Edwina Ashton's …in a rose columned forest by Ingrid Swenson
'As in many of Ashton’s works, a gentle humour tinged with pathos pervades this animation.'
Edwina Ashton’s new animation, …in a rose columned forest, is a delicate and measured work. The voice of the third person narrator is hushed and adopts a comforting tone, like that of a parent reading to their child at bedtime. The narrative is accompanied by the just audible sound of the ocean’s whoosh against the shore. The soundtrack is combined with Ashton’s characteristically undemonstrative and economic drawings that have a sense of vulnerability about them. As the narrator speaks of the exotic wonders of an underwater world – ‘kelp forests, mountains, the dark abyss where white creatures lurked’ – we watch Ashton’s marine specimens drift and dance in rock pools or on the seabed among richly coloured plant life.
The tale that unfolds however is neither a Jacques Cousteau undersea adventure, nor a David Attenborough exercise in charming and elucidating instruction. We are told of a young boy and his father Mr Gosse who writes books on marine biology and ‘popular science’, and their shared fascination for and study of the creatures and plants that live in the ocean’s depths. Ashton’s text is descriptive yet sparsely written. Its precise and slightly stifled quality befits the detached yet melancholic reserve of its Edwardian protagonists. ‘And now Mr Gosse, the author of The Birds of Jamaica, The Rivers of the Bible, Naturalists Rambles on the Devonshire Coast and The Aquarium was giving summer classes in marine natural history. His son thought him helplessly drawn to details, wondering at the tiniest creature, seeing God in each of them.’
Around half way through this short, three-minute work, just after a balletic prawn somersaults across the screen and while a sea anemone is being jostled in the deep moving water, the narrator quietly and discretely reveals ripples in the otherwise calm seas. We learn that the son, later in his life, also went on to write books. His were on English poetry, however, and also a memoir of his childhood in which, ‘He would go over and over the struggles with his father, the religious strictures and hopes. He would describe the ending. Such disruption with neither speaking the same language. But for now, often it rained.’ This utterance of quiet desperation is then anesthetised by the image of a spindly starfish elegantly traversing the scene, and the narration then returns to a description of walks along the cliffs after supper – as if to annul pain of the revelation that had come just before.
In other works by Ashton – her drawings, videos, installation or performances – it is, more often than not, the non-human creatures that enact scenarios of hopeless futility, quiet obsessiveness or awkward stoicism. In this animation, however, the sea creatures play no narrative role in the story, but instead act as a symbol for both the father and the son’s shared love of nature. Also, as in many of Ashton’s works, a gentle humour tinged with pathos pervades this animation. There is an implicit absurdity in the notion that their obsessive interest in ‘dahlia anemones, emerald wartletts and sea cucumbers ‘ can take the place of love between a father and son, but this is in indeed what …in a rose columned forest, proposes. Perhaps we are meant to be complicit in the acceptance of this compact, as it is revealed to us through Ashton’s acute understanding of humanity’s emotional frailty and fundamental flaws – flaws that this work compels us to explore.
Ingrid Swenson is the Director of PEER, an independent visual arts organisation that commissions and produces projects in all media, and is also a freelance curator.