The Great Thames Disaster

Following on from The Princess Alice project in 2017, Daisy Farris and I were awarded funding from Arts Council England  and local authority partners to develop and tour ‘The Great Thames Disaster’. From July to September 2018 we performed and held workshops at unconventional venues, from Sheerness to London, working with local young people from schools and youth clubs.  The final performance and installation culminated in a two day residency on LV21 at Gravesend.

During The Princess Alice project, seen here, my work focused on an open parasol used as a life buoy by a female passenger to  float to safety. For the Great Thames Disaster I concerned myself with the incongruous flotsam of objects; hats; shawls; shoes; long flowing tresses, that collected with the sulphur fumes on the surface of the black Thames, these objects then displayed at the ‘Black Museum’ at Woolwich, bundles of possessions numbered to coincide with burial plots.

I created a large installation from drawings on fabric, Daisy and I  programmed drawing workshops into the dance rehearsals, the techniques I used made it easy for the young peoples to get involved, the objects were drawn and cut by myself and young people from the Isle of Sheppey and Gravesend.

We concluded the tour with a two day residency on LV21, moored on the Thames at Gravesend. The dancers and young people performed throughout the ship and my final piece was sited in the Generator Room. This huge space in the hull of the ship has a cold green steel floor, there are no windows and there is a stench of diesel, the room is dominated by two large white steel drums – air receivers for the foghorns,  as the tide ebbs and floods the sound of water makes an eerie banging noise on the metal hull.

The installation covered the floor with fabric pieces, cut into the shapes that would have floated up to the surface of the Thames from the sinking Princess Alice. Pitiful possessions of various articles of male and female apparel emerging from the disaster: bonnets; walking sticks; gloves; newspapers; tea cups; purses; toys, and unidentified scraps of fabric. The floor or ground can be a symbolic space, like the surface of the river, when decorated it reverses the ordinary value of things,  acting as a canvas, a space to display, a place of beauty, revelation and value, a sacred space for gathering, like a ground drawing.

The fabric pieces I organised with purpose, some in orderly rows, as the belongings would have been displayed in the ‘Black Museum’ and some collected together like floating islands. The installation was intricate and fragile, the fabric objects appearing smaller by the negative space of the steel floor. The work showed the scale of loss, it demonstrated the toil of the human hand and in particular women’s work, it was domestic yet decorative. With a slight breeze or ripple of water it could have disappeared.

The photographs show my initial research aboard LV21 followed by sketch book research, workshops and the final installation.

Film ‘ Drawing in the Generator Room’, shows development work for my installation.

Photographs by Artist and Paivi Seppala, and Gigi Giannella.

In memory of my Dad who showed me how to be adventurous, thank you.