On Illness

On Illness is at St Bart’s Community Centre East Ham until 2 December 2019.

19-29 November 2019 (not Sundays): On Sickness. This installation by mid-career conceptual artist Alison Marchant interrogates Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary to create a new publication focussing on Woolf’s writing about sickness and creativity and reclaim Woolf as a Disabled artist. Meet the Artist Friday 29 November 6-8pm. St Bart’s Community Centre. FREE. All welcome.

Alison Marchant explains more about the work to Artistic Director Dr Ju Gosling

JG: What is A Writer’s Diary?

Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary was first published in 1953 by The Hogarth Press, and was carefully edited and printed by her husband Leonard Woolf from twenty-six volumes of her handwritten diaries. The publication excluded entries which Leonard Woolf considered “too personal to be published as a whole”, and covers some twenty years of entries that include much self-reflexive writing. The book is composed of writing exercises, comments on books Virginia Woolf read, accounts of people, and scenes which she used as material for her novels, as well as notes “communing with herself’’ on books she was writing, together with accounts of her state of mind at the time of her writing the diary.

The front of the original copy of A Writer’s Diary as it is now.

JG: And what is your Writer’s / Diary?

AM: Virginia wrote during “her calm periods” between “regular bouts of mental illness” and it is likely that her illness both hindered and fuelled her creativity and productivity. In her diary she makes notes about her depression preventing her working, though on other occasions she notes writing at considerable speed. I have removed all references to characterisation to leave just Woolf’s text transcribing her inner spontaneous thoughts on reading and writing, which takes her work into another space — that of Conceptual writing as art in the 21st century. The slash at the centre of the title of the new publication refers to the splicing of analogue film and audio tape, as Virginia Woolf’s diary is edited like a cut-up text.

This action of editing/redaction focuses on some of the reasons why Virginia Woolf’s “conceptual” writing and her stream of consciousness approach was and still is so poignant, particularly to contemporary feminist artists and creative practitioners today. Within Writers/Diary Woolf’s descriptions of her mood, in the face of the prolific durational aspect to her writing – the ups and the downs – gives a sense of a live work which takes the reader directly into Woolf’s artistic processes and into her practice of writing as a ‘live’ or performative work, leaving a psychological depiction of artistic production within it. This then becomes a diary which is self-referencing and refers to the art of its making. This is where my edits focus on the extracts where Woolf’s work traverses time and predates Conceptual art of the 1960s onwards – redacted to emphasise this aspect.

JG: Tell me how the exhibition is staged?

AM: As well as the new publication the piece includes my own battered copy of A Writers Diary which has been radically transformed by the process of redaction as drawing. Using 2B pencils and graphite, the text was blocked out so that attention is focused on the words which remain visible and the dark marks the pencil makes on the pages. This process not only questions the reverie of the printed word, it brings to the fore an active reading in which the process is one of deconstruction rather than destruction. Through these actions I create a mirror image of a ghost-writer, re-scribbling and re-tracing a new version of the text.

My copy of Woolf’s book is situated on a Perspex plinth inside a small Perspex case within the installation. At page 70, and pages 140, 142, 216, 270, 310, and 338 the book has become so fragile through reading, redacting and photocopying that the spine has broken. The battered book denotes the reader’s/artist’s presence and actions. I paper the gallery walls with colour photocopies of the yellowed pages, redrawn, where each page of the book is opened up to reveal the dark beauty of the pencil marks, eradicating but also revealing and reframing the remaining text, which is more pronounced on yellowed pages where, over time, some of the graphite markings on the original book have partly rubbed away, revealing fragments of words between the lines.

The low-tech process of colour photocopying the pages has acted like a small printing press in a studio – a room of my own. As I turned the pages of the book during the photocopying process the thickness of each side exposed more light, letting it seep through the copier cover and changing the tone of the background of the photocopied sheets. The lens of the photocopier went in and out of focus, obscuring some of the text. I allowed errors to emerge in the photocopy process, odd imperfections in the repetitive image making the sheets look like conceptual drawing.

The wallpapered installation creates a huge area of texture where the edits can be cross-referenced to from this book by page number and date against the overall wall installation. The installation is a patchwork of pages that sit like film-stills – the remains of the process of making: shadowing, tracing, retracing, ghost-writing. In part the blackened pages mimic Woolf’s mood, somewhat in the way the Rothko room at Tate Britain supposedly echoes that of Mark Rothko, and therefore seems to act as a spontaneous portrait of a great women writer.

St Bart’s Community Centre, 292b Barking Road, East Ham E6 3BA. Nearest station East Ham (not accessible, but there are direct buses from Canning Town station). Bus routes include: 5 and 115. Street parking for Blue Badge users only.