“The Lake District isn’t real,” artist Tracey Eastham remarked as we sat talking, “it’s a myth.” At first, all I could do was blink. Did she need me to google it for her? Pull out a map? But as the conversation continued, I began to understand. Eastham has long been fascinated by the somewhat spurious, slippery and now especially topical subject of national identity. Home of Wordsworth, rolling dales, wandering sheep, wild flowers and dry stone walls; the Lakes, she argued, is conceived of by many as a kind of symbol of quintessential ‘Englishness’, tied up in a deep sense of pride. But when we visit, do we truly experience a sanctified realm of pure nature and poetry, emblematic of this country? Or do we simply allow ourselves to indulge, briefly, in the romanticising cultural dialogue that has grown up around this area of land? In truth, most of the park is privately owned and carefully managed, much of the natural ecology and landscape has been dramatically altered by human activity, and many of the Lake Poets themselves grew disillusioned by the arrival of manufacturing, railway lines and tourism.
Eastham’s interest in the degree to which we identify with and get swept up in our national symbols has run throughout her practice in many forms. Yet after first setting out as a painter and then making collages, her participation in PAPER’s Tracing PAPER mentor scheme in 2015 has since led her to begin exploring the theme primarily through intricate paper silhouettes. She creates these from the traced outlines of images she considers to be traditional ‘English’ tropes, such as of ruin, Arthurian legend, flags, forests, abbeys, stately homes and wild beasts; using her blade to recast each in the same gold craft paper. The gold is very significant, Eastham explained, as for her, not only is it the colour of history and heraldry, but also of gold gilding: the embellishment and aggrandisement of what is no longer. Myth creation. Her choices of presentation – exhibiting a whole series of works inside bell jars, for example – feeds into this narrative further. The anachronistic form of display carries associations of Victorian taxidermy, whereby exotic plants and wild animals were converted into lifeless, museological exhibits, only to be wondered at and imagined into being from behind glass as near myths in themselves. Our inherited stock of national symbols functions in a comparable way; dependent upon a similar act of investment to bring each to life.
More recently Eastham has also begun exhibiting her paper cut-outs in heaps and piles, each precarious structure suggesting a state of near or partial collapse. She was drawn in this direction, she explains, not only as a move towards more sculptural forms of making (the result being neither quite 2D or 3D), but also for the strange shadows that these group assemblages cast. The effect lends an almost animated quality to the work, blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s not – just as myth sits somewhere between the two. Indeed, while Eastham is interested in deconstructing national identity as fiction, by the same token, she is equally engaged with the strength of people’s connection with it; the real importance it plays for many. To draw upon this binary element is of course particularly pertinent to now, at a time when globalisation is rendering country borders and local specificity increasingly obsolete, whilst a surge of nationalism and isolationist policy is spreading across the globe.
Which brings us to Eastham’s most recent body of work, Babel, which is to be exhibited at PAPER from 25 February to 1 April. Made up of several large-scale wall pieces, a one-off artist book creation and several other new works (including her most ambitious cut out assemblage to date), the show explores the story of the Tower of Babel – an etiological myth with the subject of nationhood at its heart. According to the traditional Biblical account, God punished a united humanity for their pride in attempting to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven and make a name for themselves, “lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth”. To suppress their challenge, He confounded their shared language with the confusion of tongues – separating them from one another into different cultures. While expanding her treatment of national identity to a more universal scale, Eastham’s interest in the tale also taps into a new set of very timely questions concerning humanity’s contrasting set of basic impulses; both towards cohesion and separation, belonging and individualism, difference and unity. Revisiting Babel through Eastham’s creative lens, we are left asking where our desire for national identity originates from? What role it plays or function it serves? And finally, what place it will have in the shaping of our future? From the midst of ruin and legend emerges a very contemporary look at the world.
Babel runs from 25 February to 1 April 2017, with a free private view on 23 February 6pm – 9pm.
Visit Tracey Eastham’s website at www.traceyeastham.co.uk.
Words by Sara Jaspan