By Andre Hess
‘No Interdependent Origins’ was installed at Quex House at Birchington in Kent and was continuous with the Powell-Cotton Museum which houses the natural history and ethnography collection of the hunter-explorer Major Percy Powell-Cotton.
The exhibition consisted of a sound and text installation by Dan Thompson entitled ‘Ancient Water’, which shared the room with the ceramic sculptures of Lau Yat Wai. Deeper inside the house, in the library, were the sculptures of Annie Lai Kuen-Wan accompanied by films and the sound installations of Emily Peasgood.
The curators of ‘Interbeing’ were Kay Aplin and Joseph Young. The work was intended to be site specific and in response to the historic house. This was the first time that the museum and house had participated in a contemporary art exhibition. It came in the midst of the museum’s project to ‘decolonise’ the collection, which it started several years ago, prior to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The approach to the exhibition takes the visitor through the traditional entrance to the Museum with its desk and information leaflets, and to the ‘natural history’ and ‘ethnographic’ collection, a collection with dioramas large enough to contain herd of antelope, a full-sized marauding elephant, rhinoceros, a lion taking down a wildebeest, and objects in cabinets. Walls are covered with trophy heads, spears, and elephant tusks. The presence and weight of the collection is impossible to ignore as the viewer heads through to the work that make up ‘No Interdependent Origins’.
The first room of the exhibition, the Oriental Room, conventionally gloomy with furniture like heavy canon and curtains with expected heft, contained the ceramic objects and films, collectively entitled ‘Mute Tumult of Memories’ by Lau Yat Wai. These objects were portable in size and addressed the body at belly level. For the exhibition he made replicas of the Court of Final Appeal building in Hong Kong, the Star Ferry, the Cenotaph (identical to its equivalent in London), and a Postbox (like the archetypal British Mail post box). Each object was accompanied by a film of its clay replica in a tank slowly being destroyed by rising water. All of the ceramic objects are finely made, but then covered in a thick dry whitish glaze (a volcanic glaze) which almost entirely erases the architectural detail. It was as if the viewer was meant to be left with the memory of these buildings and objects, the remains, like shards, more haunting than the whole.
Alongside Lau Yat Wai’s work was the sound piece by Dan Thompson referencing the contents of the Powell-Cotton museum and Lau Yat Wai’s work. The Dan Thompson piece touched on themes of water, NASA’s famous ‘earthrise’ photo, the British Empire, places in Kent, and migration stories.
Installed upstairs was the sound work of Emily Peasgood and the ceramic pieces and videos by Annie Lai-Kuen Wan. The collaboration was called ‘Vanished History’.
Wan’s contribution consisted of eleven books rendered in liquid clay, dried, stacked, and fired so that only the fired refractory material remained, it, too, a kind of erasure. Each stack consisted of two to five books. These were arranged on the tops of tables. Alongside were two films of her making the pieces. These were hour long videos, with ambient sound, depicting her painting the pages with liquid clay, one page at a time.
Emily Peasgood’s sound works were located in three rooms, one in the same room as Annie Lai-Kuen Wan’s installation (Vanished History: ‘Tony’), and one each in the Powell Room (Vanished History: ‘Hannah and her Girls’) and the Boudoir (Vanished History: ‘Hannah’). These were sound recordings of conversations on the topic of the ‘missing women’ of Quex House: Hannah Powell-Cotton (1881-1964), and her two daughters Mary (1910-1998) and Antoinette, also known as Tony (1913-1997), conversely, a recovery of missing history.
‘No Interdependent Origins’ was a self-declared small, intellectual exhibition. The artwork could not and did not set out to compete with the work in the museum or the house. Its job was to stop the visitor and ask that visitor to shift focus.
It would not be unreasonable to assert that the viewer’s initial concern might have been for the highly polished furniture – atop which sat these scratchy and abrasive little things that, in concert with human voices coming from seemingly nowhere, disembodied and spooky – disrupted the feelings we are meant to feel in these rarefied shiny spaces, those feelings conventionally sought by visitors to houses and museums like these.
The effect of the exhibition was like that of a bee sting on the pink rump of the establishment as represented by the house and the museum, its mere presence irritating and annoying like bees at a picnic on a warm summer’s day.
A statement embedded in the online version of the exhibition tells us ‘that the work produced is site specific, designed for a particular space in the historic house, as well as responsive, opening up new ways of reading familiar objects and settings in the museum and house’. The curatorial intention is clear, and goes on to state: ‘No Interdependent Origins reflects the complexities of working across cultures and disciplines to explore the legacy of the colonial-era collection at the Powell-Cotton Museum. Powell-Cotton are in the process of decolonising the collection’.
The museum’s response? Under a banner on the museum’s website ‘Re-imagining The Museum’, sits the following statement: ‘We are committed to telling a wider story, to enable others to share in that narrative and be a part of its making. At its heart, any story we tell is about people. For this reason, our vision can be encapsulated in the phrase: people matter’. This can only be understood as the museum opening up its arms and announcing that it is ready to engage.
And on the website of the exhibition, Inbal Livne, the Head of Collections and Engagement at the Powell Cotton Museum writes: ‘The Powell-Cotton Museum’s collection was made through global connections. Interbeing has enabled these historic collections to reconnect with their place and culture of origin and be invigorated through fresh eyes and new approaches of artists working today. Linking the past and the present, the global and the local. Interbeing captures the essence of the Powell-Cotton Museum and its collection’
The scene was set. The museum had unambiguously offered itself as context.
But there was, and is, an elephant in the room (apart from the actual elephants in the room) powerfully spot-lit by the above statement from the Head of Collections and Engagement: Why the number of animals and items taken, and what was there to say about the circumstances of their taking?
A quick survey of the writing on Percy Powell-Cotton on Wikipedia oozes a kind of triumphalism and braggadocio around the thousands of animals killed, the weight of the elephant tusks, and the firearms employed.1
When we apply this kind of analysis to the descriptions of the displays in the various galleries of the museum, the celebratory tone is worthy of note.2
All art meets us halfway and waits for us to complete the picture for ourselves. Because of the curatorial intention for the exhibition to be site-specific, and the clear agreement from the museum’s Director of Collections and Engagement that it be so, the museum as context, with its problematic history, cannot be ignored.
Was there a ‘colonial mindset’, a paternalistic imperialist attitude, that gave permission for individuals to stride out into landscapes and declare that landscape an unformed paradise aching to be explored and which was there to sustain such stupendous and record-breaking hunting outings? In the Powell-Cotton Museum there are thousands of pristine skulls, referred to in one of the museum’s projects as ‘colonial critters’.
Of course, there is a risk of homogenising the diversity of practices carried out at the time of the establishment of the collection, and sometimes good scientific work (which used only the necessary number of animal bodies) was indeed done, written up, and published. And there is evidence that Major P. G. H Powell-Cotton contributed to such research.
There is a mismatch, however, between the volume of research, its quality arguable, and the thousands of animals brought down.3
It is possible to argue that the research/natural history/outreach projects argument is a fig leaf, and that administrators of such collections dissemble by omission. These animal bodies, be it entire bodies or merely the heads, the hundreds of tusks, and the miscellaneous items, including sacred objects, had to be carried many hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to ports. It is entirely fair to ask how these endeavours were funded. It is entirely fair to ask about the human resources required to sustain these desires.
The ‘a beautiful house and a good day out’ version of history is rightly being contested, and the exhibition of the work of two Hong Kong ceramicists and two UK sound artists had the effect of a small incendiary device.
As we debate statues and slavery and the value of befriending the truth, we have become accustomed to sparring about the past. By the Powell-Cotton Museum and Quex House admitting for exhibition the intimate work of Annie Lai-Kuen Wan, Lau Yat Wai, Emily Peasgood, and Dan Thompson they ‘played a blinder’. The museum inclined its head and invited children of the Empire to have a quiet word in its ear.
1] ‘List of big-game hunters’, ‘Major PGH Powell-Cotton’, Wikipedia, edited 25 November 2021.
2] ‘Powell-Cotton Museum’, ‘Gallery 1’, ‘Gallery 2’, ‘Gallery 3’, Wikipedia, edited 16 May 2021.
3] ‘Percy Powell-Cotton’, ‘Publications’, Wikipedia, edited 20 April 2021.