Liane Lang has always been interested in history. In her photographs, eerily realistic dolls occupy Victorian rooms in England (‘Saints”) or dangle off Hungarian war monuments (‘Monumental Misconceptions’). Sometimes her interventions are body parts so small and subtle that we don't notice them at first. Lang intersects a visceral, female presence into cold, inanimate spaces, making us rethink history and our own position in it.
There is hardly a place in the UK with more history than Eton College, the illustrious all-boys boarding school founded in 1440 by King Henry VI. Liane Lang was the first female artist to be awarded the James Mc Laren residency in 2014, following in the footsteps of other luminaries such as Hughie O’Donoghue RA and Norman Ackroyd CBE RA.
Old School is a solo exhibition of new photographic and sculptural work that resulted from her time at Eton. For this show curated by Marcelle Joseph, Lang engaged in comprehensive historical research to excavate the stories buried beneath the façades of the College buildings and walls.
Lang was especially interested in Eton's places of worship. She cast its wooden benches in bronze resin, complete with the inscription of the names of students over the centuries. In this way, personal stories become part of the grander narrative of history, just like the wood itself containing the remnants of its users. Lang inserted the female, life-like hands that we got to know in previous works, adding a mysterious tension as well as a humorous touch.
Lang was especially struck by the Eton College Chapel and its original paintings depicting miracles of the Virgin Mary. These paintings were whitewashed over during the Reformation and remained obscured and forgotten for the best part of 300 years; it was not until 1923 that they were revealed by the removal of stall canopies and subsequently restored. Lang photographed the Chapel, and in her own act of mark making, she used charcoal, chalk, pigments and inks to overpaint the walls inside the photographs, transforming the emotive interior of the Chapel into a space of the imagination. Her additions cleverly reference the bomb which pulverized the great stained glass window and the fires of many wars which left a mark there.
In other photographs, she highlights the restored chapel paintings, which maintain the medieval closeness to King Henry’s family patrons, the female saints St Winifred, St Catherine and St Elizabeth. Their feminine presence is beautifully complemented by Lang’s own subtle but powerful insertions of femininity in her photographs, such as the hands clasping a church bench. They give a soft touch to this most masculine of institutions.
Lang’s show is titled Old School, but her work is refreshing, contemporary and relevant. The clandestine vandalism of the students’ inscriptions, and Lang’s own alterations to the photographed Chapel walls are reminiscent of youth culture today, with its emphasis on standing out, making a mark and being remembered.
And this is what good art does, recycling the past whilst trying to improve it, making it relevant to our age. As Lang states, “[t]he impossibility of leaving an indelible mark in a history as long and dense as that of Eton is symbolic of history overall. We draw in pencil onto the walls of our time and hope that future generations may still decipher the message”.
There may be no female students at Eton, but its artworks - the historic paintings and Lang's new works - are a powerful reminder of the strength of women, their resilience, and their wit.
Liane Lang: Old School, Drawing Schools, Eton College, until 9th December 2017
Windsor, Berkshire, SL4 6DU
Opening Reception and Private View Saturday 11th November, 7-9pm
Exhibition open by appointment, email firstname.lastname@example.org