A Return to Victoriana: Maggy Milner and Tracey Emin (NVA, 2011)


Brian Walden: Obviously Britain today is a very different country from the one it was in Victorian times, when there was great poverty and great wealth, but you’ve really outlined an approval of what I would call Victorian values. Now is that right?

Margaret Thatcher: Oh exactly. Very much so. Those were the values when our country became great and when so much advance was made. Colossal advance. As people prospered themselves, so they gave great voluntary things to the State…

(Weekend World interview, LWT, 16 January 1983)

“In an attempt to reduce the parish’s escalating poor-rates bill, the provision of out-relief was abolished and the workhouse became the only form of relief on offer to the destitute. The regime in the workhouse was intended to deter any applicants who were not truly needy. Males, females and children were housed separately and not allowed to communicate with each other, or with friends outside…”

(from Southwell Workhouse, in The Workhouse: Story of an Institution)

The statement of a return to Victorian values as a touchstone for late twentieth century Conservatism wasn’t suggested by Margaret Thatcher herself, as popular legend has it, but inferred from her stated position by Brian Walden during a 1983 interview, an inference that she immediately and enthusiastically embraced. Ever since, the ideal of thrift and hard work, the language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ beneficiaries of assistance, the notion that a Welfare State might ‘spoil’ the poor into dependency, have all circulated to greater or lesser degree in public debate on questions surrounding responses to inequality and poverty.

So perhaps it’s not too surprising that, with another Conservative government in power, cutting public spending and suggesting punitive measures at the bottom end of society while proposing ever more incentives and perks for the upper deciles, we’re also seeing the emergence of an art with roots in the same ongoing conflict between Victorian and contemporary ideas that fuelled the earlier formation of The Brotherhood of Ruralists in the 1970s, and the more general revival of self-consciously illustrative and narrative styles of painting in the 1980s.

Not many things would appear to obviously connect A Delicate Balance, a series of seven installations by Nottinghamshire based artist and photographer Maggy Milner inside Southwell Workhouse, with Tracey Emin’s Love Is What You Want, a large scale retrospective inside the concrete labyrinth of the Hayward Gallery, beautifully curated by Cliff Lauson and Ralph Rugoff. Yet despite the many differences between these shows, the coincidence of seeing both in close proximity, in the aftermath of widespread rioting and looting in British cities, suggests that this link back to a Victorian perspective resonates strongly through both bodies of work.

In Milner’s case, that is explicitly the result of her dialogue with a building – now owned and maintained by the National Trust – with its origins in attempts to reform the poor during the early Victorian era. As designed and founded in 1824 by the Rev. John Thomas Becher, an unlikely early friend of Lord Byron and prebendary of Southwell, the current Workhouse replaced an earlier, smaller design built in 1808, and both incarnations of the town Workhouse put into practice Becher’s belief that these institutions should act, in effect, as a deterrent to poverty, to be operated by their patrons:

…with tenderness towards the Infirm and the Guiltless Poor, but opposing by every legal effort the overwhelming Advances of idle, profligate and sturdy pauperism. (Becher, 1824)

The present-day building is one of few to survive intact from this era, and is a largely deserted complex of corridors and rooms arranged around a central hub. Its spaces are maintained in various states of repair, ranging from semi-derelict to immaculately (if plainly) restored, and the building as a whole seems isolated, institutional and severe in appearance from the moment of entry. Into some of these atmospheric spaces Milner has placed a series of interventions, many picking up on Becher’s obsession with labelling and grading the poor in ways that remain all too familiar almost two centuries later.

In the segregated male courtyard is Hard Labour (2011), a grid of white plaster casts of hands, male and female, old and young, ordered by size on a bed of broken grey grit-stone of the kind male inmates were required to crush during long working days. Yet while these fragile hands at first seem to be opening, as though plaintively requesting relief, it’s also possible that they might be closing, frozen in the process of becoming clenched fists: a hint at the reform movements, suffrage campaigns and collective action that would emerge over the coming decades, laying the foundations for a modern Welfare State that would finally end the stigmatization and personal shame long attached to systemic poverty.

The folded t-shirts arranged on the Committee Room meeting table in Classification (2011) take this line of thought further, echoing the retail style usually found in luxuriously minimal designer clothes shops even as each garment is printed with one of the seven major categories into which Becher’s Workhouse inmates were divided on arrival: Undeserving Poor Male; Child 0 – 7; Elderly and Infirm Woman. Each garment has a small tag attached warning that the items on view may be sweat-shop products, and the display sits beneath portraits of Becher himself (his hand shiftily concealed inside his jacket) and a print showing Victoria in her early finery and pomp: a clock ticks heavily in the otherwise bare room. Yet this direct equation of twenty-first century exploitation and punitive Victorian attitudes towards poverty is not the dominant approach to be found in the rest of Milner’s work here.

Instead, the overall tone is more elegiac and ambiguous with several installations featuring objects – white balloons inside transparent tubes, paper bowls weighted with copper pennies, fruit decaying in glass jars – arranged in grid patterns on the floor or on shelves to blur the boundaries between single objects and their wider fields, as though the component parts might be read as individual inmates and the larger works as the institution that contains their barely perceptible differences within its own arbitrary classifications. The resulting works draw on an appropriately Victorian aura as the fragile hand-made paper bowls in More (2011) barely withstand the Workhouse draughts, or the white balloons in Deflation (2011) slowly deplete their reserves of helium and sink deeper into their tubes under the weight of the metal tags that define them, like ghostly sighs of resignation.

It’s this often unashamedly theatrical appeal, the tendency to press for an emotional response, a sense of the object as memento mori, the handcrafted and imperfect approach to the embodiment of memories and ideas, that Milner shares with Tracey Emin. This is especially notable when Milner’s ideas are contrasted with such works as Emin’s ongoing series of text-covered blankets, which seem to echo the form of trades union movement and women’s suffrage banners but use it as a vehicle for the assertion of an entirely personal history at odds with the collective ideals implied by the form of the hangings themselves: works like Hotel International (1993) or It’s the way we think (2004) might be the paraphernalia of a protest march involving just one person, the chaotic fragments of Emin’s personal biography standing in for a coherent programme of demands.

This individualistic approach makes Emin’s declaration of support for the Conservative Party and highly public expression of dislike for taxation ahead of the 2010 election less surprising than it seemed to many at the time: here, after all, is the personal realm taking over public space, the inarticulate declaration and cry for attention as a way of comprehending the world. Where superficially similar feminist artworks like Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document (1973 – 9) took a coolly conceptual approach to intimate experiences (in Kelly’s case pregnancy and domestic mother-child relationships) Emin declares the authenticity of her statements self-sufficient and heightens the emotional content, continually resisting any kind of broader analysis in favour of a highly efficient tabloid melodrama.

If this is one link between Emin’s output and a Victorian mindset, other clues to Emin’s grounding in certain strains of Victorian thinking are also much in evidence. There’s something of Christina Rossetti’s tendency to poetically anticipate her own grave in Emin’s Death Mask (2004), where the artist’s own face is cast, painted and placed inside a vitrine on a quilted pillow as though to preserve her appearance after premature death. In Menphis (2003 – the title is the misspelt name of a once important but now ruined Ancient Egyptian city) Emin preserves hospital wristbands, miniature ornaments and other private paraphernalia, each object linked to a moment of emotional distress or partial revelation then displayed with a handwritten anecdote explaining its significance: the white cube is transformed into a kind of minimalist Victorian mantelpiece.

The stories that emerge in Menphis suggest that Emin might once (certainly in Becher’s day) have been a candidate for classification as one of Milner’s Workhouse children herself, especially given the various family dysfunctions she so meticulously catalogues in her affecting written vignettes. Perhaps there’s also a hint of this possibility in Little Coffins (2002) with its poignant wooden drawers arranged on the ground, awaiting small bodies, a direct and melodramatic appeal to the emotions that carries through elsewhere: in the abandoned pink wool of The first time I was pregnant I began to crochet the baby a shawl (1998 – 2004) and the abandoned toys and shoes of Baby Things (2008), for example. All are as unashamedly sentimental in their impact on the viewer as the deaths of child characters in Charles Dickens’ reformist novels or such emotionally manipulative Victorian paintings as John Everett Millais’ The Blind Girl (1856) and Augustus Leopold Egg’s Past and Present (1858).

Yet Emin’s apparent identification with the views held about the poor by men like Becher rather than the poor themselves is also visible here. Sentiment may engage Emin’s art with the implied fate of the underdog, as it did for Victorian reformers when they considered the sad fates of the virtuous, but in Emin’s earliest surviving work, an entrepreneurial subscription scheme initiated in 1992 that invited eighty correspondents to ‘invest in my creative potential’ she also demonstrates a willingness to exploit her own private tragedies and early failures to improve her position. It’s an approach that seems entirely consistent with our own moment’s ruthless commodification of personal experience by way of the ‘misery memoir’ and the reality TV show. It’s a spirit also glimpsed in the appealing directness of There’s a lot of money in chairs (1994) where Emin stitches her grandmother’s casual left-field remark onto an upholstered green chair: a chair inherited from that same grandmother and put on display as an artwork for sale.

While Emin uses many familiar Victorian techniques to forge the connections between her work and its audience, then, from narrative to melodrama, emotional heightening to traditional domestic craft, the content is rarely concerned with wider social contexts or questions. Where Milner’s installation at Southwell Workhouse shares something of Mary Kelly’s analytical approach, balancing each piece – as the overall title suggests – between a sense of each emblematic object as an individual and collective presence within the institutional space, Emin’s work leans towards a more confrontational sense of identity, drawing on the often neglected connection between Thatcherism and punk insofar as both, in their different ways, throw down the single self and its anger, nihilism and personal virtue as a protest against the social structures that produced them.

If Milner’s interventions seem tentative and attuned to their settings, allowing ambiguities free play, Emin’s tend to assert themselves more forcefully, even when the effect is at its lowest key, as in the broken pier and inaccessible space of Knowing My Enemy (2002) or the fantasy of Emin as a Turkish bride performing in the Spaghetti Western desert of Sometimes the dress is worth more money than the money (2001) which might be drawn from the visual repertoire of Lord Leighton. Yet in both these artists’ work the sense of connection to Victorian approaches and debates seems prominent, and while a few threads glimpsed in two very different exhibitions might appear less than conclusive, it’ll be interesting to see if this inclination towards nineteenth century modes marks a shift that may yet turn out to be significant, as artists respond to a highly charged temperature drop in the cultural climate.

Maggy Milner Hard Labour (2011)

Maggy Milner: A Delicate Balance (Southwell Workhouse, 4 Aug – 4 Sept 2011)
Tracey Emin: Love Is What You Want (Hayward Gallery, 18 May – 19 August 2011)


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