Subversive Objects: A Conversation with Annabel Dover
“Once upon a time there was a blue-girl named Annabel who lived in a small village in the north of England…”
So begins Like Weeds, an essay tale by artist historian and writer Carol Mavor in response to the work of artist Annabel Dover. The piece was written and published in a blue-drenched booklet for Market Project, an Arts Council England funded project in which eight writers were commissioned to produce short texts on eight participating artists. I pocketed this takeaway after my first visit to PAPER (Manchester) back in 2014, where a selection of Dover’s drawings and silverprints were presented in ‘PAPER #15: Unstable Ground’, a group show including works by George Shaw, Lisa Wilkens and Simon Woolham, among others, tucked into the tiny box-room gallery space behind the arches of Victoria train station.
Like weeds, thoughts of Dover’s work – bright as childhood toys, glistening like trinkets and jewels, and sunk deep into pocket corners – had been scattered, and took root in my mind. Following her on Instagram, exchanging emails, sharing joy and ideas, I have wanted to talk to her, to speak and write these weeds (often the most overlooked and unloved of nature’s offerings, but, for me, fruitful, wide-reaching and resilient) into being ever since.
One bright afternoon in April 2019, Annabel and I met on Facetime, and crackled uncertainly through dodgy Wi-Fi before continuing our conversation over the phone; sharing ideas, themes, stories and giving space for tales yet to be written. We trod gently around memory, dipped into traumas, despaired over the system, nested with marsh birds, inked over illustration and marvelled at scent.
A luminous scarf from a Leicester department store floats, a twisted jellyfish knotted with the past, held by light.
Born in Liverpool, studying first in Newcastle and then at Saint Martin’s in London, Dover plunged into a sea of blue at Wimbledon College, writing and making a practice-based PhD on the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins, the 19th-century godmother of photography. Derived from the Greek ‘cyan’ (blue-green) and ‘tupos’ (symbol or print), Dover’s works of flora, fauna, and found and fondled objects became the literal blueprints from which I began to explore her process of magpie-like collecting and the points of contact in her making.
Now based in Suffolk, Dover is nesting with seven-month-old miracle baby Larry Valentine and husband Alex in a forest-green wallpapered room or out in the garden under a parasol worthy of Xie Kitchen in a Charles Dodgson photograph. An uncomfortable reference point (Dogdson is the real name of Lewis Carroll who, whilst writing wonderlands, also befriended and photographed young girls; posing, framing and capturing them in the years before their adolescent development began) that nods to a complex past. Dover’s own childhood was warped by and wrapped in untruths, agonies and destructive familial relationships. This early entanglement with the unknown and the all-too-real is dunked, bathed and drowned in blue to make a photographic mouth for speaking of contact with the past that is held within her body and being. Birthed into being by light exposure on photographic paper.
Marshall & Snellgrove (2011) appears all at once as lightbulb, embryo, mesmerising sea creature and biology lab specimen. In truth it is a cyanotype print of a knotted silk scarf found in the home (not the family home) in which Dover lived at one point in her younger life. Taking its title from a Leicester department store (a provincial Harrods), scarves such as this one might otherwise be discovered in decorative papered boxes (still available today on eBay), presented as a keepsake and a thing of fashionable beauty to the wearer. In Dover’s cyanotype, the scarf bobs and floats, hovers between impression and imprint; dangerous, translucent and ethereal like a jellyfish. An isolated object from the past pressed into a new present, a gift from a younger Dover to her older self, and from the artist to the viewer.
Under Dover’s hand, objects become vessels. Their purpose denotes that they hold and she creates containers of the past. She presents them to be traced and impressed upon by the viewer’s gaze. These silent objects, sometimes haunting, sometimes joyous, seemingly playful or nostalgic, are simultaneously urns containing crumbled pasts and desolate presences. Dover presents objects both held and found; her gift is in her exposure of them and her space-making for our exposure to them.
In ‘Unstable Ground’, Dover also presented a drawing of a kangaroo tape measure in coloured pencil – a child’s toy for both play and learning. Small and isolated on a clean white page, it appeared as an unknown island, a fragment from a life. For some, it might have brought joy, with its kitsch blue wicker basket and big doe-eyes. For others, it could have held the capacity to trigger – its unraveling tape serving as a strange umbilical cord between what has been and what is now. Dover’s work turns the paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s idea of the transitional object of child psychology on its head. Rather than being an item (often a toy or a blanket) that comforts the child through its experience and understanding of the ‘me and not me’ in a growing awareness of the difference between itself and the mother, Dover’s kangaroo holds. In her work, she draws out the child’s developmental phase and suspends it – subverting security through the representation of isolated objects, capturing the anxiety of separation and individualisation. These intimate objects become both alienated and familiar through their rendering in the everydayness of coloured pencil, line drawing and watercolour inks.
An icon of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, scraped in silverpoint.
Alongside the candid kangaroo, a silverprint St. Anthony icon looked down from the gallery walls at PAPER. Vestment robes like wings and a haloing crown contrast significantly with the solid base that replaces the feet of the icon and plants him firmly on a living room mantelpiece or a bedside table. Like the luminous scarf-jellyfish of Marshall & Snellgrove, he both floats and solidifies before us; suspended in a non-place between semi-translucent, glistening silver and the open expanse of gesso around him. As the patron saint of lost things, here he becomes an embodiment of the non-place of having and finding, owning and holding. Here, St. Anthony is utopia’s undoing.
If it feels as though I’m speaking in riddles, I am. Treading a careful tightrope between putting words in the mouth of someone whose voice I have only recently come to know, and refraining from painting impressions that are not my own. With-holding. Dover’s experience is unique and individual. Her childhood, whilst shared with her sisters, is singular. Her representations, explorations, and excavations of it are her own. These are her tales to tell and render as is her want, need, choice, compulsion or desire. In her mark-making, Dover is free to allow the viewer to be marked by and remark upon them. It is not for me to question if she is subverting or storytelling. Instead, it is her gift to me, or to us, the viewer, to hold these objects close. To find them strange or familiar, and/or to be compelled to want to hold them closer still and to wrap our own stories or impressions around them. There is a complex language play at work that cannot simply be reduced to binaries of signifiers versus signifieds, tokens or symbols, relics or re-awakenings.
Following a stroke in 2015, Dover returned to a more playful, immediate form of mark-making during the years of her recovery. Her practice became more vital, fruitful and abundant. She started to produce impressions of the things around her that brought joy and allowed for creativity as a form of recuperation. Watercolours of birds, feathers, trinkets, nests, eggs, flowers, dogs became the sketched impressions of reconnecting with the world and a desire for vibrant seeing and living. Around this time, she also began to make marks in the realm of commissioned illustration. Her alter-ego La Rousse (a nod to Dover’s ember-red hair – a PreRaphaelite’s dream) made waves in the cosmetic and perfume worlds thanks to likes and shares on Instagram by industry journalists and experts. The Guardian’s resident beauty columnist Sali Hughes ‘regrammed’ some of Dover’s posts and the images gained both traction and commissions. Bold, bright prints of Marimekko patterned Clinique cases for National Lipstick Day were followed by limited edition prints of bouquet-laden swallows, and Dover has counted high-end stationers Smythson and designer department store Harvey Nichols among her clients.
During our conversation, we mulled over the notion that this movement between exhibiting artist and commissioned illustrator is not so binary after all. The objects around which her practice centres are always tangible and sensory. Bottles of favourite perfumes are scented with memory, whilst depictions of animals and birds speak of shared experiences, memories and beloveds; moving between emblems of life and loss. Silk scarves or cosmetic cases hover between department store mannequins or patterned boxes, and the unseen wearer and the homes in which they will come to dwell. These are objects that move with us whilst we are simultaneously moved by them. We adorn our homes and bodies with objects of commodity and beauty as a means to move through social and domestic spaces, defining our presence within them. Traversing the terrain between commodity, exchange and interaction, the objects are chosen, selected in order to allow ourselves to be remarked upon. We apply them and use them as modes of expression and representation.
Archaic busts and contemporary debris from the Ancient Agora lie beside treasured and secret-keeping toys from the City Plaza Refugee Hostel, Athens.
Dover’s work is predominantly two-dimensional. Whilst her pieces often have their origins in tangible objects, they are habitually represented as prints, drawings, photographs, publications, sketches and washes. In her 2017 British Council residency at the British School of Athens in Greece, Dover’s practice moved between mediums to present two realms of exploration and excavation between the ancient and the modern everyday. During the three month trip that was both challenging and inspiring, feeling somewhat isolated amongst the privilege of the British School residency, whilst Greece’s political and social economy crumbled like the ruins of the historic city’s backdrop, Dover stepped beyond the parameters of the accommodation and studio in order to explore a contemporary relationship to the past and present.
Undertaking voluntary work at the City Plaza Refugee Hostel (a former hotel-come-unofficial-squat-sanctuary for displaced people), Dover looked to objects as a means of exploring the lives and experiences of the people who passed through its spaces. Butterflies, insects, pieces of jigsaw puzzles, big-eared plastic toy mice and superhero dolls are all items she gleaned from the transitory residents and represented through photographs and drawings in her artworks as uncoverings. One person’s treasured possession is another person’s trash. A nation’s proud monument, the Ancient Agora, becomes a tourist’s dumping ground. Cigarette ends and litter butt up against many-thousand-year-old busts and building blocks. Care, respect, holding and belonging are singular expressions of experience. So too it is with lipstick cases and stockings, photographs, familial relationships. Both care and callousness can coexist and play out simultaneously. The flora and fauna around us and the objects we bring with us are the silent witnesses to these actions; both our shortcomings and our celebrations, our destructive actions and our creative play-making.
Whilst baby Larry grows in the garden and the nest of Dover’s making, she is beginning to make new marks for future projects. Archipelago (June 2019) is a group project curated by Ruth Calland at Walthamstow Wetlands in East London, an urban paradise where Europe’s largest cormorant colony resides. Each invited artist is presented with their own island to focus on and respond to. I picture Dover’s on a sea of gesso or a watery expanse of cyan-blue print, floating in close proximity to another home, another tale, another mark-making encounter. Also forthcoming is a publication of Dover’s works featuring childhood objects, including the silverprint St. Anthony, produced by artist Sharon Kivlan’s Ma Bibliothèque imprint.
What was first intended to be an interview and conversation piece has instead become a re-telling. I cannot give voice to Dover. Instead, she has presented a gift box of sharing; a space to give my voice to a tale of encounter.