By Joanna Vestey
'Slap in the middle of England stands the city of Oxford, on an ancient crossroads beside the Thames. Its origins are obscure but its fame is universal, and it forms a national paradigm — in whose structure sometimes shadowy, sometimes splendidly sunlit, we may explore the history, the character and the condition of the English'
With my Custodians work I wanted to explore this further, looking at the 'structure' of Oxford that Morris refers to, and in particular what could be revealed by examining the relationship between the Oxford institutions that make up that structure and the individuals that occupied them. I set two criteria: the spaces had to be in Oxford, and each of the venues should select one person who would be seen within them as a ‘Custodian’. I was interested in how multiple time periods can be exposed by a single image, and how those images lead to broader questions about how institutions shape us, and we them.
These pictures all contain traces of other times. Some of the institutions that I photographed displayed a 'patina effect' - different periods layered on top of each other, sometimes only revealed by the work of the Custodian themselves. Mikhail Bakhtin created the term ‘chronotope’ to describe the relationship between time and space (space as a trace of time and time as a marker of space). He used it primarily to understand how a novel is created and defined the term literally as “time-space," the “intrinsic connectedness of spatial and temporal relationships” saying that “in the literary chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought out, concrete whole. Time thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history”.
To me, it is the presence of the ‘Custodian’ that often ‘thickens’ and helps the space ‘take on flesh’. Dr Jon Whiteley, photographed in the Randolph Sculpture Gallery in 2013, has recently retired after thirty-six years with the Ashmolean; he is photographed amongst the seventeenth century Arundel Collection of classic Greek and Roman statuary, the oldest collection of its type. I enjoyed the interplay between these different time periods - the thirty-six year career, the collection assembled in the seventeenth century, the objects themselves dating back several thousand years, the gap between when the image was made and again when it is being viewed. One aspect of stewardship is perhaps to allow us to make that linear journey through time to consider the history and long-term importance of the spaces.
Locating the traces of other times within these images is as much up to the viewer as the spaces themselves. Much as an archeologist viewing the layers of history would bring their knowledge of the past, these works require the viewer to bring his or her points of reference to perceiving how these spaces have been used through time and the people who may havepassed through them. The spaces and individuals stand as testimony to our knowledge and creativity, honouring the highest echelons of human achievement - think of the marble sculptures in the Randolph Gallery, or the structure of Christopher Wren's Sheldonian. The buildings themselves are notable, but what went on inside them is also to be celebrated and that depends on the knowledge and curiosity of the viewer. The Evolution Debate that took place between Charles Darwin and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in 1860 in the Oxford University Museum, the extraordinary achievements of so many of the alumni; twenty-six British Prime Ministers, at least fifty Nobel Prize winners, and over one hundred and twenty Olympic medal winners. Oxford is something of a pilgrimage site for visitors honouring not just the buildings, but what has been created, thought, or discussed inside them.
The buildings within all of these works have a sense of permanence. Buildings, and these in particular, are for perpetuity. It is the very contribution of these Custodians that furthers the existence of these spaces - preserving them, ensuring their permanence - yet our own time there is so seemingly fleeting, both as a visitor and for the Custodian themselves. The images acknowledge the role of the Custodians within the space yet at the same time there is a creeping sense of our human brevity when seen this way.
Within this series, I was curious whether the Custodians ‘owned’ the space or whether it ‘owned’ them - on the one hand the notion of the guardian, the conservator, furthering the magnificence of the spaces for future generations; on the other, the idea that the spaces themselves were leaving their mark on their caretakers. I was interested in whether these works would show them as shaped by these spaces or in disjunction to them, yet within the images the Custodians all seem to belong in the spaces yet do not fuse into one To my eye, some of them have almost taken on characteristics of the space; others are somehow distinct from them. Another question could be whether we belong in these spaces or do we still feel somehow excluded, even while getting this privileged access.
As well as the more metaphorical readings apparent I was also keen that the works would be a celebration of the spaces and particularly the role of the Custodians. The whole idea of custodianship - stewardship in its widest sense, some roles obvious, some less so - could warrant much appreciation and many more photographs.
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All images © Joanna Vestey
Joanna Vestey's book is available for sale here.