Blog review by Claire Pickard for NWR: New Welsh Review/ Reader...
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Jenny Hall’s Hollow at Aberystwyth Arts Centre
Tucked away right at the end of this exhibition is a tiny cross-sectional drawing of a copper mine in Finland. The drawing is anonymous, but is dated 1826. It is slight, delicate and also rather strange. Jenny Hall, the creator of the installation ‘Hollow’, came across this drawing in 2013, during a winter residency in Finland. Little information was available about the image’s origin. No other plans of the Orijärvi mine existed and there was no way of ascertaining whether or not the drawing was an accurate representation of the site. Although the piece was presumably the work of a draughtsman and had a practical purpose, there is also something fantastical about it. The disjunction between the neat, contained buildings above and the unfamiliar, cavernous shapes beneath disorientates and confuses the viewer.
Hall was captivated by this image and began reproducing some of its shapes and forms in her own drawings and models. The question that preoccupied her was how she could ‘make visible the idea that a mine is a mirror of the culture above ground that had blossomed in its wake.’ The idea of the displacements inherent in mining merged with a broader fascination with ‘the equal and opposite actions of excavation and construction’. As Hall observes, human beings are obsessed with displacement. As children we dig and build, first with whatever comes to hand, then with games such as Lego and Minecraft. These urges form the ‘defining act of creativity’. Hollow’ emerged from Hall’s exploration of such displacement and from her attempt to discover ‘what is left in the emptiness’ it creates.
The installation itself, designed to resemble a mine, is composed of a large number of cardboard boxes that are held together by magnets. Its floor is mirrored, reflecting the construction above and adding a further illusion of depth. At the centre is the ‘hollow’ – an empty space through which the public can move. Surrounding this central construction are a number of loose boxes representing ‘an equal and opposite amount of extracted “ore”.’ Viewers are invited to move these around and to build, or dismantle, structures with them – essentially to recover the element of ‘play’ that is one of the driving forces behind the work.
What is striking is how cleverly ‘Hollow’ captures the internal dynamic of the 1826 drawing from which it originated. At first glance, the two creations could hardly be more different – in scale, in form and in execution. Yet, through the imaginative playfulness of Hall’s installation, through its use of light and mirroring, the straight lines of its boxes are able to convey the same elements as the cross-sectional drawing, in terms of the fantastic and the organic. The ‘beautiful underground hollow’ of the drawing is reimagined in a contemporary form – one that is participatory rather than simply an object of observation. The functionality of a brown box is transformed into something engaging; as viewers, we turn it into an object of our imagination, just as a child does with a den, or as the anonymous draughtsman did with his drawing. We are encouraged to impose our own meanings on the piece, just as we are encouraged to refashion its form. And we interact with the installation, taking from it what we will, just as, Hall suggests, we have always taken from the earth in order to construct.
‘Hollow’ allows us to consider these ideas on whatever level we chose – the piece does indeed make us think of play and creativity, but also potentially of exploitation, both of people and of land. The installation’s emphasis on participation also inevitably raises the related idea of responsibility. Moving on from the starting point of the anonymous drawing from two centuries ago, ‘Hollow’ does not simply show us that when we make something, we usually displace something else. It invites us to think about the consequences of that displacement and to consider our own role within it.
Claire Pickard is a writer and critic based north of Aberystwyth.