Overview and assessment
This project had a very broad brief : to combine printmaking methods to make artwork inspired by a memory – a person, place or events which has strong meaning for me.
I decided to focus on the Grand Arcade shopping centre in the tourist centre of Cambridge. This is a place that arouses rather strong and contradictory feelings for me, not only about the Grand Arcade itself, but the direction of society in general. On the one hand I feel quite alien to the very stylish ‘clean’ consumerism with its glossy-lipped up-market ‘You’re Worth It’ presentation. On the other hand many of the businesses have a strong stated commitment to ethical values and environmental sustainability and promote local charities.
Looking through photos from a photo visit and collaging these to explore themes, the initial set of images that came to mind were from Vorticist linocuts that would combine a geometric sense of urban alienation – loneliness in the crowd – with geometric architecture of light and shade that is characteristic of the arcade. The blue tonal collaged linocut I developed early on I think worked quite well artistically, as a sort of portrait of the Arcade, but did not really link with memory. My memories were much more jumbled, with colour clashes, ambiguities and unconnected flashes of images, trains of thought and digressions.
As it evolved the project became more complex as it tried to disentangle the jumble of memories, personal reactions and underlying motivations. My approach came to see the image-making process as a way of exploring, not controlling, memory and the meanings the flashes of images take on when revisited now and confronted with current feelings and ‘reality’.
The final print that resulted has meaning for me, not only my memories but the ways in which these morphed into multiple unconnected digressions and comic musings. As I looked at different ways of representing this artistically and stylistically I was led to combine different media and styles in a rather disorganised manner, going with my thought flow suggested not only by memories but also the media – the emotional contrasts between the ‘clean and precise’ linocut, the indistinct suggestiveness of the Photoshop images and the cartoon-like shapes.
I like the multiple perspectives that do not really make sense, the colour clashes, way the images crowd on one another and some of the ambiguities and unknowns (see detailed description at the end). But in order for the image to mean much to a viewer it possibly needs another stage of much more purposive redesign to re-link some of the meanings into a clearer narrative effect e.g myself and my family as recognisable characters and with clearer distinction between different areas of stylistic difference linked to that narrative.
There were many possibilities using photographs from my travel for work. But as I was at home in Cambridge over the summer I wanted to work on a place closer to home with more personal resonances. A place with overlaid and evolving memories over a long period of time.
When I reflected back, although I have been to the Grand Arcade on many occasions, my memories are very intermittent. Vivid isolated flashes that then become quite vague if I try to probe:
- I have lived in Cambridge since I came as a student in 1972, but my life revolved around the colleges. I have only very hazy memories of the original Lion Yard at that time – mostly just of Petty Cury, a pedestrian alleyway with some shops on my way from my own college to that of my boyfriend. In the 1980s I was travelling a lot and lived mostly the other end of the city.
- My earliest vivid memory is December 1990 just after my daughter was born – snowflakes falling just before Christmas, pushing her in her buggy all muffled and smiling up at me through the furry hood of a little pink quilted jumpsuit, past the brilliantly lit shops. Looking with my partner for her first Christmas presents, both high on parental hormones. One of the happiest memories I have.
- In the years that followed we did most of our shopping at the rival and less expensive Grafton Centre. I am not very interested in shopping and get very quickly bored. My memories are of feeling like a walking credit card trying to keep up with my daughter. Not wanting to refuse these mother-daughter events, but wishing we were doing something else. Most of our visits to the then Lion Yard were to Robert Sayle’s for sewing things, things for the house, mending watches and sports things.
- But we also visited regularly for the library both for children’s books and also novels and poetry.
- My main memories are of successive Christmases – the main time I enjoy shopping. One particular Christmas was 2009 when I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Going round the DVD and game shops looking for presents for our now teenage children. Wondering if this would be my last.
- In recent years my partner and I have regularly gone to a cafe called EAT at weekends as a way of getting out and making time to talk.
- We periodically visit the Apple shop, series of mobile phone shops and John Lewis for electronics.
- My most vivid images of the Arcade recently is when I was taking photos for an earlier (unassessed) photography project on ‘People and Place’. Done at Christmas time this had made me look carefully at the architecture, colours and also people.
- At that time I also have a very vivid memory of being stopped by security guards and the experience of going up to see the ‘Fat Controller’ at the top of the building to ask permission to take photographs. That also made me notice and feel the eyes of the security cameras all around. I was also later told by another security guard that it was fine to take photos as long as they were ‘selfies’.
- I did several new photoshoots with permission for this project, building on these experiences.
Photographs are widely seen as objective snapshots of ‘reality’ but even these are based on subjective choices in terms of focus, framing, tonal range etc that affect how ‘reality’ is perceived. Photographs looked at later as ‘memories’ also often reveal things not realised at the time and have a different meaning with the hindsight of what happened next. The photos I took myself suggested a number of themes – some of which linked to earlier memories and others I only noticed through the photographic process:
Light and promise of heaven: the architecture is really beautiful in sunlight. But I never noticed these iconic views (similar to those on the promotional website) until the day I went to take photographs for a photography project and became fascinated by the shapes of the shadows on the columns and floors.
Colour of Christmas shopping – echoing my Christmas memories of warmth and pre-Christmas energy and buzz (these were the People and Place images not used in this current project but affected my memories.)
People enjoying themselves meeting and drinking coffee together and (as I occasionally did) enjoying the shopping.
Overpowering adverts making people feel inadequate – my visceral reaction and memories of the strong smells of Lush and BodyShop no longer there
Fragmentation and alienation: escalators and walkways. So many places and shops it is easy to get lost.
Loneliness amid the bustle: people so small and some (like me during the cancer and on other occasions) very lonely and in the crowd, feeling insignificant
My original idea as I thought about the Grand Arcade was to focus on the negative aspects – fragmentation and alienation. Something like the intro to Al Jazeera’s People and Power or Wyndham Lewis’s vorticist paintings of city life. With some of the dynamic energy of the linocuts of the Grosvenor School. And the imaginative fantasy scenes with impossible perspectives of Escher and impossible machines of Heath Robinson.
But this was obviously too simplistic – given that some of my most vivid memories of Christmas shopping were actually happy. Certainly vivid – even in Christmas 2008. As I started to do some Internet research the picture became more nuanced.
The Grand Arcade is a large shopping mall in the tourist centre of Cambridge opened in 2008. It is centred on the John Lewis department store and extends the pre-existing Lion Yard shopping centre built in the 1970s. This replaced older shopping streets bounded by St Andrew’s Street, Corn Exchange Street, and Petty Cury and included a library, multi-storey car park and magistrates’ court. In the middle is a large white pillar with the statue of a large very red lion on the top of it, representing the Red Lion pub that had been demolished in 1969 to make way for the development.
The tourist promotion on the Visit Cambridge website reads:
Grand Arcade is the region’s leading shopping destination. Located in the centre of Cambridge, our award-winning shopping mall features an unrivalled mix of 60 premium and high street retailers, over two sky-lit floors to create a truly exceptional shopping experience…. Refresh and rewind after a long day shopping with a coffee at Starbucks or Costa Coffee, or indulge with a doughnut from Krispy Kreme. Feeling hungry? Enjoy authentic Italian food at Carluccio’s, visit The Brasserie at John Lewis or grab a burger at Ed’s Easy Diner or Honest Burger…Grand Arcade is surrounded by historic Cambridge, and is easily combined with a trip to visit these beautiful world-renowned tourist destinations.
When I looked a bit more closely at some of the large adverts in my photos, some were for cancer charities and jobs creation. Companies like John Lewis have a long history of commitment to worker benefits and participation, and currently have a female CEO.
A final element in my thinking about the project was the TV Imagine Programme about Rose Wylie. I became interested in her ideas on memory and reality, and her way of continuing to work and chip away at the same piece, sticking and overlaying elements that seemed very relevant to explore in this project. Looking at her work also made me think of more playful ways of interacting with the memories that might also have more impact.
I started by doing a few sketches of ideas. But this project really required working from memory and feeling rather than observational drawing. So I did not pursue this very far – mostly as a reminder of potential themes, feeling and composition while I sat there taking some time to observe.
2) Photocollage exploring of themes and ideas
My main source of visual imagery was from my photos that I cut up and worked on as a large A2 photo-collage.
I found this experience very useful for exploring some of the possible connections and combinations of the views, themes and ideas above. I put together images of similar themes and experimented with potential effects of combining different perspective views.
I then used my iPad to take photos of different crops from the collage to isolate different elements and think more about composition.
Some of these crops I then re-combined into a new composition on my iPad and experimented with different tonal and colour combinations in Procreate and Photoshop.
This whole process was somewhat lengthy – producing multiple digital variations is very quick but the thinking processes behind different choices for simplification took longer with some dead-ends. I wanted to just work with the photos I had and make these work at the existing somewhat random sizes rather than manipulating them too much digitally or reprinting at different sizes/tones. The main reprinting was of block of images.
When I had something I was reasonably happy with in terms of the combination of themes and overall composition on my iPad, I converted to greyscale in Photoshop on my pc and experimented with some of the sketch filters to make the image less photographic. I then reversed the image, printed it and traced it for the linocut plate. This image – through its simplification – resembled more a Vorticist or Escher-like distortion that I quite liked, but lost its connection with memory.
I then made a series of prints in different colours and on different papers to collage – my memories are blue and lemon yellow. But I tried also grey and red.
In the end I focused on just blue collaging blue prints in different tones and papers. Again I found the tonal image interesting as a perspective portrait of place, but it did not really relate to memory until I added the photographs.
3) Cutting into the plate and combining with photos overlaid with ink
At this point in the process I happened to see the Imagine programme on Rose Wylie and though of taking a much more playful approach. My collage is obviously nothing like her bold impactful images with simplified forms but multiple layered meanings. She draws entirely from memory, not using photographic images or printmaking. Nevertheless I found the process of cutting into and sticking with the same image interesting to see where my memories went and how new meanings were created by the media and often chance juxtapositions where the initial placement was made for compositional rather than narrative reasons. It is quite therapeutic.
Final image: meanings revisited
The final image continued to work on the draft above adding more photographs and drawing on top of them to make different figures and vignettes – some rather dark and ominous, others playful.
- the multiple perspectives that do not really make sense
- the yellow and pink contrasts on the balcony top left – how I felt the Christmas I had cancer – somehow high putting a pink gloss on things. Trying to keep things normal.
- the escalator with the woman entering the upside down rather sickly-colour vortex of the glitzy shops, then the very muted image of the woman with a baby and the empty lines of the other figures coming down.
- the fairy-tale/comic effect of the library and gallery on the right.
- some of the images suggested by the Photoshop effects on the figures on the left escalator.
- the windswept figure on the balcony top right – dreaming of getting away somewhere?
I also like some of the ambiguities and unknowns:
- the angry animal-like shapes across the middle – with no precise meaning except a generalised anger and need for the ‘little person’ to fight back but against what?
- the figure on the eagle-like shape – she could fall off and crash onto the escalator below but prefers to fly into a world of imagination
- the indistinct blurry solvent photo couple of lovers on the right of it -is this free sexuality or semi-pornography? what the equally blurry woman with the baby above them dreams of? or an extension of exploitation following from the way the man bottom right is looking at the young girl and the stylish anorexic mannequin. Or all of these?