Millican Dalton: A Sublime Midlife Crisis
The relevance of a 20th century cave-dweller to environmental aesthetics.
Wednesday, 23 December 2020
At the mouth of the cave at Borrowdale, May 2020. Photograph: Lewis Eaton.
On a swelteringly hot day in the North Western Fells of The Lake District, the gaping mouth of a cave offered itself as a refuge and swallowed us mercifully into its cool damp interior. Caves are otherworldly places. This particular cave, set into the hillside of Castle Crag, allows you to peer out at the gently swaying trees and glimmering daylight of the outside world from a viewing point void of light and sound. The daytrip itself had been to seek refuge in The Lakes; an attempt at replacing the stagnancy of a locked-down city summer with a more welcome, less claustrophobic, kind of tranquillity. We spent a few minutes scrambling around on the siltstone, marvelling at the height of the cave walls and exchanging the obligatory comments about feeling small in big spaces. On leaving, I noticed a large, flat stone covered in scrawlings. At the centre in neat, deeply-etched letters read ‘Don’t Waste Words, Jump to Conclusions’ with dozens of smaller sections of writing surrounding this. Each gave names and dates, with many faded with age and dissolving back into the stone’s surface. It was from a frantic Googling during the car ride home that I came to find out we had happened across a sort-of pilgrimage place for hikers: the cave in which a man had lived out his summers for over forty consecutive years.
In 1904, at the age of thirty-six, Millican Dalton gave up his life as an insurance clerk in London in order to dedicate himself to The Great Outdoors. Having spent part of his childhood in Nenthead, the North Pennines, he found life and work in the capital stifling in comparison. From then on Dalton split his year, spending the summer months in the cave under Castle Crag and winters in a canvas hut in Buckinghamshire. Far from your conventional hermit, Dalton was an active and sociable member of the community. He organised camping excursions for the outdoors novice which included teaching hiking, rock climbing, rafting and how to forage for food. What I found extraordinary for the time was that these excursions didn’t exclude women, with one of Dalton’s advertisements for a mountaineering course stating his views bluntly: “Ladies are welcome to the camp. There is nothing new in ladies camping, the custom being at least 10,000 years old.” This rare indiscriminate approach led to Dalton forging a long-lasting friendship with geologist Mabel Barker, who over the years consistently recommended Dalton’s courses to women students and friends.
Dalton and Barker atop a needle, 1913. The Mable Barker Collection.
Spotlighting Emerging Ukrainian and Russian Artists
by Lisette May Monroe | 15 April 2022
Anna Li, On the Edge of Sexuality, 2022
Ukrainian artist Anna Li works through painting and photography to dismantle societaties prescribed representations of people living with disabilities.
By utilising the specific qualities found within each medium she agitates ideas around sexuality, imperfection and attraction. Li started painting in early childhood by making small considered marks echoing techniques found in Pointillism. She states that the points that make up her paintings represent the smallest and core part that any matter consists of. These parts which are in constant motion, replace each other and that is how objects transform and change.
Within the narrative of each painting Symbolism plays a significant role, Li’s colour palette is essential in moving us between states and headspaces, between despair and arousal. Paintings such as Touch and Dissolution (both 2021) bring us to the core themes in Li’s practice. Ideas of sexualtiy and intimacy surface through her signature dots and colour palette.
In Touch (2021) the soles of two pink feet are cradled gently by lingering fingers. The nails on each hand are long, elegant and electric blue. The finger nails trace the outline of the feet while one rests furtively on the sole. This slight touch brings with it the most visceral suggestions. The gesture sets off a spark in the painting that immediately makes your toes curl up in response. The ability that Li has to make the viewer return to their own body moves through all the work, making us notice how we connect with others through physical touch. In Dissolution (2021) Li’s body is stretched diagonally across the canvas, Li regularly paints herself within the paintings, exploring her own lines, rounds and angles. Here she is suspended in a moment of pleasure, wrapped in blankets which swirl around her, wrapping her in movement.
Within both works Li insists we re-imagine the stale presumptions made on behalf of people living with disabilities and how they engage in a sexual practises. We are saturated in hyper colours of high glamour, tender touches and new possibilities. By centralising herself within the work, Li places us with her at the centre of this charged sexual narrative.
In her most recent work Li turns to photography. Here she is sitting in her wheelchair with her back to us, her hair falls loose on her shoulders. The back of the wheelchair is reclined and she is protected from falling by two hands with shimmering silver nails. You see the subtle indents under the fingertips where they excerpt small pressures on her back, working with Li to stay in hold. The light captures the intimacy of this moment, and it glows on the skin. Making the fleshy conversation the centre of the work while the mechanics of the chair fade into the edges of the image, as with all of the work touch prevails.
Anna Li’s work is that of essential self expression, she uses her practice to centralise herself, her body and her disability in contemporary dialogues. Most crucially she lets us know boldly, unapologetically that people with disabilities are active in all conversations and desires - with sex being central in these conversations. Anna Li will not allow us to un-notice her, through her work we are forced to confront our assumptions and made to recalibrate our preconceived ideas, leaving us wondering where our arcahnic notions around who we feel participates in sex came from in the first place.
by Lauren Printy Currie | 15 April 2022
Daria Kuvaiskaia, The Leftovers, 2020, oil on cardboard
Corrugated baking cases containing foil wrapped sweets, some empty and discarded, some yet to be unravelled, a sandwich with one single bite removed resting on a square napkin, a packet opened just enough to spill its contents, garlic cloves in a line, light bouncing off their chartaceous skins, a folded paper with onion skins, or similar kitchen detritus. Neat forms, flattened by paint, tonal, contrasting, simplified, but with the hard edges of something baked. The objects in the paintings are almost spot-lit which gives them a sense of theatre but also a slight weariness. Like peering through the thick, grease-lubricated glass of an oven door to check on the contents which appear in motionless hot collapse under the oven light. The work of Daria Kuvaiskaia, ‘Leftovers’ as the artist calls them, is a series of still lifes from the back of the fridge. These paintings are meticulously executed and oddly beautiful, it is interesting that the artist also creates digital images as the deliberate mark making shows a painter’s touch, a clarity of purpose, an interest in the overlooked, but with a keen eye for graphics. There is a lot of measure here. The paintings are a touch melancholy, slightly exhausted but also alive. The artist has achieved that distinctive thing that all great still lifes do; showing us that life begins at the edge of the picture. Behind every still life there is more to the story, we are not witnessing the main event, but the outskirts, something is taking place elsewhere. Who is eating the sandwich, who is preparing the meal, who is sitting at the table? This could be my fridge or my table at home. Still, Life; a sustained meditation on the culture of the table which goes back to 15th century BCE and today, remains still at the edge of the picture, and beyond, where flowers grow, flowers die, food is eaten, rots, people come and go too. All these waxes and wanes, all these moments in time.
There is one more painting.
Daria Kuvaiskaia, Pieces of Me, 2022, oil on wooden plates
A hand holds up a compact mirror with a scalloped edge like a prised open oyster shell. Within the reflection in the mirror, there is an eye and, in the background a tiled wall. Things that are visible and tangible. A series of hard surfaces are painted softly with delicate strokes that make the bathroom tiles look like swathes of chiffon. It’s a compelling picture. There’s a symbolic connection here between the ‘Leftovers’ and this (self?) portrait: both invite us to access another dimension, one that we cannot see or reach, the space beyond the table and the person beyond the mirror. Like peering into dark water, your reflection interrupted and pixelated by the moving surface of the water, just as Narcissus did in what is considered the first mirror. The act of reflecting the world back on itself is the ultimate expansion of knowledge.
by Rosalind Blake | 9 April 2022
Ksenia Ilina, 2021, AS 1, video, 2’30
Ksenia Ilina’s work spans video and performance, exploring the texture of the medium, and wandering the uncomfortable space between reality, sense of self, and uncertain experience. Ilina has a background in painting and textile, which comes through in her use of video as a porous substrate, images and digital ephemera seep and merge like a liquid though cloth.
Ilina studied Video Art at The Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography and Multimedia, graduating in 2021. She was selected as a finalist of the prestigious Circa x Dazed ‘Class of 2021’ Prize for young video artists, with their work being screened across three international platforms: London’s Piccadilly Lights, Seoul’s Coex K-Pop Square, and at Tokyo’s Yunika Vision. In her finalist work ‘AS1’, the camera crops close the mouths of several people, telling the viewer who they are, what makes them unique, grasping at how their feel they are perceived by others, and what parts of them make up the whole. The film glitches to chroma key green, the dialogue becomes increasingly abstracted and disjointed. The effect is of an atomised self, pieced together by fragile ideas about identity. Language becomes strange, as the statements get sliced and glued in a jolting collage of semi-unseen faces.
Ilina questions definitions of the individual. Her 2021 piece ‘▲▲▩’, is reminiscent of Richard Mosse’s multichannel video work ‘Incoming’, which uses military surveillance equipment to record refugees and migrants, reducing each person to a heat signature. In ‘▲▲▩’, Ilina uses black and white footage of political protests in Russia. The picture inverts, glitches and halts, crunching through images of extreme tension, with each person transmuted “to a simple geometric shape.” (Ilina), which floats in full colour tagged on to the back of police helmets. Ilina suggests this is has an equalising effect. This dystopian view seems to articulate the mass of faceless, nameless force, operating as one animal to control dissenting action.
Earlier this year Ilina’s video work ‘limbo’ screened at Transssssssssslation, Sphera, Moscow. This work consists of a single channel video and 5 still photographs. In Ilina’s words: “‘limbo’ is defined as a state in which you are uncertain about something important…it is associated with a sense of aimlessness and meaninglessness, a general stagnation that hinders movement.” This theme of uncertainty runs through Ilina’s work, like in ‘2002’ where an indescribably formless force frenzies outside a moving vehicle, or ‘the spot’, in which a black blob, like a sunspot or an optical floater obscures the image, irritating the viewer, dancing in the way of any clear understanding. Ilina demonstrates a deep knowledge of the medium – using its materiality and texture to disrupt the viewer’s experience.
In her emerging career Ilina has already developed an exciting body of work. She is one to watch as her practice continues to push at the boundaries of video, pressing at the membrane between the artist and viewer, emphasising the lens and the distortions that can erupt when we try to know ourselves fully.
Ksenia Ilina is a contemporary mixed-media artist who lives and works in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. She received her BA in Textile Art from Stieglitz Art and Design Academy in 2017 in Saint-Petersburg. She has also studied at Rodchenko Art School in Moscow. Ksenia Ilina is an invited artist of Mustarinda art residency in Hyrynsalmi, Finland for April 2022.
Rosalind Blake is an artist and academic, lecturing at The University of the Highlands and Islands. She runs an art college in North Uist, Outer Hebrides.
Ksenia Ilina, 2021, ▲▲▩, video, 4’42
Ksenia Ilina, 2022, limbo, video 4’10
Evgeniya Strygina: Pendulum
by Nicola Jeffs | 9 April 2022
Evgenia Strygina, 2017, Parallel and Perpendicular, Moscow Museum of Modern Art, 60x80
Russian-born artist Evgeniya Strygina’s work takes us to a place that appears to be nestled on the edge of limitless growth. Her lens based works, Pendulum, are made up of hundreds of neat squares of pastel hues in orange, blue, red and pink. These tiny shapes in a vast grid click together to illustrate a landscape beyond the metropolis; and outside the economic capabilities, community cohesion, and borders of a major capital city.
Strygina made the works between 2017-2019 and they show us stacks of domestic residences on the edges of Moscow, which have popped up post-Perestroika to pepper the landscape. These estates house thousands of young families and other workers; those unable to afford a central Moscow postcode. She says, “The house becomes a place to spend the night - nothing more, a starting point for a daily exhausting route through many kilometers of traffic jams, to the office and back.”
The photographs heighten our awareness of overpopulation and over work, alongside the lack of community that this can potentially breed. They do this through the lack of a human presence evident, by merely leaving the aura of those who use the structures as house and home; coziness is replaced by the artist with uniformity. “The house loses its sense of place, it is now a reality of transit with an erased identity, a short-term refuge, a sterile space devoid of characteristic details”, Strygina explains.
No one is visible at the windows. Perhaps they are out, or perhaps they are sleeping behind the panes of glass. The fact that they are not included, however, adds to a sense of intrigue and allure when coupled with the pops of colour and clean light. That they are not shown in the shot is also a conscious choice by the artist, “I wanted to highlight the houses that do not change regardless of whether there are people inside or not, I wanted to reflect the feeling of a non-place”. I ask if there is an interest to know more about the people inside; “I do not exclude that the next chapter of this series will be a story about those people who live in houses”, she says. Yet their non-presence, in this series, is, in many ways, one of the strongest parts of the works.
Strygina states she is inspired by the works and style of Andreas Gursky, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Trent Parke; whose use of balance, large format view, light and landscape can be seen as references in her work, as well, perhaps, as Parke’s use of his home country as a site of rumination for his lens. Initially the artist was attracted to the houses due to their “clarity of lines, geometry, and minimalistic architecture” which can be seen, for example, in the green cranes cutting across beige stone apartments in Signs (2017) and the silver stripes of construction fence in front of nearly complete new homes in Danger Zone (2017). Yet the alluring light and attractive palettes are haunted by the inclusion of sloganned construction site signs; of work in motion, which unsettles the gaze.
Indeed, there is something more to be taken from the images. The houses and their palette feel idealized, and fresh. The soft hues remind of the American suburbs under dusky light, locales which also housed workers and families. Yet in Strygina’s works flags fly in front of one building not with a nation-state’s most rudimentary symbol of power but rather of contractors and advertisers. The motion in the images comes from vehicles or tools building the estates. This gives a feeling of coldness that the artist also intends; “in reality they were built in places remote from civilization - in vacant lots, in industrial zones where there is no transport, no theaters, no museums, or even shops. People bought apartments because they were cheap, settled in, and lived in their homes as if on a desert island, cut off from the world”. What these images are, in fact, are a deft portrait of a slice of Neo Liberal society and the soft power of suburban community living.
The works too could be said to have recently taken on a new meaning; that we have been reminded that a house ceases to be a place of sanctuary for all, all the time. A safe home can now be reappraised as a refuge rather than simply a place to oscillate between work and rest. Strygina doesn’t discount creating more of these works and including inhabitants in some form next time. There is a new uncertain Pendulum afoot that the artist is yet to address.
Evgenia Strygina is a photographer investigating urban principles through the lens of her camera. She has exhibited in Moscow, Kaliningrad and Brindisi. Her work was featured in The Best Photos of Russia, 2015, and Timeless Fragments, 2018. More examples of her practice can be found on her website: https://www.soul-editor.com.
Nicola Jeffs works as a journalist and feature writer, in media relations, marketing, brand consultancy, content writing and advocacy planning.
Evgenia Strygina, 2017, Signs, Moscow Museum of Modern Art, 60х80
Evgenia Strygina, 2017, Danger Zone, Moscow Museum of Modern Art, 60х80
Evgenia Strygina, 2017, Concrete Jungle, Moscow Museum of Modern Art, 60x80
Evgenia Strygina, 2017, Looking at You, Moscow Museum of Modern Art, 60x80
Oblastian Aliens: the Site of the Sacred-Cute in the Ceramic Works of Oxana Geets
by Kiran K. Sunar | 8 April 2022
Oxana Geets, The Verdant, 2021. Image Courtesy of Oxana Geets.
He is squat, he is neckless, he is ready. The Unsurpassed Tsam-Khor perches upon a round mound smithed of the same materials as himself: a charcoal-coloured elemental texture smudged with a green that hearkens to oxidised copper. Two antennae reach out from the mound, doubling as a fake face; it is as though he stands upon his own head. He lacks neck but makes up for it with a carapace that doubles his girth. His head is oblong and hosts in perfect symmetrical fashion the following: two large engravings that appear to be eyes, two smaller circles, and two receivers. His mouth is a gentle protrusion with a deep opening, reminiscent of recent technologies in self-pleasure models for women, or a tardigrades’ mouth. There is an engraving at the top of his head that references a tilak or marker of devotion typically found on the third eye chakra in Asian religious traditions. His short arms end in rounded gentle lobster-like pincers, and he ports a vest that crosses over into the aesthetic realm of battleplate. His coloration is iron-clad with hints of tarnish and lichen. He is an elemental soul, he is. Beneath his armour, a blaze gleams out; it shines through in orange fire. Is his blood molten lava? We’ll never get close enough to know. A small round circle smudged bright red adorns the mound beneath his feet. Inert yet ert, with an affect of expressionless presence, he is ready for a battle.
The Unsurpassed Tsam-Khor, along with his league of little clay colleagues, are the work of Moscow-based fine arts ceramicist Oxana Geets who draws on the Japanese Buddhist Neo-Jōmon era, often attributed as the very origins of pottery itself which is also known for harbouring some of the first representations of aliens. There lies a lack of motility mixed with an arachnid inertia in these cord-pattern ceramics. It is no surprise that Geets’ close studies of the movements of tarantula were inspiration for these little beings. They sit stolid, yet ready and prime. Composite, they resemble insects, aliens, earthenware. Embodying the material, instrumental, spectral, entomological, animal, and alien together, they are at once beings of land and sea, earth-like, and cute gods.
In the case of Geets’ ceramics, cuteness provokes. In the words of Sianne Ngai on “primitivism as cuteness,” cuteness works in “calling attention to an unusual degree of synonymy between objectification and cutification. We can thus start to see how cuteness might provoke ugly or aggressive feelings, as well as the expected tender or maternal ones. For in its exaggerated passivity and vulnerability, the cute object is as often intended to excite a consumer’s sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle.” Here, however, Geets’ has offered a materiality of the object that refutes cuddles. The Unsurpassed Tsam-Khor and the rest of Geets’ ceramics are elemental and smudged, chubby and invulnerable. They are not incomplete objects of affection, but ungraspable beings of worship and discontinuity that repel condescending vulnerabilities often placed upon the cute, squishy object. In other words, the Unsurpassed Tsam Khor repels. He will not be poked or prodded. He cannot be hurt, but instead offers the possibility for hurt to be mended.
Drawing on early Asian craft pasts and popular cultural objects in Japan today, Geets foregrounds new ways for re-thinking Asianness, and presses against the boundaries of Asia and the nation-state. One can imagine that this preoccupation with borderlands emerges with a lived implicitness in Geets’ origins of Amur, an oblast situated in the Far East, on the border of Russia and China with its own complex history of settlement and alienability. Drawing on the primitive, Geets’ work speaks to Koji Mizoguchi’s suggestion to re-define archeological objects as a site for the analysis of the transformative, or of “the uncertainties and risks of the world.” In their archeological texture, her work questions the erasures that nation-state formation produce and enforce in art in times of uncertainty, and the erasures that the art world produce and reinforce in only thinking about art in relation to contemporary nation-statism. Moreover, it allows us to interrogate the funding that western nation-states offer for thinking about art and how this, then, needs to fit into diasporic sensibilities and acquisitional styles of what art is and who it should speak to, making even art that is non-Western, racially ambiguous, of the borderlands, something illegible to grasp. In Oxana Geets’ ceramics, we receive a return in alienability in both thinking about the locational futures and the past, about the sacred and the cute, and about human and the spectral. Geets pushes us to think about how aliens are gods, and gods are aliens; how the cute is an arbiter of our deepest fears, and how tiny aliens are a deep part of a sacred past that might embody our only hope.
My thanks to Anita Law for rich conversations on these works.
Kiran K. Sunar is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia and an Instructor at the University of Toronto. Their writing on the arts and Asia has also been published in the magazines Ricepaper and Rungh.
Oxana Geets, The Unsurpassed Tsam-Khor, 2020. Image Courtesy of Oxana Geets.