Family Geology by Jan Fairbairn-Edwards consists of multiple related works to create the visual narrative of her Victorian era family’s emigration from the Norfolk fens to Australia. One of the central characters is her great aunt Sarah, who is the focus of the work Stratification of Sarah shown below.Symbolically, the six hanging “chapters” of Sarah’s journey move from the dun colors of the English fens to the hotter colors of Australia. The artist uses sheets of paper handmade from plants native to the Norfolk fens as well as traditional clothing fabric. The “geological” layers of the journey’s story are reflected in the stratified sheets that diminish in size from back to front. The weathered documents appearing in each hanging are copies of found items from the family’s possessions or allusive artifacts, such as the article about Alice, “Jumbo’s widow“.
Alice was the African elephant being shipped aboard the HMSS Egyptian Monarch to join P.T. Barnum’s Jumbo in the US. Also on board the Monarch was Sarah, 10 years old when she embarked for the first sea leg of the journey to Australia. In another work in Family Geology called “Dear Mama”, the artist has invented a series of letters from Sarah, several of which tell of Sarah’s searching the ship for Alice.The other related works feature only fens-originated material, with the exception of a few pieces whose spines are branches of eucalyptus trees. Those spines and the hot Australian colors are the main physical manifestation of the Australian destination. As seen below, the stamps from the officialdom of the empire on which the sun never set provide another of the numerous unifying threads in the narrative. The artist suggested that I call this an installation. It is, but with the difference that there is this multi-threaded, narrative unity across and among the individual works that I have not noticed before in other installations. That unity makes me stumble a bit over the fact that the constituent works are purchasable individually, which casts the “installation” in something of a contrasting light. The work as a whole is one of remembrance and restoration. Doesn’t the removal of pieces of Family Geology undermine that?
Remember the 2014 installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red created by artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper at the Tower of London: 888,246 ceramic poppies progressively filling the Tower’s famous moat between 17 July and 11 November? Each red bloom represented a British military fatality in the First World War. The installation as installation resides only in the memories of its viewers and can be experienced only partially in photos, video clips or the website. The poppies sold individually over the web (I am one of the lucky owners of one of them). When I look at this single ceramic poppy, sometimes there is a failure of metonymic power – the ability of the part to stand for the whole. Other times, it starts the image of a cascade of blood from a stone window into a moat of red. And so, what of a single work plucked from Family Geology?
The full impact of the installation – a family speaking to one another in and across time, from across seas and continents – something on which the viewer eavesdrops – rises like the musk from the back of an inherited chest’s bottom drawer full of old letters, curled newspaper clippings, fading photographs, pressed leaves and flowers. At first, you think it is the volume of this manufactured memorabilia and their semi-invented, semi-found connectedness that is the source of that impact. But then you pick up William’s Story. The texture of its papers, the rough, dry sound of the leaves turning and the ash that flakes to the table from their edges take you deep into that musk through the one work.
You can sift through the several pieces of Fairbairn-Edwards’ Family Geology, and some will take you to the same place on their own, others lean much more on the presence of the installation. The thought of taking away from the whole one of its stronger parts leaves me hoping for an institutional white knight to purchase the “installation”. Yet the scent of William’s Story on some visitor’s fingers is probably making him or her reach for a checkbook or credit card right now.
See also Turn the Page 2015, where Family Geology had its debut and was one of the eight finalists.
Family Geology will next be on show at Art & Papiers, Vézénobres (Gard), France, this month (June 2015).