Matthew Bowman/ Elaine Tribley

Mind your Head: On Speculative Research for the Public in Elaine Tribley’s work

by Matthew Bowman

(Excerpt from the Market Project book- find out how to buy it and read all the commissioned texts in full here.)

MESOPOTAMIA: ‘The Land Between Two Rivers’, (2010) is a series of cut vinyl works on mountboard produced by Elaine Tribley that depict objects and signs found in urban locations; the objects depicted are mostly manmade, while a few are natural, and each work uses a simple composition that sets the object – largely presented using bold, black lines and shapes – against a ground of one, occasionally two, colours. Some of the works incorporate text – naming particular places, road names, directions – copied from existing signs which serve to remind us that the street is a public space not merely to be traversed but also read.

Accompanying these works, which are to be both seen and read, simultaneously representations of signs and signs, is a text that explains what we see here are images derived from a particular area of Chelmsford, Essex located between two rivers: the Can and the Chelmer. The significance of this location is not so much geographical, however, but more rooted in its parodic reinvention of the public sphere. As the text remarks: “According to local records dating back to 1830, whenever parliamentary elections were held, a local charade called the ‘Mesopotamia Elections’ took place on the island. Two candidates were chosen and voted on after making witty speeches, the losing candidate was then ducked in the river.”(i) Here, the banks of the river are determined as the border of the democratic (counter-)space public sphere; being dunked into its waters akin to temporary expulsion.(ii) The eye-catching design of the Mesopotamia works and the visual snippets of the modern world they show, then, are traces of a past that is visible and invisible. Walking down streets, the past is almost perceptible if one possesses the requisite historical knowledge or psychogeographic empathy. Tribley, through a process of research and artistic visualization, brings forth the past, whether it is real or imagined.

Matthew Bowman is an art theorist, critic, and curator. He is a lecturer at Colchester School of Art, and Head Librarian within the Department of Art History and Theory in the School of Philosophy and Art History at the University of Essex.

In 2008 he completed his PhD at the University of Essex with a dissertation on the October journal and concepts of medium specificity. He has curated exhibitions in England and Austria, and published numerous essays, including ‘The New Critical Historians of Art?’ in James Elkins and Michael Newman (ed.), The State of Art Criticism (2008), with forthcoming essays on Martin Heidegger and Rosalind Krauss. His research conjoins theoretical, philosophical, and historical approaches to the study of art. At present he is researching collaborative art practice, authenticity in its personal-social dimension, materiality, and postfordist society.


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