Tentatively knocking on a backdoor in Beeston, a nervous excitement overtook my senses – a feeling not too dissimilar from the moment of meeting my first pet as a child, as I later reflected. This particular feeling was also a concern for Jill McKnight and Josh Hart as they took to the unusual, multi-textured walls and floor of Bruce Davies’ (and his family’s) basement (BasementArtsProject) to present a collaborative look down memory-lane. The artists draw on anecdotes and the nostalgia that surround the relationship between people and animals. This ranges between the initial love and joy brought by these companions and the grief when pets pass away – a grief which, for many of us, may be the first experience of this kind of intense emotion.
Fragmented, pictorial memories and isolated shrines litter the divided basement. A millennial pink colour scheme dominates the smaller segment of the gallery; a corpse-come-enshrined fish, complete with lit candles, lies waterless on the floor, while a large birdcage hangs from a sprayed chain. The birdcage, organic in appearance and bottomless, appears as if the original metal skeleton is hiding under the puffed, polystyrene coat which now surrounds it. This both evokes the mound of earth over the buried dead pets and calls upon the binaries between life and death – as if the caged and trapped bird had escaped. The same material from which the birdcage is made is used to frame a flickering screen positioned in a shell-like, pink and metal mesh stand on the wall at the entrance that illustrates the escaped bird – there in both life and death.
The collaborative feel of the project is felt most in the second room as works constantly overlap. An extended painted tarpaulin, reminiscent of a paint-by-numbers page filled in with chunky crayons and poster paint, marks out silhouettes of different animals. String, beloved by cats, tangles between tiny illustrations, patch-worked trinkets, coloured paper and disposable photographs. The result is a giant scrapbook and child-like diary. This extends over the cemented walls and down onto the floor through outlines made in multi-coloured chalk that break the boundaries between the art and the domestic space, the artist and the viewer. This display exploits all of McKnight and Hart’s once private and personal memories and introduces them into the busy room, leaving almost nothing of their younger-selves or their dead pets left uncovered.
Conflicting, personal or shared narratives are met by the desire of viewers to piece together pictorial elements placed within the crevasses of each room. In this way the exhibition is reminiscent of a board game. Unconsciously, the viewers search for clues, attempting to conclude which animals match which anecdotes and which owner. Around the portrayal of the lives of their own pets, omens of death loom in the shape of stretched, skeletal polystyrene footprints and ossified relics; ‘their dead petz’ are made to be remembered again, in a state of flux between life and death.
The dead pets are only possessed through abstract memories, memories which fade and change, and are therefore fragile. This quality parallels the whole exhibition which was custom-made for the shape of the room. The pieces are unique to that one moment.McKnight and Hart remind us to look back and appreciate our younger-years, so often characterised by our experiences with our first, now dead, pets, but also realise how these experiences, not so often dwelled over today, might continue to manifest within our daily lives.
Jill & Josh & Their Dead Petz, BasementArtsProject, Beeston, South Leeds, 1 December 2017 – 28 February 2018 (by appointment).
Saffron Ward is a History of Art student and writer based in Leeds.