Thirty pieces of silver – the betrayal of mankind or the world?

This exhibition of work by graduates of TOMA in Southend is a powerful response to the slick prefessionalism of most shows up the river in London. The title of this recent show was Everyone Must Go and it was housed in the old Havens department store which dates from 1920, now taken over by Age Concern Southend. The venue is key to the works and the central theme of this summative show – responding to the now of who we are in Britain.

Some works use nostalgia, others employ the science of DNA or the obsessivenes of collecting, or simply the personal histories of friends. Perhaps the most powerful response is seen in the work of Imogen Welch who uses collected plastic waste from Southend beaches to create mock jewellery and faux saleable items but presents them in the glass cabinets of the once gracious department store in Hamlet Court Road.

The work’s title Thirty Pieces of Silver alludes to the biblical account of the betrayal of Christ by Judas – our own way of life is somehow implicated in the slow crucifixion of the world we live in. The message is made powerful by the exquisite objects made from the re-purposed plastic – you have to get quite close to see the illusion, a beautiful metaphor for political blindness.

Richard Baxter’s Re Collections picks up the theme of cultural detritus and conveys it in another direction – using the curve of the Art Deco shop fittings to suggest airport luggage from another age. Memories of half-forgotten imagery are dragged into mind, sometimes against our will. Adverts from the 80s, postcards from the edge of consciousness, all arranged with carefree taxonomy and playful order. You care about this stuff more than you want to admit.

Other collections from Baxter include porcelain castings taken from various parts of the building itself. These ghostly relics allude to the character of a much loved shop  and create a fragile archaeology of its original presence in the world of re-purposed (and sometimes betrayed) buildings. Called Memory Prints, these clay pressings include the parquet “floor where stiletto heels have worn a tiny landscape.”

Photographer Laurence Harding has repsonded to the current political turmoil in Britain in her work Seaside Ghost Town, by showing a nostalgic and ephemeral backward look at how people behaved at the seaside in the past. Her use of transparent textile photo prints that you look through as well as at, is a powerful metaphor for ghostly memories and lost ideals which perhaps paved the way for Brexit. They convey pathos and  sympathy for the views of people finding it hard to live in the present, and perhaps feeling betrayed by their leaders. The carousel postcard display conjours up the sounds and sensations of a bygone coastal resort, where people walk happily towards a snapping photographer with an innocence long forgotten in our world of knowing selfie obsession.

Connections between old friends is a theme of Emma Mills’ work, and the invisible unpaid contribution of women to the economy every day of the year…dried up fruit in the market of over-productive greed. Yet the bonds between friends are stronger and more productive – convincingly shown by confident fluid drawings against the stark digital prints on white fabric.

Emma Edmondson investigates the uneven playing fields of education, using visual and audio means to show the often randomised opportunities open to young and older people – she has created a collection of mountainscapes in pit-fired ceramic to show the peaks and troughs of ambition and success in the world of personal endeavour – nice metaphor for working from the ground upwards, overcoming the betrayals of society and lack of self belief.

Finally, the conceptual work of Tricia North offers some hope that betrayal of identity  might be confronted and avoided by research into the information held in DNA. Her work entitled We Are All The Same But So Very Different explores the power of the DNA from past generations to impact on people living now. Plaster moulds represent the building blocks of life, but these bondages from the past can perhaps be recognised and faced down, allowing a break from our negative history. This is cutting edge medical science, and North suggests “DNA can be manipulated and transformed by the protein matter which surrounds and controls it”. Her job as an artist is to represent these evolving ideas as material concepts to inspire the viewer to learn more. It succeeds on this level.

According to Elle Reynolds, The Other MA “are limitless connectors:sticking together layers of thoughts that shift and blur to create something other…A collated vision. A good story. A route marked out but not yet trodden. A precious mind. A place dislocated and relocated. Dark matter.”

They are working outside the expected art establishment and therefore making art which is independent  and free of commercial or gallery constraints and this gives it a raw power to nudge your conscience with unusual urgency. I enjoyed the show as a whole, it had a positive pulse of inventiveness and hope running through each exhibit. A group of artists are asking questions and expecting answers rather than simply re-packaging the usual media fear of the future. Well done.

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