EVENT REVIEW: Lisa Matthews and Melanie Ashby: A Year in Beadnell

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Sunday 11 October
Empty Shop

Review by Jazmine Linklater

The room is full and silent as we attentively watch the image on screen seem to grow animate. In fact the grass, sand, sea and horizon remain static, but are imbued with life through the sound of waves breaking on the shore, birds’ cries, breezy gusts of wind. Almost imperceptibly, the photograph has morphed into another – a pinker, bronzed version of before. A date quietly asserts itself in the top left corner: a March sunrise, each number morphing into the next as the days pass. A small harbour comes into view, a mismatched fishing fleet frames an unfinished, or abandoned building, now, a river, reflecting a sky that’s ready to break.

The scene is Beadnell on the Northumberland coast, where artists Lisa Matthews and Melanie Ashby are spending eight weeks in residence over the course of 2015. Their stays are planned to coincide with the equinoxes and solstices of the year, with one stint left to come. The project manifests as a cross-disciplinary archive of image, text, sound and performance.

‘My Uncle Peter was a seabird’, Ashby reads. The project was initially inspired by his mariner’s journal and the late American marine biologist Rachel Carson’s work. One of the aim’s of the project, as stated on the website, is “to honour and continue Carson’s ambition, which was to use her writing and research to inspire and install ‘a sense of wonder’ in the natural world around us”. A Year in Beadnell seeks to celebrate this part of the English coast, in close, poetic detail.

We are treated to Matthews’ poem, ’10 Grey Skies [Working Title]’; sonic poems accompanied with startling landscape photography; a poetic sequence read by visiting artist Jo Colley that moves from ‘curated seaweed’ to a ‘concrete sky’. There’s a slideshow of local plants while Ashby lists the names they’ve adopted in the surrounding vernacular, and excerpts from their own journal detailing ‘the trickery of flotsam’. A rotten fish-corpse is explained; “sometimes it doesn’t pay to look at death that close up”. Below the window in Empty Shop there’s even a ‘nature table’ covered with shells, stones, seaweed and full glasses carrying the ephemeral, floating membranes of underwater flora.

Before the event is up we’re invited to participate in a ‘spontaneous voice installation’ (“so spontaneous,” Matthews jokes, “that it’s got its own slide”). A microphone is set up in the middle of the room and a letter of Carson’s passed around, split into eighteen sections. I am section ten: “But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return.”

“September 10, 1963,” someone begins. The letter travels around the room, transferring from one seat to next, across the difference between the timbre of this voice and that, the motion of the stresses on particular words. It flows much like water, and Ashby and Matthews are beaming by the time we reach “Rachel”. We’re assured that ‘something’ will happen to the recording, and after seeing what we have I think the whole audience trusts it will be something interesting.

A Year in Beadnell has, without a doubt, been one of the highlights this weekend at Durham Book Festival. An aesthetic, poetic and touching feast that I’m glad to say still has more to come. I will be following their development online through their many platforms, and I sincerely hope you will too.

Jazmine Linklater is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.

Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.