Ruth Ewan: Brank and Heckle

Ruth Ewan: Brank & Heckle (2011) Art Review, London, Issue 55 (December). Pp. 120-121.

Dundee Contemporary Art

If you were writing a study of the relationship between art and politics in recent art, Ruth Ewan’s practice would be one of your case studies. Ewan has tirelessly worked as a kind of activist-campaigner through her work since her first shows in the early Noughties. Looking at this exhibition, perhaps what the study might unexpectedly throw up is the relationship between politics and aesthetics.

Although a number of the works in Brank & Heckle have been displayed elsewhere, they contain numerous references to Dundee, where this exhibition is held, and give it a clear sense of locality. For example, Paul Robeson (1898 -1976), the black American singer blacklisted and persecuted because of his association with the Soviet Union, is a figure Ewan has evoked before. Here, archival materials include reviews of his performance at Caird Hall in Dundee in 1930, showing a warm appreciation of his talent and of his visit to the city. In new works Ewan evokes Mary Brooksbank (1897 – 1978), a poet, songwriter and musician who lived in the working-class world of Dundee’s jute mills in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Ewan worked with students of Menzieshill High School on the subject of Dundee’s history, resulting in students drawing images about Brooksbank and other political topics. Mary (Lewis) (2011) is a wall painting taken from one such drawing, where Brooksbank is covered in a patchwork outfit with handwritten panels announcing things such as, “I like protesting a lot” – quite funny.

Additionally there is a replica of Negro Spiritual (1924), a sculpture of Robeson by Italian American Antonio Salemme that had its own history of censorship. Then Them That Plants Them is Soon Forgotten (2010/2011) is an installation of ‘Paul Robeson heritage tomato plants’, originally named by someone whose own story is now forgotten.

Ewan’s practice is carefully researched and provides a sensitive reminder of political and historical moments that have been buried by mainstream culture, moments averse to the power structures of the past and hardly fashionable in today’s conservative climate. A ‘brank’, indeed, is a scold’s bridle, used to silence women in the Middle Ages; a ‘heckle’ that familiar form of open and vocal antagonism that might be seen as its antithesis. But perhaps it’s the form the antidote takes here that might be worth thinking about. There is something aesthetically quite flat about this exhibition that makes you wonder if the baby wasn’t thrown out with the bath water in the 1980s in that ‘anti-aesthetic’ critical climate.  If you are invited to look at sculptures and installations in order to (politically) engage with subject matter, perhaps there needs to be more of an analysis of the display methods used. Can visual objects evoke the kind of spirit that might help to bring about positive change? Standing out from the other works, A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World  (2003-ongoing)airs 1,500 of the 2,200 protest songs Ewan has been amassing. You feel energised by the music, and certainly, being energised is no bad thing in a climate of such fatalism.


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