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This blog post attempts to make sense of the massive pile of academic research in archives alongside my own personal journey with grief. I was thinking I need set life to one side in order to organise a new art work and theorise about it. However, art reminds me that life and art are interrelated, interdependent even and I must not make the work in spite of my life but rather hold these two strands, gently alongside each other and see what happens.

In May 2022 I climbed up to The Mount Without to see Tom Marshman’s new show ‘A Shining Intimacy’ with my wonderful friend, artist Liz Clarke. An hour or so before the show we met up and set the world to rights over a bowl of hot noodles. The focus of our talk wasn’t art but our families. Eating noodles can be a messy affair and I ended up deliciously full and covered in splashes from my chilli sauce.

We thought Tom’s show would start on Bristol time so didn’t think we needed to be there on the dot of 7pm and rocked up at 7.15pm. Along with one or two other latecomers we had to wait a few minutes before entering the decommissioned church to watch the show. This holding minimised the infection of light pollution when the doors were opened from the outside world. When Liz and I entered the church, the space was dark with Tom illuminated in full flight on a stage with gauze hanging from the pulpit across to the other side of the transept.

‘A Shining Intimacy’ Tom Marshman, © VonalinaCakePhotography

‘A Shining Intimacy’ centres on Tom’s conjecture about the friendship between Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams and memories of his own friendship with artist Clare Thornton who died in 2019.

‘A Shining Intimacy’ Tom Marshman

The gauze stretched across the stage simultaneously held projected film of Tom as Kenneth Williams and Maggie Smith in front of their respective dressing room mirrors. Kenneth’s mirror faced off stage in one direction whilst Maggie’s faced the other way. Kenneth and Maggie both directly addressed the audience as well as exchanging dialogue with Tom and each other. Throughout the show Tom performed to the audience and moved on stage between Kenneth and Maggie; he deliberately broke the illusion of their presence by moving in front of and behind the gauze. He also worked with a variety of everyday objects as props or tools, particularly in relation to anecdotes and re-enacted gestures relating to Clare.

The holographic effects, dialogue, lip syncing, mimicry and re-enactment that Tom uses are more than clever theatrical conjuring tricks that attempt to bring the past back to life. Throughout the show Tom carefully and intricately weaves, layers and pleats his own personal experiences of Queer friendship and grief with Maggie and Kenneth’s mutual admiration, honesty and sheer delight in each other. Tom holds the two strands of theatrical history and his own lived experience in alignment alongside each other..

‘A Shining Intimacy’ Tom Marshman, © VonalinaCakePhotography

Tom’s projected versions of Kenneth and Maggie are mythical apparitions and spirit guides that he, himself embodies; they share jokes, reminisce, ham it up, finish each other’s sentences. They are nudging, cajoling and pulling Tom through his grief.

I didn’t see Clare brought to life again on stage or feel her presence during the show but rather I viscerally felt her absence; not as a hollow, empty loss, mark or scar but as an active process of remembering and longing that still presses into Tom’s present. This remembering describes the negative space that is inevitably discovered when we try to draw or sculpt someone or something. This negative space is generous, constantly evolving and full of momentum. Svetlana Boym talks about how the past ‘opens up a multitude of potentialities’ (2007).

By remaking and redrawing that past, by working back and remembering, Tom brings Clare forward in a number of ways; bringing her into sharp relief. He re-enacts a party trick he and Clare used to perform at parties; he lies on the floor and holds a step ladder whilst balancing it on his knees.

Tom Marshman, A Shining Intimacy – Projection, Sound and LX Cues script, 2022

Tom explains how he held Clare; he then let’s go, letting the ladder balance for longer than is comfortable; there is a collective exhale as eventually he takes it down. We all wake up from the dream. The agony of loss is too much to bare but we have to allow it to ripple out like the endless, sumptuous red ribbon that Tom unfurled on stage in direct reference to a performance work Clare made whilst Maggie and Kenneth’s holograms address us about their relationship.

This is Tom’s pleating, layering and holding alongside.

A Shining Intimacy’ Tom Marshman, © VonalinaCakePhotography

During the show we learn that ‘Kenneth first met Maggie in August 1957 in a West End revue written by Bamber Gascoigne called ‘Share My Lettuce’. (Marshman 2022).

Tom Marshman, A Shining Intimacy – Projection, Sound and LX Cues script, 2022

Tom returns to lettuces a few times. He describes a Performance Re-Enactment Society Event that he and Clare were involved in; he had to walk down a staircase with a woman wearing a dress made out of lettuce. The audience was invited to take leaves, dip them into a choice of salad dressings and eat. Apparently, Clare was very worried how all this was going to work.

During ‘A Shining Intimacy’ Tom walks a lettuce down the step ladder as a child would a favourite toy in a game of make-believe whilst telling us that everything worked out really well in the end. He then casually starts to eat his way through the lettuce as the show continues. He reminds us that friends often feed off each other and we carry or embody people who have died.

‘A Shining Intimacy’ is an infinite cycle of recurring motifs, relationships, coincidences and returning. These are the patterns we find when we reflect on history.

Tom Marshman, A Shining Intimacy – Projection, Sound and LX Cues script, 2022

Due to starting my family in 2011, I missed a lot of Clare’s performance work in Bristol from around this time. However, the lettuce, ribbon, pencil case and ladder moments take me to my own dealings with the absurdity of grief which Tom makes space for me to sit with.

One minute I’m laughing and another I have tears tumbling down my cheeks.

Since Easter I have been working with Tom to develop the practice-based element of my PhD research with Arnolfini’s Education archives. I am writing a lot and on Tom’s recommendation watching French and Saunders and fly on the wall documentaries from the 1990s. At this stage I do not know if this research will lead to performance, installations, workshops or a combination of all three.

Arnolfini Education archives are so partial and chaotic that Phil Owen says ‘it was just such a complete and utter mess, whereas other parts of the collection - it was quite easy to . . . give them reference numbers and get them out so people could start looking at them. The difference with the education boxes was they didn't make any sense. It literally felt like someone had had a paper fight and chucked it all in the middle of the room.’ (Owen 2021). Since 2018 (interrupted by the Pandemic) I have been sifting and sorting through this paper fight and am compiling an Excel spreadsheet designed with fields based on Dublin Core. I devised it to illicit basic information about each archival item including title, date, size and format. This slow detailed work is enabling me to understand and unpick this chaotic mess a little more.

Arnolfini readily falls into alignment with my own life which folds through the archives in different ways. As I leaf through boxes of of reports, applications, project outlines, faxes, letters, accounts, marketing, memos and handwritten notes not only do I see my image and my name but I also created some the material I am handling. In my blog post Memory I write about a photograph from Box 9 of Arnolfini Education Archives that documents a Reckless Project that I managed as Education Coordinator over twenty years ago.

Photograph from 43371/Dept/Ed/3/9/7, Arnolfini Archives, Bristol Records. Credit Frances Bossom

In that post I think about my presence in a place that no longer exists; conflating my experience of working in the archive with my experience of my mum’s Dementia.

But there is also something happening with the mirrors in the photograph that talks to this idea of history folding infinitely in on itself; the same continuing return that reoccurs in Tom’s work. In this photo my fifty years old self is looking back at a reflection of myself aged twenty-six. So too I can see echoes of myself in people and the communities who populated Arnolfini before I did. I can see myself in Katy Macleod, Arnolfini’s, Information and Education Assistant (1978 – 1983):

Katy Macleod Interview Transcript, 8th October 2021

This experience of seeing yourself in archives is an idea that comes up often during the semi-structured interviews I am conducting as part of my PhD research. For example, Helen O’Donaghue (Head of Engagement & Learning Programmes, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin) discussed her experiences of researching the Victor D’Amico Papers 1942 – 1969 in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. ‘So there I was reading about all of these early experiments 80 years ago and in parallel . . . my own journey as an artist to the person that I evolved into now was mirrored there.’ (O’Donoghue 2022). Phil Owen said about his experiences in Arnolfini’s archives,‘I don't know it's difficult to describe . . . you think, 'Oh I can really see myself in this'. It is important to emphasise I do not expect history or archives to be a perfect mirror. More specifically Jo Melvin describes moments when archive materials resonates with you as ‘precisely that moment of the flash of light that is the moment of living. When you are engaging with the past through an archive you get into a relational exchange with material, and sometimes you have that momentary flash. Suddenly, the past is gone but it has triggered a moment of understanding in the present.’ (Gunning L, Wolsey V, Melvin J 2012).

I want to work with Tom to develop my work because of his involvement in archives. I view his practice as part of a distinct spectrum or field of contemporary art practice that I define as Archival Reactivation. In a future Blog I will describe the different types of practice that I see occurring across this spectrum and the implications and consequences of the range of co-authorship, collaborative and participation strategies artists (including Tom) use.

Projects by Tom including; ‘A Haunted Existence’, ‘Kings Cross (REMIX)’, ‘I Went To A Marvellous Party’ and ‘Jenny’ have evolved in response to formally accessioned archives and additional material Tom has collected himself. ‘A Shining Intimacy’ continues to explore Tom’s ongoing pre-occupations of telling and re-telling histories that haven’t to date been invested in alongside reworking or mediating historic source material. Vonalina Cake said in her review ‘Kenneth and Maggie’s friendship is known about but Tom dug deep in the archives to find information. He uses anecdotes, pieces from scripts, poems and songs and their own words into his performance’.

Facebook post, Tom Marshman, Tuesday 31st May 2022

Tom composes his work from vast swathes of source material. I’ve heard him describe this process as taking the different elements that make a show and moving them around until they work as you would the different elements in a collage or photomontage. Tom makes this look effortless however it involves complex and deft organisation, reflection, testing, integration and decision making. You could argue that Tom’s artistic process echoes that of a Qualitative Data Analyst. He is able to draw out patterns, relationships and anomalies in the material he works with and create new associations and possibilities. Amelia Jones says ‘ it is hard to identify the patterns of history while one is embedded in them. We "invent" these patterns, pulling the past together into a manageable picture, retrospectively.” (Jones 1997) Tom’s projects avoid falling into saccharin nostalgia because he has an eye for incongruity and small details that might ordinarily be overlooked. He is a meticulous analytical researcher with a camp sensibility and wry eye.

My research interests lie in art work that employs performative, pedagogical and activist tactics in relation to archival material. Tom’s work gives me permission to playfully hold my personal memories and Arnolfini’s formally accessioned archives into alignment with each other and to do this using my own wry eye.

Tom tells us part way through ‘A Shining Intimacy’ that he has mentioned the word ‘remember’ over 30 times already.

Tom Marshman, A Shining Intimacy – Projection, Sound and LX Cues script, 2022

I want the art work I am making to be playful, affectionate and revolutionary acts of remembering and conjecture too.

Here’s to the future.

With thanks to Tom Marshman.

Remembering Max Self The Markz of Max

Remembering Jess Raw.

Her sister Alice Raw wrote a beautiful post about holding on which clarfied a lot of things about bringing people with you into the present and future.

Facebook post, Alice Raw Wednesday 25th May 2022


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