Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Matt Stokes at 176 Gallery, London - The Independent

Deconsecrated churches can be good places in which to stage exhibitions. That lingering odour of sanctity can often help a show along, give it a bit of spiritual uplift – even when it doesn’t deserve it, or when the very fact of that happening may seem a bit odd.

   In this case, Geordie artist Matt Stokes, who has been doing a residency here, has to deal with a rather severe, early nineteenth-century, neo-classical Methodist chapel from which practically all the fittings have been stripped. Most Methodist chapels have always been unadorned places. This one feels more unadorned than most.

   Stokes, like many other artists these days, is a multi-disciplinary fellow. He makes, but he also curates, organizes and orchestrates. He’s keen on getting communities to think about their heritage. He’s especially keen on looking at how music plays a part in the development of communities. He loves delving into archives and pulling out odd bits and pieces from the past that might help us to make sense of the present. Does this make him sound a bit like a Northern version of Jeremy Deller? Well, that’s exactly what he is. In part.

   For this show, he has done lots of different things throughout the building, downstairs and up. There are two films for a start. One of them, The Gainsborough Packet, is showing in what would once have been the nave. The other one is in the room directly behind the nave, back to back with the first film. This second film makes a tremendous racket because it’s about the punk phenomenon in Austin, Texas. In fact, it almost blows you off your feet when you walk in the door and see the lead singer bent over and screaming at the lead guitarist - also bent over in some terrible, groin-grinding posture - for the sheer joy of being alive.  

   Stokes has also curated a selection of works, mainly photographic, from a collection of which this institution is the custodian. And, last but scarcely least, he is also transforming a large hall at the back of the building into a kind of all-purpose venue where music can be made, from baroque orchestras to your local punk band. (Punk had its beginnings in this bit of North London.) He has even made a table, benches and some banners for this room. Stokes is clearly a useful man to have around.

   But he mainly stands or falls by a film called The Gainsborough Packet that is showing in the nave because this commission is brand new, and it has evidently cost a considerable amount of public money to make possible. The question which we need to ask ourselves is this: was it worth all that cash? Not really. The film is a small snippet – just 8.49 minutes of pure, early-nineteenth-century costume drama. Set around the time that this chapel was built, it’s about a Newcastle man called John Burdikins who once wrote a letter to a friend called Pybus, in 1828. Stokes found it when he was moseying through the archives.

   The film consists of scenes which show us the marvelous exploits which Burdikins describes in his letter – he rescues a child from drowning; he puts out a fire on board ship. He’s a bit of an all-round marvel. Or perhaps he’s just a bit of a boaster. The tale of these exploits is sung by the young and handsome actor who plays the part of Burdikins – the film is one long folk song, with moving pictures. It’s a rousing folk song of the kind that might have been sung in those parts back then. It could even have been sung down in North London too, with equal conviction, because Cecil Sharp House in Camden is home to the English Folk Dance and Song Society. You didn’t know that? Nor did I until I read the helpful notes accompanying the exhibition.

   Now this short film looks very glamorous - lots of money has been spent tricking out actors and locations to make the thing look as authentically of its time as possible. But, aside from the rousing song – which gets to be a bit repetitive the longer it is sung – what genuine tension and genuine interest is there in this little snippet of a filmed tale? Precious little. Is this tiny offering a feature film yearning to be born? Well, sadly, it’s not much else. 

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