Awakenings, after Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection was a Tate Gallery commission exhibited at the Millbank site from 1995-96. Digital montage produced with pupils from George Green’s School in East London, displayed as a 14ft x 7.5ft (4.3m x 2.3m) cibachrome print.
The young people explored works in the Tate’s collection, deconstructing what was historically, culturally, class and gender specific, and then ‘changed places’ with the artist to re-make the work about themselves and their lives. Collaboration with artist Peter Dunn. Now on permanent display at London Borough of Tower Hamlets town hall.
This was amongst the first group of Tate commissions for community-based projects initiated by Head of Young Visitors’ Programmes Colin Grigg. We chose to work with George Green’s School on the Isle of Dogs, where I had successfully worked alongside Head of Art Richard Crawford on Celebrating the Difference. Initial concerns were how these young people might relate to the Tate’s collection in a way that was meaningful and empowering for them. It felt important that the approach should be less about appreciating works of art and more about using them as source material to feed their own imaginations. Putting themselves into the place of the artists, the collection could become material through which they might then visualise possibilities for themselves, and approach later repeated in the I.D and Momentos projects. The teacher was concerned that the work should also fulfil National Curriculum requirements, in which pupils were required to ‘copy’ works of art, and this was built into the project. Tate education staff introduced the young people were to the gallery’s collections. Our instructions were to simply choose a work they liked, knowing that this would help empower their identification. Participants copied their chosen paintings in the classroom, choosing one item in the artwork to change in a way that would reflect their personal identity. This process began individually, then developed into small group work on a larger scale with a variety of media. This time only the formal structure of the work was retained and the iconography re-cast in terms of how they saw themselves, their cultures and their environment.
Stanley Spencer’s monumental 18′ x 9′ (2.74m x 5.48m) Resurrection, Cookham was chosen for the final phase. Its attraction stemmed from its representation of a ‘moment of rebirth’ set in an unspecified future. Traditionally the Christian notion of resurrection is used to explore contemporary values, both as critique and an embodiment of aspiration. Practically speaking its scale and ‘jigsaw’ of many discrete elements meant that all those involved in the project – pupils, teachers, artists, and Tate personnel – could be included. The painting is of course also a celebration of starting a new life. Replacing its Christian roots with the personal experience of the young people involved, poised at the beginning of their new life as adults, Awakenings was chosen as the title for the final work.
The centre section of the painting depicts African figures rising out of baked earth, in what looks like a boat, bearing mysterious objects, which may be interpreted as ‘precious gifts’ from Africa. Spencer’s brother in law, also featured in the painting, was an anthropologist and mounted one of the first exhibitions of African Art in Britain . We interpreted this as important cultural influences and asked pupils to identify some knowledge or wisdom passed through their families bringing information and insight from elsewhere, and to identify an object associated with this. For all those involved, Awakenings became a celebration of another fusion: a remaking of ‘Englishness’ as a variegated richness of cultural difference.
Working in pairs and small groups, students were taken through a process of imaginatively rethinking different aspects of the painting in their own terms: what their families or relatives would do with their body if they died; how their family might commemorate their life; by what images they would choose to be remembered; the first thing they would choose to do if they came back to life; where would they like to return to be most ‘at home’? Drawing on the specialist skills of the teachers, clay was used to re-make the paintings, tombs and commemorative plaques, with batik for the foliage and textures. A temporary photographic studio was set up in the school where participants took their own portraits using a squeeze-ball trigger. The final work was compiled on computer using an early version of Photoshop.
Awakenings was finally displayed as a large print at the Tate Gallery, with examples of work in progress and some of Spencer’s working drawings. Spencer’s daughters attended the opening. A key moment was when the young participants arrived. Although they had visited the gallery twice and knew that this was the destination for their work, they seemed astounded. “What’s it doing there?” asked one pupil, “It’s ours!” The gap between the personal creativity and social standing of these young people’s ideas became bridged though the public viewing of the artwork. In this situation the gallery itself fulfilled the function of the public space which brought the young people’s perceptions to wider attention, while at the same time delivering a message back to participants that what they had to offer was of the highest quality and of value to society.