Body of Music: (Watercolour on paper, dimensions: 114 x 33.5cm)
This work was made in response to the 16th century Hill Collection of stringed instruments in the Ashmolean Museum. I was intrigued by the fact that many of these instruments have human, often female carved heads. I found their status in the museum also fascinating. They are historical objects that are part of visual culture, part of a tradition and craft of carving instruments from wood and a tradition of composing classical music and of playing it. These instruments presented me with interesting thoughts about their hybrid identities. They are anthropomorphic. It is as if they are half human half instrument, inanimate but animated by the material consciousness of a player, craftsman/maker.
These instruments sit between the categories of craft and high art. They conjure up the confusions and interconnectedness of body/matter and ‘spirit’, and the relationship of mind and hand. It was a piece of work that allowed me to research/examine the relationship between the body and the musical instrument.
I spent time taking photographs and drawing patterns and textures from the bodies of various instruments, their shapes and ornamentation.
The final painting is a fictional fantastical hybrid creature. A hybrid also of ‘facts’ taken from the collection and fictions, with a body made of three parts, each with its own ornamented ‘sound hole’ with a carved rose within, resembling sphincters or valves, that affects the sound and leads to the resonating/amplification chamber.
Ornament and texture invoke touch/sensation via hand and eye and lead to understanding/knowledge. Intricate ‘sound material’ is painted around the instrument. The painting is accompanied by a text piece that is a tale about one of the instruments with a carved female head that speaks from inside her glass case, trapped and aging but is then brought to life by being played. It conjures up notions of the aging body, erotic associations of musical instruments, and plays with the age old metaphor of the human body as musical instrument/ideas of the wooden puppet brought to life (the incarnation of the inanimate).
I researched aspects of the craft of making such instruments. A kind of chiromancy or ‘reading’ of the forms of the wood could be equated with a kind of intimate touch knowledge of the instrument/body through the act of playing. These physical acts of making and touching are used by the brain/mind to construct concepts and metaphors for thinking and feeling. The right side of the brain perceives musical instruments as embodied rather than inanimate. I hybridized the fictional part of the tale with scientific information about how sound is heard/felt in the brain, information about dendrochronological methods used by museums to measure the age of such instruments, and types of wood. I used the synaesthesic confusions between touching, feeling, between sound patterns/rhythms and patterns of weaving material, between knots and sounds and the space in between or the intervals.
There are many conundrums in the work (painting and text) – what is material or real and what is not. It was a means to explore relationships between the body/mind and physical material world as well as the identity and status of different types of creativity and skills.