Rosie Leventon’s Wake was an installation that occupied the entire main gallery at Chisenhale and featured a huge leaden burial ship upon a ‘river’ of ashes. The exhibition represented a momentary uncovering of the metaphorical river that flows unseen through life, examining themes of death, rebirth and the journeys from one state to another – the journey from oblivion to rebirth.
Leventon sees herself as something of an archeologist – unearthing symbols, rituals, ways of thought and social organisation that are buried within the collective subconscious and are therefore lost or forgotten in our modern, urban society. In fact, before going to art school, Rosie studied Chinese Language and Archaeology at the School of African and Oriental studies in London. One of the principal sources of inspiration for the majority of her work has been the Sutton Hoo Burial Ship found in Suffolk. In her 1987 exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery entitled Forensic Evidence, Leventon used old scaffolding boards as a structure in which a boat shaped indentation had been smashed, leaving visible the layers of boards cut through, with golden splinters revealed on the inside. As Leventon herself describes: ‘the scaffolding boards…represent the layers of manmade cultures that must be gone through before a trace of origins can be discovered.’ Leventon’s work also deals with the subject of death. She believes that the ancient view of death as a journey, the crossing of the threshold of this life and the entering of another, can be a powerful symbol of hope for our society, in which death is regarded as an unspeakable horror and is therefore taboo.
A huge lead boat lies upon a river of ashes, thereby acting as a metaphor for the fate that awaits us all and for the liminal journey. Many cultures have believed death to be a transitional journey including Vikings, the Osirian culture in ancient Egypt, the ancient Greeks, the Romans and the Etruscans. When asked whether all this isn’t a bit morbid, Leventon agrees with a laugh that it may be so. She suggests that the concern with death springs from bereavements suffered personally, and frustration at a very English inability to express and therefore expiate grief. She adds, a touch flippantly, that the area around her studio in Harlesden, reminds her of death everyday, with the nearby Kensal Green Cemetery, the funerals that pass by, and the recycling nature of a lot of local industry. Leventon feels that for this exhibition at Chisenhale, that the gallery will function as a liminal area, a space of transition between the buildings of the city – where the river that flows unseen yet ever present is momentarily uncovered. The lead boat (lead is a traditional material for lining coffins) is the vehicle for the journey from oblivion to rebirth.
On Saturday 7 May, 8pm Annabel Nicholson presented a performance in the exhibition. The performance explored the subject matter of the burial ship, states of transition and the importance of ritual in times of stress.
This text is taken from the press release for Wake, April 1988.