Power in Gathering: A response to Joy Gerrard at The Glucksman

Entering The Glucksman for the first time, for me, in 6 months carried the same sense of nervousness and slight social unease that the lifting of restrictions gave each familiar public space. There’s a new set of social rules to be learned. I had spent some time exploring the grounds of U.C.C., uncovering a new path in its enclosed grounds, still cautious of venturing in. Don’t forget to sign in, make a record of your presence. But those concrete stairs were the same, and the expectation of being able to stand for a few minutes exploring someone’s viewpoint, their expression, held the same. 

The painting of Cross (Protest against Brexit, London, June 2018 ) 2019, by Joy Gerrard, attacks you with movement, with chaos and energy. It’s the first piece you see when you climb to the top of the grey stairs. The piece is large in scale but mainly intriguing in the small strokes of black Japanese ink on canvas. She has captured the aerial view of protestors on the streets of London, protesting Brexit in 2018 which, frankly, has been a shit-show of uncertainty for the past four years. In the context of my visit it reminded me of the same unrest and sense of uncertainty felt over the past few months. That unease coming from governmental restrictions and the complete shutdown of society, as well as the explosion of protests against racial inequality that is rife within the current systems that modern society is built on. 

The painting itself is accompanied by two smaller works of Gerrards, each with incredible detail in the movement of the marks. The large canvas however had me enthralled with its mark making and composition. Her depiction of bodies that seem to topple over each other, climaxing in the middle of the canvas, are encaged in four corners by the rigid buildings of the capital London. These structures were holding them in, even in their revolt. The power of one compared to the mass was clear. There is power here. I move back and forth from the canvas, pacing, trying to see the detail but also the ‘full picture’ in one go, which really feels impossible. Her use of ink on canvas, of varying opacities of black, form wonderful layers, which build and build. Each stroke on the enormous canvas feels both planned and fluid. The black and white nature of the ink reflects the growing disparity between political views within current british politics, or global politics. Its polarising.

The movement of people, this mass gathering gave me chills. It was wrong. It very nearly revolted me, the anxiety of being placed among such a large group of people, thousands, after months of feeling cautious, even dirty when walking down the road and bumping into someone. Obviously it reminded me of times where I’ve marched and protested in the past as well. That giant sense of camaraderie with every individual in the crowd, part of one large mass movement, with a goal and a sense of being heard fully. But this image has been misconstrued, warped and changed.

 A new context, a new flow of images and associations, the flashing of articles and the news headlines explaining the negative impact of gatherings. The black ink now feels less like political poles, but of varying percentages, of the possibility of spread of infection. The buildings that herd the protestors in like sardines feels less like the constraints of power structures that have been built into society for centuries, but of the capitalist structures that frame and control the decisions of the people, even putting economic stability over individual health and well being. The Brexit protest was futile, in the end they’re sticking to their guns. But they were heard, they came together out behind their screens to physically express their opinion. It was needed though, as protesting has been for centuries. 

It was later at night when the black strokes of the painting, the chaos, hit me. The ink stayed with me, and would not leave. It morphed in my mind, expanding into sharp 3D metal pokers and bars. Pulsating and moving with an urgency. A conflation of senses. My eyes were closed and the painting seemed to take over my consciousness, twirling and growing. Chaos, and power in a gathering. Panic set in as these forms spun out in my mind. Stagnant water marks. Maybe it was a bit of sensory overload, but definitely Gerrard’s piece held an impact on me. It was the first piece of art I had the ability to view after the lockdown, and it certainly ignited an appreciation for the real life experience.

Niamh Murphy

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