After taking a break from posting for a week, the Studio Journal returns this week with a double header as we prepare to open two exhibitions. On Thursday 12th April we will be opening a show in Manchester at Depot Art Studios, another post to follow on this later today, and then on Friday 13th April at BasementArtsProject in Leeds, Sheffield based artist Sharon Mossbeck. We hope you will be able to join us for either or both of these events. If you wish to join our mailing list please send your name in an e-mail to email@example.com
My exhibition Forgotten Spaces has taken a long time to come to fruition. As a lover of history I have come across many cruel dungeon cells, designed to torture the unhappy resident, and these stories have stayed with me. As an artist with a preoccupation with death, I have long wanted to make work about them, but the right way to go about this had never presented itself until now.
By chance, one day I saw the word Oubliette in a completely unrelated situation. I remembered the word from the 1980’s classic film The Labyrinth, and realised that I had never quite looked up the exact meaning.
A secret dungeon reached only via trapdoor.
From Middle French oublier "to forget”
The coldness of the meaning “to forget” only adds to the horror of such places, and it was this that jolted my project to life.
Thinking back to the dungeon cells I had read about over the years, I decided to create a set of work based on five of them. It is the torturous scale of these spaces which makes the most impact, and so I needed a medium which could reflect this.
A lot of my fine art practice consists of Contemporary Art Cross-stitch. This means Cross-stitch used in a contemporary fine art context. The work may have a conceptual basis, or simply be using cross-stitch in a way which makes best use of the medium. The grid-like fabric used for cross-stitch (called Aida) is very similar to graph paper. In fact, I plan my patterns out on graph paper when designing a piece of work, and have long been interested in using Aida as graph paper. In 2017 I made a small piece of work which mimicked architectural plans for a medieval gothic church window, stitching the 10x10 squared guidelines onto the cross-stitch fabric.
I decided that, in order to show the scale of these spaces, using Aida as graph paper would work well, and the actual dungeons would take on the appearance of blue prints, with a guide to the height of the average Medieval man to give a real sense of the practical scale of the spaces.
The smallest dungeon cell featured in this series of work is from Chester city walls, and, as with all of the dungeons featured, is hidden deep underground. There is an interesting contemporary account of the size of this cell by someone who visited it as a gruesome tourist attraction, long after it was last used. They described it as a small space, carved out of the rock to fit the dimensions of a man. It had room for the head, and became wider to fit the shoulders and chest. When the door was closed on the person inside they had no room to sit or lie down. This type of cell is known as the “Little Ease”, and to make it even more torturous, wooden boards could be added to reduce the height of the space, meaning that not only could the prisoner neither lie down or sit, but now they could not even stand. They were contorted in a tiny awkward space. There is even an account of one particularly overweight prisoner who was squeezed into the tiny cupboard like space, and was said to have “burst” when the door was forced shut on him.
Another small cell can be found at Warwick Castle, where once again the victim a cannot sit or stand, but this time they lie at an awkward angle underground with a metal grill closed above them, so that they are little more than a body trapped in an underground cage.
A slightly different kind of cell, which perhaps looks more appealing than the others at first, is a Pozzi cell, found at the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Pozzi means Wells, and this is because they were wet. The cells were built from wood with a wooden raised bed in the middle and, depending on the prisoners’ height, there was possibly not enough room to stand. Because they were wooden, the walls creaked and oozed, and were infested with insects.
The largest dungeons featured are the Oubliettes. These were deep holes in the ground, already in the underground dungeons where there was no chance of seeing any daylight. The victim was tossed into the hole via a trap door in the floor, where they would fall and probably break some bones. One style of Oubliette is a long tube, and if the prisoner were capable, they could possibly climb up the walls, only to be greeted with a metal grill locking them in from above. In reality though, the injuries caused from the fall (not to mention any torture they may have already received before being imprisoned in the Oubliette) along with the malnutrition they would suffer there, would mean that there was no escape. The other type of Oubliette is bottle shaped, so that the hole in the floor through which the victim is tossed is the bottle neck and then the cell becomes wider. There would be no way out of this unless a ladder or rope was let down. Prisoners in these Oubliettes were possibly not fed and were left to die there. If anyone did pass by they would only see a grate in the floor, and so these poor people truly were forgotten.
Forgotten Space is at BasementArtsProject from Saturday 14th April until Monday 23rd April and then remains open by appointment until Monday 30th April.
For each exhibition at BasementArtsProject we stage at least one Lunchtime Conversation event attended by the artist at which hot food is supplied. These events are opportunities for people to ask the artist questions about the exhibition and practice.
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