Portrait (for a screenplay) of Beth Harmon by David Trigg
Who exactly is Beth Harmon? If, like me, you`re unfamiliar with Walter Tevis`s 1983 novel The Queen`s Gambit, it is this tantalizing question that buzzes around your head while exploring this exhibition featuring artists from Bristol, Cardiff and London. Curated by Limoncello artist Sean Edwards, the show is part of a fascinating ongoing project where artists, curators, writers, musicians and even actors are invited to read Tevis`s coming-of-age thriller and make responses relating to the young protagonist and chess genius, Beth Harmon. But rather than portraits of Harmon, the works in this exhibition are instead evocations of her character; as Edwards elaborates: “they are studies, notes in the margins, dog eared pages and collected Post-it notes.”
Presented on a small tripod-mounted video monitor, Cardiff-based Anthony Shapland`s contribution is a film referencing Raymond Cook, an obscure civil servant whose hobby was to carve elaborate miniature sculptures from matchsticks. A brief appearance on Blue Peter in the 1970s brought him to Shapland`s attention, although he soon slipped back into obscurity and his achievements have been largely ignored until now. Shapland draws parallels between Cook and Harmon; they are both obsessive, driven and gifted, yet, unlike Tevis`s creation, Cook was a real man. The Life of Raymond C. Cook (Title Sequence) (2009) presents a tabletop workshop, an imagined environment created by a television props manager. Stacks of match boxes litter the table along with various tools that Cook may have used to create his miniature marvels. As the camera pans across the scene we notice a video monitor in the background, revealing the tableau to be a televisual construct: pure conjecture created for a documentary that is yet to be produced.
...So, who is Beth Harmon? Based on the strength of the individual pieces here, I`m not sure that it really matters. Before the show opened this was also a concern for Edwards, who in an imaginary conversation with the show itself (included in the gallery guide) confesses: “I`m worried about how much the audience need to know about the book; about Beth Harmon”. Fortunately for Edwards the answer is not very much, for each compelling work here stands on its own merit regardless of one`s familiarity with The Queen`s Gambit. However, the exhibition is bound to pique interest in the novel and those who take time to read it will no doubt find their experience of Edward`s project significantly enriched.