Helen Cammock: I Decided I Want to Walk at Kate MacGarry, London

18 September 2020 By

“When you last did nothing, can you remember how it felt?” The text on one of the first works you encounter in this exhibition asks a loaded question these days. The pandemic, the lockdown, the isolating – all have pushed polarities of busyness and idleness into acute focus. Enforced cessation of work has been luxurious for some, desperation for others.

As the autumn comes on, institutions whose existence we took for granted – from universities and arts organisations to restaurant chains – find their functional logic shaky. Now daily announcements of redundancies make grim reading.

Our personal relationship to labour may also have been flipped on its head: women suddenly confined at home with family 24/7 find themselves free of the grinding daily commute but – as Francis Frascina has pointed out – driven back into the place they have spent decades escaping from.

The works in the exhibition here were made both before and during the lockdown, such that some – that echoing question about doing nothing – are eerily prescient, while others, including the title of the show, tightly connected responses to life during this crisis.

The earlier works were made during a residency at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridgeshire for an exhibition that opened just as the lockdown began. What were billboards there have been produced as crisp, colour saturated screen prints here. In a case, a series of wonderful, intimately scaled watercolours on paper are the product of the artist’s own time locked down at home.

One of the most recent pieces takes the form of a fabric banner: it’s aesthetic recalls trades union banners, and as such subtly connects with histories of struggles for workers’ rights.  Its text, however – I Decided I Want to Walk – seems to insist on solitary slowness, as if in refusal of the speed and efficiency of car, train or plane.

The major piece of work in the show is the 18 minute film They Call it Idlewild, shot at Wysing at the beginning of the year. It is visually seductive in its meditative exploration of the site – dew-covered fields, delicate cobwebs spun under clapboard, empty interiors in late afternoon winter sunshine.

The viewer is immersed in the ‘slow time’ of the artist, the thinking time afforded by a residency that lets the eye wander over the minutiae of their surroundings: steam escaping from a vent; an exploratory hand spinning a potter’s wheel.

The film is in part a paean to the generative nature of active quietude: the decision to leave the desk and go for a walk is to create the conditions for a different kind of thinking.

The voiceover, typically of Cammock’s work, is dense with allusion, quotation, political and philosophical ideas. She quotes Confucius: “Thinking leads to bewilderment. Thinking without action leads to idleness” and Audre Lorde’s essay Poetry is not a Luxury, making a case for the active state of reverie.

About halfway through the film, the artist sings the 1933 song Lazybones – lyrics written by Johnny Mercer with music by Hoagy Carmichael. One instantly recognises the southern cadences of the language and the familiarity of the music rendered by the artist’s rich, unaccompanied voice.

Cammock unpicks the way the song’s lyrics feed into the trope of the black man as irresponsible, well-fed and shiftless, sleeping the day away in the shade of a tree. Against this, she conjures the image of the plantation owner, slave owner, landed gentry, who never needed to work since their existence depended, parasitically, on the labour of the slave.

From here the narrative brings in recent scientific research that has revealed the ability of some migrating birds to go for seven days at a stretch without sleep: research that is being picked up by the military and imagines the possibility of the sleepless soldier, or the citizen perfectly fitted to the 24 hour global market for consumption. Sleep deprivation as a torture was developed alongside the phenomena of electric light and recorded sound. And on and on. Ideas tumble together, circling, probing the nature of idleness.

Concise, especially by comparison with some of her other films, They Call it Idlewild is a powerful work that posits questions with even greater layers of pertinence now that when it was made. I found myself avidly watching it twice around, catching new insights with each viewing.

Walking into the light-filled exhibition at Kate MacGarry’s space, buzzing with conversation, the unexpected pleasure of a chat with Kate herself – it is wonderful to be out and about. The experience is irreplaceable.

Caroline Douglas


Kate MacGarry, 27 Old Nichol Street, Shoreditch, London E2 7HR. Open Wednesday-Saturday12.00-18.00. Exhibition continues until 17 October 2020. www.katemacgarry.com