Review: Josie Beszant, 'Treasured Fragments'
I stood there reading all the gravestones. Here was one from the late eighteenth century; there, one from the early nineteenth – grey, mouldering but still standing.
If my response to those memorials was deeper than usual on that day it was because I had already been thinking about memory inside the church. More particularly, I’d been thinking about the act of memorialisation. I was at St Mary’s in Masham, North Yorkshire, which was hosting the main exhibition of the Masham Arts Festival. Whilst wandering between the pews I had become quietly captivated by a group of works from Josie Beszant’s ‘Treasured Fragments’ sequence.
The full series of these works – which examine the nature of religious and non-religious reliquaries – was originally presented in its entirety in Southwell Minster Chapter House from 6th September 2013 to 27th September 2013. This small selection felt right at home in the more homely St Mary’s, their placement in front of the Wyvill Monument – itself a monumental act of memory – entirely fitting.
Beszant’s exploration of the more explicitly religious aspect of reliquaries is evident in ‘Devotions’. Here, nine partially burnt candles are displayed in a found case. Behind each there is a rough patch of gold leaf – a material being used here to represent the now extinguished glow of the flames and, at the same time, to gesture towards prized artefacts. Each of these candles, we must suppose, stands for a prayer or wish. They are the outward, public representations of inward, private acts of faith.
If the works on show explore how every devotional act is an act of memory then they also show how every act of memory is itself an act of devotion, and of love.
Nowhere is this clearer than in ‘All These Things She Kept in Her Heart’. This moving work is formed of a mid-sized bell jar filled with rolled sheets of parchment, each lovingly tied. By utilizing this glass dome Beszant seems to open the heart up to scrutiny and to make its contents – those ‘things’ kept inside it – the objects of a scientific gaze. And yet, by leaving those papers rolled up, the writing on them all but invisible, she defeats this same gaze. To this end it is correct to say that the ‘things’ of the work’s title are cryptic in the fullest sense of that word, and the seemingly examinable heart a crypt. Even as its secrets are made visible and vocalised they are rendered invisible. They are confined to silence. They are literally kept under lock and key.
Beszant explores a similar thematic in ‘Evidence of Our Love’. Here, fragments of written texts, together with sections from old photographs and stamps are placed in the three sections of a brass stamp box. These pieces, like those scrolls in ‘All These Things She Kept in Her Heart’, form a kind of testament of a love affair and of an attempt to hold on to a moment of time, fleeting and always escaping our grasp. The reification of these otherwise worthless objects in the reliquary shows how they can acquire an emotional value and how they can be given, over time, an almost magical, incantatory quality.
The most enigmatic piece on show is ‘183 Days’; an insect case, opened and stood on its end, containing the photograph of a man and a large number of cut paper butterflies. The fact that these are the same colour and have the same spotting as the box itself creates the impression that it’s the backing paper itself that has come to life and is lifting away. One possible narrative here, a twist on that of the collector, is that it’s the nineteenth-century butterfly hunter who’s himself pinned to his box whilst his prey escape. He has been collected. The idea that freedom is being examined here is supplemented by the counting off of the title’s 183 Days on the other side of the box.
These pieces have an aged, lost and found sadness to them that is more than just an effect of their being partly composed of found objects. They are well-executed, meditative and, ultimately, movingly elegiac.
For more information about Josie Beszant and her work, please see her website: http://www.josiebeszant.co.uk/
For more information about the Masham Arts Festival please see the Creative Masham website:
© James Holden 2013
Published Wednesday 30th October 2013