Contemporary Art In Focus – Michele Allen, Public and Private –

As an artist Michele Allen is interested in exploring how we conceptualise environments and the ways in which physical spaces are culturally constructed.  She explores this in depth in her lens-based work through an engagement with everyday situations, specific communities and locations. She began working with audio as a way of questioning the perceived documentary nature of photography, and of revealing the process of communication.  She works with soundscapes and recordings, developing an interest in montage and multi-vocal narratives. Michele is particularly interested in collecting stories about place, drawing on collective memory and personal recollection and interviewing people with a strong connection to particular sites. She often juxtaposes this with other forms of written documentation including archival material, sometimes reflecting a more institutional understanding of space.

This show was the result of a four-month residency. The works respond to the castle’s history as a site of government and latterly as home to University College. The exhibition featured three different but related bodies of work, drawing on photographic and archival research related to the Castle and installed within its existing collections and architecture. The titular series of digital photographic prints installed in the windows and display cases of the Tunstall Gallery were supplemented by scans of archival texts relating to the foundation of the University. The photographic works document aspects of the day-to-day life of the castle with a particular focus on rituals and traditions. The artist was particularly interested in the fact that students live in the building, and that their social life is connected to a number of older and sometimes adapted rituals and traditions, some of which date back to early 19th century. Two of the images are of ‘Ladies Night’, a tradition rooted in the time (before 1987) when University College was an all-male institution, and students were allowed to invite women into the college on this special, formal occasion. Nowadays the tradition endures, but it is organised by women from the college who decorate the hall and invite guests.

The 9-minute video work entitled Aesop’s Feast was constructed from footage of banners filmed at the Durham Miner’s Gala in 2015, and a soundtrack of music and ambient sound recorded in the Castle during band and choir rehearsals. The title was inspired by the many classical references on the banners, which relate to ideas of education as a tool for emancipation and social equality, an aspect of both socialist and Enlightenment thought. The New Brancepeth colliery banner features an illustration of one of Aesop’s fables; Allen’s title references another fable as well a composition for piano by Charles-Valentin Alkan, which is notoriously difficult to play. By juxtaposing the images from the Gala and the students’ musical rehearsals, attention is drawn to the educational spaces of both the Trade’s Union Movement and the founding principles of the University, as well as to the value placed on classical education, and University as a site of exploration where people can try things out and make mistakes in a sheltered and nurturing environment.

Hazel Donkin, March 2016

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