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Light and dark…..a photographer's eye in a workhouse thumb

Light and dark…..a photographer's eye in a workhouse

I went to the opening of OCA tutor Maggy Milner’s new show at the Victorian workhouse in Southwell last week (previously posted about here). The installations were delicately beautiful, and deeply sensitive and thoughtful evocations of the possible feelings of the workhouse inhabitants.  What was most striking about the event was how engaged people were with each of the six installations.  In fact one visitor told me that she wasn’t really into art and that this was the first time she had ever seen installations that she had understood and been able to appreciate in terms of the context in which they were displayed.  A National Trust representative at the event told me that the show was the most successful (aesthetically) contemporary art show the National Trust had ever had in its estate, enhancing and expanding viewers’ experience of the Workhouse and its complex history. Praise indeed.  Though sparse, cold and echoing, Maggy seemed to have populated the place with feelings: in the cold, slightly dank basement, sitting on shelves, in each of the basement rooms, were sealed glass jars, imprisoning ‘Perishable Goods’: mouldering fruit, grouped to signify the seven categories given to paupers on their arrival to the Workhouse, slowly deteriorating at different rates.  Over the span of the exhibition these silent weeping objects seem to plead to be released.

All the installations are objects chosen for their ambiguity and are labelled and placed in regimented rows to denote classification, segregation and supervision. Backlit by the atmospheric light, the work has a luminous transparency suggesting the fragility and precariousness of life.  Outside, plaster casts of  hands lie in the courtyard, almost flickering with movement since the shape and posture of each cast varies. This installation, Hard Labour, refers to the arduous and sometimes futile work regime devised for inmates in the 1830s. Women and girls over 15 were made to pick apart oakum (heavily tarred rope) with their bare hands, whilst men had to smash rocks to fine grit for road building.

One of the most beautiful installations is the one entitled ‘More’. This consists of one room entirely occupied by a regimented line of delicately crafted bowls, made of tissue, each weighed down with coins.

Finally, perhaps the most visually delightful of the exhibits, because of the way the light bounces across it and through it is the installation entitled Deflation. The title alludes to the lack of privacy, the constant control over the inmates’ lives and the diminishing effects of the poverty trap.  Clear cylinders in neat orderly rows, categorised with metal tags, support but entrap clear balloons, which slowly expire. Maggy Milner’s show continues until 5th September. The Workhouse and gardens are a delight to visit in themselves, and I strongly recommend a diversion off the A1 to see this treasure of a show. Any OCA student wishing to go and wanting to be shown round by Maggy should contact her at mm@maggymilner.com since she may be available to guide you around. There is also a Facebook account with further details on the show.

Posted by author: Jane Parry
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10 thoughts on “Light and dark…..a photographer's eye in a workhouse

  • A fabulous manifestation of her sensitivity as a photographer, made real; the photographer’s eye as projector.

  • Hi,
    Thanks Jane for a great review and Clive, for putting such an apt nugget in a nutshell!
    I am planning to video the work in changing light. If fact I’m planning to start today.
    I should say that the journey from still life photography to installation has been turned out to be a huge quantum leap but also a great learning curve. I found the Workhouse and it’s history very inspiring but I had lots of qualms and self critical periods. I was so aware that I couldn’t take this leap into the unknown and come up with something half baked.
    I’ve discovered both the excitement and the stress of installation. Although I planned as carefully as possible, to a great extent, I had to rely on mind’s eye and gut instinct. Unlike still life photography, when we can rearrange objects; change the lighting or angle of view; edit etc., with installation we only get one shot and we can’t control the point of view of the audience.
    I think my training as a photographer has meant that I purposely chose partially transluscent and reflective materials that respond in exciting ways to changing light. I was also aware of colour and kept the palette mostly monochrome which again suited the building and the grey lives of the inmates.
    I will post a video fairly soon.

    • Thanks for filling in some of the detail and providing a fascinating insight into the process. it was such a leap but so successful. I look forward to the video Maggy.

  • Thanks for this – will be visiting photo exhibition in Southwell Minster this weekend so hopefully will be able to combine the two.

  • I no longer need a video! I went to Southwell yesterday – five hours driving round trip but worth every minute!
    I think the work enhanced my visit to the workhouse which is somewhere I have intended to go for a long time just for the social history aspect.
    The workhouse evokes strong feelings about the way the poor of the parish were viewed and treated, but the artwork connects the emotions of the paupers themselves to the surroundings in which they lived, worked and died.
    Thank you Maggy.
    I also visited the Minster and saw the photography exhibition, which was also quite fascinating.

  • I was able to visit this two weeks ago and agree with everything above. It was so beautifully poignant and moving. the art work really enhanced the feelings of despair and hopelessness and for me peopled the place, without decreasing the bleakness and hopelessness. Myrather sceptical nephew was bowled over by the decaying fruit. that exhibit made me tearful. also love the t shirts! Thanks, Maggy and Jane. Dorothy

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