with Wells Fray-Smith
‘Our work to date has given us the opportunity to work with a diverse range of people from football fans to amateur gardeners … Brits abroad to street sex workers. We have always gained some understanding from our work and research; we see this as a dialogical process.’
We are Julie Henry and Debbie Bragg, working together as Henry/Bragg. Our interest is usually in people and our work is what you might call a socio-anthropological approach to social groups, usually involving 6–12 months’ participant research. During this time our thoughts and ideas change as we develop a relationship with participants, making this an organic process. Because of lengthy research time we nearly always feel an attachment with the people involved so we feel more like a co-participant rather than a dispassionate observer. Our work to date has given us the opportunity to work with a diverse range of people from football fans to amateur gardeners, old mods to talent show contestants, pigeon fanciers to ageing punks, brits abroad to street sex workers. We have always gained some understanding from our work and research; we see this as a dialogical process with learning on both parts. We turn the spotlight onto real people in real situations, using a mix of photography, film, installation and social intervention.
What are you showing in The London Open 2022?
We are showing some photographs from a new body of work, Second Life (2021–2). Our work is normally about the collective experience, focusing on small pockets of subcultures, and although it usually has some sort of personal experience under- pinning it, this new project is overtly personal. So it represents a bit of a departure for us. Early in 2021, Julie was suffering from suspected long COVID-19, but her symptoms were continuing to get worse and starting in June 2021 she underwent a series of tests that eventually revealed she had cancer. The cycle of blood tests, biopsies, blood transfusions and CT scans, and then treatment including chemo- therapy and immunotherapy, were frightening and traumatic. To help alleviate the stress, Julie adopted various alter egos imagined in different fantastical scenarios. This episodic dissociation from reality helped her to not to feel so traumatised. The characters and scenes were made up on the fly, with each one relating direct- ly to the procedure she was undergoing. We wanted to capture these moments as we knew that the situation would evolve and change over time. So we created the scenes and photographed them. We put a call out on social media for props and costumes as we thought this would help to recreate the spontaneity of the initial characters that Julie had imagined. Not only do the photographs capture her sec- ond lives, but the process of recreating them was therapeutic in itself, for both of us. This piece of work is fundamentally an examination of how people deal with trauma. In this case, trauma denial is a way to put distance between you and an overwhelming experience.
The pieces you are showing refer specifically to Julie’s personal experiences but are staged as imaginative vignettes – almost like film stills. Do you have an interest in narrative drama, and where is this from?
Well the whole experience has been a drama! Having cancer is rather like viewing your life through a film – an out of body experience. The project has given us the opportunity to imagine ourselves as observers rather than participants, glorified spectators, and allowing us detachment and an element of control. It has enabled us to rewrite the script, reimagining the horror as an exciting adventure, where Julie is a vampire or a secret agent ready to save the day. We both like sci-fi films so maybe the ideas stem from that – but really who knows what goes on in Julie’s brain! Although this is Julie’s personal experience, we would like people to view the photographs and make up their own stories too. We can all be the heroes of our own lives.
Text is often important in your work. Can you elaborate on the relationship between word and image?
We like using the interplay of word and image and looking back it has cropped up a lot in our work. A single word can completely change the way you view an image. In this case, although the subject area is dark – the C word ‘Cancer’ – we wanted the images to be playful and the addition of the text, written by Julie directly after she came home from one of her hospital visits, gives you an insight into how alien the experience has been for her, and must be for all cancer sufferers. Writing about it was a very cathartic experience for her, and the whole project has significantly reduced the terror of the situation for both of us. Just last week Julie was lying on a trolley in A&E for sixteen hours and what got her through was playing out different bonkers scenarios in her head and thinking ‘I must tell Debbie about this!’
Works in the exhibition:
Fabric lightbox 80 x 45 cm
Blood Transfusion, 2021
80 x 45 cm
80 x 45 cm
I’m not in my bed, 2021
90 x 70 cm
Julie Henry (b. 1959, Cambridge, UK)
1998 BA Critical Fine Art Practice, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London
1992 HND Theatre and Costume Design, London College of Fashion
Debbie Bragg (b. 1974, Kent, UK)
2002 PGCert in Teaching, Learning and Assessment at University of the Arts
1996 BSc Photography and Electronic Imaging, University of Westminster
Selected exhibitions: Absence of Evidence, street exhibition, a collaboration with An Untold Story – Voices, Hull and London (solo) (2020); Ecoute Bien la Campagne, Chateau de Sacy (solo) (2016); Homo Ludens at Sun-Screen, EM15, 56th Venice Biennale (2015); Rushmoor in Bloom, Garden Museum London (solo) (2010); The Beautiful Game: Contemporary Art and Fútbol, Brooklyn Institute of Contemporary Art (2006)
What makes London’s art scene so vibrant? What are the concerns of the next generation of artists? What insight does their work offer in challenging times?
This triennial exhibition showcases a cross-section of the most dynamic artistic talent from across the capital. Established in 1932, this much-celebrated open submission show features 46 London-based artists working across painting, sculpture, moving image, installation and performance.
Since the last London Open in 2018, the city has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, demonstrations demanding racial and climate justice, and widespread questioning of institutions and their structures.
The London Open 2022 traces the ways in which artists have witnessed and responded to these events with resilience and heart. In times of hardship and crisis, and when exhibitions were cancelled and moved online, these artists experimented with new sites of production and means of dissemination, from the kitchen table to the back garden.
The exhibition is loosely structured as a journey from the personal to the social, moving from individual to collective concerns, the cathartic to the poetic, the political and the environmental.
The artists were selected from over 2,600 entries by a panel of experts including collector Maria Bukhtoyarova, artist Shezad Dawood, curator and art historian Christine Eyene, gallerist Stephan Tanbin Sastrawidjaja, with Whitechapel Gallery curators Emily Butler, lnês Costa and Wells Fray-Smith.
Gallery 1, Downstairs
The relationship between our bodies and the material world kickstarts the exhibition. Rafał Zajko‘s wall-based reliefs appear like hybrid beings, processing the gluten found in wheat and barley flour, leaving us unsure if this is for machine or human consumption.Likewise, Madeleine Pledge‘s stretched fabrics and ceramic boots imply absent bodies and their physical role in manufacturing.
Materiality and belief systems intersect in Candida Powell-Williams’ handmade objects. A unicorn and swing inspired by medieval tapestries are fenced off by a trellis, prompting questions about the divisions between what is mythical and real. Alicia Reyes McNamara‘s paintings feature non-binary, shapeshifting figures drawn from various mythologies, from Meso-America to Ancient Egypt, to consider alternative notions of time and embodiment.
Gallery 9, Upstairs
This gallery features works that delve into the impact of technology, algorithms and quantification on our lives. In his series The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free 2019, Ben Yau looks at the parallel rise of Neoliberalism and the CIA’s role in sabotaging the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, bringing together both economic data and declassified documents.
Set in a parallel present reminiscent of sci-fi films such as Blade Runner 2049, The Underlying by Ami Clarke considers the implicit role of capitalism in environmental disaster.
Meanwhile, Rory Cahill and George Mackness offer a walk through a dystopian, corrupted digital landscape of the future, with an immersive soundtrack. They consider: what does a digital wasteland look like, what happens there and what is its afterlife?
Gallery 8, Upstairs
The artworks in this gallery reflect on family, identity and community. Seema Khalique travelled to Bangladesh to photograph two communities of transgender people called hijras. In this behind-the-scenes series, she questions the prejudices they face, revealing the economic hardships they endure alongside the strong network of mentorship and care they create.
Pioneering photographer, curator and writer Sunil Gupta took photographs of his neighbourhood on Walworth Road during lockdown. This work celebrates the increased relevance of our localities during the pandemic, as well as reflecting on the processes involved in created photographic images.
On three vintage TV monitors, Hussina Raja‘s short narrative films look at the subject of migration to the UK from post-Partition India, tracing the continued experiences of displacement and exploring nuanced notions of identity.
The works in the last part of the show focus on our relationship to and impact on the environment. In Agrilogistics (2022), Gerard Ortin Castellvi films in an automated greenhouse, in which the growth of tomatoes, tulips and chrysanthemums is controlled by cameras and sensors, in order to question the future of food production.
Having spent lockdown excavating her back garden, Maria Roy Deulofeu meticulously records each layer of soil like an archaeologist, collecting artefacts and ecofacts, before assembling a kiln to fire hand-thrown urns with the different layers of clay. The process is recorded in a video shown alongside the objects. Finally, a flock of parakeets cast in lead are scattered on the ground in Patrick Goddard‘s Blue Sky Thinking (2019).The parakeet exemplifies a non-native species increasingly common in London parks and hints at a mass extinction event, highlighting mankind’s role in the impending climate disaster.
See the full list of works here.
An illustrated catalogue is available to purchase from the bookshop.
Artists have generously made limited editions to coincide with the exhibition to support the Gallery’s education programme.