the sense that this work will just keep on giving, as with its author who has an incredible generosity of spirit.

To come briefly back to the collection at the Tavistock Centre – Ruth and ourselves feel that it has infiltrated every part of the building. Works are nestled into every nook and cranny of the centre, and it is often hard to see where the fabric of the building and art collection end and begin. This extends to staff, student and patient relationships with the collection – the sense of ownership and love for the works around the building, we all learnt, is fierce. Ruth and ourselves had stand out favourites, as do users of the building! A challenge therefore for a work to even be relocated within the centre, we are honoured that the Tavistock and the Berger-Hamerschlag’s family, have allowed us to share the wonderful works of Margarete Berger-Hamerschlag with audiences in Rochdale and soon, Glasgow. The artist’s production was surely groundbreaking at the time it was made yet this artist has not had the recognition we’d suggest she deserves. Watch out for future blogs on Margarete Berger-Hamerschlag, and thanks to Ruth for opening our eyes proper to the Tavistock Centre, and all that it is home to.

Blog by Helen Wewiora of wewioraprojects, Tall Tales Curators and Producers & Charlie Booth, Tall Tales Assistant Curator

Image Credits:
Header Image: Image from The Foot Exerts a Pressure on the Surface of the Glass, Ruth Barker, Photo by Elizabeth Wewiora, 2016
Tavistock Centre Entrance, Image C. Tavistock Centre 2014
Install Image from Blinded to the Glass, Ruth Barker, Photo by Elizabeth Wewiora, 2016
Image from The Foot Exerts a Pressure on the Surface of the Glass, Ruth Barker, Photo by Elizabeth Wewiora, 2016
Image from The Foot Exerts More Pressure, Installation view, Ruth Barker, Photo by Elizabeth Wewiora, 2016
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