Holly Corfield Carr on Undersong
A light sweeps over three faces in the dark. To the left, a kiss grazes the lip of a carved stone architrave. To the right, an obscured profile seems to turn towards the shadow. Dead centre and dead on, however, a face looks out. This is something of a pareidolic sympathy, our human inclination to recognise a human face in the rock (or in the moon or in a slice of toast). Two patches of soft light settle like eyes in their sockets. A vertical line convinces as a nose. The quick curve of a chin and there it is: wholly human and looking right at you. But the light moves again, recasting this gentle intrusion to a starker extrusion of form. The face is instantly ― and always was ― not a face but the back of a mask. In all ways, this is a relief.
As the light continues to make its inquiries across the surfaces of the mask, or masks, and between the three screens of Joshua Bilton’s video installation at SPACE Mare Street, a tricky continuity is established between parallel spaces. Just as these are one or three masks propped on the same or different architectural detail, the masks are moulded to the same face, the face of the artist coming into contact with different architectures of the self. Bilton’s broader practice investigates the surfaces of encounter between self and society, testing for the point at which one might alter the other. In Undersong, Bilton presents these surfaces as doubles of each other, positioning his own body in a landscape where a quarry might also be the city, the body might also be the building, the mask might be another face.
Directing visitors outside the gallery, a walking tour of sites of Portland stone in Hackney moves the visitor’s body through the stutter of doubled structures in the city: two town halls, two bell towers, two grave stones. Before leaving, a large c-type handprint of Alignment 1 hangs outside the video installation, showing the artist sitting at the base of William Reid Dick’s 1947 statue of George V in Westminster, Bilton’s head entirely grafted into the plinth’s stonework. Has the body built itself this way or has the building altered the body? Underneath the photograph, a pile of stones brought from Portland invokes the ancient practice of cairn building. Cairns are a human-made structure, used as traditional way markers or as monuments to the dead. They are peculiar artefacts in the landscape, accumulated by collaborators who never meet, changing shape with every instance of contact. As each visitor heads out of the gallery, they are invited to take a stone from the cairn to collectively rebuild it under the second bell tower at Saint John-at-Hackney Church.
Bilton lives in London and studied photography at the London College of Communication before completing his MA at the Royal College of Art in 2010. From a background of formal training in photography, Bilton has set out on an ongoing project titled The Expedition, exploring the boundaries of self, body and land in photography, film and installation. The resulting works are exercises in transformation, with garments, helmets and gesture adopted by the body while the body attempts to reconcile an inner reality with an external environment. For Bilton, photography itself is an ongoing negotiation between the site of the self and the sight of the body in the photograph, in the landscape or in disguise. Even though Undersong comprises video, sound and text work and only a single photographic print, there is always something essentially photographic about Bilton’s examination of the split subject.
Before arriving at the closing triptych of empty masks, the video work progresses through a series of these split and splitting subjects caught within the impressive landscapes of limestone quarries on the Portland peninsula in Dorset. Bilton refers to these figures in his video work as “characters”, a term that lends to the landscape a fictional dimension, a space of narrative-, or even language-, making. At the same time, both the landscape and the body are snagged on structures outside the fiction of the frame. The characters are shown sitting among quarried stone that has either been cut for cancelled building projects or offcut from an even greater number of London’s landmarks: the Bank of England, Buckingham Palace, the British Museum as well as statues, town halls and so many centres and monuments of power in the capital. Since Christopher Wren extracted almost one million cubic feet from the Isle of Portland to build St. Paul’s Cathedral, Portland stone has been mistakenly identified as local to London. London absorbs Portland into its identity, rendering the empty quarries its inverse, its mask or its own empty pocket, turned inside out.
The video work’s soundtrack is comprised of field recordings made onsite by Erik Medeiros, a sound designer Bilton collaborated with in establishing the composition for Undersong. The sounds are intricate and granular, moving slowly from the wet whirr of the Albion Stone workshop where the video opens, heading down into the deep harmonies of the miners’ rock-breaking machines in the throat of the tunnels. For centuries, Portland’s open quarries were worked with a traditional plug-and-feather technique where a team of quarrymen would hammer lines of metal wedges into the rock until it split. As they worked, the quarrymen sang a reaming chant, a subterranean shanty that kept time as their hammer blows rang out on the rock’s bright glockenspiel.
This tendency towards melody is adopted by Bilton’s characters. As they test and break material and language against their bodies, they begin a rhythmic inquiry into the constructions of connected identity. As the characters learn to keep time with each other, they establish ways of being together, being apart, being both.
In the same way, Bilton combines field recordings with the sounds of finger clicks, claps and human voice recorded in the studio. This wash of field and studio sounds conjures up a third and partially imagined place caught between Portland and London and it is here, doubled between the real and inner reality, that Bilton casts his characters.
As the video closes, a chorus of voices struggle against the roar of the machines, adopting a throat singing technique to split the note into two: the note, a sort of undersong, and its harmonic soaring one octave above. A single voice doubles itself, wavering in and out of something almost familiar. It is worth noting that none of Bilton’s masks have a visible mouth but once the bodies and the buildings have gone, their voices break like the beginning of language.