BIRMINGHAM, UK — Britain’s second city is arguably its most ethnically diverse. In a recent search for Birmingham’s most archetypal family, led by Turner-Prize winner Gillian Wearing, the winners were two mixed-race, single parent sisters. Emma and Roma Jones will now be immortalized in bronze. It’s not something that would happen in many other parts of the country.
It would be easy then, to overlook another divisive social factor, and that’s age. The elderly may not have a strong presence on our urban streets, but they are well represented in the city’s most prestigious artist-led studio and gallery space. Grand Union sits just outside the city centre in what’s fast becoming a regeneration zone. Its current show, A Diffuse Citizen, is a film starring a 93-year old.
Nonagenarian Jennifer Pike is a real find. Pike is a lifelong radical artist and beguiling on-screen presence. She’s dealing with dementia, which the quiet, atmospheric film hints at but never makes overt. And her partner was renowned sound poet Bob Cobbing, whose work Pike reads here in an intimate performance at Camden Arts Centre, London.
The result is both life affirming and a bit heart-breaking. When it comes to reading poems, Pike is well on the ball. But no matter how much you give to art in the course of a lifetime, the muse offers only an uncertain and unsatisfactory type of immortality. Filmmaker and artist Holly Antrum, born just 1983, has therefore created a beautiful portrait of old age.
“The most fascinating thing was to see how keying into her creativity brought her back to sharpness. All of those recitations, all of that, is completely firmly in there,” says Antrum, speaking on the phone from London. “It’s more the day to day things that would slip.”
It goes without saying that gaining the co-operation and trust of a dementia patient cannot take place overnight. “To begin with I visited Jennifer in her home, and I just spent ‘unproductive’ time, just getting to know each other and that went on for a few months.”
After proposing the film to her subject, she had to wait and see if the project had stuck in Pike’s failing memory. “I observed her dementia and I could see that some things she would forget, but I knew it was ready when once she was able to say to me ‘How’s the film coming on?’ and was always asking about it.”
The cross-generational collaboration came about through William Cobbing, an artist friend of Antrum’s and grandson of Pike’s partner Bob. Antrum was struck at once by the charisma of the older woman, who had “a charm that I found inviting.” The idea behind the recitation, which proves the focal point of Antrum’s film, came from Pike’s ongoing interest in poetry and performance.
“I think it’s the foremost aspect of her mind,” says the filmmaker. “If you took her away from those things, which I filmed her with, you almost take half of her personality away. She was feeding off of that sphere that she’s created, and was lucky enough to dwell in for all her years.”
“I felt concerned about her being without it, and what happens to an artist in old age once they have moved on from [their practice].”
But perhaps Antrum need not worry. The UK art world is not as ageist and sexist as you might think. Yayoi Kusama (85) and Yoko Ono (81) both enjoyed major shows in London in 2012. Louise Bourgeois was celebrated right up to her death at age 98. Meanwhile spring chickens Phyllidia Barlow (aged 70) and Rose Wylie (85) have both enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years.
Surely this is good news for any artists planning on growing old. “There’s this fascination for people who give their life over to [art] in this absolute way and she’s certainly one of those people,” says Antrum. But, she adds, “We’ve got the opposite case, which is young and fast successful artists. So there’s everyone in the middle wondering what they’re going to do.”
Antrum, who clearly has a healthy sense of purpose, described her work with Pike as an “opportunity and a privilege.” The take-away from A Diffuse Citizen is that despite dementia, artistic personalities, and perhaps non-artistic personalities, remain intact. “Their presence can lead the way into who they still are,” says the younger artist in a statement borne out here in Birmingham. Along with the film, her show includes works on paper by herself and Pike, side by side.
Visitors will no doubt wonder what the subject made of her filmed portrait. “She is very comfortable with it,” says Antrum. “I think the critical response side to it is not there so strongly, but she was very generous with all of her work towards the film.” Despite and perhaps because of advancing years, Pike is keen on recognition for the work that she and her partner Bob produced in their working lives.
The film is, however, a tangential piece of work. There is no interview footage. Pike wears a mask for certain shots. There are languishing gazes around a working studio and wistful vista out the window where the youngest generation of all plays in a school playground. The performance footage is touching and of a piece with the lyrical mood. Antrum says that she is interested in the painterly surface of film and this is underlined with the use of filters.
As a result of the film, Antrum has surely meditated on aging more than most 30-year-olds. “I think it’s given me more of an identification of what needs to be put into place,” she tells me. “And to understand there is, for everyone, an ongoing administrative and practical side of things which need support.”
“The creative mind is also a vulnerable thing,” she concludes. Vulnerable, yes, but in some senses robust. There cannot be an artist alive who, were they to live to almost a century, would not want to be rediscovered and celebrated with such a sensitive film.
Holly Antrum: A Diffuse Citizen can be seen at Grand Union (Minerva Works, 158 Fazeley St, Birmingham) through July 26.