Catherine Bertola’s art has a lot in common with archaeology. Bertola is interested in the “traces that we leave behind in the environment as we move through it”. In particular, she appreciates how those traces can tell a story, and the joys of discovering those stories through the “residues” of the past. In Sad Bones (2013), currently displayed in the Art & Design Gallery, Bertola presents photographs of lost interiors, burnt in an effort to make those lost spaces real again, “giving them a real presence in the world… by igniting them.” Many of the photographed buildings were destroyed by fire, and so, by setting them alight she brings a building to life in order to tell the story of its destruction. This close alignment of presence and absence, loss and discovery, characterises many of Bertola’s works.
Early in her career, Bertola realised that she found the “white cubes” of galleries unsatisfying. She turned to site-specific work as a way of escaping the bland white spaces that seem to hold no stories in their bare surfaces. Beyond the gallery, she found spaces with memories embedded in their walls and floors, waiting to be revealed. Many of her works contain dust or ashes, residue of the past occupation of these spaces. In so many of her abandoned spaces, layers of dust have made things vanish, and the act of dusting can make them reappear. The character of a room, expressed in the design and decoration of its surfaces, is masked by dust, and so lost over time. Dusting uncovers those surfaces, and so revives the character of the room. By collecting, rearranging and painting in this dust, Bertola reveals and imposes historical meanings that layers of dust have concealed.
In various works, Bertola uses “pattern to locate places in a historical moment”, sometimes by adding dust, and sometimes in dust that is swept away. In Filling Absence (currently stenciled onto the white wall of the Art & Design Gallery), and in her previous work, Unfurling Splendour (2009), Bertola has added pattern to bland gallery walls, adding dust and ashes to a pristine wall as if layering history onto the surface. In previous works including After the Fact (2006), the pattern appears in the interstitial spaces between dust that has been brushed aside.
These two approaches mirror dust’s capacity to signify both presence and absence. Both dust and ashes are residues of things that once were, but at the same time, reveal that a place has been unoccupied and untended for a significant time. Michael Marder (2016, p. 35) writes that dust is evidence that the current “nothing” was once “something”. In the abandoned domestic spaces that are the focus of some of Bertola’s works, thick dust is at once evidence that a room was once occupied, and evidence that it is occupied no more. Working with ash, Bertola makes even more explicit references to things that have been lost. Ash, perhaps even more so than dust, is evidence of something that has been, and so, ash is an embodiment of loss. Painting in ash, Bertola invites us to imagine a time in the past when this dust had another form.
As she clears away the dust to create works such as After the Fact, Bertola’s process refers to “servitude and the rituals of cleaning”. Her work can become a kind of meditation on the “endless cycle of labour within a domestic environment”. Since dust is primarily made from human cells, dusting is a process of eliminating traces of ourselves from our environment. Bertola describes covering traces of her own identity during the creation of After the Fact, sweeping away her own footprints as she worked from one side of the room to the other, swirling dust so that the emerging pattern destroyed any evidence that her feet had trod on the floor.
In Everything and Nothing (2007), and for her current exhibition for UHArts, Bertola brings what she has learned from old and abandoned spaces back into the white space of a gallery. In Everything and Nothing, she invites us to look into the past of the V&A, to a time when its walls were lined with profusely patterned William Morris wallpaper. Painting in glue-sealed dust she recreates Morris’ pattern, as if new shoots have forced their way through the layers of white paint, not only spreading across the wall but also, in three-dimensions, sprouting out into the gallery space. In this way, Bertola does more than create an image of things that have been lost. Instead, she makes them real, as if they are fighting to reclaim the space that once belonged to them.
In the current In and Out of Sight exhibition, other artists have also explored ways of referencing things that are absent. Jennifer Douglas’ large canvases are “marked upon” as if they have been torn from a once inhabited space. Bertola’s work shares a space with Cath Campbell’s tar-paper shack. Here, in Black Maria Mother Song (2017), there is another attempt to bring back something that has been lost, and to tell stories of lost generations through the spaces that they have left behind. Campbell’s reproduction of the kind of shack built- and lived-in by dust-bowl migrants brings their stories back to life, as if it is embedded in her tar-paper walls just as it is embedded in the dust and ashes of Catherine Bertola’s work.
Campbell’s film, There will Always be Cowboys (2016), which plays in the adjoining room, pieces together the route journeyed by these migrants through found YouTube footage. The film illustrates how something that has been lost may be revived through artefacts that did not exist at the time. Although there is no footage of the journeys taken by dust-bowl migrants, those journeys can be brought to life, via the journeys of other people, and the appropriated recordings that they have made of their own experiences. The kind of archaeology practiced by Campbell draws parallels between now and then, finding similarities between the journeys of migrants, tourists and other travelers, past and present.
Black Maria Mother Song, 2017 (left), and There will Always be Cowboys, 2016 (right).
Marder, M. (2016), Dust, London: Bloomsbury.