W.B. Yeats – Preface to Celtic Twilight, 1893
At times, I am an artist who has, on occasion, created small, site-specific worlds in abandoned croft houses across Shetland as a response to the researched details in the realities of stories which I seek, hear, see and experience. My art is a respectful conversation with the women who used to live in those beautiful places. I have an instinctive autoethnographic response in writing, site-specific films and photographs by using textiles, hand block prints and words. If I make art, this is currently my artistic practice, evolved from years of embedding myself within other cultures and places including Shetland and China.
When, as a mature student at art school, a wise man who lived a stone’s throw from my house (once a Provost of Derby Cathedral then a retiring Vicar on the Chatsworth Estate), said to me, ‘I read widely, if somewhat cursorily,’1 I was reading Winterson and he, Dostoevsky. On that comment, we swapped books, I went home and looked up the word cursorily in the dictionary and began my love of existential works – he read a modern ground-breaking 90’s book on sexual Identity and love; this was some time in 1996, he in his 80’s, me just turned 30.
Exuding wisdom, not always in what he said, but how he thought and mostly his ever open, learning mind was a turning point in my life and our conversations became somewhat magnetic for me.
Every now and again, this man, now long dead, returns to me either in the form of a found note, the gift of a book, a photograph, or lead chandelier crystals. As he handed over the large prism crystals and cut nuggets that were once part of something larger but now lingering in an old shoe box in his shed, he said, ‘Tracey, never sell these, I had them during my grandiose period.’2 I, who don’t even remember what I did on Saturday, remember these words and both moments as if he had just spoken whilst sitting next to me on this bench in Sheffield. Words that have shaped every year of my life since spoken.
But he didn’t speak to me here, his memory does. I have hung those crystals in windows of every place I have ever lived in the 25 years since the he said that line, including in the old hutongs of Beijing and Suzhou. He is not my story – I can tell you another.
In 2008, after 3 months of living in China, I found out that my partner was cheating on me whilst I was working full-time. At first, I fell down, felt my heart damaged, tightened and fractured but after telling my Chinese friend, a Buddhist barber who lived in a one roomed house in the old hutongs of Suzhou for 50 years, he sat down and in front of me, wrote me a note in full Mandarin which I had translated at work. He wrote, ‘There’s an old saying in China and Buddhists say it too. Falling down is not terrible. The terrible thing is that you don’t stand up in time. You should stand up and brush off the dust and go on walking proudly as you used to do’.3 He also told me to let it go.
5 years after this conversation, I travelled over 3,000 miles to meet him on an ancient bridge in the old hutong lanes of Suzhou. He didn’t know that I was revisiting China, there was no way of contacting him, he hadn’t seen me in 5 years, he was walking with his head down, he raised his head, raised his arm in greeting and his eyes spoke.
Now, I think of the strange impossibility of both men meeting and talking together. I don’t know if they would meet in the heat of China or the well-heeled sitting room of a Chatsworth vicarage but what deeply moving stories they would have recalled for each other. Wise, Christian, Mr Beddoes, beady hawk-eyes twinkling at the sheer marvelousness of the opportunity to speak with the ever deeply calm Cai Gen Lin, his Buddhist chanting songs playing in the background of his one roomed house, 24 hours a day – both religious men responding to the other with great respect, without speaking each other’s spoken language but speaking through their understanding, eyes, hands, gestures and intrinsic visible knowledge. Their stories flowing – neither could ever imagine – such worlds, religions, lifestyles and cultures so far apart both in distance and lifestyles from their own – that only words could bring them close enough to feel those distant worlds. Imagine THAT story – I am their link. I suppose, in a way, I am their story.
Yet, I have sat in silence with Cai Gen Lin and felt and known his worlds in China as I sat with Mr Beddoes in the scullery drinking warmed up old coffee on the stove hiding from people knocking at the door.
And then there are the stories of Shetland from my repeated visits between 2015/19 to listen to the oral histories of the old knitters and found that they mostly did not want to share their stories because they thought that I would steal them and their knitting patterns which, during my R&D trip in 2018, raised the question of, ‘Who owns words once they are said?’
I have so many stories inside of me – so many seen and understood lives.
I want to create the daughter of Hope and Memory – Art- but this may now be through words and not images.
- The Very Reverend Ronald Beddoes, circa 1995 in the old vicarage, Edensor Village, Chatsworth Estate. b. 1912 d. 2000
- The Very Reverend Ronald Beddoes, circa 1995 in the old vicarage garden shed, Edensor Village, Chatsworth Estate. b. 1912 d. 2000
- Cai Gen Lin, The Old lane by the bridge off Ping Jiang Lu, Suzhou, China, March 30th 2009 b. 1945, the 2nd child of 9, when China was still in Civil War.