So much history is buried beneath our feet, and histories buried in other ways, by forgetfulness or disregard. If you live in a former mining area in Britain, that history is deep underground. Evidence of the coal mines have been erased from the landscape, swept away in less than a generation. Deeper still in the past there’s a buried history of women working underground too. When I found out about the women miners, I thought of my sister, the sculptor, Melanie Wilks, working on the site of a former colliery turned into parkland, hand-carving stone on the very ground above where those pasts are buried.
Such fragments of contemporary life and shards of history I hauled together to build Underbelly in digital media, collaging a rich and often grotesque mix of imagery, spoken word, video, animation and text. It’s an interactive story about a woman artist who, while sculpting on the site of a former Yorkshire colliery, is haunted by a medley of voices.
It includes video of my sister carving and the voices are performed by me. The historical content is drawn from the testimonies of 19th Century women miners collected by Lord Ashley’s Mines Commission of 1842, which exposed working conditions in the pits.
My sister and I were raised in Morley, an industrial town in Northern England, whose prosperity in previous centuries was built on shoddy mills, coal mining and quarrying. Our family has lived in this area for generations and, although we both moved away, we found ourselves returning to Morley to live.
When we were growing up here, the place was black, black with soot from the mill chimneys and heavy industry. Pollution clings to carboniferous sandstone and almost everything, apart from the modern housing estates, was built from the local sandstone. It felt like the coal-black of the pits had risen above ground, as if the back-to-back houses, the chapels, the pubs, the civic buildings were built from coal. I even remember, as a baby, my sister used to like eating the stuff. We had coal fires, of course, and there was warmth, but I wanted to escape all that blackness and the weight of the Victorian heritage bearing down on us.
So it’s ironic that I ended up back in my old hometown, Melanie too, both of us creating artworks that are rooted in the locality, which Underbelly clearly is if not my other works. As for my sister, well, most of her creative output is located in the area. She carves it from the local sandstone, often working in the local quarry (where she met her husband, Neil, an ex-miner). She is quite literally a local artist. Whereas, in some sense, I’m not really present in Morley. I’m in my computer most of the time, in virtual space, roaming the internet, connecting, conversing and often collaborating with other people, geographically far away, in other countries.
And where does my work exist? It’s digital, conjured up out of code – just zeros and ones when you get down to it – it’s nowhere and anywhere and all over the place, scattered or drifting, packets of data being pulled and pushed in cyberspace. Whereas Melanie’s stone sculptures are unequivocally present, rock solid in a geographical location. We’re at opposite ends of the scale – sisters, so similar and yet so far apart in terms of the materials and processes we work with. But both of us, in our different ways, working with the past in the present.
Neo-Victorian Art and Aestheticism
Recently I gave a talk about Underbelly, and performed it too, for the Neo-Victorian Art and Aestheticism Conference at Hull University. My aim was to explore the connections between the digital fiction’s vernacular Victorian representations and its 21st Century sculptor, whose art practice is based on that of my sister, hand-carving in what could be viewed as a traditional and vernacular figurative style. It’s no coincidence that Melanie’s work is often commissioned by local communities in West Yorkshire to commemorate the passing of their traditional industries or, more particularly, the passing of those working lives. There’s a poignancy to the sculptures but they also evoke a strong sense of Neo-Victorian civic pride – for example, The Weaver and The Miner, two sculptures by Melanie sited in front of Morley’s grand 19th Century Town Hall.
For my presentation, I tried to unearth some of the rich ironies, contradictions and correspondences between our almost diametrically opposed art forms, our experiences as working women, our uses of the past, and also how and where our artworks are situated in the (past)present. You can see the images I talked about and draw your own connections in my Underbelly Cabinet of Curios, which is a digital collection of some of the sources, influences and catalysts that gave rise to Underbelly. There’s also a peek at one stage of the process of writing and structuring the digital story. In another compartment of the ‘Cabinet’, I’ve collected some creative works by others that struck a chord with me in relation to the themes I explore in Underbelly. Speaking of which, here’s another…
Neo-Victorian Folk Song
Another instance of a vernacular Neo-Victorian aesthetic in a traditional artform:
I used some of the same girl’s testimony in Underbelly too. Thanks to James Pope, one of the judges for the New Media Writing Prize 2010 (which was awarded to Underbelly) for drawing my attention to this moving Neo-Victorian folk song (originally by Frank Higgins) on The Unthanks album, Here’s The Tender Coming.