Labern’s site specific sculpture, Till Island, Pirate Ship focused on the idea of Woolworths having been a place that many people held historically as one of the only stores on the ‘high street’ with a kind of national communal shared memory, a place of meeting one’s own familial history coming back at you, and all this within the cultural specificity of the constant movement of communities in east london reflecting the global diaspora.
Linking the economic role of Woolworths in working class communities to the loss of jobs in recessions where women workers historically bear the brunt, to the destruction of the local fishing industry as the sour economic driver of Somalian pirates in taking to the seas and abducting for ransom, Labern took the icon of the 1930’s Till Island at the shop’s front door as the first local and last international port of call.
In Foucault’s Heterotopias
“Fourth principle. Heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time – which is to say that they open onto what might be termed, for the sake of symmetry, heterochronies. The heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time.
Brothels and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia, and if we think, after all, that the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development, but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates. [Foucault, 1967]
The till island was covered in a layer of paper, pattern cut to fit like a second skin; pure pigment in blackest black was drawn into the paper by a team of four; Labern then moved the surface around with finger tips to create a napped, human /visceral surface that was unstable and seductive to the viewer. It took two weeks to create and it covered the viewer with indelible black soot when touched.
Labern: “I seek to reconfigure spaces and objects that hold social positions [Pierre Bourdieu] and distort, reposition, and remake them to explore how an intervention can make the object’s usual position discordant with its new ‘value’. I set out to unsettle, and subtlety rupture, contest, known meanings, to uncover the ‘other’ by which I mean the ideas that sit outside the mainstream / dominant received ideas of the mythical norm and those of the imagination (Kearney); I choose to uncover the liminal space that can harbour distinct differences.”
The digital till readers were re programmed: one to carry the words of Woolworths’ women workers talking about their work and (job) loss, what it meant to them as individuals and a community; on the other reader, Somalian pirates spoke of why they do what they do and the economic background and impact of the loss of their fishing communities and livelihoods.
The centre of Till Island, Pirate Ship was left in chaos, the contents of the draws spewed out , the bags hanging where they had always hung.
At the end of the four week long group show of Pic’n’mix, curated by artists Mark Hampson, Jo Grant and others, Till Island, Pirate Ship was left floating alone on the original linoleum, like a funerary pire, its till readers working continuously in the darkened shop void. Over 3,000 people visited the show.
The paper used for this sculptural work was then stripped off over two days, returning the till island to its original state; during the two days local people came and left stories in a series of cathartic and extraordinary episodes. This re-appropriated blackened paper has been used to develop the PostBox – a work in progress.