Elsie (Jacqueline Donachie, 2016)
Land adjoining Westerton Station, Bearsden, East Dunbartonshire
‘Elsie’ is one of three related works by Jacqueline Donachie which are sited in different open locations close to former health care institutions in East Dunbartonshire. It is set back by about 15 metres from a short path connecting a back entrance to Westerton railway station and a footbridge over the Forth and Clyde Canal leading to High Knightswood, a district of Glasgow which had been part of Dunbartonshire until the 1930s. The grass between the path and the work is mown but the work itself is on the edge of a small area of elder, bramble and other scrub vegetation which has been left to grow naturally. The site was chosen for its proximity to the former Canniesburn Hospital in Switchback Road, Bearsden, and to the Westerton Care Home close by. Being placed within neither the conventional gallery system nor the usual context of public art, the work an enigma to be encountered randomly by passers-by walking to or from the station, rather than advertising itself as ‘Art’ to more conventional gallery visitors. My own response when I first saw it was to wonder if it was a memorial to a well-loved grandmother or great-grandmother, or perhaps a dog or a horse, but the sheer size of the letters and the unconventional material made it an unusual memorial which cried out for attention and demanded speculation. Was it, perhaps, a feminist memorial drawing attention to something macabre perhaps related to the exploitation and abuse of women? The site of a bygone murder, maybe?
The basic work comprises five large letters, about a metre high, spelling out the name ELSIE. The letters are cut from checker-patterned industrial aluminium sheeting, bolted to a frame of black-painted aluminium tubing. Regular users of the station and other passers-by will have been able to observe the piece over the year or so since it was put in place. The connection of the work to health care is not obvious; the Westerton Care Home is clearly visible from the footbridge bridge although there’s no obvious reason for the casual viewer to make an association, and the site of Canniesburn Hospital is out of sight beyond a wooded ridge. However, some months after ‘Elsie’ was put in place, an interpretive plaque on a short (about 75 cm) wooden post was erected next to the footpath. From this plaque the passer-by sufficiently curious to stop, stoop and read learns that that the work is part of a much wider project involving interviews and extensive research that revealed that health care of the physically and mentally disabled had been a major industry of this part of Dunbartonshire. She will also learn that the Elsie being celebrated is not a single individual Elsie but the many Elsies who emerged as one of the most numerous in a long list of names of women who had been involved in health care in the East Dunbartonshire area.
Jacqueline Donachie’s art has been marked by a concern for the chronically disabled and in particular for families inflicted by inherited genetic disease as her own family has been by myotonic dystrophy, as she indicates in her doctoral thesis [Donachie, 2016: Introduction]. The written thesis was only one part of her doctoral submission; the other part was a film, Hazel (another female forename, standing alone for a generic group), which at the same time as the submission was made formed the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow:
Hazel is a portrait, not just of the women portrayed, but also of a wider lived experience we can all relate to through our own experiences of ageing, care and loss.
On the surface this may seem irrelevant to Elsie, even though it was the product of the same research. What is evident in Elsie is the representation of Woman in the form of a name; a rather old-fashioned, working-class name, fabricated from industrial materials. This would appear to be placing working-class women at the intersection between feminism and Marxist classism. Veronica Beechey has suggested that ‘a correct analysis of the subordination of women cannot be provided by Marxists unless Marxism itself is transformed [Beechey. 1977] and Elsie may be seen as expressing this idea.
A further point is raised by the setting of the work. Donachie has not only chosen to work with industrial materials but to display her work outside the patriarchal gallery, perceived as part of the hierarchical establishment [Gibbs, 2015], and set against a piece of undeveloped land. In doing so she establishes a tension between opposites: manufactured versus natural; urban versus rural; masculine versus feminine; stasis versus flux. The work cannot be separated from its environment.
The work itself, constructed from weatherproof, non-corroding material that suggests a link with the railway on one flank and the metal footbridge on the other, is unchanging and yet its environment is forever changing as the weather and the days and the seasons cycle, and as the years pass.
Already, grass is growing around the base of the letters and brambles have begun to twine around some of them. It isn’t difficult to see that within a few years Elsie, the bygone everywoman constructed and shaped by human activity and patriarchal industry and forgotten by all but those, like Jacqueline Donachie, who seek her out, will be embraced by nature and lost to human view. Perhaps in time, when the railway and the footbridge are gone the way of the health care institutions they worked in, Elsie and all the women like her will live on in spirit. That would be a sufficient expression of art in itself.
Yet there is more, that links Elsie to the artist’s professed concern. Donachie has used that textured sheet metal before. The exhibition Deep in the Heart of Your Brain, centred around the experimental film Hazel, also featured a pallet-sized box with a ramp, constructed from the same checkered aluminium sheeting [Bruce, 2016]. That exhibit itself is derived from a structure of the same material, towed around Scotland on a trailer as part of a 2014 mobile exhibit, New Weather Coming. That exhibit reminds us that the textured aluminium sheeting is not only the sort of material that forms the tread of a pedestrian footbridge or the floor of a station lift, is the material that the ramps used by disabled people in wheelchairs to circumvent an obstacle are made of.
BEECHEY, V. (1977) ‘Female wage labour in capitalist production’ in Capital and Class, no 3, pp 45-66.
BRUCE, Katie. (2016) Deep in the Heart of Your Brain/ Jacqueline Donachie/ 20 May – 13 November 2016. Glasgow, Gallery of Modern Art. Exhibition notes, retrieved from https://galleryofmodernart.blog/2016/07/05/deep-in-the-heart-of-your-brain-jacqueline-donachie-20-may-13-november-2015/ [sic], 26/10/2020.
DONACHIE, Jacqueline. (2016) Illuminating Loss: a study of the Capacity for Artistic Practice to Shape Research and Care in the Field of Inherited Genetic Illness. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University. Retrieved from http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/34447/ on 26/10/2020.
GIBBS, Rose (2015). Circumnavigating the Patriarchy: Women’s Collectives. ICA Bulletin, 25 June 2015. Retrieved from https://archive.ica.art/bulletin/circumnavigating-patriarchy on 29/10/2020.