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The White Lady’s Casket: a site-specific text work for Bishops’ House
The White Lady’s Casket was created as an installation text for the exhibition Buildings and Contents: contemporary art in a museum context, 26 October 1996 – 23 November 1996 held at Bishops’ House, Sheffield. This exhibition featured new site-specific works by members of Sheffield Contemporary Arts Trust. Permission for the exhibition was granted by Sheffield City Museums, and the event was supported by Sheffield Art & Museums and Yorkshire & Humberside Arts. Photos of the original exhibition installation can be seen online in Litter e-zine
I was one of fourteen Sheffield-based artists to contribute to the first exhibition of its kind for the city’s oldest remaining timber framed building. For more than two decades the Bishops’ House has been used as a public museum which seeks, in the words of its own publicity, ‘to explore the lives of those who have lived and worked in Sheffield from 1500 to the present day’.
I used the words of the Bishops’ House Information Sheet in a cut-up procedure, selecting them in random groups and then composing sentences and phrases with them. These fragments of text offer an imaginative engagement with the house and its past by the re-presentation of a historic language embedded in the past of the building itself, like a form of automatic writing. These imitation fragments of historic writings were distributed about the house, in the walls, floors, doors and windows. Over the month that the exhibition took place I visited occasionally to move these fragments about, removing some and bringing new ones in, in imitation of a poltergeist-type movement of objects. This procedure and the titling of the work allude to the two stories of hauntings associated with the house, the White Lady apparition, and the poltergeist that opens the small locked casket in the bedchamber. The random cut-up procedure, and the effects this brings about in language, also express the ambience of the unpredictable and bizarre nature of these manifestations.
In the creation of this text work I used imaginative techniques to try and ‘remember’, and even though this is a ‘false’ memory it was my hope that this would trigger new ideas about the innumerable forgotten people and events belonging to the house. Museums and history are cultural constructions that both remind us and allow us to forget.
The White Lady’s Casket was also published as a poetic sequence in a handmade book for sale at the 1996 exhibition in a signed limited edition of 20. The entire text generated for this exhibition was reproduced in this publication, together with a short essay.
In Spring 2002 Reality Street Editions republished the entire text of The White Lady’s Casket with a revised essay as afterword in the volume Renga + (ISBN 1-874400-19-9) including writings by Guy Barker, Elizabeth James and Peter Manson.
A commissioned recording of extracts of The White Lady’s Casket can be heard at Christine Kennedy’s writer’s page at The Archive of The Now website.
In March 2012 I gave a lecture on the project of The White Lady’s Casket to undergraduate creative writing students at the University of Derby, and followed this with a related creative writing session.
The opening passage of The White Lady’s Casket is included in The Sheffield Anthology: Poems of the City Imagined, edited by Ann Sansom, Peter Sansom, Adam Piette and Agnes Lehoczky, published by Smith/Doorstop Books in September 2012.
A new signed limited edition pamphlet was created for the occasion of “Environmental Utterance” [a performative conference: making there here] held in University College Falmouth 1&2 September 2012. My conference paper discussing The White Lady’s Casket was entitled ‘‘The generations spiral back’ installation, performance and text’. Visit the Environmental Utterance blog to learn more about this conference, and visit The Cherry On The Top Press blog for information on the pamphlet.
Researching my paper prompted me to revisit Bishops’ House and make contact with The Friends of Bishops’ House who work voluntarily to keep the building open to the public with a programme of events and activities. In 2011 the building fell victim to public funding cuts, and since then is no longer staffed by Museums Sheffield. The Friends are working towards their aim of making the house into a trust so it may remain in perpetuity for the people of Sheffield as a social history and cultural centre.
On Halloween night 2012 I gave the first ever full-length public reading of The White Lady’s Casket as an experimental verse drama with a cast of three speakers. This took place at Bishops’ House and all ticket proceeds were for the benefit of the Friends house campaign. Details of the event were posted in this blog for October 2012 and post-event info in December 2012.