EVERYONE MUST GO
The Other MA, Westcliff on Sea, November 9th - 18th 2018
In 1901, the Havens family traders were founded.
In 1920, they built a department store on Hamlet Court Road, Westcliff. Specialising in glass and porcelain ornaments, plus homewares and gifts, the ornate displays ran through 3 storeys of art deco interior. The building maintained its status as a prime shopping destination, becoming a landmark of the local economy.
In 2017, four family-run generations later, the Havens store closed permanently.
The building still holds prominence on Hamlet Court Road, a street which, while remaining home to a handful of clothing boutiques and independent traders, has seen countless other stores come and go in that time. Seemingly never more so than now, for the “death of the high street” is a countywide contagion, and the closure of Haven’s is particularly symptomatic.
It could also be diagnosed as the local Southend-on-Sea strain, whereby rising crime rates have deterred people from the high street. Shops are emptying, emptying, and emptying still. Cheap clothing and mobile phone cases appear in their place, only to empty again, replaced by more.
Havens have put their closure down to at least one named symptom: everyone does their shopping online now. On the other hand, however, their store was also a hallmark of “how things were”; receipts written by hand, metric conversions made via small leather notebooks, selections of marzipan and cherries scooped into presentation boxes and weighed by staff themselves. It’s a testament to these comparatively slower processes, but also a wonder, that they remained open as long as they did.
In this way Havens survived on the novelty in its very experience, and associations which could be described as sentimental. Emma Mills tells me that she would come here as a child, accompanying her father to buy something “really special” for her mother at Christmas.
Mills is a member of The Other MA, an alternative postgraduate arts programme whose first cohort’s final show is being exhibited in the Havens building. “EVERYONE MUST GO” includes the work of seven artists concluding two years of cooperative practice.
Therefore TOMA’s meanwhile use of the Havens store for their end of year show could not be more apt. The interior of wood, winding stairs and delicate glass shelves is still present - its history is inescapable. However, “EVERYONE MUST GO”. And so Everything is Going, Going… Gone.
At the back of the store hangs two large curtains made from survival blanket. Hung by Edmondson, whose practice addresses the concept of survival in the realm of artist practice, with references to dystopian narratives. These sheets of foil (held together haphazardly by fluorescent tape) no doubt hides the Havens store room, but its presence looms, crackling, in the exhibition backdrop.
Aside from the store room, the artists have curated themselves almost seamlessly into the shop interior; prints and calendars sit in slots once used for greetings cards, shelves are lit and lined by sculptures (made from metal and plaster), and, of course, there are the ever-enduring oven gloves and homewares.
Even the jewellery counter is fully stocked - except now the fine charms within are made from plastic. The artificial colouring of tampon applicators and soft drink lids looks surprisingly at home against the royal blue of display velvet. Imogen Welch’s work is developed from two years’ worth of Southend beach combing. While the sheer abundance obviously addresses issues of pollution, elevating the plastic to an ornamental status not only highlights the actual variety of shapes and functions: it also serves as a retort to the narrative of waste disposal, in which responsibility is placed on the civilian and not the means of production. Welch engages this further by casting some of the objects in silver: “Fuck you - I WILL have a plastic straw with my drink and I’ll wear it round my neck as well”.
There is a layer of history in these objects too, as they take on the role of artefact; stalks of Royal British Legion poppies, empty party popper shells, ice cream spoons. The question here becomes one of value, and its dependence on sentimentality as much as disposability.
Sentimentality rears its appealing head again for Richard Baxter’s work “RE: COLLECTIONS”, which consists of junk mail and other paraphernalia collected from 1989. These pieces are well-preserved, but the advertising itself has yellowed in its allure - from the stylish “BIDET IN A BOX!” to the migraine-inducing floral three-piece suites available on mail order. But what can be gathered from this collection? Through these aged idealisations, the retrospection is skewed. Was that really the fashion? Did we often have bidets? Where are these bidets now? How times have changed. And included in those times is aspirations of luxury.
The factor of time plays a key role in Baxter’s work: a ceramicist, he has also included porcelain pressings of the surrounding Havens space, which include the dents left by decades of high heeled shoes on the parquet floor, to the ornate interior details. Fossils of people passing through. Stepping into Havens is not dissimilar to stepping back in time, essentially, except the ghosts remain.
These ghosts are depicted in Laurence Harding’s collected vintage photographs, depicting scenery of the Havens store and Hamlet Court Road. On large prints hanging breezily, the people in 30’s and 40’s attire are directly ghostly here, although their presence retains a certain nostalgia, lofty in Paris Chiffon. Harding has witnessed the tumultuous tides of a post-Brexit landscape (as a relative outsider, being from France, but who may not have considered them as such beforehand), where the question of British identity and its representation has exploded - primarily in the direction of the past.
The influence of generations past upon present identity is explored by Tricia North, whose sculptures of plaster and sparklers come in a series of alternately delicate and sturdy (but small) forms - composites inspired by the structuring of DNA. Something so inherently intricate is replicated into the ornamental, and coliographs too. Sure, there’s no question about the wonder of DNA, but this takes a cynical turn when reproduced and presented as though for commerce. Who is the Creator of who? Some of these sit on glass shelves, and when I crouched slightly, a “building block of life” hovered in the air, overseeing Baxter’s junk mail collection.
Edmondson’s work continuously reproduces the motif of the mountain, which while intended as a reference to the hierarchical nature of the art realm, also becomes an exploration of production - from the ground-fired ceramic mountains to the digital prints of mountain landscapes. The cycle of idealisation returns here; in their reproduction, how are the sellable qualities of these items preserved? Does the earthenware retain uniqueness? Where does the “high quality” aspect of the digital print lie? Particularly when the latter is displayed in a shop-bought photo frame, or when reproduced on a felt mount board. What cheapens, and what embellishes? How does the function morph with its framing?
Underneath the opulent winding stairs, the ceramic mountains reappear in Edmondson’s construction of a fort-cum-survival shelter. Tokens of enforced atmosphere are presented here in a panel of flooring (depicting astro-turf) and a cushion (depicting parquet flooring reminiscent of school assembly halls, but also not too dissimilar from the flooring of Havens itself). A sound piece fills the space: “Art teachers teaching art students to become art teachers…” The automated recital of the line stops and starts, changing the statement’s intonation, but never escaping the art industrial cycle described. It’s a humourous effect; “just pop on your survival blanket and look at the mountains. You will survive if you comply.”
The aforementioned enduring oven glove is part of Mills’ work, a series of paintings and drawings duplicated continuously onto canvases, tea towels and tea sets. For “valuable members of society for sale”, Mills has reproduced an image of old friends who have seen one another through more optimistic times of protest and rebellion since 1976. Again, the theme of time passing reappears - but in this case, what has changed? The commonplace-ness of bidets, sure; but what about the division of labour between the genders, in the home and workplace? Equal pay?
There’s an obvious frustration to Mills’ work; the subjects deconstructing in various depictions, the dried fruit slices which also serve as a motif for womanhood. It’s as though the work has been churned out, “is this good enough? How about this? What about this?” Mills’ has curated it alongside plinths and SALE signs from the original shop. The pressure to make work which sells, to make a living, and at the cost of one’s creative integrity is an ever-present tension in the practice of most artists. After all, Everyone Must Go! Meaning: Everyone Must Sell.
And in these times, even nostalgia has become a buy-in. Each artist has addressed ideas of obsessiveness; holding onto idealisations, to protect one’s standing in a volatile political epoch. That the TOMA show responds almost entirely to the Havens store is important - one of the collective’s objectives is to operate outside of the boundaries which make arts education exclusive, enforcing its institution. From the bureaucratic and hierarchical to the typical white cube space.
With “EVERYONE MUST GO”, they have offered a comment which is not only relevant to the state of the art realm but also to the wider demographic outside the Havens store doors. Finding spaces for art to bloom in Southend-on-Sea is no mean feat.
Even during the show, visitors would walk into the store thinking that it was “still Havens”, so to speak. For one of the first few times I have witnessed in this locality, art had successfully blended into its surroundings. While this proved a cynical point about the reality of art-making, TOMA has achieved a key motive - to demonstrate that the art industry can no longer operate exclusively from “the real world”.
Everyone Must Survive! Somehow.