Phil Owen responds to Kathryn Ashill’s project, June 2013Posted: June 24, 2013
Let me share with you my experience of a recent performance by the artist Kathryn Ashill. I had arrived at the crowded basement gallery space some time before, and was waiting for an opportunity to get into a separate tented area, set out to resemble a fairground fortune teller’s tent. I was aware that I wasn’t entirely sure of how to approach the situation. Kathryn, who was inside the tent, is a very good friend of mine, whom I was looking forward to catching up with. She was also mid-way in to a piece devised for one audience member at a time. I didn’t want to disrespect the conventions that she had set up, but I didn’t want to pre-empt them either. Once I knew the tent was empty, I pushed through the purple curtain and made my greeting. We quickly established a ‘normal’ conversation, but quite soon she made it clear that we were going to shift our interaction into encompassing the pre-determined exchanges of the performance. I was very impressed by the way in which she did this – a subtle but firm switch in atmosphere. We read each other’s palms, using a printed palmistry guide sheet augmented by Kathryn’s own knowledge and experience. There was no pressure to accept the resulting guidance, in the same way that there was no pressure to follow a script. Rather, the piece seemed to exist as a relatively indefinable sense of delineated exchange. Some of what our palms apparently indicated had a certain poignancy, since they rang true, and since we both knew they rang true for each other. The experience was something between a conversation, a folkloristic ritual, and a confession.
Many of Kathryn’s past projects have focussed on the commemoration of historical characters or scenarios. Consequently, I do not find it surprising that she should have chosen fortune telling as her most recent subject of artistic enquiry – since what is fortune telling, but a mirroring of the way we continually tell ourselves stories about the past as a benchmark to understand ourselves within the present? I am particularly interested in the unlikely parallels between her work and the medieval Welsh bardic tradition: within this poets were employed by aristocratic patrons to praise their ancestral lineage, to justify claims to power through emphasising hereditary connections (however tenuous) to noble forbears; the transmission of prophetic poetry (canu brud) was another aspect of their role. While her commitment to the Welsh language is certainly very strong, her frame of reference is generally more cheap and cheerful than courtly (though she sees the dignity as well as the escapism in things often dismissed by cultural critics for being populist or sentimental). Nevertheless, Kathryn’s work resonates strongly with the bards’ function within a society that understood the cohesive power of narrative, whether it concerned the past or the future, to its identity.
Contemporary culture tends to devalue the role of myth, while insisting, unrealistically, on the inviolable truth of its own stories (news reporting, political rhetoric, advertising, not to mention the popular presentation of science). Instead, in this project, Kathryn Ashill highlights an on-going manifestation of the need for people to take solace in a predicted version of events, whether or not they really, truly, believe in them. The psychic readings she has commissioned are shared with us, their discrepancies and contradictions undermining their claims to accuracy. They are not discounted however, Kathryn’s interest goes beyond whether or not the predictions will come true, to encompass the reasons why people want to be told. The specialness of being spoken to in confidence and acceptance; the reassurance of being presented with a certainty – they are presented as a quite unique format for intimate exchange within an isolating society that Kathryn has drawn on, both as a precedent for one-one performances, and then as an informing quality that feeds out into the developing project more broadly.