Edwina Ashton: Confronting the Absurd

1216 words

Louisa Elderton

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A lobster scuttles slowly across the floor of its cave, dragging its aquamarine tentacles as it goes, keeping its head low. It is chasing something. Not perceptible amongst the cluttered objects that adorn the cave, the object of chase is indicated by a tap tap tapping as it bounces on the floor and rolls away from the lobster. The creature bends, creaks downwards in search of the object it has just dropped. It grips a tiny plastic ball with its claw, so tentatively balanced between two fine points that it wobbles as the lobster rises. Turning on its axis, our lobster retraces the path that it has just walked, reengaging the task at hand, however unclear this may be to me. Just as it seems a moment of realisation is about to occur, the ball slips from the creature’s grip, and the irritating tap tap tap repeats, as the ball again rolls, but this time into a different position. Again, the object is searched out, only to be gathered and dropped again, once more. I leave the room with a knot in my stomach, unable to gain any release from this relentless action.

*   *   * 

Jerwood Arts hosted a focused discussion on Monday 28th March 2011 between artist Edwina Ashton, psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose, and writer and curator Patricia Ellis, which was mediated by Jerwood Encounters: SHOW curator Sarah Williams. Her curatorial thesis for SHOW focuses on performance as a medium for further consideration in contemporary visual arts practice, specifically exploring the durational context within which these works exist. Williams is interested in the ephemeral nature of performance art and is actively interrogating the ways in which these intangible works are often recorded through the adoption of alternative media—film, photography, written texts—with the aim of prolonging, or rather capturing, their existence.

The discussion itself opened up a plethora of interpretative readings of Edwina Ashton’s performance work, Peaceful serious creatures (lobster arranging) —which was commissioned especially for this Jerwood Arts exhibition—and indeed her oeuvre more generally was touched upon. Themes of absurdity, anthropomorphism and ‘Britishness’ were explored by Grose and Ellis, with a focus on the dark humour that resultantly permeates the artist’s practice.


Edwina Ashton, Peaceful serious creatrues (lobster arranging), 2011. Image: Jerwood Visual Arts


Ashton described the performance of a live moment as ‘totally terrifying,’ [1] specifying that this was one of the reasons why costume became a strong element that pervaded her works. Repeated actions, unexpected outcomes, and unpredictability characterise her performances, forcing a context of uncertainty. Unwittingly, the artist ‘started off not realising that I was performing at all,’ [2] creating videos and drawings that seemed to instill strange animal creatures with a sense of futility and disjointed isolation. Might these performances have escaped the artist’s subconscious, becoming manifest before her rational self had time to cognate these activities?

An innate performativity saturates her video works in particular, as the anthropomorphic actions of creatures are given time to play out; the artist articulated how she would repeat specific movements over and over again until she felt they were right. With performance, of course, this ability to retract, replay or recreate your movements beyond the radar of the viewer is absent, leaving a realm in which anything must go; faced with this mode of perception, the artist is ‘feeling my way through it,’ [3] embracing the unpredictability of the live moment. [4]

Peaceful serious creatures (lobster arranging) is not a constant durational work, but is enacted every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon within the Jerwood Arts exhibition space. Although the artist sites the strong narrative structure that frames the work it nonetheless leaves room for the audience’s own interpretation. Relics or props (or even sculptures in their own right?) from the performance continue to occupy the cave, even when the lobster is hibernating out of sight, fusing sculpture with live performance; space is left for the viewer’s imagination to engage in its own performance, completing the scene and building a story that might consolidate the static environment. The in-between moments are as potent and important as the active moments.

The Absurd

It made me question my will to live. [5]

Anouchka Grose sited the absurdity and silliness of Edwina Ashton’s performance, but underlined its realness. How can these factors coexist? Using the philosophy presented by Camus’ text The Myth of Sisyphus, an essay originally published in French in 1942, Grose discussed how the situation of Sisyphus, condemned to forever repeat the meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain only to then see it repetitively rolling down again, was relevant to Peaceful serious creatures (lobster arranging). Although originally inspired by the artist’s mother and her instinct for arranging and rearranging, [6] there is no clear purpose or taxonomy to the lobster’s organising and thus there is a frustrating sense of watching pointlessness, and certainly of observing ineptitude. Camus’ philosophy of the absurd is resultantly conjured and man’s futile search for meaning, eternal truths, and value structures seems to resonate within the cave, to engage the viewer in existential thoughts of why we are here and what the purpose of existence really is—or put more simply, activating ideas of existence and meaning to consider where the viewer might fit with this.

This confrontation of the absurd, the acceptance of observing ineptitude, the frustrating presence of endless and pointless repetition ultimately precipitates an atmosphere of hilarity…for what else can we do but laugh?

Embedded ‘Britishness’

The animal is always the underdog … I found myself laughing hysterically all the time. [7]

Patricia Ellis focused on the anthropomorphic qualities of Edwina Ashton’s creatures, underlining her profound sense of personal affinity with the lobster despite nothing of finite consequence actually happening within the space. An embedded ‘Britishness’ pervades the artist’s work for Ellis, as she sees a determination in the actions and tasks of these animals; a politeness and etiquette seemingly permeates the creature’s activities–characteristics that she intrinsically links with the notion of being British. More specifically, she feels this creature ‘just keeps going until it gets it right.’ [8] Forcing a confrontation of the absurd in the acceptance of this politeness and etiquette fused with the futile actions of the lobster is what beckons the hilarity of this work. However, this is ultimately tinged with sadness, as we feel the lobster will never really be understood. Perhaps we won’t either.

Edwina Ashton, 2011. Image: Jerwood Arts


Sarah Williams, Anouchka Grose, Patricia Ellis, Edwina Ashton, 2011. Image: Jerwood Arts                                                           

[1] Edwina Aston, quotation recorded by author at Jerwood Arts’ discussion between Edwina Ashton, Anouchka Grose, Patricia Ellis and Sarah Williams, 28th March 2011, 6.15 pm.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] No finite plan was implemented for the realisation of Peaceful serious creatures (lobster arranging), and therefore it is very much playing out in real time, its innate unpredictability intrinsic to the meaning of the work.

[5] Anouchka Grose, quotation recorded by author at Jerwood Arts’ discussion between Edwina Ashton, Anouchka Grose, Patricia Ellis and Sarah Williams, 28th March 2011, 6.15 pm.

[6] Edwinda Ashton described her mother’s tendency to arrange objects with the aim of ‘homemaking,’ and subsequently Edwina has invited her mother to assume the role of the lobster for one afternoon to arrange the cave in whatever way seems fit.

[7] Patricia Ellis, quotation recorded by author at Jerwood Arts’ discussion between Edwina Ashton, Anouchka Grose, Patricia Ellis and Sarah Williams, 28th March 2011, 6.15 pm.

[8] Ibid.