Coal keeps the hearth warm, tea keeps the heart warm. Coal fuels the engines, tea fuels the workers.
This work has two strands, one sculptural and one wall based, to me they are not separate strands of my practice but are linked. They work together because they explore similar themes, everyday existence, time, work and class.
The wall based pieces are mono prints; a net curtain acts as a mask to create the image. I associate net or lace curtains with the working class. I recall walking along the terraced streets of my youth; nearly every window had their net curtains and judging by my ad-hoc survey from the bus they are still popular today. The pigment is provided by ordinary house coal which I crush with a hammer and grind down with a pestle and mortar. It is important that it is ground to a fine dust but with the grains of coal still evident, the coal must retain an element of ‘coalness’ about it beyond colour.
It takes time and effort to create a small amount of coal dust. I like this physical element, I get tired and dirty, dust gets up my nose and it takes me back to my childhood. I mix the dust with acrylic medium to make a thick paste which I use in a mono printing process.
Coal is a commodity, it fuelled the industrial revolution, it had to be extracted from the ground and there was a heavy cost in human health, quality of life and pollution. I call this piece Fossil, because coal is a fossilized mineral it seems to freeze time here. Also the word fossil can refer to something that has outlived its usefulness – much like coal communities have.
Another commodity, tea, is the central component of the sculptural piece. Tea was a luxury commodity, initially imported from China, it was reserved for the ruling classes like many exotic spices. Now I associate tea drinking primarily as a working class ritual, see for instance Jeremy Deller’s ‘Valerie’s Snack Bar’ which celebrates this tradition. This began when mill workers were allowed to drink tea when the mill owners realised it has restorative properties, a means of improving productivity.
“…the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only in so far as the interests of the ruling class requires it” – Engels & Marx in The Communist Manifesto
Tea production has a history of exploitation, even today tea workers are routinely paid wages below subsistence levels; War on Want reported 7p/hour in 2010.
A series of plain jute (another commodity) sacks filled with loose leaf tea is suspended on a length of rope. The tea is allowed to drain out slowly onto the floor. The plump, vital, sack drains to a flaccid husk, its life force drained away. This is intentional because I consider the tea drinking routine as a chronometer of life. It came to me whilst visiting my mum in hospital, tea comes along at regular intervals it marks the passing of the hour, the day, life.
Work is an integral part of this piece; to make it work someone has to go through the periodic ritual of starting a new sack flowing when the previous one has drained. This performance is part of the work, as is the fact that the piece expires at the end of the day when all the tea has flowed away. Someone must sweep up the tea and recharge the sacks for a new day.
I like the thought that if someone wants to exhibit this work they would have to commit to work at it; just like life each new day starts with a routine and it includes tea and mundane activity. I call this work ‘To the End’ because it reflects the daily mundane nature of life’s inexorable passage to the inevitable.
These two pieces have become one. I have grouped the together to reflect the windows of the old mill buildings that dominated working class communities. The industrial feel connects with the industrial nature of jute sacks and rope. Each element now combines the domestic with the industrial – work place windows with lace curtains – sacks with tea and the aroma of home.
This mixing represents the way working class communities were often dominated by the industries they grew up around, work and everyday existence permanently intertwined. The heaps of tea that gradually grow as the tea flows represents the slag heaps of my home town which had grown over generations, time locking-in the coal existence into the community’s collective memory, engrained within each member.