Specially commissioned by Sidney Cooper Gallery for the solo exhibition Shell-Lit Siambr. The accompanying publication, designed by Fraser Muggeridge Studio, is available here.
What do we have to do with this old road,
and the people who travelled along it 600 years ago?
I remember waking the first night in this house, feeling I was completely out of this world. The moon shining in at the window, and the light lay so strangely on the layer of wax left by more than a century of dripping candles that I felt I was adrift on a sea of quicksilver.
W. G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn, 1995
It might be important to tell you that Bethan Lloyd Worthington hadn’t ever visited Canterbury before she agreed to do this show.
Having grown up in Macclesfield, and frequently visiting her family in North Wales and (when very young) West Kent, she initially studied and lived in Manchester before moving to London to pursue a master’s degree in ceramics and glass at the Royal College of Art where she is still based. Until a few months ago, Lloyd Worthington’s travels had just not pulled her down to this south eastern city, a stony dip of a town in the middle of broad pastoral vistas.
It might be important to tell you that Lloyd Worthington didn’t come to Canterbury before making most of the objects in the gallery, because so many of the works fit right into this city and its ancient stories of journeys and devotion.
I had to remind myself of this one day as I walked down the hill through Chaucer Fields into Canterbury, I passed by the meteor crater. Or the bomb site. These were the ways in which this grassy void had always been described to me, an indent that had been unremarkable in the landscape until I heard these origin stories.
I was walking from this hollowed-out bowl in the middle of the slope, down through the town and on to the train station, just beside Dane John Mound, that asymmetrical swirl peeking out above the city walls, a topographical sentinel greeting visitors arriving into the city.
A few days before I had been to visit Lloyd Worthington in the final days of her 2016–17 residency at the V&A where on the hard tread of the silex/on the heavy tread of the mound was displayed on a plush red velvet quilt inscribed with a line of stitches marking out an infinity sign with two ceramic rounds at the centre of each loop. From a distance, the objects with their white unglazed rims and their deep lustrous green centres seem to be almost amphibious eyes, but up close, one form clearly drops down, porcelain crumbs or rubble fallen in to its centre, while the other bows up, a small but proud profile recalling the Neolithic profile of Newgrange.
We speak about these forms, initially so similar, but then dissembling; one becoming the ancient, anonymous rise in the landscape; a crafted heap with a forgotten purpose. The other a slipping away of the ground beneath us, the unexpected and catastrophic.
A few days later, a sink hole opens up on my route to work.
Lloyd Worthington’s work had started to follow me and has not left my side since.
I am aware that I will never properly pronounce the title of the exhibition – my tongue stumbles ineptly around the Welsh ‘r’ of Siambr. This word translates directly into English as ‘chamber’, and was archaically, colloquially used for a bedroom. It is a term applied to cottages, and the central circular space of the Welsh Senate, a room topped with a domed funnel opening up to a round skylight in the roof. It’s given to the Siambr Ddu or Black Chamber, cave in South Wales whose mouth is carpeted in ferns in the summer, and where dark peat covers the interior boulders, absorbing the light of any exploratory torches.
Lloyd Worthington describes this titular chamber of the exhibition through its source of illumination. Shells, and particularly the scallop shell, have a long association with pilgrims; the radiating lines converging into one point, a symbol for the myriad journeys that all arrive at the sacred site. This form crops up in many of her recent small sculptures; ceramic scallop shells, either flat and glazed, or roughly formed, almost gouged, become incense or candle holders, ready to be lit, and again tying the forms to the historical and psychological energies of this city.
This exhibition perhaps does not give us a physical manifestation of this described space, but instead forms three rooms throughout Sidney Cooper Gallery. The front space of the gallery has regained traces of its domestic origin – the site once the childhood home of our namesake – through the creation of a reading area of texts that resonate with the show. In the dark room beside the main exhibition space, Lloyd Worthington hangs Showcave, the walls adorned with dripping, shifting clay sconces, the swirling marbled slip seemingly still liquid despite being fired into a shiny vitreous lacquer. In each, an unlit candle is placed suggesting an atmosphere that can never be experienced. Instead, visitors encounter this work through the fragmentary sweep of a torch in otherwise darkness. Finally in the main gallery space, an octagonal ‘room’ has been created in the centre of the gallery. Formed of textile panels, within these temporary walls, a small space has been created, almost domestic, but nothing quite functional or available to us. Plinths become beds or shelves, holding objects that almost could be found in our homes, all familiar but all made strange.
We later find octagons everywhere. Throughout the cathedral, in the base of its vast columns, and in the old water tower. Carved into the base of the tomb of Simon of Sudbury are small semi- octagonal voids intended as spaces of prayer. The acoustical geometries allow the devoted to kneel before them, place their head in the chamber and speak without moderating their volume, all sound kept within the form, holding the prayer private, but distanced by a slight delay.
The transformation of clay into ceramics perpetually retains an alchemical magic; a substance that dissolves without struggle in water, becomes matter of rocky permanence through the heat of the kiln. Of course ceramics smash, they’re brittle and we’re clumsy. But even as fragments, thousands of years old, embedded in the same earth from which they were derived, they resist the disintegrative effects of the soil to betray the traces of our lives and our stories.
Within the broken form and embellished surface of But when they got there it had already been stoved in, multiple time periods overlap. First, there is the slow construction of the vessel; Lloyd Worthington never works on a wheel, but instead generally builds her circular forms through the coil method. Her skill gives the form the kind of perfection that a layperson (this layperson) might expect is only possible through the use of speeding centrifugal forces. But a careful examination shows the tiny surface irregularities that come from an entirely hand-built approach. Next is a rapid wash of dark green glaze, drenching part of the form and leaving other sections dry and bare. After the glaze has been fired, tiny delicate trails of vegetation are carefully painted on to it and fired again.
At some point the vessel is smashed and a piece of slate rammed into its slot at the top. An anonymous and unexpected violence and void.
In the mid-point of our preparations, an election is called and I think about this object again and again as the vitriol and anxiety mount.
The Welsh slate is a tongue, a ticket, a stopgap, a ballot. I feel it pressing on my own tongue, rasping at my teeth. I hear the sound it makes against the unglazed ceramics, a gritty cavernous resonance that sounds against my palate and throughout my head. The smashed belly of the vessel a visceral opening through which to observe the absent hoard.
Our sensory memories and kinetic knowledge of ceramics are so ingrained, that even an object as enigmatic as But when they got there also exists as a cup or a bowl, in our hands, brought up to our faces.
The rapid, gestural motion, and the careful incised line. A violence, perhaps overt, perhaps suggested. These tensions stretch beyond this piece and into much of Lloyd Worthington’s work. Within her ceramic forms, counted stitch-work embroidery, and drawings, her actions are impossibly well-measured and precise, each line, and each strand in its correct place. But through this technical mastery, strange and quietly forceful gestures emerge. Layers of care and disregard sit on top and amongst each other.
The drawings materialise as precise conjurings through the otherwise pristine negative spaces of the paper. Often the objects themselves are drawn without context, so the implicit narrative within the fragment is heightened for the viewer. We are presented with objects that have weathered and endured, their stories quietly on display in minute forensic detail.
We walk along the River Stour, the Pre-Raphaelite river grasses bending according to the water’s flow, hiding the place where pilgrims threw in their badges before leaving the city, as a final prayer, looking just like the delicate overpainted flora of Lloyd Worthington’s work.
In the mid-point of our preparations, we both go to Athens. Days apart, with different aims, we both walk through the city of vessels and monuments, ancient, fragmentary and patched back together. Their stories of ruination and resurrection acting out in the ancient timescale as well as in the contemporary moment.
The Argentinian artist Adrian Villar Rojas opens his ambitious installation at the National Observatory of Athens while I am there. As part of The Theatre of Disappearance, he has planted a lush vegetable garden; dense patches of corn, filigreed columns of artichoke and the curling trails of squash.
If you were unfamiliar with the site, you would assume that the greenery was permanent; however, for those who know the plot, it’s a complete transformation, masking the previous sandy soil and rocky outcroppings.
Villar Rojas encountered an unexpected complexity with this project because directly planting seeds into the earth is banned in the historic sites of Athens given the possible importance of the archaeological items still embedded in the soil. He explains that in Athens, the soil had cultural content; a different characteristic to the qualities of soil understood in Argentina where it is prized for its fertility; for its narrative- less ability to produce. The glacial churnings of the plant roots, the new fissures produced by their filaments, the depth of green that blanketed the earth, was a danger to be managed through the transportation and installation of tons of new earth overtop the original ground, ‘contentless’ soil, safe in its bland fertility.¹
In the British context, and particularly in the layered, agricultural sweeping lands of Kent, the land is neither one nor the other, fertile or historical, but always both. And as inherently archaic as agriculture and pottery sherds can feel to our contemporary lives, our histories are never partitioned into the then and the now, but always running over and into each other.
In their 1944 film, A Canterbury Tale, Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell relocate Chaucer’s story to the Kentish countryside and the pilgrimage becomes a wartime journey to the Cathedral made by a group of accidental companions. Within this near-historical telling, the time periods analogous to those embodied by But when they got there fold over each other at each turn, particularly in the experiences of Alison Smith (Sheila Sims), the young Land Girl, returning to Canterbury for a personal pilgrimage. Smith encounters the location through the archaeological fragments of the pilgrim’s route and the underlying Roman objects, the vegetal toils of her farm work and her bucolic journeys through the countryside, and finally the smashed and ruined city of Canterbury, a still-raw scar of a landscape, fresh from German bombings.
The ancient, the pastoral, and the violent crashing into each other.
We also encounter these landscapes alongside Sims’ character as she moves through this heightened terrain, often on her own, walking though the countryside and city to reconcile her own personal connection to the land, and the people who have passed along these same routes since the Romans. Through these journeys, via a stash of Roman coins, farm work, and walks through the tall grasses of the fields, she finds a place for herself within the deep temporality of her surroundings.
If She will be fine on there. Forever. initially looks like a miniature terrain, closer inspection soon shows that the valleys are not accidental dips, but the impressed footprints of the artist. The deep sink of the marks indicates a rooting, a certainty, confident mark-making. The stance conjures Caspar David Friedrich’s Wandered above the Sea of Fog (1818), and a conquering of the earth. Joseph Leo Koerner describes this stance as a Ruckenfigur, a figure from behind, and more specifically in this instance as a ‘halted traveller’, frozen in front of a scene.² As in most of the tradition of European painting, the viewer is of course given the same view as the subject; we witness the majesty that has caused the subject to pause. She will be fine on there. Forever. subverts this mode by denying the vista; we see only the traces of the stance, the effect without cause.
The second subversion comes when we realise that the feet likely belong to the artist, a woman making a permanent mark, holding firm in the exterior landscape. Pressing herself into soft clay, leaving a mark fired into immutability.
When an artist considers the domestic, the implications can feel small and confined, and when the artist is a woman, the parameters shrink further to a cloister of obligations and entrapment. The domestic, in
this closed and claustrophobic sense, is absent from the spaces created through Shell-Lit Siambr. Instead of the tediously familiar we have a space of quiet reflection, a space for black exploration, and the octagonal space containing enigmatic, personal collections.
These spaces all encourage small quests for meanings, like a staging of a murder mystery play left to the visitor to find resolution. The medieval Mystery Plays performed in the Cathedral recounted biblical tales; ‘mystery’ deriving from ‘miracle’, but they were often performed by the craft guilds, ‘mystery’ in this sense coming from ‘ministerium’ or craft. Narratives of crafted miracles.
The domestic can feel particularly at odds with the peripatetic roamings of the contemporary art world, new pilgrims roaming from fair to festival. Despite its apparent glamour, this incessant motion is rife for critique, engendering a state of superficial and privileged engagement with the destinations rather than meaningful connections. Although Lloyd Worthington is an artist who seems to be forever coming or going, always in motion, she is also unusually curious in the histories and particularities of her surroundings. Throughout the planning process for Shell-Lit Siambr, our meetings often took the form of lengthy and circuitous walks around Canterbury, Lloyd Worthington asking a stream of questions that not only could I generally not answer, but that had not even occurred to me to consider. The attention she brings to these sites enables her to burrow down into locations, drawing up stories from the objects, locations, and people that she encounters; herb gardens full of soporific plants growing under where the monks used to sleep; the pilgrims throwing badges into the river Stour; the Cathedral’s Wax Chamber, a door that had always been closed until the day we visited.
Through these questions there forms a quest for realms just beyond our conscious day-to-day, the darker, and deeper territories that bind us together. Lloyd Worthington talks of the shared religious histories of many of the people she has worked with in and around the creation of these works. Her grandfather a lay preacher, both of my grandfathers ministers, but the kind of religious observance not finding overt places in our lives anymore. Having grown-up following these traditions, what are the effects or traces of them on our lives now?
In my secular home, on my unremarkable nightstand, lies a bottle of herbal spray intended to send me quickly into a deep sleep, small pieces of gold jewellery I’ve removed from my ears, or wrist, to mark the end of the day and the transition of my body from public to private, a little diary that transports me from the mundane details of the present to the forgotten events of my recent past, all sitting below a painting by my grandmother. I would describe these objects as traces of a routine, and the painting as sentimental. But it’s a small leap to think of them as a ritual devices for ceremonies conducted under the gaze of my departed ancestor. A private space of connection to physical and temporal locations far beyond my bedroom.
The rooms of Shell-Lit Siambr present clues best understood through stillness and the engagement of all senses. A reliquary of spoils collected from journeys, the reifications of conquests that creates an enigmatic shrine.
And what will happen to these objects and drawings when they leave this gallery and this city and are placed within new contexts? Does a context matter to a portal as it is always an alien in its surroundings?
In his essay ‘The Remembered Film’, Victor Burgin considers the lasting impression that Sheila Sims made on him as she wanders through the forests and fields in A Canterbury Tale. Remembering only this one cinematic fragment and conflating it with a similar scene in an entirely different film, he considers the mysterious hold that the sequence has for him. In the intervening years since first watching it, the clip has evolved from a shared, collective cultural object to one swept up in the personal and internal landscape of memories and experiences, detaching from its context, burnished into something deeper as it merges with imagery from his own life.³
Every object contains a personal, historical and material resonance for the artist, and much of that subtext will always remain at a remove to the viewer. However, Lloyd Worthington’s lexicon of references contain enough of the universal, enough of the eerily coincidental, to quietly work their way into future chambers, future cities. Fired, incised and silent.
¹. Eleni Kountouri. Adrian Villar Rojas: The Theatre of Disappearance (Athens: Neon, 2017), 12.
². Joseph Leo Koerner. Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape (London: Reaktion Books, 2009), 120.
³. Victor Burgin. The Remembered Film (London: Reaktion Books, 2004).
Photography, Shaun Vincent