26th February 2009 — 28th June 2009
Plunged into darkness, I'm serenaded by a cheeky side-burned chap who jostles clumsily from scene to scene, making my head spin as I follow his animated tale of self-appointed heroism. This is the autobiographical story of John Burdikin, a nineteenth century character unearthed by Stokes in a North Eastern archive. The only visitor, just before closing one sleepy Sunday afternoon, I have best seat in the house.
Newcastle-based artist Matt Stokes has taken over 176. The grandeur of this ex-Methodist Chapel (c.1850) is transformed into a beautiful, expansive cinema. Greeted in the main space by a single loop projection of Stokes' new piece The Gainsborough Packet, the result of his 176 residency; we are transported back in time to nineteenth century Newcastle, our vehicle a bizarre folk musical.
Stokes has created an evocative and gritty video piece which cleverly links the heritage and communities of both Camden and Newcastle around 1828; the same era in which 176 was being built. Burdikin's tall tale tells us of the various pranks and achievements he's experienced in his life, a cocky tale from a seemingly accidental protagonist. The project's title comes from the ship Burdikin escapes from, amidst a huge fire. Our orator boasts many other exploits, in his grinning, sea-shanty folk style; rescuing a young girl from drowning, being buried alive in a mine shaft, and doing a head stand for 15minutes on the steeple of a local church. It's a hard life up North!
Burdikin tells it like it is, whether we believe him or not however, is a different question; one, though, that I am not in a rush to ask. His dry humour and happy-go-lucky ethic supersedes that of Orwell's Victorian friend Jack Common, who remains, in the literary world at least, the first recognized Geordie protagonist.
Stoke's 'musical' casts folk singer Sam Lee to enact the 12 page letter Burdikin sent to his 'Dere friend Pybus' in 1828. Lee leads what visually seems a cast of thousands (although actually only comprising of 75) throughout a wonderfully bawdy tale across land and sea, feeling like a BBC costume drama on speed. The smoke from the burning ship and coal dust appear clumsy and heavy, but almost swirl out from the screen, making you want to cough. Birdikin's letter was adapted by folk band Bellowhead's Jon Boden, with Folkworks' co-founder Alistair Anderson on lyric duty.
Stokes enlisted the help of friends, family, and Newcastle City Council staff to enact the omnipotent and epic crowd scenes, which roar through the bowels of 176. The mace bearer we see does exactly that as his day job at Newcastle City Council, the film's Sheriff is ex-Sheriff of Newcastle. These subtle links, fusing past and present, re-emphasise Stokes' notoriously thoughtful and respectful manipulation of local heritage and community representation.
This, the culmination of Stokes' residency, marries carefully the artist's interest in both project and home locations, which lie at opposite ends of the country. This is mirrored by the decision to show the film simultaneously at both 176 and Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art, Gateshead (a stone throw away from Stokes' representative gallery, Workspace). This piece provides insight into Northumbrian heritage and the practice of story-telling, filmed on location in some of the north east's most stunning sites. Stokes is also increasing the visibility of Camden's very own treasure, Cecil Sharp House, home to English Folk Dance and Song Society. These geographical elements are by no means tenuous links, they provide substantial foundation and contextual reference to Burdikin's story for a contemporary audience; reminding us of what wonderful archival resources we have on our doorsteps.
Stokes continues the community feel by taking over 176's project space, transforming it into Club Ponderosa, an events space which plays host to some great live music and performances which run throughout the show, programmed by local residents; described as a 'space for social interaction'. Club Ponderosa is named after a shack-like structure, familiar to residents of the west end of Newcastle (myself included); an out-house in someone's front garden, where locals gather to put the world to rights (and drink Special Brew). Its original manifestation was that of the ranch in cult 60's show Bonanza.
The result of another of Stokes' residencies, this time in Austin Texas, is also on show at 176. These are the days (2008-09) documents the punk scene across Austin, culminating in a powerful split-screen projection of a live performance, muted and slowed, purveying an eerie and angst-ridden insight into the world of the mosh-pit; studs, sweat, and shoving. The pit is flanked with a live performance (real time) by a hardcore punk band, comprising of various members of the area's most well known acts, who create a soundtrack for Stokes' silent docu-film which runs alongside it. This, along with Stokes' Becks Futures (2006) winner Long After Tonight (16mm, 2005), was recently shown as part of Art Projx's ongoing programme of matinee presentations at The Prince Charles Cinema, London, along with works by film maker Lynne Marsh. Walking into the once-plush stalls of the cinema, serenaded by booming Northern Soul, I had high expectations for the cinematic impact These are the days could herald, in virtue of the ear-splitting sound track and thrashing, Bacchae-esque visuals I had experienced in the exhilarating 176 installation. It didn't work. The split-screen format sat as an apologetic letter box in the centre of the enormous screen, peeping out at the expectant crowd. Some films are best left as gallery installations.
Stokes closes the show with the curation of work selected from the Zabludowicz Collection. His selection is heavily figurative, linking, tenuously perhaps, to his interest in collective and subjective identity.
Cecil Sharp House: http://www.efdss.org/index.htm
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