LONDON — Here in the UK, Republicanism and its opposition to the monarchy can go along with firebrand declarations of class war. The Scottish, London-based artist Ruth Ewan is being perfectly reasonable and polite when she says of the British monarchy: “It’s going to have to go at some point. Whether it’s through social struggle, or a natural event, they’re not going to be around forever.” It is this strain of reasonable optimism that characterizes all of Ewan’s work.
Of course, you don’t have to look far to find a working republic. Our neighbors in France overthrew their king in 1792. The consequences of this event have fascinated Ewan, including the conventions of French Republican time and the Republican calendar — the metric measurements brought in to wipe the slate clean in post-revolutionary France. Decimal time consisted of 100 seconds in 100 minutes of a 10-hour day, while the metric calendar consisted of 10-day weeks and 30-day months, plus politically correct feast days.
Ewan has made neat and galvanizing shows around the 12-year lifespan of the Republican calendar. In 2011, she disarrayed an English town with custom-made decimal clocks as public artworks. More recently, at the Camden Arts Centre (CAC) in London, she has gathered 365 poetic objects, including a selection of animals, vegetables, and minerals, to go with the days of the metric, Republican year.
“Other metric systems have happened here,” she points out of England. “So, yeah, I don’t see why it couldn’t happen here.” Ewan minimizes the political angle, downplays those beheadings and purges, and says, “Although it’s from the 18th century, as an idea, it is something that seems more future than our time, if that makes sense. It’s a very rational, sensible way of organizing your day.”
We have met for coffee in Whitechapel, London, near where Ewan is working on a commission for a hospital. In a practical way, she generally works with the public and for the public. The politics come after the people, as can be seen in her present exhibition titled Back to the Fields. In addition to the objects, here you will also find a working jukebox loaded with some 2,200 protest songs, which the visitors are invited to peruse and play.
Ewan has a knack for engaging people. “They don’t immediately want to talk about feminism or the Iraq war, but they want to go and see what’s on the jukebox and all those things happen after that,” she says. “I really like it if the work’s accessible at different points,” the artist continues. “I don’t like work that excludes an audience, because I made this exhibition with everyday materials and I have always tried to work with everyday reference points or familiar things to pull people in.”
Indeed, visitors to CAC will find live crayfish, agricultural tools, and numerous rare plants. But there’s nothing arbitrary about these several hundred objets trouvés: they illustrate the seasons and days of the year named by revolutionary poets of the late 18th century. “Previously it [the calendar] only existed as lists of words,” says Ewan of this schema. “Once you see all those things together in a room, it brings together different connections and associations which you don’t see necessarily on paper.”
The artist confesses to borderline obsession when it comes to making her work. “The calendar was like that,” she says, “because of the desperation to get all these objects together.” She soon found that more than a credit card and a web connection would be needed to source this ambitious show. Ewan mentions a particularly challenging plant that could only be found frozen underground in a nursery in the North of Scotland. “There was a lot of problem solving,” she says.
When asked if she has a favorite object, Ewan plumps instead for a favorite month: the 30 wintry days known as Nivôse. “It doesn’t have any plants in it, so it’s all minerals,” says the artist, before adding: “To my mind it’s more interesting by way of materials; it’s more scientific, I guess.” Indeed, lava, granite, and marble all feature in this geological month. Imagination clearly soared during this short-lived yet grandly evocative calendar.
While she often works with audio, Ewan also tells me how the experience of having children has brought her closer to objects. She tells me she has a young daughter: “She’s at that point where she’s discovering very simple, pleasurable things. So seeing seeds grow or knowing the names for different birds, different minerals, things like that. I feel like I can almost see the world through her eyes and see the world in a much more beautiful way, actually.” And just possibly, she adds, that is a utopian perspective.
The 10-hour day fared less well than the 10-month year, chiefly because few people had access to clocks. According to Ewan, redesigned clocks were “really, really exquisite, expensive objects” belonging to “the revolutionary elite.” She adds, “Public clocks weren’t made, which was one of the reasons I wanted to make republican clocks as a public artwork.” This time no expense was spared for her audience of lay people and art people alike. The metric clocks required “a whole new mechanism,” says Ewan. “You can use the same hands, but they are the only parts of a clock that can be reused. The whole system has to be remade and they’re analogue as well; they’re not computerized.”
These clocks, which currently hang in the entrance of Back to the Fields, were previously on view in the 2011 Triennial of Folkestone, a coastal town that boasts visible proximity to France. “We went to the point which was the closest to France,” Ewan recalls of her introduction to the Kentish town. “So these revolutionary ideas were literally leaking into Britain. Pamphlets were going back and forth, and so I got interested in pamphleteering.” Once again, this interest in agitation seems to belie the artist’s moderate persona.
Ewan does, however, qualify her interest in revolution. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a massive uprising where thousands of people are decapitated,” she says. “There are many different forms of revolution. Revolutions in thinking take place all the time.” And the artist points out that even here in Britain things are changing all the time. “Democracy has evolved, and it is ongoing,” she says, making progress seem inevitable. Yes, Ruth Ewan is very good at convincing us of that.
Ruth Ewan: Back to the Fields continues at Camden Arts Centre (Arkwright Road, London) through March 29.