Discussions: Ella Wright

Geographical specificity seems very important to your work; many of your works are made from materials gathered from the Thames during your walks. I know that over the course of the last year, you moved from Glasgow to London in the middle of your research. In what way, if any, has the change in your environment affected the outcomes of your practice?

Moving from Glasgow to London was something I never really planned. I ended up in London after Christmas for a variety of reasons and decided to take each month as it came. Growing up in London, I had often found it impenetrable and somehow distant. If anything this now made the need to see the city afresh/outside of my previous understanding of it all the more important. Walking along the riverbed felt like one of the only ways of interacting with the city’s intricacies beyond its planned and developed structures. 

But below street level, out of sight, the city quietens. The bank of the Thames is littered with strange objects; medieval boat nails, terracotta roofing tiles, bike wheels, broken electrics, networks of disused pipes, old shoes, bones, and cows’ teeth. I would walk according to the tide’s timings. Anthropologists and archeologists scan the river bed for objects which they can use their expertise to define, record and investigate London’s histories. Without any knowledge of these systems of research I found myself relating and grouping objects according to my own intuition/imagination, unlikely narratives and imagined histories emerged. In this sense it was being in London that forced me to look much closer. 

This project has a very tangible archival quality to it. Archives as we tend to understand them, in the context of history and museums, are hard evidence that can point to clues of what might have taken place in the past. As your work shifts the archive from the realm of history into the realm of visual art, how does this factual or truthful element change? Does imagination or the presence of creative storytelling adjust the narrative? How important is hard, truthful evidence in the artistic archive?

Whilst as you say, archives tend to contain evidence that points towards fact, I was interested in the mystery surrounding the lack of information in certain archives. I had been looking at lots of art from the Ice Age. In spite of being meticulously documented and recorded in various museums and archives, we still have very little understanding of the exact dates/purpose of/thinking behind each piece.

However, I didn’t see my project as the making of a fictitious archive, or as an attempt to play with the distinctions between the world of history and visual art. While the objects/images I have made combine things I had observed on walks with imagined worlds and narratives, these entanglements are true to my personal experience/memory/imaginative relationship to the places I had been exploring. 

Creating the ‘quality’ of an archive was a way of grouping the different objects/images I had made, presenting them as artifacts of my experience and memories of the walks I had been on. It was a way of connecting the different fragments without the need for written explanation or too much gap filling. In this sense it was a way of maintaining the mystery of the images in their presentation. For this reason, I was careful to not attempt to try and replicate the archiving of objects as done by historians in museums. The works are not labelled, dated or ordered in any specific way or according to any particular system. 

I’m not sure if any of this answers your question. In terms of the ‘truthful’ element in the artistic archive, I’m not sure quite what this means. We all experience the world in a different way, different things captivate our interests, and we each have our own ways of making sense of things. As we walk through the city, our minds wander to all sorts of things from our personal lives, dreams to things we have read or been told. These influence the way we take in the landscape. The narratives and invented parts of my image making, may feel entirely unreal to you but are still true to my experience. 

This project combines both your visual and written work, and I know you were a little more apprehensive to share the writing. I wondered if you could speak a little bit about why the writing feels more vulnerable, and how you view the relationship between word and image as it exists in the practice of a visual artist. 

I suppose my fear with sharing writing alongside visual art is that it suddenly makes things too explicit, or detracts from the mystery/ambiguity of the image making. I didn’t want the images to turn into illustrations. By including a written element I didn’t want to exhaust something which felt alive… adding an atmosphere of pretension/false sophistication that makes people want to run away. I often find in exhibitions that I get more excited about work before I’ve read about it – somehow writing can shut down an imaginative response to work. 

But it can also do the opposite!  I love writing and storytelling and didn’t want these concerns with it to mean that I didn’t ever include it. A story which I’ve thought about a lot recently is Virginia Woolf’s Solid Objects which is about a man slowly losing a grip on the real world as he becomes obsessed with collecting interestingly shaped objects which litter the London streets. I read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49  a couple of months ago which I haven’t been able to get out of my head.  

Sharing writing here is very much an experiment, it’s nothing big but it’s a start! I’m not sure how I feel about it yet but it’s good to give it a go.

Lastly, one of the things that I find most compelling about your work is the mystery surrounding the narrative based images, which feel so reminiscent of ancient wall drawings and carvings. The images feel so strongly personal, yet the underlying tale is hard to decipher. What is the process for coming up with these? Is there a specific story that you are trying to tell? How do you feel that they connect to more ancient traditions of visual storytelling? In that vein, how do you view their permanence or ephemerality? 

Thank you! I definitely didn’t intend on making images with an explicit narrative, I’d rather leave that up to whoever is looking at them, so I won’t give too much away.

 The development of the stories/compositions comes from a range of things. The spaces I walked through both by the Clyde and the Thames were often unmapped, full of structures and objects which were undefined/unaccounted for. I was interested in how because these spaces were not planned or translated, my relationship to them was immediately imaginative… invented stories and explanations could emerge. I would pass lots of empty boat yards, old scaffolding yet to be dismantled, and abandoned ships – their skeletal structures felt like empty stages. I would also draw passers by or imagine people inhabiting these spaces. I would try to include how my own personal thoughts and memories entangled with the landscapes.

This is all very vague really, but I suppose one specific thing to mention is that I was really keen for the images to feel not placed in any specific time. Whilst some of the colours and mark making feels reminiscent of ancient art, I didn’t want them to slip into the past too much, and so I sometimes included compositional elements such as bike wheels, hammers and nails, or a man in a stripy suit which brought them closer to this world. I wanted a sense of a layering of histories and times, rather than anything that placed them too specifically in a single world or story.

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