by chloe 17 January 2011
The first images that caught hold of my imagination when looking through material at the Sandwell archives were the foghorns manufactured by Chance Bros. One particularly, the foghorn whose mouth is taller than the man standing next to it. It’s a simple, wonderful, and slightly surreal piece of manufacturing, surreal because it is ‘over real’ – it is a horn, just a huge horn, attached to a small noise-creating apparatus, but on a scale of ‘small becoming large’ that caught me by surprise.
What a wonderful image to work with, I thought, an image that encapsulates the idea of sending a message across space and time, the past shouting out its demand not to be ignored. Could we perhaps recreate this horn, and use it to bring the words of the past into the present.
And yet, perhaps not. Checkov’s advice to aspiring writers was to get rid of their favourite ideas, because as the favourites, they would be likely to have their shortcomings overlooked. The chief shortcoming of the horn I think is its singularity, its immediate appeal; maybe it’s just too good. On reflection, the main problem is that for any messages to be understood, they would have to be sent one at a time, while the reality, I think, is that behind and beneath us the past is full of billions of voices, faces, events, statements, lives, all waiting to be brought to our notice. When I’ve been making large installations out of many hundreds or thousands of small objects I’ve always felt that I’m working not with one ‘grand narrative’, but a narrative made up of hundreds of smaller narratives, each pulling and pushing in its own direction.
I have returned to the images of the bridges, not just because they are bridges, but because despite the way they look so big and monolithic, they are just parts of a bigger more complicated story. Yes, they work as metaphors for contact between one place and another, one time and another, but more than this, they allowed to happen all those interlocking stories of the movements of stuff. Making the bridges was magnificent and arduous enough, but when made they had to be loaded onto railways and ships, transported across land, sea and river, put into place, and maintained, a job of work as great as the undertaking of fabrication. And all this so that railways could bring trucks from one place to another, carrying goods, people and raw materials, including the material to make more bridges. Only by means of these bridges could the rubber, the coal, the fertiliser, the ore be brought from the mines, the plantations and the fields back to the manufacturing and processing centres, to create more railways, more trucks, more bridges, more work, more goods. Beautiful and extraordinary as they are, the bridges are a key part of the creation of the wealth of the world over the past two hundred years.
Photos by permission of Sandwell Community History & Archives Service