Earlier this morning I had been walking through All Saints park with a view to settle in the sunshine for a few minutes and read a little more of Raymond Williams’ Culture and Materialism, specifically section 3, ‘Ideas of Nature’, ‘Social Darwinism’ and ‘Problems of Materialism’. Coincidentally, en route to a rock to sit on I bumped into Liz Mitchell, one of the organisers of this project who I had met recently during a series of critical writing workshops. I had been idly considering taking part in the project whilst being over that side of town, in the ‘university corridor’, and this serendipitous meeting cemented my resolve.
Having not previously had a great deal to do with slides I approached this adoption with a notion to vaguely and intuitively follow some strands of research that I had been working on recently. These are to do with symbolism in art using natural motifs, and mythical and folkloric plant-human hybrids, hence the choice of park reading. As I wasn’t looking for anything in particular the drawers marked miscellaneous seemed the most appropriate place to start. Veering towards the ‘flora, fauna and mineral formations’ section I pulled out a page of slides depicting Polish Folk Art, with the cyan and yellow all faded out to leave reddish magenta images of highly decorated household items displayed in front of roughly hung pieces of fabric.
Curator of the Visual Resources Centre, John Davis informed me that this set of slides had originally been a filmstrip – designed to be clicked through in a series, rather than shown separately. Each of the slides, except for one, shared a similarity in composition, with the object approximately centred in front of the aforementioned roughly hung fabric. All except for the one in which another heavier, shinier piece of fabric curves over the backdrop, and on closer inspection is a striped skirt with the wearer’s leg poking out from underneath, their torso only just visible above. On page 91 of Culture and Materialism Williams says that “we ourselves are in a sense products: the pollution of industrial society is to be found not only in the water and the air but in the slums, the traffic jams, and not these only as physical objects but as ourselves in them and in relation to them.”
On this slide the decorative chest that was the focus of another image has been covered in order, it seems, to display the skirt. The ankle and torso, the wearer, is here a by-product of the process by which these images have been produced, and of by-products, Williams says “we have to look at all our products and activities, good and bad, and to see the relationships between them which are our own real relationships.” It is puzzling that this skirt has been pictured alongside the other household objects, and even more so that it is being worn. There is a hastiness to all of these images, as if they have not been placed very carefully. This leads me to wonder whether the photographing of the skirt and wearer was a spontaneous decision, and also to wonder what they were there for and about their relationship to the other objects, the fabric backdrops, and the photographer. Unless they are the photographer, and this odd-one-out of an image was taken by somebody else.
Co-Director of The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books