The Thirteenth Stroke is an exhibition by Hugo Farmer at the Hoxton Gallery in Shoreditch. The title of the show takes it’s name from the opening line of the George Orwell novel 1984. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”.
According to Hugo, the thirteenth stroke is a kind of time beyond time. It’s when, he says, “people are pushed too far, when things have gone too far… When time has gone past. Time that is real and you hit the thirteenth stroke. Is that the time that things are going to change?”
Speaking to Hugo at the Hoxton Gallery I get a much clearer sense for what might have inspired him to channel Orwell in his work. Rooted in politics growing up in Bristol it left a mark that would turn to activism in later years. An artist who has often used his work to champion causes he believes in. He looks around today and sees the type of world that Orwell himself might have written about. Surprisingly I learn that the thirteenth stroke is only his second solo exhibition. “I felt like it was time to rear my voice again” he tells me. “Because I want people to give a shit”.
The Queen and Knight
An iconic element of Hugo’s sculptures are that they depict people with megaphones for heads. A prominent image from a lot of his earlier work the inference is clear. The Thirteenth Stroke gives them further prominence. Some new characters have been introduced. A Queen dubbing a new Knight with a baseball bat as he ‘takes the knee’ is perhaps the most dominant. It’s a kind of modern day anointment. The interaction is one imbued with meaning from Farmer’s own life.
The figure taking the knee is meant to be representative of Farmer himself. Standing opposite holding a barbed wire covered baseball bat is his partner. In this scenario she is playing the role of a kind of urban Queen. The act of knighting is meant to imbue a type of power. One where the knighted can go back out into the world and claim it for his own. It’s a piece with a double meaning, the barbed wire on the bat is shaped into a love heart. “Love really hurts” he tells me “she was the one who made me get off my arse”.
A long time activist, the megaphone is also a metaphor for Farmer’s own experiences. He calls it ‘ohm boy’ after the sound. The ohm is something you might hear in yoga sessions at the beginning and end. A sound that is rich in meaning and depth. For Hugo Farmer it’s taken on a further layer. One which is about standing out and shouting about what you believe it. He references the protests of the 80’s when people would take to the streets. Demonstrations against the poll tax and the long running disputes of the miners strike harking back to a period of non-conformity. “It is a tool for amplifying your voice” says Farmer. Reflective, he seems to yearn for a time when people would be more outward in their rage. It’s something that he feels the modern era has muted.
Joining Farmer’s ohm boy sculptures in the thirteenth stroke are a collection of ‘wood paintings’. These works too are imbued with personal memory. Most prominently they hark back to Farmer’s own trade as a carpenter and boat builder. The abstract patterning referencing the cuts made on the surface of his own carpenters bench. Cuts which in themselves would create a kind of unplanned beauty. Contained within them, references to the rave days of the 90’s. Free parties as Hugo describes them. The acid house-era smiley face contained within some of the images is distorted. Abstracted amongst a background of psychedelic patterning.
Free Party Scene
The free party scene is something which would provide a backdrop for Hugo Farmer’s own formative years. In itself it was a movement that would lend itself to crackdown. That time though of ideas and freedom and activism is something which has stayed with him today. Eventually it would lead him to the heart of the emerging street art and graffiti culture. Moving from Bristol to London he would, for a while, manage the renowned Dragon Bar at it’s location on Leonard Street. Even today people talk about the bar as being a hive of activity where artists would mix and meet. “It was just a bunch of people hanging out in a space and having fun together” is how Hugo describes the place. Making the space available to artists, it was never officially an art space, but that’s what it became.
That time in the early 2000’s is now seen as being at the heart of what became London’s street art scene. “It was never meant to be anything and that’s the thing isn’t it? If you try to make something something, it will never be”. Living in Shoreditch at the time was different to now. “It was fresh, it was affordable, people could afford to pay the rent so were attracted to the area”. That combined with the fact that places like the Dragon Bar gave spaces for creatives to congregate and meet. “It was never like, hey lets be a really cool bar. There were just (a lot of) people who were very talented congregating in the same space with other like minded people who could make things happen… and things happened”.
The Thirteenth Stroke can be visited by appointment at the Hoxton Gallery, 17 Marlow Workshops, Arnold Circus, Shoreditch, London, E2 7JN. Contact Kevin Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org to book a visit.