‘We are giving you the reproduction so you will no longer feel any need for the original. But for the reproduction to be desired, the original has to be idolised.’ 1
— Umberto Eco, Hyperreality, 1986
At a glance, artist Bridgette Ashton’s latest works such as Fake Ginger Jars (2021 – ongoing) and Artificialia (2018 – 2021) could appear as a departure from her earlier ones, The Lost Cave (2015 – 2017), Worth’s Folly (2018), and Margate Subterranea (2011 – 2013), which are relatively monumental and situated in the public sphere. Her recent projects come in smaller multiples, with roots in domestic collectibles. Though they are different in scale, something reads on the opposite ends of the same thread, whether that is intentional or subconscious.
Before delving into the witty observations and sophisticated provocations Ashton explores in her practice, it is important to note how she ridicules with grace and humour one of the most bizarre phenomena of the modern world: the act of tourism and souvenir collecting.
The chronicle of the Lascaux Cave replicas in southwestern France is an exemplary case study of hyperreal tourism for Ashton. After a short spell as a tourist attraction from 1948 to 1963 since its rediscovery in 1940, the complex faced a critical conservation challenge. The parietal wall paintings covering the interior and ceilings of the Upper Palaeolithic caves rapidly deteriorated due to the sudden influx of visitors in those 15 years causing pollution which destabilised the environment.
The solution was a series of exact replicas displayed in the cave’s vicinity, just 200m away from the original, titled Lascaux II, Lascaux III and Lascaux IV, made with the same materials believed to be used 19,000 years ago. During cultural critic and philosopher Umberto Eco’s own pilgrimage to the United States in search of hyperreality in the 1980s, he came to the realisation these replicas, such as those of Lascaux no longer pretend to be imitating reality. Eco contends: ‘within its magic enclosure it is fantasy that is absolutely reproduced’.2 This is precisely what Bridgette Ashton is revealing in her earlier large scale sculptural works of touring replicas.
For The Lost Cave Requiem (2015) Ashton looks back on the performing history of the Banqueting Hall Cavern in Porth/Whipsiderry (north Cornish coast), where soprano Clara Novello sang concerts during exceptionally low tides from the 1890s until the 1930s. To simulate what we might call today a fully immersive sensation of attending a concert in a dark and immense cavern, Ashton created architectural maquettes and sculptural propositions that imitated the cave’s volume, along with ‘cut-out-and-keep’ souvenir kits that allude to tourists’ obsession for miniature keepsakes. Visually, it is clear that these reproductions were not made in the total likeness of the caverns themselves; psychologically they evoked a level of credibility at the same level as fakery.
Preceding this was Margate Subterranea (2011 – 2013), through which Ashton similarly played with the idea of touring replicas, this time for three underground attractions in Margate, namely The Vortigern Caves, the Clifton Baths Estate and the Shell Grotto. As much as the purchasing power and the active decision to enter these sites of ‘iconic reassurance’—another name Eco gives these spatial replicas —may lead one to believe that the agency lies in the consumer’s hands, the visitor may just find themselves passively participating in the fantasy.
They end up playing a role void of individual initiatives. Through prints that draw out the manipulative nature of tourist advertisements and sculptures that suggest the promise of fantastical experiences, Ashton gently exposes the reconstructed truth within these sensations.
‘It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.’3
— Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981.
An examination of modern tourism is not complete without discussing the subsidiary culture of souvenir manufacturing and collecting, its link to the wider history of collecting and, in the philosophy of sociologist Jean Baudrillard, the system of objects. Following years of exploring public sites of attraction, Ashton found in herself a desire to work with more intimate objects.
‘There is a distinct intimacy of something one can physically possess and hold in one’s hand’.4 Citing artist Richard Serra’s use of art historian George Kubler’s concept of prime object, Ashton explains why her works on replicas of small collectibles are her way of disrupting preconceived notions of taste and values in modern material culture.
Artificialia (2018 – 2021) is a sculptural and digital project that disentangles hidden relationships between physical objects and illustrated materials, minerals and mineralogy, collectors and collections, science and decoration, and ultimately, value and authenticity. In her research, Ashton came across museum mineral collections in the British Museum (London) and Sedgwick Museum (Cambridge) that are presented in a matter-of-fact tone. She also found fake specimens in Cornwall and Wales where their lack of authenticity does not make them less ‘valuable’ and are in fact objets d’art on a par with their counterparts in museums.
Ashton’s bold and almost mischievous combination of plinths and minerals in ceramics, fake gold leaf and cardboard demonstrates their fixation on assigned values and opens up a new way of seeing those relationships which are embedded in collecting. Historic diagrams of Cornish minerals from author J H Collins not only informed the accompanying linocut prints but also formed the basis for Ashton’s 3D models after processes of moulding, casting and glazing. Although it might mean that these specific ceramic minerals are not truly faithful to type, Ashton’s methodical, careful and laborious approach speaks further to her questioning of how and why we assign value to what objects and materials.
The artist’s latest ceramic work, Garniture/Ginger Jar (2020 – ongoing), (referencing sets of decorative objects popular from the late 17th century all through the 19th century) probes deeper into the collector’s domestic treasures. It is particularly resonant with this country’s passion for taste-making through collecting. As Baudrillard claims, nostalgia for origins and the obsession with authenticity are the two distinct features of the mythology of collecting antique, decorative objects.5 Ginger jars originated from around 200BCE China, however the term itself is a Western invention. At the height of Chinoiserie in the 18th century, Chinese ceramics like the ginger jar became sought-after decorative objects. It created a new export industry on the southern coast of China where ceramists produce specific designs tailored to European tastes for merchants to bring back home as souvenirs.
As Ashton shrewdly notes, they are intrinsically inauthentic, just like the jars she creates. Fantastical creatures with ormolu made not of gold on bases made of cardboard, yet as a set of garnitures, they strengthen each other’s credibility and sense of certainty. Once collected, these objects become mental precincts that are abstracted from their function and thus defined by their relationship with the collector: they become ‘my property and my passion’.6
These pieces, to Ashton, can be understood together and in their own right. Regardless of the scale and subject matter she explores in each project, the visual and material qualities are always layered with meaning. Unlike in a hyperreal tourist attraction, her works take an active role. They invite viewers’ participation in deciding what kind of relationships they might form with these replicas. A tourist, a spectator, or a potential collector? With this rich language under one’s belt, the relationship will be one of playful collaboration.
1. Umberto Eco, ‘Travel in Hyperreality’, Faith in Fakes, (London: Vintage, 1998, p. 19).
2. Ibid, (p. 48).
3. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1994 p. 1-2).
4. See Richard Serra and Hal Foster, ‘Prime Objects’, Conversations about Sculpture. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018, pp. 91-111) and George Kubler’ seminal book in art history, The Shape of Time.
5. Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, (p. 80).
6. Ibid, (p. 91).
Words by JANICE LI