This text is published in the book Hadzi-Vasileva, Elpida (2009) Motectum, Gloucester: University of Gloucester/Artsway. The book is published to coincide with Elpida’s exhibition at Gloucester Cathedral. See http://www.elpihv.co.uk for further details.
Warr, Tracey (2009) ‘Raw Presence’
Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva produces artworks that are carefully balanced between the beautiful and the brutal. There is a disjunction between the materials she uses: a cow’s stomach, pigs caul fat, one ton of butter, duck heads, salmon skins – and the exquisite sculptures and installations that she creates. ‘Matter out of place’, Mary Douglas writes in her great study of pollution taboos, is dirt, and yet she explains, dirt has a powerful creative charge (1966: 35). The materials Hadzi-Vasileva uses have a raw, uncanny presence to them because we know (and can sometimes smell as well as see) that this matter was formerly part of a living organism: an animal, bird or fish. Her work is full of paradoxes, between animate and inanimate, transcendent and abject. She recomposes decomposition into gorgeous forms.
Trees, animals, birds, food, clothing and architecture are recurring motifs in Hadzi-Vasileva’s work, as she sets up a visual and material dialogue between the structures of the natural world and the structures of human culture. Her work is responsive to specific sites and engages with local industries, communities and environments: the fishing industries in Berwick and Brighton, for example, or Indian restaurants in London’s Brick Lane.
The culmination of her year-long residency in Gloucester Cathedral is Motectum, a work which has three parts linked by the overarching theme of birds. She has created a sound installation mixing human and bird song in the cloisters and re-landscaped the cloisters garden; a crinoline dress made by stitching together translucent yellow chicken skins; and forty portrait busts of the feathered heads of dead ducks, pheasants and chickens.
When you step over the threshold into Gloucester Cathedral time seems to slow and stop – partly because of the weight of history here, but also because of the sheer volume of still air. The columns, buttresses and vaults of the cathedral rise up around the visitor like a great stone forest. The earliest parts of the Cathedral were built in 1089, alongside the Benedictine monastery that had been on the site since 678. The Cathedral has witnessed the crowning of Henry III, the burial of Edward II and the burning of Bishop Hooper. The monastery was dissolved under Henry VIII and the Cathedral narrowly escaped demolition under Oliver Cromwell. Its stained glass windows include the earliest image of golf (1350) and a fabulous beaked two-legged grotesque. An Angel Orchestra play their instruments in the ceiling above the choir. Inside the Cathedral are forty carvings of Green Men and outside, gargoyles funnel rainwater away from the walls.
It is easy to imagine monks in the 12th century pacing the quadrangle of the cloisters underneath the intricate stone latticework of their fan-vaulted ceilings, or to see them seated at the stone carols contemplating the enclosed garden through a colonnade of arched windows. The monks were mostly silent so the Cathedral was the sounding space where voices could burst out.
Hadzi-Vasileva’s work repopulates the garden with trees, shrubs and birds and reinhabits the cloisters with the soaring sound of Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium. Tallis’ 16th century composition is a 40 voice motet. Hadzi-Vasileva has combined the human voices with recorded birdsong and live birdsong relayed from microphones in the garden and in nearby Highnam Woods. The sound installation along the four sides of the cloisters represents birds commonly found in four areas of Gloucestershire: the Forest of Dean, the Severn Estuary, the Cotswold Hills and Cotswold Water Park. The sound moves randomly between forty speakers placed in the cloisters, harnessing the extraordinary acoustics of the space. The ambitious scale of Hadzi-Vasileva’s work matches the vastness of the Cathedral itself.
Hadzi-Vasileva’s chicken skins dress creates a frisson of disgust. Dead skins, usually sloughed off, are here put back on, and worn against living skin. We sense or imagine a faint whiff of decay. ‘A voluntary embrace of the symbols of death is a kind of prophylactic against the effects of death’ (Douglas, 1966: 177). Jean Paul Sartre discussed stickiness as the queasy boundary between the self and other matter. Francis Bacon wanted his paintings to bear the trace of a life in the same way as the snail or slug leaves its trail of slime. Hadzi-Vasileva’s materials occupy this distasteful zone of inbetweenness. The laborious cleaning and preparation of organic materials in her work are reminiscent of the medieval textile processes of tanning, fulling, lacemaking and needlework. The chicken skins dress, housed within the carapace of the Cathedral itself, recall Gaston Bachelard’s discussion of a building as a nest or garment in his book The Poetics of Space (1969: 90-104). What is underneath and inside a material world of membranes and skins are recurring obsessions in Hadzi-Vasileva’s work. She takes dead waste materials and transforms them into new artefacts that show us the latent beauty of this discarded matter.
Hadzi-Vasileva’s portrait busts made from feathered duck, pheasant and chicken heads are in a dialogue with the heads of stone angels and saints in the Cathedral that have been worn down by erosion or damaged by Cromwell’s soldiers. The Cathedral’s angels and gargoyles are already hybrid bodies: composites of human and bird or animal. Hadzi-Vasileva’s work highlights this uncanny hybridity.
When the Cathedral was built in the Middle Ages, people did not have our contemporary euphemisms and squeamishness about food. They reared, killed and butchered their own animals, and would have trapped and eaten the songbirds too. Partridges, storks, cranes and larks were amongst the many species of birds that were eaten. Peacocks and swans were often skinned and cooked and then presented with their original plumage put back in place.
Sing a song of sixpence
a pocket full of rye
four and twenty blackbirds
baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened
the birds began to sing.
Wasn’t that a dainty dish
to set before a king?
A 16th century Italian cookbook included a recipe for pies with live birds inside that flew out when the pies were cut open. These illusion foods were known as entremets or subtleties.
Hadzi-Vasileva’s work skirts, but will not be pinned down to, any straight forward thematic reading. She evokes political topics such as animal welfare and ecological issues but she is not judgemental and does not explicitly engage a subject. She makes us aware of the discord between our attitudes towards the garden songbirds and our attitudes towards domesticated birds. Whilst we protect and preserve the songbirds, the chickens, ducks and pheasants are being exploited for food and sport. The difficulty she had in getting well-feathered heads for the project is evidence of the often appalling conditions in which many domesticated birds are kept. The abject birds are revalued in her work.
Her concern with craft and husbandry suggests pre-digital and pre-industrial eras, and ecologists’ current advocacy of the need for the reacquisition of old skills and life styles in a time of climate change. Her work questions the human control and structuring of the natural world. Hadzi-Vasileva’s work, however, is materials-led rather than concept-led. She allows the materials to unfold into their own potentiality rather than imposing an idea on the forms that the work takes.
The bird is a symbol of the soul. Like the angels, the birds are of the sphere of transcendence. ‘A thing of the field that loves the air between’, wrote the Gloucestershire poet and musician Ivor Gurney (Kavanagh, 1982: 206). Angels and birds are messengers from the divine to the human. Alongside the raw presence of offal in Hadzi-Vasileva’s work, birds, angels and song transcend. ‘That which is rejected is ploughed back for a renewal of life’ (Douglas, 1966: 167).
Bachelard, Gaston (1969) The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press.
Douglas, Mary (1966) Purity and Danger, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Kavanagh, P.J. ed. (1982) Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney, Oxford: Oxford University Press.