Currently onsite lifting surfaces from the abandoned workplace of World War 11 code-breakers, we speak to Central Saint Martins MA graduate Maya Ramsay, who time travels into disused buildings, carefully casting the architectural entropy she discovers and transforming them into abstract pieces with deep political and social memory.
jotta: Your pieces are a response to different conflicts taking place in the world, specifically the civilian cost of these wars. When you are selecting a building to work on, how much research or energy do you put into understanding the culture of the people who have historically used the building?
Maya Ramsay: My work involves lifting the layers of visual history from a building, including marks made by previous inhabitants, but usually my work is not about those specific people, it is referring to humanity in general. I will know the basic facts about the use of a building, but my approach is more visceral, I will spend a lot of time in a location soaking up the atmosphere; the smells, sounds and visual clues about a buildings’ past. Currently I am lifting surfaces from some disused buildings at Bletchley Park (home of the code-breakers in World War 11) that have not previously been accessible to the public and are due to be renovated. As the building has a direct relationship to issues of war I have researched the facts surrounding the buildings’ use far more thoroughly than usual.
Have you ever lifted moulds from any domestic surfaces?
I made a piece many years ago from black mould growing on domestic surfaces and I learnt that mould spores are released into the air when disturbed and are very unhealthy to breathe in! Some of the rooms at Bletchley Park have been abandoned for many decades and have the most unbelievable moulds, fungi and other creatures growing in them…I work wearing full bio hazard protective gear but I even so am leaving the moulds well alone!
How important is it to you that the viewer understands where the surface you used was? Do you think a viewer can fully appreciate the pieces without knowing where they came from?
When I exhibit my work I don’t give geographical information about where the surface has been taken from, I leave it to the viewer’s imagination. For example, with my piece ‘Bloodletting’, which will be featured in 'Shadow Lines' in November, it is for the viewer to decide whether the surface has really been lifted from the scene of an execution or not. I don’t believe that is necessary for the viewer to be handed all the answers in order to fully appreciate the work. I used to disclose where the surface had come from but I avoid this now because a major part of my work is about mystery, the mystery of how the work was made and where it was made.
How sentimental are you about the walls and surfaces you chose to work with? Can you tell us what would make you more interested in one soon-to-be demolished building over another?
When I approach a building I’m looking for surfaces that have a relationship to painting and that contain marks which I feel relate to issues of conflict and war. My choice of building is based on whether the surfaces fit those criteria; the history, use or type of building is of secondary importance. I’m passionate about the surfaces that I work with, I spend a lot of time working with a surface and form an attachment to it but I wouldn’t describe it as sentimental. In some cases it seems a shame that the beauty of these buildings and their visual histories will be lost but there are far more important things to worry about in the world. In an ideal world architectural entropy would be preserved for us all to gawp at but the world is far from ideal, and that is what my work is about.
How will you collaborate with sound artist Caroline Devine and architectural photographer Rachael Marshall for your forthcoming exhibition at Milton Keynes Gallery Project Space?
We are working together at Bletchley Park using our diverse practices to document the buildings, we'll then be merging them to try to recreate something of the experience of being in these incredible buildings.
Caroline Devine will be capturing the sounds produced by and within the decaying buildings. Caroline is interested in voices that may be obscured, silenced or absent such as the employees at Bletchley who were sworn to secrecy for 30 years after the war. Rachael Marshall has an obsession with the way we value and preserve certain buildings.
How did the Bletchley Park building inform the exhibition concept?
We are heavily influenced by the history of the buildings in which we’re working. They are some of the most incredible buildings we are likely to ever go in and are extremely evocative of their history. Some spaces are like time stood still, as if the code breakers have just downed tools and been evacuated; a rusty old coat hanger will be swinging on a coat hook with a name scrawled on it. Other spaces have been vandalized and are like walking into a non-sensical crime scene where you have no idea what has happened or why. And others are simply fascinating insights into how nature takes over in a building when left to its own devices for decades.
See Maya Ramsay's forthcoming exhibition Shadow Lines
Watch an interview with Maya by Axis around her recent Florence Trust Residency