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Birmingham artist aiming to revive the folk songs and stories of First World War soldiers

A Birmingham visual artist is collaborating with folk musicians to interpret the sights and sounds of the First World War. Graham Young reports

Video designer Matthew J Watkins

Birmingham artist and video designer Matthew J Watkins is bringing to life a futuristic 100-year-old sculpture as part of a performance which seeks to revive the folk songs and stories that would have been in the hearts and minds of soldiers in the First World War.

Matthew will be working with The Rock Drill by Sir Jacob Epstein, which can currently be seen at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery for Musical Meditations on the First World War, which comes to Birmingham Town Hall next month.

The show will include music from folk artists Sam Lee and Rachel and Becky Unthank and alongside the songs will be a backdrop with images being projected on to Epstein’s sculpture, seen as a stunning vision of the future when it was created in 1913-15.

The Rock Drill’s design is now recognised as a masterpiece of the short-lived Vorticist movement, launched in 1914 to signal a move away from landscapes and nudity towards more abstract pieces.

Epstein’s own interpretation comprised a life-sized robotic man seated upon an actual rock drill.

It was shown briefly in 1915 and then dismantled.

The museum’s current version was presented by Ken Cook and Ann Christopher through the Friends of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 1982.

It’s a polyester resin, metals and wood reconstruction from 1974 and is based on Epstein’s studio photographs.

Designing it on the eve of the First World War, Epstein perceptively reduced the human form into a faceless robot.

Most soldiers had previously worked in agriculture, but soon millions would be dying on the battlefields of the first mechanised conflict they knew precious little about in the pre-multi media age.

Matthew (aka Beat13) says: “Rock Drill is not just about 100 years ago.

“It’s a genuine attempt to convey additional information.”

The museum gave him permission to film the copy of Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill sculpture so that he could then appear to be projecting images on to it.

Projects like Musical Meditations, which takes place at Birmingham Town Hall next month, are enabling Matthew, 40, to fuse together his interest in several disciplines, from art to photography, animation and web design.

The Edgbaston-based artist has previously worked on the visual campaigns for the debut 2001 album from Gorillaz, a virtual band created by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett.

He created a number of clips for the live touring shows and a track on his website, featuring Lou Reed, was created for the Plastic Beach tour.

“With Gorillaz, I realised that animation and visual things could be an important part of live performance.” he says.

“I really enjoyed the way it complemented the music.”

More recently he worked on Live_Transmission: Joy Division Reworked, in which an orchestra and Matthew’s new audio-visuals paid homage to one of the world’s most progressive bands.

“Joy Division inspired my reinterpretations of the music because there was no lead singer,” says Matthew.

“It aimed to convey the late Ian Curtis’s presence.

“Joy Division were highly regarded and very well loved so there was a big worry there because I wasn’t a massive fan.

“But (real) fans felt I had really captured it and that ‘Ian Curtis would have enjoyed the show’.

“The people who are organising Musical Meditations saw it and thought ‘We’ve got to get this guy to do something for us.’”

Through the research that has been done for the project covering the period from 1910-20, Matthew says he can see how it was a lot more modern than people often realise.

“The concept of futurism would have meant nothing to 99 per cent of Britons,” he says.

“There was no internet, Twitter or even television.

“But through the First World War, ordinary life was being changed for ever and in a drastic style.

“What was going on in people’s minds without the television and press there?

“War Horse captured it well, showing people just stepping into a barrage of machine guns.”

Reflecting upon the event’s relevance to today, Matthew wonders about the more knowledgeable thought processes involved with signing up for Britain’s armed forces in the 21st century.

People think they won’t be killed, he muses, yet if things go wrong he points out that relatives then want a scapegoat for ‘what happened to our son?’

Matthew adds: “I read somewhere that in the First World War, 13 per cent of people took part died, yet 250,000 were killed in a couple of days.

“It’s such a big topic that it’s dangerous for us to even begin to attempt to tell the whole story.

“Poetry then was a pastime and people enjoyed the writing process.

“It inspired me, thinking that we lost a generation of creative minds.”

Musical Meditations on the First World War will feature Mercury Prize folk artist Sam Lee and sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank collaborating for the first time.

Their skill is to take a traditional repertoire and reinvent it aurally for contemporary audiences.

And the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War was seen as an opportunity to look back at the creative landscape of the early 20th century to rediscover its oral traditions.

As well as performing original repertoire from the time, there will also be lots of new material, including interpretations of personal stories and special arrangements to First World War poetry.

“This new show has been designed to work with performers in front of it,” says Matthew.

“It’s not a documentary, not a film – everything is done live and mixed.

“War is a depressing place to go back to as there is little to cheer about, but it won’t be like a funeral.

“It’s a chance to show what the experience would have been like for people in the trenches.”

Matthew’s future projects include the Longbridge Lights Festival and a commission for a DJ that will use overhead projectors – much cheaper than hiring modern digital projectors.

“That’s going to be a lot of fun,” he smiles.

* There are more examples of Jacob Epstein’s work in the The Garman Ryan Collection. This was donated to the people of Walsall by Lady Epstein in 1973 and is now on display at The New Art Gallery Walsall.

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