David Ferry: The Gentle Flavours of Surrealist Chewing Gum

Images from top, left to right: David Ferry, Canterbury Cathedral, 2010, digital archive print, 42 x 59.5 cm; Westminster Abbey, 2010, digital archive print, 42 x 59.5 cm; Ely Cathedral, 2010, digital archive print, 42 x 59.5 cm; Princes Street, Edinburgh, 2010, digital archive print, 42 x 59.5 cm; The Langton Arms, 2010 digital archive print, 42 x 59.5 cm.

In the lead up to the exhibition David Ferry: The Invader’s Guide to the British Isles at The Post Office Gallery, Federation University, Ballarat, UK artist Professor David Ferry will present a lecture hosted by the PCA at the Fitzroy Town Hall next Thursday (see details below). In the following essay, which will also form part of the exhibition catalogue for The Invader’s Guide to the British Isles, writer and lecturer Stephen Clarke discusses Ferry’s Belligerent Rock Intrusions.

One late evening in summer in a large, quiet barn, the artist David Ferry screened the film The Devils (1971) for a small group of friends. As the night closed in, and the air became ever cooler, the film heated up to reach its crescendo with the burning of Oliver Reed and the destruction of the fortification of Loudun. Set in seventeenth-century France, the controversial film by the English director Ken Russell mixes violence, religion and sex, including an orgy scene in which the crucifix is defiled by disrobed nuns.

Ferry considers the act of defilement as central to his art practice and he revels in comedic drama to colour his images. His core subject and source material are the inoffensive picture-book guides that fill the shelves of high-street charity shops. These books offer an innocent perspective on British life, emphasising a shared national heritage that appeals to genteel middle-class tastes. Ferry defiles these scenes in the manner that a small boy pees in the municipal swimming pool. Slight alterations by the addition of material alien to an existing image result in a change of flavour. Unlike the explicit drama of Russell’s violent depiction of the crucifix attacked, the purity of the picture-book scene is desecrated by permissive intrusion.

Ferry is conscious of this tactic of alterations made to books. It has its roots in the Surrealist movement but is also employed by British satirists. Notable examples that Ferry refers to are the books altered by Joe Orton (1933-1967) and Kenneth Halliwell (1926-1967). They had smuggled books out of their local public library, modified the covers, and then returned them to the shelves to be found by the unwary. For the text on the dust jacket of one book they typed: ‘READ THIS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS! And have a good shit while you are reading!’.[1] Foul taste becomes a weapon against propriety. In 1962, following their admission of damaging more than seventy books, the pair were jailed for six months. Officially, their actions had been judged vandalism; historically, these altered book covers have become artistic interventions collected and exhibited.[2]

Montage and vandalism are close bedfellows. A common sight on city streets are billboard posters defaced by chewing gum. These are casual intrusions made by the passerby who takes the masticated substance from their mouth to stick to the surface of a photograph. The gum, now imbued with the saliva trace of the monteur, has a less desirable flavour and this is part of its visceral impact. The small, hard rocks eventually lose their adhesion: intent and act are cursory. Ferry’s Belligerent Rock Intrusions have more longevity. In the series of prints made from his altered book, images and text from guides to rock climbing collide with pictures from a tranquil British scene.[3] Offence is not to be found with either the intruding rocks or the place where they land, unlike the additions made by Orton and Halliwell, and the gum-chewing public: the concoction remains palatable. Ferry’s intention is not to shatter national identity and heritage with a brick but instead instigate questioning through humorous intervention.

Zealous intervention can be rewarded with crushing consequences. In an effort to rid the village of Avebury of rocky inhabitants, a medieval Barber-Surgeon was crushed to death by a particular belligerent rock under which he lay for six hundred years. Avebury’s Neolithic stone monuments – already ancient when the Romans invaded Britain – were by the tenth century considered intruding megaliths. Their destruction and desecration wasn’t halted until the introduction of Sir John Lubbock’s Ancient Monuments Act of 1882;[4] and their preservation was only secured when archaeologist Alexander Keiller purchased the site in 1934.[5] Within a decade, Keiller had re-erected stones, created a museum, and arranged for the National Trust to take over as custodians.[6] These rocks, now no longer intrusions, are instead the foundations of British heritage with previous actions towards them being deemed vandalism. Today’s intruders are the tourists who pay for their visit through car-parking charges, admission prices to the Trust’s properties and, of course, obligatory sweet-tasting ice creams.

Conscious of the invasion of modern tourism, the National Trust has limited the number of souvenir shops in an effort to curtail the appetite of the commercial maw that the stones represent. But, the gamekeeper becomes poacher as the Trust that protects heritage fills its own purse. Although access to Avebury is free, visitors still pay a price. This is more apparent at neighbouring Stonehenge where access is strictly controlled. In her book Our Forbidden Land (1990), the photographer Fay Godwin recalls that her request to English Heritage for permission to photograph Stonehenge over a period of time was allowed on condition that she pay a fee of £200 per visit.[7] It is this payment to get into heritage sites that Ferry’s series of prints, Belligerent Rock Intrusions, questions. His solution is that the visitor can learn to climb into, and onto, the heritage site.[8] Humour belies a fundamental concern which is whether our national heritage is a right or a commodity. His photomontages are acts of trespass, and yet the host accommodates the invader. Unlike the unfortunate Barber-Surgeon who was felled by the stone, Ferry’s climbers cling to the surface immersed in embrace.

The Barber-Surgeon resurfaced again in the 1977 television programme Children of the Stones that was filmed at Avebury. Recast as a poacher named Dai, the Barber-Surgeon is killed off in the same manner as his medieval counterpart. In this production the village, renamed Milbury, is trapped within a time circle where events are continuously repeated. This stagnation is reinforced in the climax to the drama as the villagers meet a petrifying fate: they are actually turned to stone. The wards of the Heritage Industry may have been cast the same fate. In an effort to protect the fabric of the past, a place and its people undergo a process of petrifaction.

Paul Nash (1889-1946), an artist influential upon Ferry, addressed an appeal to the past while paying attention to the advances of the present. By the mid-1930s Nash’s work became a blend of abstraction and surrealism that interpreted motifs from the past. He had a particular interest in the stone circles of the south of England and was given a tour of the Avebury site by Alexander Keiller.[9] The artist depicted the ‘Landscape of the Megaliths’ although his interest was not in archaeology, history or religion, rather the stones served as formal pointers for modern painting.[10] For Nash the stones were not petrified remnants but objects that had current purchase. Avoiding choking on the dust of the past, whilst trying to picture the national heritage, is a hazard of which the contemporary British artist must be wary. Ferry’s attempt to reinvigorate this landscape is to use the Nation’s own compost: Orton and Halliwell’s shit becomes fruitful manure. Ferry refers to this approach – the use of pre-existing photographic images from second-hand books – as ‘re-re-cycling [sic]’. [11] Like Nash, Ferry revisits a past to propose a new surreal landscape, one where the rocks assert their presence and the inhabitants negotiate this new territory with the textual guidance from experienced climbers.

Reference to Nash and British Surrealism is a conscious decision in Ferry’s practice; his predecessors are the veteran climbers who show him where to find his grip. The barn where Ferry shared an evening with The Devils was sited at The Rodd, the farm on the border of England and Wales where the Australian artist Sidney Nolan (1917–1992) had settled in 1983.[12] Nolan was an unexpected resident in this location: he was out-of-place. This ‘angry penguin’, a surrealist from hotter climes, was noted for his depictions of the Australian outback and the anti-hero Ned Kelly.[13] Kelly, the bushranger, became famous for his use of homemade armour that crudely resembled the attire of a European knight. This mêlée of penguins and knights in the desert is transferred to the quiet of a rural town sandwiched between two countries. What should not be there finds a home. It is this ‘out-of-place’ quality that exemplifies Ferry’s practice. The defilement that he relishes is mischievous tampering by the addition of that something extra. Vandalism, trespass and indifference are implied by the title Belligerent Rock Intrusions, but it is agreeable synthesis that Ferry’s montages create. Much like Blackpool rock, the hard-boiled confectionary stick manufactured in Ferry’s hometown, the best way to consume national heritage might be to gently suck rather than vigorously bite.

Notes

[1] Quoted from the defaced flyleaf of Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers, altered 1959-1962. The collaged book forms part of The Joe Orton Collection at Islington Local History Centre, London.

[2] Orton and Halliwell’s local library was Islington Public Library. An exhibition at Islington Museum in 2011-12 titled Malicious Damage: The life and crimes of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell in Islington displayed some of the altered books.

[3] The altered book is titled, David Ferry’s Britain in Colour with Belligerent Rock Intrusions mainly in Black and White (2006).

[4] Caroline Malone, Avebury (London: Batsford/English Heritage, 1989), pp. 122-23.

[5] Ibid., p. 126.

[6] Ibid., pp. 126-131.

[7] Eventually the fee was waived but Godwin was permitted only one visit. See: Fay Godwin, Our Forbidden Land (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), p. 23.

[8] Ferry’s first exhibition of prints from Belligerent Rock Intrusions was titled: Climbing Over Britain (Impact 6 International Printmaking Conference, 2009).

[9] Keiller gave Nash a guided tour of Avebury in 1938. See: Sam Smiles, ‘Ancient Country: Nash and Prehistory’, in Paul Nash: Modern Artist, Ancient Landscape, ed. Jemima Montagu (London: Tate, 2003), pp. 31-37.

[10] Ibid., pp. 31-37.

[11] David Ferry, email to the author, 8 October 2012.

[12] The Rodd in Presteigne, Wales is the site of the Sidney Nolan Trust. Members of The Cardiff Sessions printmaking collective were based at The Rodd, producing collaborative lithographs for their exhibition at the Sidney Nolan Trust in August 2013, when the film was screened. David Ferry is a printmaking consultant to the Sidney Nolan Trust.

[13] Sidney Nolan was part of the movement Angry Penguins that sought to shake up the cultural establishment in 1940s Australia.

This essay has been produced for the occasion of the exhibition David Ferry: The Invader’s Guide to the British Isles, 26 October – 19 November 2016, at the Post Office Gallery, Federation University Australia, Ballarat.

Belligerent Rock Intrusions has been exhibited at: Woodfinch Gallery/Simon Finch Rare Books (in association with The National Print Gallery), London, 2010; Impact 6, University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol, 2009.

The altered book, David Ferry’s Britain in Colour with Belligerent Rock Intrusions mainly in Black and White (2008), was purchased by the Jack Ginsberg Artists’ Books Collection, Johannesburg in 2012.

Stephen Clarke is an artist, writer and lecturer based in the North West of England.