Alistair Woods | Subjected to Change | May 2014

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Nostalgia Is Not What It Used To Be

‘The Past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’ – So begins ‘The Go-Between’ by LP Hartley, the story of a man in his mid-sixties piecing together his past from the pages of a diary written many years before. In this book words, symbols and objects form strong nostalgic links to the history of the protagonist, whilst exuding the scent of private past lives. Alistair Woods has something of a Steptoe and Son approach to the production of artworks. For Woods the hedgerows, back alleys and gutters are a veritable treasure trove of nostalgia, a world in which objects relinquish their histories and meaning in favour of a new lease of life.

On a warm and sunny afternoon in May the smell of creosote, turps and paint mingle on the air as I sit in the kitchen to draft this text. Alistair Woods has spent every day, for the past two weeks of his three week tenure at BasementArtsProject, in the gallery /studio /basement space assembling a work that is fast becoming monumental in its nature. Alongside the smells, the drilling and the banging, the sounds of cockney cheeky chappies Chas & Dave drift upwards from our subterranean art space beneath the house. The soundtrack alternates between cockney pub sing-alongs and mix-tapes of old school Hip-Hop. I mention this because there seems to be a correlation between what I experience of this work at a slight remove – in a different room through sounds and smell, and what I experience of it when in the room looking at it. This I think is the reaction of many when confronted by Alistair’s work.


On the opening night of ‘Subjected To Change’ BasementArtsProject presented a two-room assemblage of works made during his degree and over the course of the last year since graduating from Leeds Metropolitan University. The work of Alistair Woods is in a constant state of flux. Whilst all works are created with the intention of being highly individual finished pieces in their own right, it is the constant reorganisation of these pieces when displayed, that shows just how this work is really meant to operate. A constantly shifting landscape of ideas, reminiscences, memories and physical objects that harken back to a previous life elsewhere, all the while demonstrating the allure of an equally mysterious future. Woods regularly speaks of false histories and it is only when you start to look deeper into the constituent parts of these assemblages that you realise that things are not quite what they seem. The use of railway paraphernalia is less the rose tinted, old Joanna sing along of Chas & Dave, and more akin to the dark underbelly portrayed in the hip hop soundtracks of this temporary workspace. Herein lies the success of Woods’ work, a visually appealing piece of storytelling through discarded and lost objects that reveal themselves to those who dare to scratch beneath the surface.

Each day Woods returns not only with new material to add to his work, but also roles of film shot whilst travelling from his digs north of the city en route to BasementArtsProject. Some of these photographs are documentary others delve into abstraction but all depict the reality of a journey that is as much spiritual as it is physical.

Bruce Davies | May 2014


What’s being Subjected to Change?

When I first encountered Alistair’s works it was strikingly apparent to me that he was meddling with paradoxes, playing, flirting & enticing viewers to decode this special language he had built from his practice.
‘Do it Yourself’ was the attitude he pushes for but this question begs the answer do WHAT yourself and what is BEING subjected to change? Of course I’m aware the answers are just more questions, I told you he was playing with paradoxes.
Let’s look at where he’s making the work that might shed some light on what’s being done – ‘I feel that both traditional and non-traditional environment benefit this type of work but for different reasons!’ says Alistair. He goes on to emphasise on the importance of hanging scrap materials in a traditional environment. I thought that sums up his practice rather well – bringing together scraps of wood, railway sleepers and anything else you’d imagine and attempting to display it in art spaces. It does make sense indeed to exhibit in Basement as BasementArtsProject isn’t a gallery space, neither is it an art space – it’s a space that is partial to art and that’s what makes this relationship interesting.

For the benefit of most of us who do not ordinarily play with paradoxes in our everyday lives I’d probably ascribe to the Liverpool poet and painter Adrian Henri’s understanding of environment as ‘happenings’. Because much of his work derives from remnants of various subcultures that Alistair does not visibly distinguish maybe we can separate them as materials over ideas or ideas over materials? A false nostalgia that is a testament to happenings of the past, present and future to come.
Wood is a material that reoccurs in much of his work, timeless in nature yet changing through time it’s the perfect accompaniment for Woods’ paradox! There is a sense of false nostalgia in wood I must admit, it ages with time much like living organisms yet remains enduring, endearing even stubbornly refusing to be anything but.
“When I was about 14 I got given a bag of old film cameras from a man who was replacing his cameras for digital cameras” and Alistair hasn’t stopped working with hand-me-down materials since. One can see them as hand-me-downs but they are much more interesting when you realise hand-me-downs come with a history, a personal contagious resonance that they continue to spread.
He leads us to believe that his practice is about bringing together traditional elements to form a piece paradoxically he’s transforming these conventional objects into a modern day collage. So what is being subjected to change? It’s the being itself! The pattern of representation of wood, old photographs or any other objects he might pick up on his travels.
It’s changed, its being changed and ‘what’ his practice calls for is to aid in the transformation of these works. Where is the paradox? The works that remain the same while being infinitely transformed with every glance. ‘Do-it-yourself’ he says, even to his viewers – look at the work and bring it alive as the nostalgia of the works intertwines with your own creating, well, a very real false nostalgia?
(This text was produced as a piece that overlooks the dialogue facilitated via Twitter chat #S2C between Alistair Woods’ and fellow tweeters early May 2014)

Bhavani Esapathi | May 2014

Wood, Salvaging and Britain

I’ve worked alongside Alistair for a number of years now. We’ve occupied neighbouring studio spaces and shared the same commute, I’ve accompanied him on numerous material hunts and he’s even cooked me his infamous sausage and carrot pasta. I’ve been fortunate to see his notion of making the best of a bad situation put to use, but most importantly I’ve seen how his interests and concerns have found a comfortable home within his assemblages, photographs and collages.
The most striking thing when one first comes face to face with Woods’ work is his use of discarded, unwanted and unkempt materials. To most, rusty iron rods, stained news clippings and weathered timber would find no better place than the bottom of a skip, but Woods manages to use these to create delicate and beautiful artworks, which often seem to provoke feelings of warmth and nostalgia.

His salvaging habits are with him everywhere he goes, the walk to work, the studio or even returning from a night on the town; his eyes are peeled, searching for the next element he can convert into something special. He’s compared this habit to a skateboarder looking out for a spot to hit, or a graffiti writer analysing a rooftop, it’s always on his mind; wherever, whenever. Like a magpie, he hoards these things of interest, to combine and assemble at a later date. Seeing them as no less valid than traditional art mediums such as fine oils or a painstakingly stretched and primed canvas.
He doesn’t hide these concerns for ‘material equality’ in his final product either; wall-spanning assemblages often present rusty bottle tops or bolts next to delicate gold leaf, simple juxtapositions that look to question whether the initial materials belong in an artwork any less than the latter.

This level playing field throughout his materials are the first signs of the do-it-yourself punk ethos Woods’ follows. Of course, the nature of using materials found in the street or a skip insinuates anyone can create no matter how little resources they may have. To Woods there is no exclusivity in art; street artists such as Word to Mother and Barry McGee are credited as having as much an influence on his practice as established artists such as Kurt Schwitters or Man Ray.
From salvaging to selection, these samples remind him of a Britain that once was, like mementos from era’s gone by; for him they conjure up images of what was once a picture perfect Britain, that now seems to be urbanised, decaying and run down. He’s the first to admit he’s never experienced this archetypal Britain, but is fully absorbed in the idea. Spending his spare time watching old British sitcoms such as Dad’s Army and Only Fools and Horses he cites them as massive influences, and isn’t ashamed to admit it.

This false nostalgia is essential to woods’ practice and becomes more prevalent as objects combine. Subdued colour pallets, pages from books and old photographs begin to give his work a natural sepia effect, forcing the end product to be seen through reminiscent eyes.

A conflict then arises as the inclusion of modern day aspects become juxtaposed with the old creating a healthy unrest. Use of subtle elements of graffiti throughout his work aim to hint at the reality of what the viewer is seeing; what may have once been an aspect of ‘biscuit-box Britain’ is now nothing more than a segment of a graffiti ridden door. This delicate balance is prevalent throughout of most of Woods’ work; faint details hinting at past and present are recognised only when the work is closely interrogated, leaving the viewer both reminiscing, and acknowledging elements from the everyday.
When you begin to analyse Woods’ photography in comparison to his assemblage, his practice seems to come full circle. His interests through the viewfinder seem to leech onto both his approach to creation, and obsession with what makes Britain, Britain. Social Clubs, market stalls and seaside towns are what are left of this fabricated idea of Britishness, and are bleakly documented on 35mm film.

Perhaps more cryptic are seemingly simple shots of architecture, ledges or rooftops. Initially parallels are drawn between his assemblages and collages, an appreciation for form that must be documented. Their compositions, shapes and tones could easily be inspiration for his next piece, but look closely and these are spots graffiti writers or skateboarders may hit; his photographs are a subtle nod towards their open-eyed approach whilst walking. Graffiti and skateboarding are just two examples of these underground subcultures that make up the Britain he loves and credits as vastly important.

Further still, use of analogue film maintains his do-it-yourself ethos coined through punk culture and the journey of production, from shot to development, mirrors his process of assemblage.
Traces of the union jack, decaying relics of industrial Britain, scrawled tags, traditional sign painting and bleak photographs. This is Britain through the artist’s eyes, the question is whether Woods is salvaging what’s left behind from the past, or fabricating something completely new, romanticised and possibly false?

Jack Ginno | May 2014

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The texts featured on this page originally appeared in the publication Subjected to Change, now out of print. This publication and residency was made possible with the generous contributions of Leeds Art Fund and Arts Council England