BLOG Ellen Bell

NWR Issue 111

Elizabeth Brickell at TestBed

Elizabeth Brickell at TestBed Elizabeth Brickell’s installation in Oriel Davies’ TestBed space is a conundrum. A puzzle to solve. There is not much to go on. A floor filled with rows and rows of latex casts of spoons, with a few hung on the walls, and the title, Moving On. But who is moving on? Not these replicas of spoons: they are static, spent, as lifeless as the sloughed-off skins of snakes – they are going nowhere.

There are casts of teaspoons, dessertspoons, tablespoons, soupspoons, serving spoons, skillets and ladles. The interaction of the metal with the latex has determined their colour. Some are a pale white, others brown, a few are black. They look ragged, dirty, as if they’ve been underground, only lately unearthed. The once rigid forms of their hosts now sag, buckle and curl. The chasings, the smith’s marks, the curlicues and engraved monograms, embellishments of some kind of long-gone, big-house grandeur, have all left their trace in the rubber.

The decision to lay them out on the ground is a curious one – a minimal act of curation, simple and easy on the eye. It makes one think of archaeological finds, spread out ready for cataloguing. Here each spoon skin has its place, its identity, its integrity. In her statement, Brickell associates the spoon skins with human frailty, the journeying of migrants, life cycles and what she calls ‘the act of moving on’.

Though lacking the more monumental, weightiness of Rachel Whiteread’s casts of the inner, negative spaces of buildings and objects, such as House, 1993, taken from the inside of a London two-up-two down just prior to its demolition and Embankment 2005-6, a mass of cardboard box innards made into enormous sugar-cube-like towers, Brickell’s spoon skins share a similar kind of left-behind melancholy. And though Whiteread’s concern is with making manifest the empty, thin-air spaces and Brickell’s interest is with the surface, pattern, texture and feel of something solid, both artists’s focus is with the seemingly commonplace, human-scale story. Through them the ordinary stuff of life is rendered iconic, like the piles and piles of shoes and suitcases left behind at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald. All those cut-short lives, concentrated into a torn luggage label or bent shoe-buckle. Such things stop one still - they must, they have to.

Memories come fast. A silver christening spoon with a stubby, chased handle, a red silk ribbon tied in a bow on its bridge. Five slender, multi-coloured, enamelled gold teaspoons in a bottle-green leather case, one missing, the ghost of its form still cutting into the maroon velvet lining. The handle of a tiny, square-ended reindeer-horn spoon poking out of a lidded Chester Zoo mustard-pot, a kitchen drawer full of green shield stamps, bits of string, rubber bands, a marble and three small silver-plate spoons, tarnished black that will taste of metal in the mouth and an infant’s spoon, baby-blue for a boy, its plastic bowl pock-marked by first teeth.

Spoons. Pinkies held aloft when stirring in too-much sugar and that chink against chintzed-porcelain. Sunday-lunch soup ladled into bowls, lips pursed, blowing cool. Then, knuckles rapped, OW! Hold it this way, not that. Away from the body not towards it. That’s it. And sit up straight.

Deeply etched into our cultural DNA, where often it was the only eating utensil one used or possessed, spoons are the repositories of a remembered, now fading, familial commensality.

The contained intimacy of the TestBed space is perfect for what is an elegant, elegiac installation. Here, these skinned-off, fragile remnants of lived-out lives can rest undisturbed, motionless as death, to be pondered over, in silence, at its threshold.

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer living in Mid Wales.


previous blog: Oriel Davies Open 2016: Painting
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