For Autograph's project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other, we commissioned ten UK-based visual artists to create new bodies of work in response to the wider context of the global pandemic. We then invited ten writers – each paired with one of the artists – to produce a short reflective essay contextualising these new artworks made.
Inspired by Sonal Kantaria's still and moving imagery in Ghar (2020), Lola Young weaves together ideas and memories of 'home', in a deeply personal essay that traverses the city and the countryside shaped by evocative cloudscapes and all they symbolise.
City, Country, City ¹
Let me begin by saying to Sonal Kantaria, 'Thank you for the series of images and films entitled Ghar.' When I looked at the photographs of the traces of human activity in the countryside setting, but especially when I saw those beautiful clouds, I was reminded of some history I was carrying around with me.
Eight, or maybe it was nine years ago, I had to perform a task that I knew would be profoundly upsetting. It was a case of really not having been careful enough about what I wished for.
A deep longing for knowledge needed satisfying and now the moment had come; it was causing too much anxiety to absorb. So, I went walking. Again and again – I went for long walks through streets, through parks, through fields to stave off the moment. Walked whenever and wherever possible. ‘I’m an obsessive walker’, I would laugh when colleagues asked why. Since I was a child, my twin preoccupations have been reading and walking. As a consequence, I actually bumped into a lamp post while I was reading The Wind in the Willows.
Still, I could not escape childhood insecurity and loneliness.
The city has been good to me, and I intended to stay friends forever with its choked roads and hidden alleyways. Even so, I longed for open fields, sea views, crumbling cliffs and the different tasting air.
On a school journey to the countryside, I did not want to go outside, did not want the staring. Those places were not places of safety for all of us. Too many trees or too few can be sinister, long wind-driven grasses’ susurrations threatening.
That task is on me now: it has to be completed.
"they say people and their emotions are as ephemeral as clouds"
The moody sky and dirty windows of the number 38 bus conspired to make reading the notes an undertaking that threatened my veneer of calm. My knees scrunched up uncomfortably against the seat in front, I flicked through the pages as my eyes became accustomed to the dim light.
The path that had led me to the documents had not been an easy one to take, and I wanted to start reading the material as soon as the files were in my possession. I glanced over my shoulder to see if anyone was craning their neck at the papers spread across my thighs, as the bus travelled in fits and starts along Rosebery Avenue. I resisted an urge to gather up all the papers and clutch them to my chest. This was not right: I should not have been reading the documents here like this. The place, the timing, the weather, were all wrong.
I have put it right now. I have left the buses, people and traffic behind, packed walking boots and waterproof gear, and hopped on a train to Cornwall. From the streets of London to the cloud streets of Falmouth.
We have booked into a former meteorological station, a tower that resembles a lighthouse, converted into a holiday home. One room on each floor and in sight of the sea and the harbour. The top floor has 360 degrees’ worth of windows. This is the right place to embark on the journey.
Watching the weather roll in feels right. The windows allow so much light into the room – a working room in which we sit and write in silence, apart from an occasional tap-click of laptop keys.
It is the clouds I love. Cumulus congestus with an overlay of stratocumulus. It is the lone bird wheeling in and out of sight among the clouds that are yet to decide what form they will take.
The shadows of human presence are embedded in this landscape. That is fine by me. Telegraph poles, pylons, they are us and our histories. No space untouched by human hand in this countryside.
Be careful when you say clouds are grey, meaning they are bland and lifeless, giving away no secrets. Cirrus spissatus speak: they say people and their emotions are as ephemeral as clouds. Birds know better than people what makes clouds so satisfying to observe. Trees would like us to know their views about them, but we do not want to listen.
It is the right time now. I open the files, ready to read the contents, observed only by the cloudscape.
¹ The title of this essay is a reference to the 12 minute instrumental song ‘City, Country, City’ by War, released in 1972 on their album The World is a Ghetto.
After an extensive career in acting, Baroness Lola Young became a professor of Cultural Studies, a writer, broadcaster and cultural critic. She has been an independent Crossbench member of the House of Lords since 2004, after serving as Head of Culture at the Greater London Authority for two years. She’s been on the Boards of numerous arts and cultural organisations, including the National Theatre, Historic England and the Southbank Centre.
Young has tackled racial disparity in the criminal justice system, and services for women and girls at risk. She’s a Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Looked After Children. While campaigning for the elimination of modern slavery in supply chains, Young founded and Co-Chairs All Party Parliamentary Groups on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, and on Sport, Modern Slavery and Human Rights. Since 2018, Young has been Co-Chair of the Foundation for Future London. She was appointed Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, and a Non-Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing in 2020.
You can follow Young on Twitter and Instagram.
See the full artist commission by Sonal Kantaria
Read an interview with the artist and Autograph's director Mark Sealy
Renée Mussai introduces the new artist commissions in a curatorial essay One (Pandemic) Year On...
Read the introduction to the Care | Contagion | Community project
Visit the Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other exhibition at Autograph's gallery
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Autograph is a place to see things differently. Since 1988, we have championed photography that explores issues of race, identity, representation, human rights and social justice, sharing how photographs reflect lived experiences and shape our understanding of ourselves and others.Donate Join our mailing list