We spoke to Faye Claridge about her recent residency at the National Trust’s Dudmaston Estate, and a new project at Ripon Prison and Police Museum.
You have recently finished your work at the National Trust’s Dudmaston Estate. How did you go about working with visitors, volunteers and residents for the project?
The project has been so good to work on, the word ‘journey’ can be overused when talking about experience or development but it genuinely was designed as – and delivered – a journey. I started very openly, introducing myself in an exhibition and using a comments board and meetings to ask visitors, staff, volunteers and residents what they’d recommend to explore or research. I then created a pairing activity, asking everyone to link some of those areas, and any other unexpected objects, places or people connected with Dudmaston. I made a film of pairing suggestions and gathered more with specially-designed comments cards and a shocking pink post box (using that colour as “the opposite of National Trust brown” as one participant put it). After much negotiation and consideration of conservation issues, some of those ‘pairings’ were then able to be made physically, with us moving objects, restaging some of the rooms and creating signs for outdoor pairings. The next stage was asking for responses to the pairings and analysing those to find the most impactful. The top two were very close but the ‘winner’ was suggested by two young visitors, aged 6 and 10.
This was the two objects ‘Two Unknown Girls’ and ‘The Boxing Ones’ that went on to inspire the final outcome: ‘If Pairing Were Power’?
Yes, they said they made that pairing because both objects reminded them of living as brother and sister, “always fighting or in harmony, with no middle ground”, which was relatable to so many visitors. It also chimed with lots of themes of interest at Dudmaston, from the current residents’ family links (especially as twins) and the duality of the estate being National Trust owned and family-occupied. I was really excited to be following children’s perspectives on the property and its history and was able to expand this by creating an artwork that involved their participation as collaborators and models. We decided to bring the children from the painting ‘Two Unknown Girls’ to life, so I made costumes that were part 2D (as if still part of the flat painting) and part traditional costume so they could be worn. With these we made a series of portraits linking to more Dudmaston stories, bringing together children from a local boxing club, the family that nominated the pairing, my own children and the two children that live on site (a National Trust gardener’s son and a descendant of the original Dudmaston-owning family). I placed the photographs among the family pictures throughout the hall, inserting fictitious relations, and created two mannequins so visitors discover one dreaming in a twin room (surrounded by birdsong and soft whispers) and the other high in a tree beyond, with her head and hands transformed into tulips from the original Dutch painting.
The final room in the visit contains contextual information on the project (like a behind the scenes video and reading area) which is also summarised in a small exhibition booklet. I was keen to strike a balance between creating mystery and sharing research, which is not always easy. The gallery room also continues to invite responses and some of the reactions have been extremely touching and heartfelt as visitors share feelings and memories inspired by the artwork.
You have experience of working within many heritage sites. What advice would you give to an artist starting their first collaboration with such places?
It’s not for everyone, but I love the complexities of heritage sites. It takes skill to balance the myriad of needs in a project at a special site, or with a collection, without losing sight of the artistic integrity at the heart of why you’re there. It’s also vital to build really effective relationships because negotiations inevitably have to be made by both sides at some point during development or production and the more trust and understanding you have, the easier it’ll be for any concessions to be worked out. Humour, tea and cake are also must-haves for any project involving people, of course, and nowhere is fuelled by tea and cake quite like the heritage sector!
Can you tell us a little about your upcoming work with Ripon Prison and Police Museum?
The work for Ripon Prison and Police Museum has so far been extraordinary because I’ve been able to take their archives to present-day prisoners, to explore similarities and differences in their lives and prison experiences. I’ve been organising workshops in HMP Askham Grange so inmates ‘adopt’ a prisoner from the Edwardian and Victorian charges books, I then record them talking about their comparisons and make portraits with them (where possible) to link with the archive mugshots. The results from these workshops will be compiled as a film installation for one of the Victorian cells at the museum.
I proposed working with the prison because it’s really important to include the voices of those most affected by the public image of crime and punishment: present-day prisoners. The museum is part of that public image and the project gives the prisoners a way to share their perspectives and for museum visitors to consider the individual lived experience of justice systems. It also really matters to me that Askham Grange is a women’s prison, for the museum to reflect the complexities of how custody affects families, children and the perception of women’s position in society.
‘If Pairing Were Power‘ returns to Dudmaston from March – September 2020.
‘Prisoners on Prisoners‘ at Ripon Prison and Police Museum opens in February 2020.
Both projects are supported by Arts Council England.
You can follow all of Faye’s projects through Instagram and Twitter via @fayeclaridge.