As we begin to see galleries around the UK opening their doors to the public, a familiar bustle of culture breathes life into these spaces once again. Joining them this week is Seen Fifteen, nestled in the heart of Peckham, London and the home of the much celebrated Peckham 24 Festival – which would have celebrated its fifth edition this summer – as well as a dynamic programme of exhibitions throughout the year. The gallery welcomes visitors back with a new exhibition Hurry Up Please It’s Time, a title taken from a line of a poem by TS Elliot, which he wrote during the last pandemic.
The show, which brings together the work of five contemporary artists and photographers including Maya Rochat and Laura El-Tantawy, breaking from the scheduled summer programme and instead focusing on the pandemic experience. Jo Dennis, Elena Helfrecht and Martin Seeds will be exhibiting work that was made during the Covid-19 lockdown, with each artist ruminating on the effect this moment has had on our environment.
BJP speaks to the founder and director of the gallery, Vivienne Gamble, ahead of the public opening this Wednesday 09 September.
Congratulations on reopening Seen Fifteen with what looks like it will be a fantastic show. It must have been devastating to have to cancel the events over summer.
Thank you, it’s good to be back. I’ve missed our photography community so much. Like everyone, the world for Seen Fifteen and Peckham 24 ground to a sharp halt in March. Although it’s been unbelievably hard, there are always silver linings. I think the fact that there has been time to slow down, think and plan is going to benefit both the gallery and the festival in the long term. We will hopefully bring Peckham 24 back for a big celebration in 2021.
When did you start planning for the Hurry Up Please It’s Time? There must have been a period of time when it was difficult to gauge when you would be able to open the gallery again, let alone have the capacity to source all the work.
I started planning the show when the lockdown restrictions started to get lifted in June, and it looked like we would soon be able to start welcoming people back to the gallery space in person. I can’t tell you how great it felt to be back in conversations with artists about showing their work. I personally found the early part of the lockdown very tough as the future of the gallery looked very uncertain at that point. The future is still far from being guaranteed, but I made a decision to take one day at a time and when I did that I found that my own creative energy bounced back. I am energised by working with artists so I’m very happy to have that again.
“Artists are reflecting the world around us in their work, and I wanted to use the show as a tiny platform for dialogue and reflection on what’s been happening. “
Why did you decide to put on a show which spoke to the current situation, instead of carrying on with a postponed version of your summer programme?
I felt it was important to in some way acknowledge what we have all been going through. We have been experiencing a collective global trauma, and it’s not over yet. We are all still getting used to a changed world and an altered society. Artists are reflecting the world around us in their work, and I wanted to use the show as a tiny platform for dialogue and reflection on what’s been happening.
I also decided to change from my usual exhibition format so that I could open up an opportunity for a number of artists. Since the beginning, Seen Fifteen has had a mission to support young talent in contemporary photography, and one of the ways that I have contributed has been to offer solo exhibitions. But, I felt strongly that now, after we have all had our incomes and futures thrown into such volatile circumstances, that it was important to create a group show that could support the work of several artists at the same time.
Was there a particular event or moment that inspired the theme of the new show, or a culmination of observations over time?
The concept for the show is inspired by walks that I have been taking in Dulwich Woods during the lockdown. I discovered that I can walk there from my house – it’s a long walk but the reward is being immersed in the forest amongst the trees and birdsong. On sunny days it looked so beautiful, with shafts of light coming through the trees and the leaves lit up bright emerald green by the sun.
I had also been reading about the Japanese concept of ‘forest bathing’ – which is the scientifically backed idea that time in the forest relieves stress, and promotes both mental and physical wellbeing. Whilst I was walking I would be thinking about the artists that I worked with and works that I had exhibited.
In particular I kept thinking about this one work by Maya Rochat, Glitter Rain on Magic Tree, where there is a latent image of an ancient tree trunk. There is a 150 year old Cedar of Lebanon tree in Dulwich Woods which made me think of this artwork. Maya’s work often has an underlying image or message around the natural environment, and this was my starting point for building the show.
Could you tell us about the approach and interpretation of the theme from the artists in the show?
There is a balance in the show between work that was made before we went into lockdown, and work that was made during lockdown. The works by Maya Rochat and Laura El-Tantawy are series that I think we can now re-read in a new context. Both artists use nature as a way of processing their connection to the world. In Maya Rochat’s work I now see underlying messages about climate change with much more urgency. With Laura El-Tantawy, I feel a new connection to the personal feelings of loneliness and isolation that she was exploring with the series, Beyond Here Is Nothing.
Jo Dennis was one of the first artists to send me new work that she had been making during lockdown. As my partner in Peckham 24, Jo and I had been having lots of conversations about climate change earlier in the year. In the new series, Shifting Sands – The Waste Land,she takes residual waste in her own studio and creates imaginary landscapes. Jo is an incredibly energetic artist, and she made this whole new series in a matter of weeks. It was a way of escaping reality, whilst at the same time meditating on global issues that have contributed to the current situation.
“I think many people will share my view that artists help us to better understand the world around us.”
Martin Seeds was also in the process of making new work. I had a wonderful visit to Martin’s studio in early July and he showed me new collage works in progress. We agreed there and then that these would be part of the show. Martin works on a consistent theme, using the landscape to comment on his relationship to his homeland in Northern Ireland. He responds in real time to political nuances. These new works, Surface Tensions, piece together fragments of images of the Irish Sea. They are a quiet comment on the issue of the border between the European Union and the United Kingdom and how Northern Ireland has become a pawn in this ongoing diplomatic battle.
Elena Helfrecht will be exhibiting with Seen Fifteen for the first time, and I’m very excited to be presenting a new series, Inwards, made during lockdown. It’s a very timely series of photographs exploring personal feelings of anxiety and isolation through symbols and encounters with nature. Elena is very sensitive to nature and to our relationship with it. I could see many themes within this project that I personally shared – an anxiety about our world and the damage that our human lifestyles have been doing to it.
Hurry Up Please It’s Time, is an interesting title. Aside from its relevance, it conjures up a number of associations . For example, that of re-opening Seen Fifteen, but also an urgent call to action regarding our treatment of the environment. What was your thinking behind it?
I have to thank Jo Dennis for the title of the show. Jo references The Waste Land in her new work, and she inspired me to read it again. I remember reading it years ago and not really connecting with it. This time I came across symbolic references throughout. I love that it’s so disorientating and I could really sympathise with that. The line Hurry Up Please It’s Time felt that it said everything I wanted the show to represent – our anxieties to get our lives back, and the burning urgency of huge issues that need our collective attention. I am conscious also that this line also works for the Black Lives Matter movement, and I am working on an early idea for a Part Two of this show, which would be dedicated to that cause.
Why is it important to celebrate the work that artists have made during the lockdown?
I think many people will share my view that artists help us to better understand the world around us. I hope that this selection of works resonates with people and helps them to process their own feelings about what they’ve been through. It’s also my way of celebrating a re-start and embracing this new future that we’re all just entering into.
Hurry Up Please It’s Time is on show at Seen Fifteen, London from 09 to 28 September 2020