A child stands, face turned away from the camera, on a piece of ground somewhere near a small village in Northumberland. The ground seems marked, and marked out, as if for a ritual: possibly the celebration of a pagan god. The child is a question: a question of belonging, of tradition and masculinity, of the past and the future, its face turned away to the smouldering hills.

The image is part of “northerngame” at The Shed at The Whistle Art Stop, Haltwhistle, West Northumberland. The artist is Stevie Ronnie.

The works shown here re-deploy skills once-prevalent in these valleys: the joinery, the pit, the steelyard and the print-room. On one wall, a photoprint (fashioned by laser) turns a “blue” mud playing-pit into an almost starless sky. On another, the close-up of worn carpet covering the pit becomes a catafalque, a shrine. No wonder, then, that the source of the blue clay remains closed, protected, clandestine.

Between these works, as words do, wood-block communicates and re-frames the game’s local dialect into delicate blue memory. Clay, pit. Hob, HoY! When the quoit meets the ringing steel spur with a stunning ring of success, it reverberates both room and history. Suspended from shark-wire, a solitary quoit throws, in the middle of a sudden power-cut, deeper shadows against the pristine gallery wall. Its parabola throws perspective. When the lights return, the elegant gallery lighting echoes the square grid of the quoit pit.

The Blue clay pit, retrieved and reconstructed, fixes gravity in the centre of the space. Marks into its surface trace the play of random children, curious locals, astonished visitors. A quoit team, from host communities – and now artistic participants – bowl down the hill towards The Comrades Club. Their game, their northern game, which (one of three types) obeys precise rules against the lure of chance, is now artwork and community’s play.

The photographic prints could be larger – they could be massive – and still possess this unexpected tenderness. They are solitary, austere and luscious. Within them, colours, almost imperceptible, nearly forgotten, explode and multiply. As if invigilating a gripping final, you move closer still.

Put the clay between your fingers and its delicacy betrays the weight of digging it, the toil of carrying it, the effort of shaping it: a game that requires no stadia, and barely any commentary, only the commitment of its players and their shared quiet joy.

The child, standing at the pit, gives it both proportion and perspective. The question asked here is of tradition, its continuation and survival. Will boys play in the future (will girls?): how resilient are such pleasures against the rivalry of competing screens, tablet and phone?

But for a moment, lean forward, anticipate the feel of the metal in your hand, gauge the distance from here to there, its tribute and capture here.

A child asks a question: will you answer?

Ron Moule Saturday, 07 June 2014

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