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Cathy Wilkes at The Hunterian (EXHIBITION REVIEW)

In Cathy Wilkes’ most recent exhibition, we are transported from The Hunterian in Glasgow to 1970s Belfast – from a gallery to a living room.

Precarity of human experience

The show, commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, deals with experiences of violence in domestic settings, actioned towards individuals and families rather than in general, sweeping battles. Combining archival material, painting, and sculpture, Wilkes draws on her own Northern Irish childhood to explore the precarity of human experience whilst under siege.

Standing frozen in an infinitesimally small yet life-changing moment, is a white paper cast of Emma Groves. She is face to face with a gun, with red patchwork blooming over her face. In 1971, Groves was blinded in both eyes after being shot by British Army
soldiers as they carried out a search near her home. After refusing to turn off a Nationalist song playing out of her window, she was subject to open fire as she stood in her living room. Wilkes captures that exact moment in her handcrafted model of Groves, who later went on to advocate against the use of rubber bullets (like the ones used against her that day).

In the aftermath of the moment

Dominic Paterson, Curator of Contemporary Art at The Hunterian, describes the feeling that we are simultaneously in the aftermath of the moment, and in the moment itself, as a ‘single mark in space from which everything else grows’.

We are invited to interrogate the moment that Groves was shot as a mark of the pervasiveness of war – it seeps into our homes, our living rooms, our closed spaces. This feeling runs through the exhibition, as domestic items sit on the peripheries; a cloth bag, a child’s top, a piece of clothing torn and pinned onto canvas.

According to Paterson, these stand ‘for bodies or lives, transformed, but also for gestures of care, of picking up your children’s things from the floor’. Much of Wilkes’ work has dealt with themes of empathy, focusing on the minute yet continuous movements that drive domestic life – the opening of a tin can, the clothes placed carefully on a baby doll.

Flashes of life

Flashes of life are laid out for us to inspect, and while this exhibition may not have been produced using the same ordering and reordering that Wilkes has previously adopted, the spontaneity of these pieces speaks to the out-of-the-ordinary nature of war. Wilkes’ paintings are made using short, sharp gestures and paint-covered string.

Her pieces still bear the marks of her hands, her touch in the paint and manipulation of material. Nothing is titled, and descriptions are absent, so we are left to glean meaning by ourselves, wandering the homescape as we please.

As we move through the gallery, we are confronted by archival material from Wilkes’ own collection and various libraries, allowing us to piece together an image of life at this time. A copy of Socialist Woman places Groves front and centre, whilst a pamphlet from the Belfast Youth Conference encourages young people not to be discouraged by the use of plastic bullets on the streets, and to continue to show solidarity with those imprisoned due to protest. In stark contrast, we see a handwritten shopping list – illustrating the commonality of each of these objects, all pieces of paper that would have often littered homes.

Violence at a new pace

Despite being commissioned around three years ago, the exhibition speaks fluently with today’s political landscape. In an age where technology forces us to continually witness the effect of war on civilians, Wilkes has perhaps filled the gaps of the past and has brought us close to moments that were otherwise hidden, though is still speaking in a language that we understand.

Whether continuing foreign conflict seems to dull or enhance this work is in contention, but one cannot deny that in the barrage of information we are subject to today, Wilkes’ ability to pinpoint one tiny moment – a bullet leaving a gun – allows for us to contemplate past and present violence at a new pace.

The show runs from 7th June till 29th September, coinciding with the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, and is available to view at The Hunterian Art Gallery.

Photo Credit: Hunterian Art Gallery

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