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Issue 219

Mary Ramsden’s New Icons

A series of portraits made during lockdown channels its sitters from afar

BY Daisy Hildyard AND Mary Ramsden in Features , Thematic Essays | 22 APR 21

There are many ancient stories about shamans metamorphosing into other animals. These stories have been told across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, often with a common thread: the shaman changes shape through a process of intensified mimicry. They might make the calls of an animal or move their bodies to imitate flapping, creeping or shoaling. If the shaman wants to be a stag, he might wear antlers; if she wants to become lupine, she could cover her body with a wolf pelt. There is something both mystical and deeply pragmatic in these entranced, diligent processes. It makes logical sense that a person who closely studies and mimics a wolf might gain some insight into a wolf’s needs.

I’ve recently been reading about these traditions of channelling, whose essentials endure across many times and places, and wondering what they might have to say to people who do not have much physical contact with antlers or wolf fur. These props are technologies, as well as totemic objects – even if shamanic becoming, as a physical and performative work, doesn’t necessarily sit comfortably with disembodied digital experience. (It isn’t hard to find a shaman who will, for a fee, help you discover your spirit animal via Zoom.) Over the past year, online communities have expressed a heightened and raw sensitivity to physical separation. There are support groups and message boards where lonely individuals can ‘connect’; there are ponderous articles on ‘the power of touch’, shared via links and tags. Every Thursday, I work with an online community group that is a social prescription service: virtual contact, funded by the health service, as medication for isolation. It works, up to a point. The sessions can be positive and deeply personal, but there is always a sense of something lacking: people express a desire to actually be together, and describe a feeling of alienated intimacy. They are at once hyperconnected, looking into one another’s kitchens and bedrooms, and forcibly boundaried, housebound.

Mary Ramsden, Kira, 2020, lead, acrylic, mirror panel, wood, 24 × 16 cm. Courtesy: the artist

This feeling has been intensified by the pandemic, but it has been around for a while. The whole planet is hyperconnected and forcibly boundaried in the regulation of global movements of goods and people. Emissions and supply chains link body to body across the world. These threads can mobilize and enable new connections across borders, but the relationships are uneven, and the intimacies they facilitate can also be grotesque: used sanitary pads from the UK, for instance, are unpacked by hand at recycling plants on other continents. It becomes problematic to imagine what it could mean to connect – to be together, to see one another – across such spaces and differences. 

For a portrait artist, as for a shaman or a novelist, the art of making contact is a practical challenge – a working process. While creating her recent series of paintings of people she knows, or has known, British artist Mary Ramsden found that she was unconsciously embodying her friends and family by mimicking the way they move or inhabit a space. They weren’t with her: the series was conceived and executed through the pandemic, so she couldn’t work from life. Ramsden doesn’t think of herself as a portrait painter – making the pictures, she said, was a way of thinking about what it means to miss someone in the digital age, when communication is possible but never enough. The work was also a practical means of spending time ‘together’ while apart. But there was something stranger that entered the process, fitfully. From time to time, the experience became mystical. 

And so it makes a strange kind of sense that Ramsden’s pictures, created without their subjects’ physical presence, so obviously invite touch. The materials are grainy and textured – plastic, glitter, wood, corrugated card, paint handled in such a way that the hairs of the paintbrush remain imprinted on the works’ surfaces. Pieces of wood are splintered, with drill holes or irregular edges, and graphomorphic forms are burnt or scratched into them. Each object has an emphatically tactile presence. They exist to be touched as much as looked at, perhaps best experienced by fingertip with the eyes closed. 

Mary Ramsden, Jordan, 2020, oil, acrylic, board, mirror panel, spray paint, 17 × 18 cm. Courtesy: the artist

In shamanic traditions, the process of channelling can be a way of honouring another being – of listening to them – by giving time and attention to their existence. W.S. Graham’s poem ‘Implements in their Places’ (1977) circles around this: addressing somebody else as a process of creation.

Do not think you have to say 

Anything back. But you do

Say something back which I

Hear by the way I speak to you.

Over the past year, my six-year-old daughter has been homeschooled: sometimes via live Zoom sessions, in which her whole class participates; sometimes by watching videos her teacher has pre-recorded. My daughter often turns to me, when I open the laptop before a session, to check whether it will be the former or the latter. ‘Will they be able to see me?’ is what she wants to know. 

I used to tease her about this, but then I experienced something similar, I think, last summer when I attended a webcast funeral. The person who had died – suddenly and of unknown causes – was not somebody I knew intimately. I knew him a little and he had been kind to me. I had a private concern about the virtual funeral, which I didn’t confess to anybody: I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on it. Months of lockdown, throughout which I’d been fitting childcare and work into the spaces between one another, had left me in a fast-paced, reactive mode. I was worried about sitting through the sleepy part of the afternoon peering into a screen, listening to lengthy eulogies about somebody I did not know that well. I didn’t share this with anybody because I was ashamed of it. My ability to give attention had evolved, away from what was important. I wondered whether the grieving family would be able to see the glazed faces of virtual attendees on a big screen at the side of the crematorium. 

The event, when it arrived, was not what I’d expected. It was clear from the moment I logged in, through the dark-purple interface of the funeral director’s website, that the webcast ceremony was not interactive: virtual attendees couldn’t be seen. There was something pure about being there when nobody knew that I was present. Always, when attending a funeral, I have felt myself there, in some brutal sense, not only to grieve but to be meat in the room. Bodies populating the ceremony indicate that this was a person who was cared for. I remember going into a florist’s shop on the way to one funeral and standing in front of the bank of flowers, attempting to calculate the correct formula of petals and colour and what I could afford. At another funeral, I remember standing in line by the door of the crematorium, trying to think of something sufficient to say to the closest mourners. 

Mary Ramsden, Adam, 2020, oil paint and pen on board, 21 × 11 cm. Courtesy: the artist

This time, online and unseen, effectively without presence, I was free from the obligations of the guest, but I needn’t have worried about being unable to concentrate. The webcast looked down with a god’s-eye view, from high on the back wall of the crematorium. The room was too large for the few permitted attendees. From this angle, the funeral was a strange and intense experience. I could entirely focus myself on this particular life and what had been lost with it. The eulogies were brief and painful. His children, who were still at school, spoke with composure. His daughter talked about how his tomatoes were reddening in the greenhouse. I watched her from the desk at which I’d been copy-editing half an hour earlier. Hot sun filtered from the sides of the drawn-down blind behind my laptop. I could hear my own children playing with a bucket of water in the yard. The ordinary alive world was pouring unpreventably through the room, dimming the glow from the screen on which the girl was still speaking. ‘This time last week,’ she said, ‘I would have laughed at you if you’d told me I’d be standing here.’ 

Her eulogy was one of the most vital things I encountered last year. Postpandemic, I don’t think it’s necessarily a great idea to separate funeral attendees in remote cells – but the experience of listening in that way was an unexpected consequence of a year of isolation, a side effect that felt essential to the main event and somehow, troublingly, affirmative. Like shamanic tradition and like Ramsden’s process, the funeral service exposed a weird experience of connection whose magic was amplified rather than diminished by the fact that it took time, technology and work. It took me outside of myself, changing the familiar co-ordinates and modes of contact on which the interaction typically took place. A forceful sense of presence arose from the collapsed distance – a feeling that I could see somebody in a way which relieved me of the question of whether I was being seen.

Ramsden’s work is on view in ‘Abstrakt’, Wentrup Gallery, Berlin, until 15 May 2021.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 219 with the headline ‘Outside of Ourselves'.


Main image: Mary Ramsden, Zara, 2020, oil, acrylic, board, face towel, 20 × 14 cm. Courtesy: the artist 

Daisy Hildyard is the author of the novel Hunters in the Snow (Jonathan Cape, 2013) and the essay ‘The Second Body’ (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). A new novel, Emergency, will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2022.

Mary Ramsden is an artist. Her work is on view in ‘Abstrakt’, Wentrup Gallery, Berlin, Germany, until 2 May and ‘60 Years’, Tate Britain, London, UK, until 19 September. Later this year, her series ‘Icons’ (2019) will be published alongside a selection of essays. She lives in London. A book including her most recent series, ‘Icons’, alongside a selection of essays by commissioned writers will be published with the support of Fiorucci Art Trust later this year.