“The message needs re-enacting for it to stand a chance against dominant histories,” says Carl Gent about the main driver behind an art practice rooted in the past to extrapolate on the present. “We have to train ourselves against what we already know. This unlearning benefits from as much re-telling as possible and remaking the float for the Young London show has been a part of this.” The London-based artist is showing their sculpture and installation ‘fals tru luvvers a’shore an H’agiographic dysphonia’ as part of the aforementioned large-scale exhibition series at the English capital’s V22 Silvertown Studios, running September 21 to November 4.
The piece is part of ongoing project that began in Gent’s birthplace of Bexhill-on-Sea, a disused seaside resort with archaeological significance in East Sussex co-founded by Mercian Queen Cynethryth and her husband King Offa in 772 AD. ‘Smear (for Cynethryth)‘ was a carnival float made of a composite of materials — from lime putty and equine excrement to liquid soap and mobile-connected Canon printers — that was wheeled through town in July. A site for sculpture, performance and video documentation of its initial iteration, the Young London installation is a re-imagining or re-presentation of the original project, exploring the artist’s heritage and their position within that. While the work isn’t strictly autobiographical, it is one that acknowledges the inextricable link between one’s own subject position (which Gent acknowledges as being English, white, educated, able-bodied, and “kind of middle-class”) and their relationship to the rest of the world.
‘Fals tru luvvers a’shore an H’agiographic dysphonia’ contemplates the “fog of misinformation” surrounding eight century Anglo-Saxon English Queen Cynethryth and the misrepresentation of women throughout history. In applying what Gent calls a ‘pre-Sussexian’, or ‘Bexhillian’ materiality to a practice that is very much one about process, inquiry and impermanence, the artist takes from the past in order to propose alternatives for a sustainable future. “It’s just about recognising where you’re from, taking responsibility for that and wanting to play with it to see what you can bring to the table.”
**How important is the notion of ecology and sustainability to your work?
Some of my artist statements say my work is explicitly ecological so I guess lots. While a lot of the materials I use are literally recyclable I tend to ruin them by mixing them with quite toxic things, such as putting plastic wig fibres into my daub that would otherwise be an incredibly ecologically sound material. I guess by explicitly ecological I want the work to encourage a more ecological response to the material world within anyone who experiences the things I might make or write. The work’s temporary nature helps with this, as does the olfactory. Most of my work smells or tastes quite strongly – often of animal shit which is useful as it exposes an individual’s abjection or attraction to this particular smell – and the absinthe-making work from last year filled the gallery space with intoxicating fumes and some of the viewers’ bodies with the literal sculpture itself after ingestion. The goal is to work out how to present and approach some of these materials so that they can be stripped of some of their anthropocentric criteria. To work out how to become sensitive enough to see movie logos or the biography of Cynethryth or the experience of playing Ecco the Dolphin on their own terms. In this way I’ve realised this is quite a formal approach, albeit in a feminist material sense – the neverending aim to experience the stuff of the world on its own terms, and working out what tools are available for human hands to do this with.
**Is your interest in Anglo-Saxon culture and history at least partly an exploration of your own heritage? What is your relationship to British colonialism within that?
Definitely. A big part of this has been about exoticism and heightening my own subject position. While I never want to make work about myself, I have dimly learnt the lessons taught to me that we cannot arrive at a place where meaningful communication can occur unless we acknowledge that it always happens through our own lives and our own bodies. This is woefully absent from a lot of practices, particularly those who view their own subject positions as status quo. I fit into a lot of these bogusly-default categories and looking at what was missing from my earlier work, it was this origin-point of knowing oneself even a little bit and being aware of what ground my work was happening against. I wanted to acknowledge my own provinciality and this project looking at pre-Sussexian materiality has been the perfect way to do this.
This sounds quite lofty, which isn’t intentional. It’s just about recognising where you’re from, taking responsibility for that and wanting to play with it to see what can be done. But I do believe that this play has serious consequences too, particularly in this moment where we find fascist and white supremacist organisations inhabiting an early European imaginary and telling lies about where we came from. It’s vital to turn up to that imaginary and defend it from mutation and weaponisation, as historians and medieval scholars have been doing for years.
**Mercia, which you seem to draw from quite a bit, was initially a Pagan kingdom before converting to Christianity and your focus is on this latter era with the reign of King Offa and his wife Cynethryth. Is there a reason for concentrating here, apart from Bexhill-on-Sea being an important archaeological site for this era?
My interest in Mercia stems primarily from my interest in Cynethryth and Offa, the King and Queen of Mercia. Bexhill, my hometown, was a part of either Sussex or Kent in the eighth century, but Offa and Cynethryth’s kingdom was aggressively expansionist and de facto controlled Kent and Sussex for a part of their reign. After defeating the people of Hastings, Offa commissioned the construction of a church which became Bexhill. The time period and transition into Christianity is always interesting as we see Pagan festivals and rituals renamed under a Christian sign. Mythology, imagination and knowledge seemed to sit far closer together back then. Offa, a Christian king, claimed to be a direct descendant from Wodin. He also named himself Offa to echo a previous Offa who led a similar existence to him. Cynethryth possibly named herself thus to echo the previous Offa’s wife. The binary between Paganism and Christianity seems to have been far more slippery back then. Islam also appears in Offa’s story by way of a gold coin struck with Offa’s name and picture alongside Arabic lettering — a Mercian dinar. This was actually where the project began, researching this artefact.
The interesting thing about rewinding Britain to this era is the fluidity of nationhood at this time, but Mercia seems to have a vital role in solidifying British ideas of nationhood in Cynethryth’s era. The Angles hailed from the area we now know as Denmark / Germany and brought the nation (and the name) of Anglia with them — nations travelled with the ruling classes of their people. However, at some point Mercia seems to have suffered some sort of definition-envy towards the other coastal British kingdoms. In its landlocked way, it suffered an identity crisis and Offa began work on a colossal dyke to divide its border from Wales. In dragging this line through the soil, we can begin to see the alignment of nation with territory that has come to sit so centrally in the colonial English psyche.
**Given the fact that often your work is inter-historical and also bears some kind of conceptual relevance today, does it seek resolution as a pragmatic response to contemporary problems or is it purely speculative?
I hope the work doesn’t resolve or doesn’t find any resolution within its art audiences. These are ongoing projects and utterances that I’m trying to perform to make sense of the world and test certain things, but I would definitely identify the work as pragmatic. It is literally regressive to say that the majority of today’s ills would be healed if we lived as we did in the eighth century. But it is also true. Asides from those species already locked into a symbiotic conservation or industrial relationship with humankind, 100 percent of animal and plant life would have a better chance of survival if humanity reverted to its eight century self. I think the provocation that these solutions provide is vital for any way ahead and the taboo around regression, scaling-back or admitting mistakes absolutely needs to be held up to the light of today.
**The materials you use for much of your sculpture (lime putty, animal excrement etc) are rather impermanent. What is the thinking behind working with them?
Despite realising I needed to, I was really anxious to start making things I would think of as sculpture. I generally hated things that sat on the floor, were roughly human-sized and remained for eternity. I started trying to think this through as I saw my work heading that way — why did I hate it? Sculpture often made me look over my shoulder, immediately aware of the room or area I was in and I felt stuck between it and the whole universe. It made me very aware of me. But I don’t think of this as a problem anymore. If an artwork can make you simultaneously feel more you and more in the universe, that sounds pretty ecological to me. The problem was often that the work was just crap anyway but also that it lasted for eternity, just sat there as a dumb object, worse than a word on a wall that can at least be read out or painted over. An artwork that has no fragility or friendliness or hostility towards its host environment just isn’t art I’d want to make.**