Castle and Elephant launched with the intention of opening for one month and continued a programme of exhibitions, screenings and discussions in Coventry from autumn 2009 until winter 2010. Tom Godfrey inaugurated the year-long series of events with an ambitious solo exhibition titled The Three Day Week. The heading drew parallels between the opening hours of the gallery and the infamous Tory strategy to conserve energy usage by restricting industries to only operating for three days a week in 1974. Wider implications of this title relate to the context of the gallery in a shop unit, surrounded by empty and redundant commercial lettings: thus additionally pertinent in relation to the then current financial downturn. Due to the temporary nature of the space, unique limitations were placed on the creation of work. There was a need to create interventions which were transferable to new locations should the need arise. The production of new works such as the 4:3 single screen projection Balloon, (2009) acted as a projected image screen and freestanding dividing wall within the space, allowing for the presentation of works such as the sculptural publications Black Marbled Reams, (2009), alongside the imposing light installation Architectures of Resistance, (2007/ongoing).
Peripatetic unit Annexinema developed a site-specific screening for the second element of the programme. Selected from a range of contemporary and historic films, Annexinema responded to the gallery’s location in the poleaxed modernism of the City Arcade, loosely flitting between themes such as urban environments, architecture, travel and consumerism. Their extensive and in depth show-reel included experimental films from George Barber: Shouting Match / Mischa Leinkauf + Matthias Wermke: Zwischenzeit / Rob Kennedy: Eden / David Blandy: From the Underground / Matt McCormick: The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal / Ron Tran: The Peckers / Emily Richardson: Block / Mike Stubbs: Cultural Quarter / Romain Sein: The Man from Albacete / Woody Vasulka: C-Trend / Andrew Kötting: Jaunt.
Shortly after relocating to a new space in the City Arcade, the group exhibition Rumiko Hagiwara – Dillan Marsh – Elizabeth Rowe brought together three artists whose work encapsulated notions of distraction, futility and perseverance. Working with the aesthetics of mass media, Elizabeth Rowe’s practice merged images from printed material to regain an element of control over an overwhelming accumulation of information. In preparation for exhibition, Rowe produced F—k reason (2009) which singularly featured on the front image of the exhibition flyer. In line with ideas of ineffectuality, four new works were commissioned and intended for inclusion in The Coventry Telegraph. When the commissions were denied printing due to the ambiguous non-commercial content, an enlightening conversation between Rowe and the editor discussing ideas about the ephemeral in art, formed an integral part of the show. Displayed within the window frontage, the protagonist in Rumiko Hagiwara’s film Escalator (2003) performs a subtle passive aggressive act by walking the opposite way, on a downward flowing escalator. By drawing attention to the use of the public space, Hagiwara suggests that the viewer rediscover trivial elements around them. This was shown in conjunction with Dillan Marsh’s work Multiple Failures (2008), which documents futile attempts to inflate a self-constructed air-balloon. Marsh strives to realise a fantasy of escape, but the end result is a catalogue of short-lived unsuccessful endeavours.
Damir Ocko subsequently presented two new works titled The Age of Happiness (2009) and The Moon shall never take my Voice, (2010). Situated on both levels of the gallery, the two films evidence a shift in Ocko’s subject matter, from filmic landscapes towards a theatrical musing on history and the attributes of sound. Ocko developed a spectrum of references when making these productions. A strong component of The Age of Happiness is his research into Russian composer Alexander Scriabin’s incomplete work Mysterium. Scarabin’s unrealised durational performance was to be located in the Himalayas, and his intentions were that “there will be no spectators, all will become participants”. One of the proposed effects of this piece was to transform participants into higher human beings. Through the realisation of The Age of Happiness, Ocko highlights this unachievable utopian vision as comparable to the shortcomings of today’s society.
Occupying the upper gallery was Ocko’s most recent film The Moon shall never take my Voice. The film observed a woman performing several acts in sign language, revealing a distinctive, ulterior form of music. The imaginative composition of both sound and noise alters conventional conceptions of hearing as the narrator gradually reveals a story about Gustav Mahler, John Cage and Neil Armstrong. Through this experimental tonal structuring the artist composes and transforms all the silent gestures into a new narrative logic and synthesis of images. A transcription of the script used for the performer in The Moon shall never take my Voice illustrated the complex poetics of language and text, emphasised the role of the visual and silence in the creation of sound.
Within the unique elephant shaped architectural extension of Coventry Sports Centre, Castle and Elephant temporarily presented a short film by Shanghai based artist Song Tao. My Beautiful Zhang Jiang, (2006) is a poetic portrait of the artist’s own generation, who are living amongst the rush and calm of Shanghai’s developing landscape. The film opens in an office; a sleeping girl is picked up from her desk by a co-worker and gradually transported through the vast city in the embrace of strangers. Asserting a rambling narrative, the film uses Zhang Jiang as a prop to perambulate the metropolis. These bodies, negotiating the city, reflected Tao’s deep interest in both documenting and creating atmospheres that are rooted within his own life. Positioned within the eclectic architecture of Coventry city centre the work highlights the changing face of post war urban planning and communal navigation through the city.
Verisimilitude:: meeting room / screening / discussion was the final instalment of the programme presenting Night Mail (1936), Scared Straight!(1978) and Shoah (1985) over several one day events in meeting rooms within the CV1 postcode. This programme was a means to create discussion points to consider journalistic techniques and the changing aesthetics strategies used in documentary making.
The first screening and discussion was situated in the archaic Britannia Hotel. Produced by the groundbreaking collaborative GPO Film collective Night Mail was a creative portrayal of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) mail train. One of the first films to cast ‘real people’ as actors it was acclaimed for its experimental use of sound, visual style, narrative and editing technique. The film centres on issues of national communication and representations of the regional environment. Unable to film in transit, elaborate recording sets were constructed, to re-enacted the workings of a then hidden element of English communication, plotting the changing social anthropology across the length of Britain.
Featuring within the aptly styled IKEA facilities at the Broadgate Travel Lodge, was Arnold Shapiro documentary Scared Straight! The subject of the documentary is a group of young offenders and the attempts to make them end their criminal ways by introducing them to actual convicts. The leading nature of the author combined with the narration by Peter Falk –most known for his role as investigating detective Columbo- blurred the relationship between the assertion of objectivity and fiction.
Finally, on the 50th anniversary of its first release, Castle and Elephant screened Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour film Shoah investigating the holocaust. Shown in its entirety at the Ramada Hotel, Lanzmann’s style of interviewing, and his selection of interview footage divides his witnesses into three distinct archetypes: survivor, bystander and perpetrator. The inability to truly represent all sides and every angle was highlighted by the impenetrability of the content and timescale of the screening.
The pluralistic functions of these conference spaces was initially seen as a neutral space for dialogue and thinking, but like the screened documentaries, the historical and social framework added new resonance to the reading of the films.
This document culminates vestiges of events initiated by Castle and Elephant and was created in 2011 after the programme was completed. The programme drew from many different cultural and historical references: it sought not to literally respond to the city, but to invited artists to create comparisons with other ways of seeing. Organically, the platform developed an interest in moving image and experimental film, tending to draw upon fictional narratives and changing landscapes. Drawing parallels to the uniqueness of the Coventry and its dense history Castle and Elephant chose to invite an outsider view. These alternative viewpoints were fleeting and transient: like the projects themselves.
Castle and Elephant was curated by Hannah Conroy 2009 – 2011
Note: Castle and Elephant drew its name from the two figurative elements of Coventry’s city coat of arms, which can be dated back to the 16th century.