'The Winter Edition', the second in a series of exhibitions exploring the life, work and heritage of Charles Dickens, is showing at Southwark Cathedral until 14 January 2013. Nicole Fordham Hodges attended the private view, which illuminated a dark December night.
Michelle Baharier, CEO of CoolTan Arts, introduces this atmospheric evening with marvellous theatre. Wearing an impossibly sparkly dress, she stands in front of Vasily Nilich's accomplished, moody portrait of Fagin. She speaks of her own Jewish traditions: Hannukah, the Festival of Lights. She throws some golden coins into the audience: the tradition is that if you give money away, it returns three times over, she says.
Dickens himself, she tells us, experienced manic depressive episodes from the age of twelve. She goes on to explain thinking behind CoolTan's project:
'CoolTan Arts chose to develop this Dickens project to re-evaluate where we are more than 150 years on from the Lunacy Act. Dickens himself campaigned to improve the lives of people with mental distress. Today CoolTan Arts would have made a great stopping point for Dickens as he could have joined and supported us in our work.'
The deeply resonant theme of light in darkness runs through this exhibition, which has been sensitively curated by Dani Berg. The artwork is mostly monochrome: monoprints, pen and pencil drawings, linocuts. There are just a few hints of oppressively bright colour. Liz Innes 'Mudlarks' (ink on paper), for example, where a surreal yellow light illuminates the side of a wall as the lit mudlarks search the dark Thames' beaches under a dark sky. Similarly, in 'Marley the Ghost Visits Scrooge' (ink on paper) Liz Innes draws attention to the darkness with an eerily yellow candlelight.
Eva Megias' silkscreen print ' Quotes from Night Walks by Charles Dickens' reads:
'The Wild Moon and Clouds were as restless as an evil conscience in a troubled bed, and the very shadow and immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river.'
The darkness of Dicken's world is of course an externalisation of the 'evil conscience' of Dickensian London with its inequalities and oppression of the poor and disadvantaged. Vasily Nilich's lovely pencil drawing 'Dicken's characters' depicts the palour, sadness and abandonment of three child characters. Their eyes are closed or gazing glassily as a stern Fagin looms over his three victims, looks straight at us. An open purse spills its coins on the floor like an indictment, a dark shadow of Michelle's earlier gesture.
As CoolTan participants Karen Unrue and Lu Firth perform from Dicken's lesser known Christmas Novel 'The Chimes', they reinvent the story, putting new words into the mouths of the oppressed and poor who, as Dickens writes 'are always being complained of and guarded against.' This rewriting of the same old story of oppression is what CoolTan is about.
It is obvious that CoolTan are enjoying their creative encounter with Dickens. They share both his social message and his lust for life. The puddings in Dani Behr's monoprint 'Victorian Puddings', for example, are pert and joyous. This exhibition has a light, open touch, like Dani Behr's plate of open oysters: 'Oysters' monoprint. It is not overstated.
In Pat McGuigan's 'The Shard and St George the Marytr' (ink on paper) the spires of the ancient and modern buildings are simply presented side by side, leading us to draw our own conclusions. What has changed since those times, and what remains the same?
This is a taboo/ prejudice busting project: it is not introspective art but wide, engaged and out there. The newspaper which accompanies the exhibition 'Dickens News' has been published in partnership with Southwark News and widely distributed by them. This is more than inclusion. CoolTan are the front runners here. They write their own story, and are the first to step forward and give: light in darkness.
Still to come in the 'Dickens News' series:
The Ragshaw Edition, Morley Gallery. 1 Feb – 13 February 2013
The Underground Edition, Dickens Museum. 18 Feb – 23 June 2013
More information can be found at www.cooltanarts.org.uk