Sewing Sunflowers

Sewing in front of van Gogh’s Sunflowers

in the National Gallery
London 2019

Sewing SunflowerS

For the third time I’m sitting in the National Gallery sewing in front of van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

It’s almost two years since I first performed here and it feels very different. Though half-expecting it, I’d still been surprised by my apparent invisibility back then, with my only obvious audience being a small Chinese child who sat entranced for a full five minutes beside me. The second time several people spoke to me, with one Japanese woman utterly delighted by a conviction that I came ‘every day to sew the painting’. Intent on achieving maximum effect, today I have upped my game. Not only have I replaced the small cross-stitch with a large tapestry of the image but am wearing a 19th century-style dress, complete with corset and crinoline.

I find it hard to say exactly why I have chosen to deck myself out as a Victorian. A decision - involving the manoeuvring of a wide and cumbersome skirt in and out of trains and tubes, up and down stairs and escalators, and then out into the wind and rain-soaked streets of London’s West End – that, having worn it since breakfast as a way of ‘getting into character’, has given me hours of discomfort and, indeed, stress. I could deliver a spiel about sewing being an intrinsic part of a Victorian woman’s non-vocal communication strategy but that wouldn’t explain why I am posing as one here, now in 2019.

‘It’s just an excuse to dress up’, said my partner when I first wore the costume for my enactment of Oubliette at Oriel Davies in 2017. And there is no doubt that there is a veiled pleasure for this closet-Victorian in physically experiencing the containing restraint of a corset and ‘crin’. But there’s more to it than that.

I came to performing out of the embers of a practice that had been all about showing – in high-profile galleries and international art fairs. I’d let it go. I’d had to, the crash of 2008 saw to that. And though I don’t miss the constant pressure of making work that sells, I do miss the buzz, the attention, the exhibiting of myself through what I do. For is that not part of any creative process - that calling-out to maybe one other, or many, or even thousands and saying, by your acknowledgement of this thing that I have made, I exist?

Published counterpart on AXISWEB link


Ellen Bell: Sunflowers
(A performance in the National Gallery, London, March 2019)

Christian Kravagna has described the museum as an ‘arena’ . A site of process, and, by definition, contestable, and undoubtedly now a site where the specifics of digital etiquette are often played-out. Much digital etiquette is determined by processes of individual capture and redistribution: the selfie; Instagram; Facebook; Twitter; and others yet to emerge, or swiftly obsolete; Vine; Snapchat. In a relatively short period of time many museums and galleries have bent to the inevitable and relaxed long-maintained restrictions on photography. It is now almost impossible to visit a museum without being aware of, and often distracted by visitors engaged in processes of capture (I was gently, but firmly and soundlessly pushed aside in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich by a woman who wanted to snap Dürer’s self-portrait on her iPhone. I was only looking at the picture, sans appareil, disarmed in this context). This change has also amplified the idea of the ‘celebrity artwork’, one of the few relatively accessible celebrities within contemporary culture. These, of course have always existed, at least by reputation. Digital culture has entwined their existence with the social sphere. One such work is Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ (1888) in the National Gallery, London, and the painting and its site was chosen by Ellen Bell for a performance work.

In the context of this emerging social arena, one which could also be understood as a playing field, Ellen Bell’s approach is like that of a streaker, a significant but unthreatening disruption to the conventions of 21st century digital culture and museum-going etiquette. Her disruptive methods are stealthy and gentle, discreet even, and also highly assertive and subversive; for her performance she wears a Victorian hooped skirt, as wide as three French teenagers. Her chosen medium, embroidery requires her to sit; her skirt occupies an undemocratic area of the museum bench (in one of our few remaining democratic arenas). The positioning of the bench requires her to distance herself from her subject and others engaged in less labour-intensive capture continually hide her subject from her gaze as they mill around capturing for themselves the celebrity artwork.

She works - with stern concentration - on a mass-produced embroidery pattern of the Sunflowers, an arid painting-by-numbers Benjaminite object, a memento mori of the fate of celebrity, a potential cushion-cover to be redistributed uniquely, and a rejection of the ephemeral nature of social media. She, herself, is an object of attention, despite being engaged, through analogue means, in the same practice, and the digital natives turn their devices on her and her process, so she becomes, inevitably, the subject of digital capture and projection, a latent meme. Bell also, for a short while, becomes, with Warholian irony, a greater draw than the van Gogh. But her stern attention precludes any engagement with her audience of social amplifiers. Capture is a ruthless process in the first quarter of the 21st century.

Dr Andrew McNiven
http://www.andrewmcniven.com/

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Ellen Bell Call Me

Sewing Sunflowers

Ellen Bell Call Me

Sewing Sunflowers

Ellen Bell Call Me

Sewing Sunflowers

Ellen Bell Call Me

Sewing Sunflowers

Ellen Bell Call Me

Sewing Sunflowers

Ellen Bell Call Me

Sewing Sunflowers

Ellen Bell Call Me

Sewing Sunflowers

EllenBell_Talk_to_Me_book_installation_detail1

Sewing Sunflowers

Ellen Bell Call Me

Sewing Sunflowers

Ellen Bell Call Me

Sewing Sunflowers

Ellen Bell Call Me

Sewing Sunflowers

Ellen Bell Call Me

Sewing Sunflowers

Sewing Sunflowers

Photographs and films Magali Charrier