Hatch Twelve: Ellie Harrison and Roshana Rubin-Mayhew

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

Ellie Harrison and Roshana Rubin-Mayhew: What is Left?

Leaving the cafe behind, I wander through a door into the back of the main theatre at Embrace Arts, and what I find there is both intially surprising and strangely logical. Comfortable armchairs of the sort found in living rooms long before places like IKEA refurnished Britain’s homes are lined up, each one facing an easel on which a framed photograph of an individual holding an object of some description – a school bag, a length of ornately patterned cloth, a ceramic cat – is placed. Each portrait is glazed, initially suggesting a screen, but the images are still: fixed moments in time. The individual chairs hold a pair of headphones and a small booklet and await your attention.

Once seated, with the headphones on, it becomes clear that the people in the pictures are talking to us; or rather, they are talking to Ellie Harrison, whose questions we occasionally hear while we eavesdrop on those past conversations. As we listen still more, the references to the objects being held in the portraits become connected to other people, individuals whose faces we don’t see but are left to imagine as each speaker tries to explain why the object they’re holding evokes someone now dead: an absence. Often this is a parent, a father or mother, but sometimes it’s a school-friend or partner who died suddenly, in an accident, or after an illness.

Looking at the booklets, it’s possible to read ahead of the speaking voices on the audio, or return to a point earlier in a conversation we’ve entered midway through. Like the wide variety of objects and settings seen in Roshana Rubin-Mayhew’s vivid photographs, the tones of the stories and recollections vary, from comic and celebratory to tragic and unresolved. Harrison herself has explained the project’s origins in the anxiety triggered in her by the long, slow-moving opening sequence of Harold and Maude (1971):

“The space the film had given me to savour it was stunning. But I could feel my brain filling that space with ‘should I be watching a film at all when I have so much work?’…it was all quite stressful, this relaxing, this savouring. In feeling hurried by my life, I found myself hurrying the film along. Because if I slow down, take time, take care and enjoy the slowness…will anyone join me? Will the rest of the world let me slow down?”

It’s the slowness in the way the material unfolds that gives What is Left? its performative dimension. The chairs place us into face-to-face positions relative to the subjects yet it’s implied, too, that these photographs might be headstones, memorials or mirrors in which we sometimes catch an overlay of ourselves. Each section moves through time, as the audio unfolds, but the portraits remain static. Our sense of what these people represent shifts, perhaps making the work about the unknowability of others, both these strangers, whose stories we hear, and those closest to them, the absences at the heart of each encounter. As Harrison’s comment suggests, all we can give each other, finally, is the time to listen.

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