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NWR Issue 113

Oubliette: A performance by Ellen Bell

‘The Drawing Room’ exhibition runs in the Oriel Davies Gallery, Newtown until 25th February

Is it all about sewing? Nicola Heywood Thomas had asked. She’d interviewed me for the Radio Wales Arts Show the previous week about my Oubliette performance at Oriel Davies (OD). No, I’d said, it’s not really about sewing, it’s much more about writing. This and all those other interminable conversations I’ve had about the performance are now playing out inside my head as I sit cross stitching on the floor of OD’s Drawing Room. So what exactly is it all about?

It’s just an excuse to dress up, my partner had said, as pre-performance, tight-corseted and crinoline-d, I’d twirled around our kitchen.

My idea, a response to OD’s metamorphosing of Gallery 2 into a domestic drawing room, had been to embody a nineteenth-century woman. To become a living, breathing manifestation of that apparent quintessence of femininity. With my head bowed, I would silently engross myself in needlework while the daily comings and goings of the gallery happened around me. But wasn’t there meant to be more to it than that? After all, as an avid reader of Victorian literature, it was the image of potent women like Miss Keeldar in Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss or Emma Bovary in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (rendered passive by the temporary appropriation of a needle) that interested me.

Sewing for seven hours sounds hideous, Nicola Heywood Thomas had said, your fingers are going to be absolutely raw by the end of it.

So far it isn’t. And they aren’t. But being encased in this corset is.

I hear them first. An echoing shout of children’s voices approaching. The noise stops, followed by the creep of footsteps on the gallery carpet. Determined to keep my head down, I smell them first. Chocolate, Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and the scent of outdoors on anoraks. A row of wellington boots stand before me. Hello, says a girl’s voice.

I suppose it’s from sitting on the floor. I’m at their eye level. It’s the children that are engaging with me, not the adults. Two women drop heavily onto the sofas, still clutching their shopping bags and talk about bunk beds. Their charge, a tiny girl of four, trundles off to play with the giant doll’s house next to me. I can hear her singing. Later, two boys sit down to play draughts. I catch sight of one of them looking up at my hands on the screen, before turning to stare at me. Three teenagers come in, preceded by a metallic stink of rust. God, that’s really creepy, one of them says, and they run out giggling.

Another word for dungeon, I’d chosen the title Oubliette as a nod to the female protagonists of fairy tales imprisoned in chambers with their impossible tasks of spinning straw to gold or separating seeds from sand. And there were the metaphorical incarcerations of imposed silence. Like the sister, forced into muteness for seven years while fashioning shirts spun from nettles for her brothers bewitched into swans.

A young girl comes into the gallery. Look, Mummy, she says, that lady’s hands are on the telly.

So where does the writing come in? I’d been carrying a seed of an idea for years sparked by a project from 2000 when the writer Will Self had sat in the Fig 1 gallery writing, his words being relayed on a monitor as he wrote. And then there is the artist Tim Youd typing out his 100 Novels, classics by authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson. Both men, writing in real time before an audience.

See, says a mother to her daughter and pointing at the screen, the lady is sewing words. Can you read what she’s writing?

Even after four hours my needle is slow. I’ve barely written a sentence. It reminds me of my pre-literate years when every letter, every word jarred, awkward in my mouth. Apparently girls in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries learnt to write by sewing samplers. Biting my muted tongue with frustration, I ape an Imagist poet and pare back.

Mummy, how do you spell 'was'? asks a small girl filling out a response card. W-A-S, replies her mother, pronouncing the letters phonetically. And 'lovely'? she asks again.

How did it go? people are asking. I am pleased with it, I say. And I am. Will Self talked about being an art exhibit, whereas I just felt invisible. Whether this was a result of my activity or my gender or both, I cannot say. Nevertheless, it was a strange yet fascinating experience. And there was power in it, that stillness, silence, and supposed meekness.

Releasing my bruised ribs from the corset, I recall the little girl, bending down, hands on her knees, head up close to mine, whispering goodbye.

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer living in Aberystwyth.

Photo Credit: Andy Chittock


previous blog: Breaking the Spell of Loneliness
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