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Around the galleries

The fictional realities of Jamie Shovlin

— November 2011

Associated media

Jamie Shovlin, The Innocents Abroad, 2011

‘Jamie Shovlin: Thy Will Be Done’

Rosalind Ormiston visits an intriguing show at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle

What can a 19th-century man-trap, a collection of picture frames, a Mother’s Union Banner from Upperby and, an oral archive of Britain’s nuclear missile programme, Blue Streak, have in common? The answer lies in the many artefacts discovered by the British artist Jamie Shovlin in the storerooms of Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery. They have resurfaced in the Gallery space to complement Shovlin’s new and existing artworks on display in the exhibition: ‘Jamie Shovlin: Thy Will Be Done’.

The title, Thy Will Be Done, is taken from the text on one particular item he found, a 9 x 11cm ‘Mourning Card’, dated 1930–9, one of five sent locally to a ‘Mrs Holmes of Hethersgill’ in the 1930s and donated to Tullie House in 1994. But Shovlin purposely gives no insight into why he has chosen this or any of his collection of objects; he plans no talks or lectures during the exhibition. It is for the visitor to reflect and draw conclusions.

Shovlin includes pieces that might have languished indefinitely in storage. We find ‘Alexander Thomson Deceased’ Deeds Box, c.1920, a drawer full of dead Coleoptra beetle specimens and, a ceramic ‘Holborn Foster Mother’, made by Holborn Co., London  c. 1910, designed to be filled with milk to feed nine motherless piglets. A vast ‘Atlantic Blue-fin Tuna in storage’, is labelled ‘Male, stranded in Silloth, 24 February 1896; donated by the Rev. H.A.Macpherson’. The tuna is not under a cloth cover (the catalogue entry – real or fictitious – reveals why the fish cannot be viewed).

These diverse and intriguing choices are focal references in Shovlin’s role as curator, for investigating memory and subjectivity through objects, texts, audio and film. One group, ‘Frames in storage’, easily reveals a past history in the numbers and labels on picture frames that refer to the artworks they once held. They stand together, faces to the wall, awaiting recall. Others, such as the inclusion of the ‘Blue Streak’ oral archive is a reminder of Britain’s intention, in the mid 1950s, to develop nuclear missiles, testing the ‘Blue Streak’ at Spadeadam Waste, near Gilsland, Cumbria. That programme was cancelled in the 1960s but the point is made that Cumbria is vulnerable; the go-ahead may now be given for a nuclear waste depository in the County.

Noted for his meticulous research, Jamie Shovlin has spent two years sourcing artefacts from the museum’s archives specifically for this major exhibition. They interact with his new works, such as  Octavian (Costume 3)  (2011) and  La Recolta dei Fiori Selvatici (Italian Due Foglio)  (2010–11). And consider  The Innocents Abroad  (2011), a map of the world revealing ‘the home towns and aspirations of Playboy models’. It provokes thought on how we map and classify the world. Earlier works include the sculpture  Untitled (Hero/Slave)  (2007), the film  Lustfaust Live in Berlin, 13 September 2007  (2009), the Hiker Meat Script  (2009–10); and  Echoes Across History  (2009). This is a cleanly drawn pastel of two clocks, one showing the time 7.04, the American method of dating 4 July; and the other clock at 8.16, the time that Shovlin states that he finished the drawing – all add complexity to reality and fiction in the artist’s work.

Shovlin has a global reputation for constructing works that take the form of fictional archives.  The Naomi V Jelish Archive  (2004) brought him international acclaim. On display in this exhibition, it explores the life of a 13-year-old prodigy who went missing in 1991 in uncertain circumstances. The tragedy of her life is meticulously reconstructed through school reports, newspaper cuttings, diary entries, jottings, notebooks, drawings, and memories of her. Another collection informs  Happily Divided  (2009), where two stacks of 48 vinyl LP records lean on each other for support. The records are said to have been owned by Shovlin’s parents and divided up when they separated (the catalogue dates this event as 1989). Nearby, two parallel DVD recordings ... Are you throwing away the time?  (2007) show the couple individually discussing their choice of records and memories of them. The LPs stacked on the Gallery floor – and flicked through by curious visitors – are listed in the catalogue. Recording artists such as the Eagles, the Beach Boys, Barry Manilow, Bruce Hornsby, Donna Summer and Meatloaf will recall near-distant memories for many visitors too.

For the duration of the exhibition Tullie House curators – including Fiona Venables, Tullie House curator and the exhibition’s organizer – may add to or change the displays to consider different interpretations of objects, focusing on the representation of past and present cultures.  If this is not mixing the perceived ideas of what an exhibition is, the free catalogue – a work of art in itself – contains a disclaimer that ‘the stories depicted in this exhibition are fictitious [...]’. The entries are written by a variety of people: Shovlin himself, Tullie House staff and University of Cumbria students. The texts range from brief captions to a page of historical facts, real and imagined. The entry for ‘Man Trap’ is titled ‘How to catch a Human in a Man-Trap (using Wikipedia)’. In this exhibition Jamie Shovlin leaves it to the viewer to enjoy the experience of separating truth from fiction, reality from invention.


Rosalind Ormiston
Independent art historian

Media credit: © Jamie Shovlin. Courtesy of the Artist and Haunch of Venison, London

Background info

Jamie Shovlin (b.1978) graduated from the Royal College of Art, London in 2003.
He is a London-based artist, represented by the Haunch of Venison gallery, London.

Jamie Shovlin first exhibited at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, Cumbria in 2005, in a group exhibition, After the Fact.

Solo exhibitions in 2011 include Thy Will Be Done, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, UK; A Film by Jesus Rinzoli, Horton Gallery, New York, USA; Three (and a Half) Films with Many Shared Characters, Unosunove, Rome, Italy; Jesus Rinzoli’s Hiker Meat, IBID Projects, London, UK.

Performances in 2011 of Hiker Meat (Rough Cut), at Milton Keyes Gallery, Milton Keynes, UK; and, at Teatro Eliso, Rome, Italy.

Editor's notes

‘Jamie Shovlin: Thy Will Be Done’ is at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Castle Street, Carlisle, Cumbria, CA3 8TP until 27 November 2011

Opening Times
10 a.m.–4 p.m. Monday–Saturday; 12 p.m.–4 p.m. Sunday
A series of talks, presented as a game of ‘Chinese Whispers’, will take place at 2 p.m. every Saturday throughout the exhibition. Admission is free.
Exhibition supported by the Henry Moore Foundation.

Jamie Shovlin is showing new work at Haunch of Venison, London, April/May 2012. See Our News March 2012

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