The Art and Life of Dee Ridley: Part Two – Nettle Sting
In the second instalment of a series of creative texts by writer Jo Manby, her character Dee Ridley attends the preview of ‘Niina Lehtonen Braun: The Girl & the Nettle’ at PAPER in Manchester. Read part one, here.
On Monday, I meet Richard and tell him I’m thinking of subletting my apartment (shithole that it is). Does he know anyone who might be interested? I’m going to sort myself out with a place in Manchester.
- What about Camille? he asks, a few pints in.
- I’m going to keep working for her. Foot in both camps, you know?
- Good idea.
I go round to Camille’s the next day. She buzzes me in on the intercom and opens the door wearing a silky green dress that makes me think of springtime, and a delicate gold necklace which she plays with whilst on the phone to her dad, Perry.
- You can’t rope Ridley into something like that.
Sauntering back over to the sofa, she starts leafing back-to-front through a stray magazine.
- Because it’s unfair, that’s why.
As if remembering I’m in the room, she looks up and gestures for me to sit down.
- Oh, for goodness’s sake.
Snapping the phone shut in exasperation, she grabs the thin chain at the back of her neck, pulling it upwards like a garrotte.
- So, what exactly is Perry trying to ‘rope me in on’ now? I ask.
- He just can’t drop this art scam idea of his.
I shrug. I’ve seen some of the kind of nonsense the guy wants to offload on unsuspecting punters. Most of the pieces are so blatantly obvious – stuff masquerading as Russian Constructivism which are just collaged bits and pieces stuck onto brand-new cartridge paper.
- He’s got the wrong person.
- No point in telling me that. You’ll have to go and set him straight again yourself.
I head over to Perry’s office. Through the plate glass doors. Across the gilt-edged atrium. Into the lift. Up to the eighth floor. Down the carpeted corridor. Knock. Silence, as usual. I sigh. Knock louder. No answer. I bang.
- No need to bash the fucking door in, Ridley, he says, for the hundredth time.
The room is painted black – not only the four walls but also the ceiling. He sits behind a massive desk dotted with onyx ornaments and basalt paperweights. Piles of paperwork offset like contour lines on a map of Antarctica. The curtains and carpet are black too.
After a bit of to and fro, I cut to the chase. While I am not saying I’m someone who can’t be bought (everyone has their price), I’m quite happy how I am, thanks, and will not be taking him up on his latest ‘business offer’.
- What is it with you and my daughter, Ridley? He barks. You’re clearly a person of no fixed employment. Get out of my office.
As I step over the threshold a paperknife embeds itself in the door jamb.
I jump on the train to Manchester at Euston the next day and spend the journey weighing up the advantages of living in a city centre apartment versus the suburbs. I could have a proper house for once, with actual stairs and a garden.
Sitting near me, two 30-something-year-olds are discussing how they’ve exhausted all available city break options. Prague? Done that. Vienna? Yep. Tallinn? A few times now.
- Good job we got it all in before Brexit, one of them says. We might not be allowed to even leave the UK soon.
I contemplate how much attention they pay to the places they visit, or if they just get pissed in bars and pass out on their Airbnb beds. I then wonder if they’ll mention Helsinki, but they don’t. (There’s a lot of places they don’t mention.)
Though she’s now based in Berlin, Helsinki is the birthplace of artist Niina Lehtonen Braun, whose new show – ‘The Girl and The Nettle’ – I’m travelling over for the preview of at PAPER this evening. I finish reading about it as the train pulls in. The roles women are expected to fulfil; what it means to be a woman today. Sounds as timely as timeless.
After meeting up with my mate Will for something to eat, we split and I start to make my way over to the gallery. Retracing my steps from last time, my mind floats back to Niina’s work. I heard she published an artist book a couple of years back in which each of the pieces were made from a stack of office papers that a friend’s mother gave her. (These Foolish Things Remind Me of You, it was called.) Satisfyingly simple, just like paper itself.
Continuing to walk, I realise how much I’ve always loved the material. Printed spreadsheets. A wad of purchase orders. Pads of receipts. A typed-out manuscript. Blueprints. The feel of pages curling; crisp and dry to the touch. The flick of highlighter fluid oozing into an A4. The shirring of a ream as you aerate it.
But then my thoughts abruptly switch to Tamsin and I experience a pang of nerves. We’ve kept in touch since the last show, ‘Native: Manchester’, where she surprised me with her frank sense of ease. Will she be there again tonight?
The gallery is much easier to find this time. Entering, I pause for a moment to let the subtle but luminous layers of transparent paint seep into my line of vision. Delicately cut collages featuring pressed nettle leaves and tombstones bearing strange inscriptions like ‘A dormez vous’ and ‘I am the sum of all my parents’ faults’. Mysterious female figures brood, sulk, divine, pray, drink and muse in bowers and groves; the seasons flooding in with darts of green and aquamarine. Magical landscapes glow off the four black walls.
Another female presence interrupts my gaze; Tamsin. After not much small talk, she asks what it is I really do. I must admit I’ve been evasive on that point.
- I’m an… assayer.
- What’s that?
- I assay things. Appraise them. Weigh them up.
- Who for?
- Do you always ask so many questions?
- Why are you being so secretive? You’re clearly connected to the art scene. Do you make work yourself?
I stay silent.
- You take yourself too seriously.
- I don’t, believe me.
- I think you do.
She turns back to the show. I follow her lead but choose a different wall.
Re-focusing my attention, the first thing I’m struck by is the way the artist animates her watery skies. Clots of paint threaten bad weather or ill tidings, while dark clouds lift in places to reveal milky light. Each piece reverberates with conflicting emotions: guilt, obsession, depression, courage, joy. An outward projection of these women’s inner lives?
In Girl with a Nettle, a small figure with a chignon, black tights and a jacket draped over one shoulder turns her head to look at the lowering, thundery mass of inky wash and the three pressed nettle leaves bearing down above her like a portent. A pink outlined loop like a huge plant cell forms a boundary around her crouching body. I wonder if she occupies a safe place or a prison. Does the bubble represent her thoughts, dreams, nightmares? The ambiguity is matched by the wandering fluidity of the paint.
Moving on to the next piece, a woman with cropped hair and no clothes except a scrap of shawl perches on a spindly desk watching the 1972 classic, Fellini’s Roma, on a little black and white TV, surrounded by an outer halo of darkness. Complicit in the air of menace, she pours a dark liquid (ink? wine? poison?) out of a black bottle. A black balloon hovers overhead. Perhaps the balloon is a symbol of oppression? But that doesn’t feel quite right. I make a mental note to ask Tamsin what she thinks when we next speak.
Unlike the previous two works, the subject of Untitled (Prayer) seems more apparent: the desperation of early motherhood. Four equally spaced silver birch trees overlay a satiny blue watercolour backdrop. Caught in between the two planes, a figure lies upon the floor, hands clasped in prayer, while a woman vomits(?) on-all-fours beside a plate of votive cakes and a parked-up Silver Cross style pram.
The woman hanging out washing in Untitled (Hanging Laundry) might also be a mother. She gazes down at two pubescent girls sitting playing on a mattress. As I peer in, I realise it’s neither or these things, but a corpse; while the toys scattered around them in fact turn out to be gravestones surrounded by bunches of flowers and boxes of spells. As with all of the works, the scene feels liminal; like it belongs to a dream. Themes of nature swirl around my head: healing, transformation, as well as sorrow, pain, addiction and death.
Eventually, I come back to Tamsin, who’s looking at a piece in the other corner of the crowded room.
- What do you think? I ask her.
- Of the work?
- Yeah – I find the scales interesting.
- You mean distance, depth, width, height? Those measures don’t mean anything here.
- As in?
- It’s women’s space.
- I see.
- No, you don’t, she says, quite matter-of-fact. How could you?
- Why would I not?
We fall out over this. What she says gets under my skin.
I notice Untitled (Mädchen Lass Los) and spend a while grasping at forgotten scraps of German before figuring out the title – ‘Girl Let Go’. The phrase speaks of things I can’t say to anyone. Memories of turbulent teenage years; blue ribbons of anxiety choking around my chest and throat. Small plates of appetising food pushed in front of me, one after another. You only have to eat a tiny bit, I promise. Just a tiny bit. Once I’ve finally pulled myself away, I realise Tamsin has left.
The last painting I take in before leaving is The Path. A girl in a little black dress and shoes walks down a road, holding a bottle of wine by the neck in each hand. A round circle of pink blusher on her cheek. Heading out of the night towards a horizon where the sun is about to blip up into a bright new day, she is alone and undaunted. I wonder which of her characters Niina identifies with most?
Back at Will’s, I message Tamsin.
- Sorry about earlier.
- It’s ok… same. She replies soon after.
- I take the plunge – Can I come round?
- Maybe. I’m just getting drunk alone in my underpants. ‘Kalsarikännit-style’.
There’s a brief pause. Then she follows up:
- (Joke – It’s that Finnish trend Niina mentioned in her statement, remember?)
When I arrive at hers, we walk through to the kitchen and she takes two bottles of wine from the fridge and hands me one. For a moment the fridge door is open, blaring out white light.
- I don’t have any glasses.
We spend the rest of the evening streaming Fellini’s Roma* and getting drunk alone together in our underpants.
* “[The work] Fellini´s Roma relates to a memory of watching the film on a small black and white television in Pispala (an area of the town of Tampere, Finland) in around 1996. It might be also a kind of ‘kalsarikännit’ situation. It’s a Finnish word that means ‘getting drunk alone at home in your underpants’.” Niina Lehtonen Braun, January 2019.
Niina Lehtonen Braun: The Girl and The Nettle, is an exhibition presented at PAPER Gallery, Manchester, 16 February – 30 March 2019.